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No Des, no worries – that’s the mantra being employed by Manly this week with hooker Matt Ballin insisting the defending premiers are in as good shape as ever ahead of Friday night’s blockbuster against former coach Des Hasler and the minor premiership-winning Bulldogs.
Rocked by the sudden departure of Hasler and a number of his coaching staff in the off-season, the Sea Eagles were slow out of the blocks in 2012, but six wins in a row including impressive victories over fellow finalists North Queensland, South Sydney and Brisbane have them poised for a serious tilt at back-to-back titles.
“To be honest it feels pretty similar to [this time] last year,” Ballin told NRL.com.
“I think last year we finished second so we were up a bit higher and it’s a different finals system this year, but it’s a similar feel.
“The team really times our form well. At the start of the year we’re always a bit up and down depending on some injuries but at this time of year we’re always fit and ready to go.
“Manly just seems to have a really good knack of timing our run well and that’s what we’ve done again this year. There is still room for improvement I think, but we’ve been a lot more consistent at the back end of the season than we were at the start.”
Ironically, Manly’s last loss was against the Bulldogs back in Round 20 with the sides locked at one win apiece in 2012 following the Sea Eagles’ narrow victory earlier in the year.
And while Ballin insists that the playing group had moved on from the hype that surrounded the first meeting of Hasler and his former pupils in Round 8, he admitted it was impossible to ignore the familiar Hasler influence on the Bulldogs’ style of play.
“There are a lot of similarities [to Manly],” he said. “The structures he put in here, he has taken them across to the Bulldogs as well. So there are definitely some similarities there – but there are still plenty of differences as well. We’ve changed and they’ve got some different things they’ve stuck to.
“The other thing is that we’ve played against him twice now so it’s all been covered off. Even when he left, at the start of the year we all discussed what happened.
“Everyone has moved on from that now. The Bulldogs are a great side and that’s what we’ll be judging them on this week – their footy talent. We’ve just got to concentrate on our own game and trying to stop them from doing what they do well.”
Asked if Manly held an edge given their knowledge of Hasler’s structure, or vice-versa, Ballin replied “A bit of both – we know him well… he knows us well. But they finished first so they deserve the favourites tag.
“They’ve had a great year. They won 12 in a row at one point and their form is pretty good coming into the semis so if we want to be any hope we’ll have to play well. At the end of the day it is two top-quality sides and it should be a good game of footy.”
Certainly there is no shortage of confidence within the Sea Eagles camp ahead of their latest finals campaign – a fact Ballin puts down to the players feeling more settled than they did at the start of the season.
Despite rumours that a number of their high-profile stars would follow Hasler out the door – many of them directly to the Bulldogs – the club has retained the vast majority with only Tony Williams, Daniel Harrison and Darcy Lussick notable departees in 2013.
Ballin himself was heavily targeted by other clubs but having re-signed for a further three seasons in early July, he pointed to the close relationships amongst the Sea Eagles players as one of their great strengths heading into the finals.
“It’s something that’s fairly unique,” he said. “All those guys that re-signed have been loyal to the club and some of them probably took a pay cut to stay here, so that in itself is an incredible show of respect and loyalty to the club.
“In the end that was a big thing for me, too. The club was very loyal to me for the past seven years. They gave me a chance to play first grade here and my family loves the club and loves the area. There are a lot of good blokes here that I’ve become mates with over the years – not just on the park but off the park as well – and what we’ve accomplished as footy players and friends is pretty special.
“That was always the main thing for me. The money was never that important. There were always better opportunities elsewhere and you’ve got to weigh that up I guess to some degree but for me it was always Manly.”
Having already won two titles with the Sea Eagles and represented Queensland in 2010, Ballin said that a second consecutive premiership would be hard to beat when it came to career achievement.
“It would be great,” he said. “It would be a massive achievement to go back to back in any year but especially given the changes we had at the start of the year. But that’s the big picture – at the moment it’s just about the Bulldogs on Friday night for us.”