With 2014 NRL pre-season underway, we're profiling each team's biggest strengths heading into the new season. Here are five reasons the Manly Sea Eagles could be premiers at the end of 2014.
1. A winning culture
They may have been pipped in the season decider amid a flood of contentious calls, but if Manly's amazing come-from-behind win over South Sydney a week earlier (and that following exhausting physical encounters against the Roosters and Sharks in the first two weeks of the finals) taught us anything, it's that Manly know how to win, and they expect to keep doing it. Since finishing fifth in 2006, they finished as runners-up in 2007 then premiers in 2008, went out in the opening week of the finals in 2009 and 2010, were premiers again in 2011, lost the grand final qualifier to Melbourne in 2012 and were runners-up again in 2013. Their continuing successes over the past five seasons, in the salary cap era, and despite losing some significant players and one of the great modern coaches, shows that winning is an attitude cast into this Manly club and that is a formidable asset in tough games.
Sure, they're saying goodbye to some front row stalwarts in Brent Kite and George Rose, as well as Joe Galuvao, but the vast majority of Manly's 2013 grand final line-up – including the key playmaker roles and team leaders – will be around again this season. Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry Evans (who have now played 106 and 81 NRL games respectively), Jamie Lyon, Anthony Watmough, the Stewart Brothers... the list of experienced and quality players just goes on. They know each other's plays like the backs of their hands and that spells danger for any opponent.
3. Strike out wide
Manly's first-choice backline of fullback Brett Stewart, wingers Jorge Taufua and David Williams, and centres Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai racked up 41 tries between them in the final 10 club games of 2013, with the doubles and hat-tricks coming thick and fast. With such polished finishers and excellent support players right across the park, the playmakers know every opportunity is a strong chance of being converted. All five men have played Test football (Matai for New Zealand, Taufua for Tonga and the other three for Australia) and deservedly so. Taufua and Williams finished with 20 tries each, making them the equal top tryscorers for the season alongside Rooster Michael Jennings. No other wing combination came close – Newcastle's James McManus (19) and Akuila Uate (15) were next best with 34. Most sides can only dream of having that kind of strike power in the backline.
4. Quality in the halves
Speaking of Test players, five-eighth Foran is now an automatic pick for the Kiwis while Cherry Evans has already tasted Test and Origin footy, and it seems a mere formality that he will inherit Cooper Cronk's Maroons and Kangaroos positions when he eventually retires. Despite neither having yet celebrated their 25th birthdays they have been lining up alongside each other in winning Manly sides for three years, including a premiership and a grand final appearance. In 2013 they combined for 39 try assists – only prolific Roosters duo Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney (50) earned more. Add in Brett (17) and Glenn Stewart (seven) and Manly have plenty of well settled players capable of creating scoring opportunities.
With players in the backline like Peta Hiku and Cheyse Blair waiting to fill in for any players injured or on rep duty, Jamie Buhrer generally playing off the bench and forwards such as James Hasson, Tom Symonds, and new buys Dunamis Lui and Josh Starling all unlikely to feature in a full-strength starting 13, Manly are not only strong but have plenty of bases covered in the event of injury.