Sea Eagles' Road To The Finals
Where have all the forwards gone?
Manly's 2013 Grand Final squad remained mostly intact for 2014 – with the exception of the front row rotation, with Brenton Lawrence the only 2013 regular remaining in the squad. George Rose, Brent Kite, Joe Galuvao, Richie Fa'aoso and David Gower each either moved on or retired, were replaced by up-and-comers or players not able to make it at their previous clubs. Before the season even started Manly had been written off by many, deemed not to have the grunt up front, left to rely on unheralded players like Josh Starling, Dunamis Lui, Jesse Sene-Lefao and James Hasson for go-forward. Like every other time people write Manly off, those fears proved unfounded.
A disastrous 40 minutes
Manly's 2014 campaign looked like it was kicking off in perfect fashion, but in a nightmare 40 minutes it all went horribly wrong. Hosting bitter rivals Melbourne at a sodden Brookvale Oval to commence their 2014 campaign, the 2013 runners-up flew out of the blocks through some inspired play from brilliant fullback Brett Stewart. But when he limped off at halftime with a hamstring strain the Storm raced back into the contest and eventually handed Manly a loss that was their worst-ever capitulation after at one stage being 22-0 to the good. Losing their fullback for a month added injury to insult.
Forwards make their mark
Manly shrugged off their opening disappointment with three straight wins – including two major scalps in premiership favourites the Roosters and Rabbitohs. The win over Souths was particularly impressive for the way returning veteran Jason King marshalled his young forwards and in a classic display of leadership, and stood up to the Bunnies' battery of Burgii. His running battle with Sam and Luke Burgess still stands out as one of the great efforts from the retiring club favourite, and it set the tone for their young forward pack to continue to aim up throughout the year. Players like Starling, Lui and Sene-Lefao have gone from strength to strength since.
Hiku climbs up pecking order
With injuries from the pre-season Auckland Nines putting 2013's co-leading try scorers Jorge Taufua and David Williams out of the start of the season, combined with Brett Stewart's injury, Manly were suddenly thin in the outside backs. Displaying form that would get him a nod as the Kiwi Test custodian in the early-season trans-Tasman Test, Hiku deputised admirably in three games at fullback – before playing three more in the centres to cover injuries elsewhere in the backline. It meant when all players were available, popular winger Williams found himself back in NSW Cup and Hiku went on to play every game of the regular season for the maroon-and-whites.
Only a slight Origin hiccup
With only halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and back-rower Anthony Watmough affected by the annual interstate battle (although between injury and suspension the pair did miss plenty of footy in the middle of the season), the Sea Eagles were able to win five and lose just one of their games in the affected period. With both Cherry-Evans and Watmough failing to back up and Brisbane missing only Justin Hodges the Sea Eagles were smacked 36-10 up at Suncorp in Round 12. But the following week, back to full strength, they walloped the Bulldogs 32-10.
Internal combustion engine
Has there been a side in rugby league history more beset by internal dramas yet so able to put those dramas aside when they take the field and continue to excel? It's no secret the senior playing group was deeply unhappy at the club's failure to so much as table an offer to popular clubman Glenn Stewart, whose eventual decision to sign with the Rabbitohs from 2015 was the catalyst for tensions spilling over into the public sphere. Long-serving centre Steve Matai asked for – and was denied – an early release, straight-shooting five-eighth Kieran Foran delivered some home truths at a club media session, Watmough and Brett Stewart were rumoured to be looking around and possibly seeking early releases also. Some of the senior players, or Watmough at the very least, were reportedly barely on speaking terms with Cherry-Evans – and through it all, the club just kept winning games.
Finding ways to win
It wasn't always pretty, and they did it pretty tough against some teams they were expected to steamroll, but Manly were still able to produce clutch plays when they were needed. Against the struggling Knights at home Manly were supposed to win by a hundred, instead they were down by two tries with 15 minutes to go. They somehow scored twice to level up, prop Josh Starling made one of the great covering tackles on flying winger Jake Mamo and Cherry-Evans nailed a brilliant field goal from nowhere to steal a win. The big players – notably Cherry-Evans and Foran – combined to drag an unlikely win from nowhere against the Cowboys in Round 7 and the Eels in Round 3, and got an unconvincing Manly side home against the Titans in Round 23. But all that paled in comparison to their get-out-of-jail theatrics in Round 25 when Stewart, Foran and Jamie Lyon helped create two stunning tries in the last three minutes to jag the unlikeliest of wins. That could easily have been eight or 10 fewer competition points at the end of the year and it would have been a far different story.
That Penrith game was Manly's last game of 2014 in their backyard fortress, and they finished up with a nine-wins-one-loss record there – going undefeated after that Round 1 capitulation to the Storm. Throw in two from two in their home games up in Gosford for an 11-1 home record and the Sea Eagles were impressive home patch bullies in 2014. It was just those seven away losses in Melbourne, Brisbane, North Queensland, Parramatta and so on that cost them at the end of the regular season.
A cruel double blow
That stunning comeback against Penrith came at a huge cost, with forward Jamie Buhrer – who had been consistently excellent at lock all year in the absence of Glenn Stewart – ruled out for the year with a ruptured ACL. And 80-minute hooker Matt Ballin, after 182 consecutive first grade games, suffered a leg fracture which put him out probably for the year or at least until late into the finals. No side can afford to lose their main hooker and back-up hooker right before the finals, with the Sea Eagles forced to hand a debut to Jayden Hodges in the key role for a tough Round 26 visit to Townsville – a game they needed to win to claim the minor premiership.
A late slip-up
With a chance at the minor premiership on the line, Manly put in an underwhelming performance in the final round of the regular season in Townsville in Round 26 to cap off a lethargic last month of the regular season. With a debutant hooker and a rookie at fullback due to a late withdrawal from Brett Stewart, plus prop Brenton Lawrence absent for a second straight game with a knee injury, they had plenty of excuses against a fired-up Cowboys outfit but excuses wouldn't have done much to improve coach Geoff Toovey's mood after a 30-16 loss in which their opponents continually ran through their middle as they conceded over 300 more running metres than their opponents. It came at the end of a pretty average month – the week before it was a get-out-of-jail effort at home to Penrith and the fortnight before that included a loss to the Eels and a very unconvincing win on the Gold Coast. With just two wins from their last five games, the club headed into the finals still well-placed in second but looking more fragile than they had for most of the season.