Gains: Nick Skinner (Raiders), Ben Farrar (Catalan), Liam Roach (Mackay).
Losses: Will Hopoate (Two-year break), Michael Robertson (London), Shane Rodney (London), Jamil Hopoate (Eels), Terence Seuseu (Cessnock).
A magical 2011 for the Sea Eagles, a year in which they added yet another NRL premiership to the trophy cabinet, started coming apart at the seams before the grand final celebrations had even died down with news that iconic long-serving coach Des Hasler had been successfully poached by the Bulldogs.
But the fact remains: the Sea Eagles go into 2012 as the defending premiers and with almost their entire premiership-winning squad intact. They may now be sporting a rookie coach, and they’ve lost a couple of key members of their backline in promising youngster Will Hopoate and veteran winger Michael Robertson, but it’s still an incredibly strong roster packed with representative players.
Crucially, this time last year Manly were hoping an unknown rookie halfback named Daly Cherry-Evans could form a reliable partnership with talented Kiwi playmaker Kieran Foran. The Sea Eagles now head into 2012 with a premiership-winning halves combination; two players who have each represented their country and who just seems to keep getting better as a combination.
Fullback Brett Stewart emerged from a horror run of injuries last season and looked to be getting back to his dangerous best, damaging ball-runner Tony Williams found his niche in the back row and added consistency of performance to his undoubted potential, and a raft of other representative stars including Jamie Lyon, Glenn Stewart, Anthony Watmough, Matt Ballin and Steve Matai are all still on deck. Make no mistake: this is definitely one of the sides to watch in 2012.
How They’ll Play It: It really will be a case of more of the same for the Sea Eagles. Incoming head coach Geoff Toovey knows exactly what this squad is capable of, having had an up-close view of proceedings last year as a member of the coaching staff. Expect forwards Brent Kite, Jason King and Darcy Lussick to pound it up, back-rowers Williams and Watmough to probe for openings, and even more penetration from Glenn Stewart on the right side of the field as he goes looking for an offload to put his brother Brett into space. Oh, and for Foran to regularly spread it wide to Matai on the left. Same, same – but so effective.
Expect HUGE Things From: As mentioned above one of Manly’s key strengths is that they just have so many players capable of a big season – but the one to watch here is Brett Stewart. The flying fullback managed to stay on the park for most of last season to finish as they club’s leading try scorer with 15 four-pointers from 20 matches following two seasons ruined by injury. But he didn’t quite reach the heights of 2007-’08 – if he can stay fit he may just reach that level again in 2012.
Bonus Points: Do Manly have the best starting back row in the competition? Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Tony Williams are all Australian Test players. Williams was almost impossible to tackle in the back end of 2011 and Watmough and Stewart are capable of massive minutes and massive metres. The latter pair each averaged close to 80 minutes last season, with Stewart making 92 metres per game (and a club-high 40 offloads!) and Watmough 120 metres per game.
They’re Really Going To Miss: The obvious one here is Des Hasler. The driven coach brought an uncompromising, no-nonsense style to the club’s play in his eight years in charge – a reign that earned Manly two premiership titles. Toovey is an unknown quantity as head clipboard holder but the club will be hoping he learned well in his time under Hasler. He was there for the duration so chances are that’s a lock. And, from what we saw from the premiers in their World Club Challenge loss to Leeds, it’s steady as she goes.
Elsewhere, losing both Hopoate and Robertson from the backline is also a blow. Manly had plenty of depth in their outside backs last season, illustrated by the fact that a full-strength squad would have had Brett Stewart, David Williams, Hopoate and Robertson trying to squeeze into three positions. But it was rarely an issue: the fact Michael Oldfield still played 12 games shows there was a tendency for those players to miss games through injury and rep duty. The return of Ben Farrar after a year with French side Catalans will help but Hopoate (14 tries in 19 games) and Robertson (11 tries in 21 games) were the side’s top try-scorers after Brett Stewart last year. Their departures will be keenly felt.
It’s Time To Deliver: As you’d expect with a side that took out the title, there weren’t exactly a lot of passengers at the Sea Eagles in 2011. And although they weren’t poor last season by any stretch, Manly’s props probably left a little room for improvement. Men with the profiles of Jason King and Brent Kite need to be not just pumping out metres but driving through that advantage line to get opposition teams on the back foot.
With fewer big names in the outside backs there will also be extra pressure on David ‘The Wolfman’ Williams. The NRL’s bearded hipster played just 12 games last year due to injury before fracturing a neck vertebrae right before the finals – hot on the heels of him missing all of 2010. With Hopoate and Robertson out of the picture Manly will be counting on a big year from the former Test and Origin winger.
How’s Their Depth? In their recent World Club Challenge match against Leeds, Manly had only three changes from the starting 13 that won last year’s Grand Final (one of which was the re-introduction of David Williams)… but things do seem to fall away quite quickly after that. A long-term injury to either of their key playmakers would be devastating. Although Jamie Lyon can fill in at five-eighth if needed it would severely test their backline depth and make them even more susceptible to further injuries. Toovey will be hoping for big contributions from 2011 fringe players such as Jamie Buhrer, Vic Mauro and Tim Robinson as well as the emerging Darcy Lussick.
Under-20s: With last season’s NYC coach David Penna joining Toovey’s coaching staff in first grade, club stalwart Luke Williamson has taken charge of the under-20s having spent time as caretaker coach of the NSW Cup side last year. He concedes it could be a difficult season for the 2011 NYC wooden-spooners but it’s a new-look squad with only a few retentions and some new additions.
Williamson told NRL.com that given the side’s performance last year he didn’t want to balloon anyone’s ego too early, but was prepared to nominate prop Justin Lemalu, who played with the side last year, as one player to watch in 2012. Lemalu averaged just a quarter of a game in 23 outings but still managed 12 offloads, 27 tackle-breaks as well as 80 metres a match.
The Coach: All eyes will certainly be on Geoff Toovey but he couldn’t ask for a much better side to work with in his rookie NRL year. The doomsayers are predicting the rapid collapse of a dynasty but the mass walkout of players with Hasler-related get-out clauses hasn’t eventuated so far – although the contractual status of some of their stars could provide a distraction later in the season.
Given the circumstances of his appointment Toovey will no doubt benefit from a grace period but with the calibre of players at his disposal anything other than a top-four finish will be a disappointment.
Predicted Finish: The Sea Eagles were a little rusty in each of their two hit-outs so far – but that may work in their favour as the year unfolds. Last season the 2010 defending premiers St George Illawarra started like a shot out of a gun and compiled a club record winning streak before getting the staggers late in the year. Perhaps Manly might take a while to hit top gear but they will still be highly competitive in the meantime. We can’t see them finishing outside of the top four. Maybe 3rd.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Tony Williams made the step up from impact player to starting back-rower in 2011 and could be a steal in the centres for your team.
The gun: Daly Cherry-Evans evolved from promising debutant to the highest-scoring half in Toyota NRL Dream Team last season. But beware, he doesn't come cheap this year.