Manly Sea Eagles: Season Review

Regular Season
WINS: 14
LOSSES: 10
POSITION: 5th
HOME RECORD: 8 wins, 4 losses (=6th)
AWAY RECORD: 6 wins, 6 losses (=4th)
 
After Finals
FINALS RECORD: 0-1 (lost 40-12 v Melbourne in week one of finals)
 
BEST WINNING STREAK: 4 (rounds 13-17 and rounds 23-26)
LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 4 (rounds 1-4)
PLAYERS USED: 26 (3 debutants)
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: George Rose
TRIES SCORED (After 26 rounds): 97 (5th)
TRIES CONCEDED (After 26 rounds): 81 (4th)
 
It took five years of meticulous working on a five-year plan for Manly to achieve the dream season last year which resulted in a premiership – and comparatively their nightmare year in 2009 has its origins in an eight-hour drinking session.

The infamous season launch which derailed Manly’s season before it began is the last thing Sea Eagles fans will want to read about, but the simple fact is that it is the occasion that defined their season.

It says a lot about the spirit and determination of Des Hasler’s squad that they overcame the horror start to finish just three wins short of the heights they achieved after 26 rounds last season.

But ultimately Manly used too much energy in recovering from that start, and limped into the finals with a series of underdone players and not much left in the tank – a swift exit the inevitable result.

There were bright spots, of course – Anthony Watmough’s form in the back half of the year was the benefit of a project seven seasons in the making and the Sea Eagles unearthed a superstar of the future in energetic five-eighth Kieran Foran.

Where They Excelled… In the middle of the season. After losing six of their first eight games, Manly were in danger of consigning 2009 to the dustbin before its halfway point. But then they embarked on an unlikely string of wins that dragged them back into contention.

Between Rounds 9 and 20 the Sea Eagles lost just two games and were among the form teams of the competition. It was during this period that they boosted their stats – including their average points scored. In the opening month of footy they scored just 14.5 points per match, but by season’s end this had been upped to a very respectable average of 22.4 points, fifth in the NRL.

Where They Struggled… Against the big guns. Of their eight games against the four top sides, Manly won just three. Among these losses were a thrashing at the hands of the Bulldogs in Round 1, a one-point loss to the Titans at Skilled Stadium and the defeat which sent them packing from the competition – an absolute annihilation at the hands of the Storm in Week One of the finals.

In all of these losses against the cream of the 2009 competition, Manly’s attack looked directionless and one-dimensional at best.

Missing In Action… Brent Kite finished 2008 as the Clive Churchill Medal winner but never came close to scaling those heights this season. The fact he struggled alongside an under-performing Josh Perry meant that Manly’s engine room never really got hot.

Their stats took a hammering too – Kite dropped from 126 to 96 metres a game, while Perry fell from 102 metres to a lowly 78.

Captain Matt Orford played with a groin injury for the bulk of the year, and soldiered on, but he was also the focal point of an attack that struggled to click all season (22 try assists for seventh in the NRL) – and was well and truly shell-shocked in their biggest game of the year.

Turning Point… Back-to-back losses in Rounds 21 and 22 showed that Manly were not made of the same stuff as the group which triumphed last season. The meek effort against the Tigers – in which only one player, Anthony Watmough, showed any resolve – was backed up by an even weaker performance against the Bunnies at Brookvale Oval where the home side was belted 36-22.

Both were games Manly should have won easily if they were genuine contenders, and a win in either game would have eventually earned the team a home final, but they couldn’t seal the deal. If anything, these were the two games that proved more than anything that Manly didn’t have the mental strength to defend their title.

Best Games… If the Souths game proved that Manly weren’t tough enough mentally to win the comp, then a game five weeks earlier suggested that perhaps they were.

The Sea Eagles’ seven-point win over the Bulldogs in Round 17 was one of the games of the season, and the manner in which Matt Orford led the fightback showed all of his gritty qualities and  forced the competition to sit up and take notice – it was as if he was saying “we’re not done yet”.

Beyond that, Manly looked at their most crisp against the Gold Coast in the final round where they ran in seven tries and really turned it on for a packed Brookvale Oval crowd. On that night Brett Stewart ran rampant, despite running at about a 70 per cent pace on his right knee, and showed glimpses of what makes him one of the most exhilarating players in the competition.

Worst Games… Arguably their two worst performances came in their opening and closing matches of the season.

On the opening weekend in March Manly were soundly beaten by last year’s wooden spooners, the Bulldogs, 34-12 and instantly had their premiership credentials questioned.

As for conceding 48 points against the Dragons in Round 18, that was a match affected by Origin commitments and was not a gauge on how well either team was playing at the time.

However, the loss to Melbourne in Week One of the finals was far more crushing when Manly came up against the Storm juggernaut and simply had no answers. The seven-tries-to-two thrashing was the best possible form of payback from the side that Manly humiliated 12 months earlier.

Hold Your Head High… Anthony Watmough. ‘Choc’ started the season in acrimonious circumstances, playing a leading hand in the controversy that surrounded Manly’s ill-fated season launch – but since that mishap the powerful second-rower turned his season around in emphatic fashion.
 
By year’s end Watmough (team-high 143 tackle breaks and 54 offloads) had regained his NSW Origin jersey (with a Man of the Match award from Game Three to go with it), picked up his second Dally M Second-rower of the Year award and at times played a lone hand in carrying Manly into the finals – earning the title of “best forward in the game” from many in the process.

Special mention should go to Jamie Lyon (48 tackle breaks in 19 games) who was Manly’s best player in the first half of the season, before injury intervened.

Assistant coach Geoff Toovey says… “Inconsistency was our main downfall this year. We had a good patch and put some good wins together and then we lost games that we probably shouldn’t have, which put us in that position at the end where we could lose one game – and be gone!”

Conclusion… Going back- to-back is a near impossible task in the modern game and while Manly’s effort wasn’t dismal like the 2005 Bulldogs or 2006 Wests Tigers (both of whom missed the finals the following year), it certainly wasn’t what Des Hasler would have anticipated.

For the first time since 2005 Manly were unable to progress past the first week of the finals, and it makes for a long off-season of soul-searching.

But the Sea Eagles will be confident that with a fully fit roster, and a season free of controversy, they still possess the weapons to challenge for the title in 2010.