Manly players are ready to welcome back local legend and former Sea Eagles prop George Rose to Brookvale Oval in their Round 1 on March 8 – with a host of young props vying to fill the enormous hole left in the club's front row roster.
While the bulk of Manly's 2013 grand final squad is still intact, the front row has seen a number of departures with Rose joining the Storm, Brent Kite headed to the Panthers, Joe Galuvao retiring and David Gower joining Parramatta. Richie Fa'aoso is also battling to be fit for Round 1 after fracturing a vertebra a week before the grand final, although Jason King is on track for the season start after playing just four games in 2013 due to a shoulder injury.
Speaking from club pre-season training at Narrabeen, Sea Eagles hooker Matt Ballin said the younger players in the squad were working extra hard to put themselves in contention to fill the vacant front row positions.
These include former Bronco Dunamis Lui, Irish World Cup representative James Hasson and former Rabbitoh Josh Starling.
"James Hasson back from the World Cup is working hard, there's a lot of new guys in the side looking pretty sharp," Ballin said.
"We lost three front rowers who were a massive part of our pack for years so there's a big opportunity for the three young blokes to come through and get a starting spot or a spot off the bench so I think that's why everyone's training so hard and keen to cement a spot, especially in the forwards."
Ballin said while the squad was looking forward to the upcoming Auckland Nines tournament on February 15-16, training has been completely focused on the upcoming NRL season – which kicks off for Manly with a visit from fierce rivals Melbourne and former fan favourite Rose at Brookvale on March 8.
"It's always exciting [playing the Storm] which is always a good rivalry round and hopefully we can get a lot of people there," Ballin said.
"We're playing against George Rose... it's pretty special that a bloke like him is coming back to Brookvale Oval, he's got a cult following and he's such a good mate of everyone in the team."
The thoughts were echoed by back-rower Tom Symonds. "Big Georgie, I still keep in contact with him, he's a good fella," Symonds said. "It will be interesting to see the reception he gets back at Brookie, if they give him a bit of stick or if they still love him."
Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was also looking forward to the return of the cult hero, but somewhat more warily.
"I don't want to get in his way!" Cherry-Evans laughed.
"I'm sure the crowd would love to see him there, most of us boys will love to see him back there, it'll be strange seeing him in those colours but hopefully those colours flatter him a bit more."