Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. So many stars
The reigning premiers are flush with more representative talent than any other club – so many stellar performers that they’ve barely a position held down by someone who hasn’t pulled on a jersey for his state, country or culture. The individual brilliance among the roster and their selective combinations is stunning: halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran joined forces to add the second most try assists in 2011 (bettered only by Broncos pair Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace, the former now retired); Cherry-Evans went on to wear the green and gold in his rookie season; Brett Stewart scored the second most tries by a fullback behind Ben Barba; Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai added the second most line-breaks by any centre combination (23); Anthony Watmough broke more tackles than any other second-rower (77); Tony Williams ended the season as one of the game’s most damaging back-rowers, terrorising international oppositions in the Four Nations; and lock Glenn Stewart capped a huge year by winning the Clive Churchill Medal. Add the return of former Kangaroos and Blues winger David Williams and co-captain Jason King and why wouldn’t they threaten back-to-back premierships?
2. A point to prove
Incredibly just three members of the Sea Eagles’ squad – brothers Brett and Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough – can remember a Manly coach other than Des Hasler barking orders at them. Hasler became the second-longest serving Sea Eagles coach during eight productive years at Brookvale. Under his guidance the maroon-and-whites contested three grand finals, won two premierships and missed the top eight just once – in his debut coaching year in 2004. Of course, that cosy relationship fractured just weeks after Manly’s premiership victory last October, with Hasler hot-footing it to the Bulldogs after a dispute with management over contract negotiations.
There’s no doubt the player group was left gutted, especially given the very public spat that followed, with allegations Hasler was intent on poaching as much Sea Eagles talent as possible. But the players put their abject disappointment to the side and rallied around their club colours. Hence, despite carrying off rugby league’s greatest prize not four months ago, they have a massive point to prove: that the sum of their worth extends beyond the influence of one of the most successful coaches of the past decade. With the players’ credibility on the line, expect total focus and rousing efforts.
3. Daly Cherry-Evans
There will be plenty of so-called experts willing to death-ride Cherry-Evans’ 2012 season on the back of a raft of recent ‘second-year syndrome’ failures – including his Manly predecessor Trent Hodkinson’s just-average follow-up year at the Bulldogs. Our tip: don’t bet on DCE failing. Dumb, dumb, dumb. With the No.7 jersey for Queensland up for grabs and still in the afterglow of his first Kangaroos Tour, we foresee the 22-year-old at least holding his ground. And it’s some ground, too: in his Rookie of the Year season Cherry-Evans played in all of the Sea Eagles 27 games and showed unrivalled skill and impact in the No. 7. No halfback ran more each game (average nine runs), busted more tackles (117), made more tackles (24), or offloaded as often (30). Also, he ranked third for try assists (19) and line-breaks (nine), and revealed a probing kicking game – his 279 metres a match were the third most by any player.
With the same playing roster around him and confidence sky-high, Cherry-Evans has the world at his feet. And the Sea Eagles will gratefully ride his wave of success all the way to the top eight… and beyond. (As for their ‘newbie’ for 2012, look out for towering prop Darcy Lussick to stamp his presence. The 22-year-old played just seven games in 2011 but this is his year to step up and improve on his 25 minutes on the field per game.)
4. Business as usual
The silver lining in the Sea Eagles’ coaching upheaval is that Des Hasler appointed Geoff Toovey as his assistant when he assumed control in 2004. That means the former Manly captain knows the ins and outs of his charges and every intricate detail of the squad’s coaching history. That should ensure stability. While it’s natural that Toovey will look to introduce some subtle variations of his own, don’t expect the Sea Eagles’ game plan to vary much. It should be remembered that Toovey, like Hasler, was a halfback who also spent some time as a hooker during his playing days. They’re cut from the same cloth.
5. No distractions
Manly’s campaign to defend their 2008 title after their 40-0 blitzing of the Melbourne Storm was derailed before it even began when star fullback Brett Stewart was charged with sexual assault on the eve of the 2009 premiership. Negative headlines and backlash, plus a feud with the NRL, dominated their follow-up year; although they made it as far as the qualifying final the Stewart incident (he was cleared in late 2010) haunted their season. They don’t have that negative vibe this time around and it should show both on and off the field. Certainly they were a different side last year when the weight of the world was lifted from Stewart’s shoulders. Make no mistake: Manly will still enjoy being the side all other NRL fans love to hate – they just might occasionally do it with smiles on their faces.