Sea Eagles' 2014 Season Review
It's a measure of the Northern Beaches club's decade of excellence that to bow out in the second week of the finals will be deemed a comparative failure by both players and fans.
Yet that is exactly what happened after a late-season stutter saw them relinquish their grip on the minor premiership, lose several key players at just the wrong time, and get bundled out of the 2014 Finals Series in straight sets despite their top-two finish.
Most of the headlines for Manly throughout the year came more due to off-field reasons following news popular back-rower Glenn Stewart would be joining Souths in 2015 with the club's salary cap constraints preventing them from making him an offer.
It's hard to know exactly how much of the fallout was player-generated and how much was media-generated but there is no doubt senior players were unhappy, with several either requesting releases or publicly questioning the club's handling of the matter. Whether all this had any effect on their performances is debatable given their lofty finish, and the fact the losses only started to come when they were down on personnel.
Hopefully it doesn't take the gloss off a 10th-straight finals appearance for the club – or the multitude of good-news stories to emerge from the year.
Possibly top of the list in terms of success stories are utility back Peta Hiku, who made his Test debut as New Zealand fullback in the early season Trans Tasman Test and was outstanding all year before playing every single game for his club in 2014, and rugged forward Jesse Sene-Lefao.
The Penrith junior is another who made his Test debut over that representative weekend – in his case for Samoa – and both are likely to represent their home countries plenty more times. His emergence, coupled with the impressive efforts of fellow young forwards like Josh Starling and Dunamis Lui, meant the post-2013 departures of Brent Kite, George Rose, Joe Galuvao and Richie Fa'aoso weren't felt as keenly as they might have been.
Lock Jamie Buhrer performed admirably in the absence of the injured Glenn Stewart, putting in his best season in first grade, and his late-season ACL rupture – coupled with a cracked fibula for hooker Matt Ballin – was one of Manly's biggest headaches at the back end of the year.
Geoff Toovey has long since stepped out of Des Hasler's shadow to prove himself a quality coach in his own right and with the all-international halves pairing still going from strength to strength and a couple of promising juniors such as Clint Gutherson, Jayden Hodges and Jake Trbojevic on the roster, there is no reason to think the dynasty will crumble any time soon – even if senior players such as Anthony Watmough, Steve Matai and Brett Stewart follow Glenn out the door in the next 12 months.
Where They Excelled: There are few, if any, statistical categories that suggest Manly should have finished as high as they did. Their defence was their biggest strength – over 26 rounds they conceded the equal third-fewest tries of any club – but for most other areas they were mid-table at best. Where they really excelled was in the big moments – staying in games for 80 minutes. It's one of rugby league's biggest cliches, playing for "the full 80 minutes", but often it's more of a mysterious holy grail – everyone talks about it it but no-one's really sure where to find it or if it even exists. Except Manly, who somehow jagged wins from absolutely nowhere against the Eels in Round 3, Cowboys in Round 7, Knights in Round 10 and Panthers in Round 25 to show that they are one side that you just can't let up on for one second or they'll burn you. Leaving aside some, shall we say, favourable interpretations from the officials in most of those games, the players themselves simply played to the whistle and came up with the big plays at the right time.
Where They Struggled: Manly's work with the football in the middle of the park left plenty to be desired in 2014. They ranked 12th for running metres and 13th for tackles broken – the best seven teams for running metres happened to be the other seven teams that made the finals, while for tackle breaks South Sydney finished top and five of the best seven teams were finalists so there is an argument that these are categories you want to do well in. Manly also dropped the fourth-most bombs but given they still dropped fewer than Souths or the Roosters you could argue this is of less import than their lack of impact running the ball.
Missing In Action: Of the above-mentioned bookends who left between the 2013 Grand Final and Round 1 2014, Fa'aoso was the biggest blow as he was still on the books and expected to be part of the 2014 rotation when he was forced into retirement. One of Brookvale's favourite sons limped off his home ground for what proved to be the last time as a Sea Eagle in Round 8; Glenn Stewart's ankle injury combined with his signing for the Rabbitohs from 2015 effectively making that shellacking of the Raiders his final game in Manly colours. His absence wasn't felt too keenly in the short term purely in terms of on-field results but when his big game experience was needed at the back end of the season, with other players getting injured or suspended, it really started to sting. Manly actually had a fairly good run with injury most of the year – early season injuries to back-three Brett Stewart (whose Round 1 hammy strain cost them a game against Melbourne), and wing-men Jorge Taufua and David Williams, simply handed opportunities to Peta Hiku and Cheyse Blair – with Hiku's outstanding form seeing him go on to play every game of 2014 for the Sea Eagles. The killer blows were at the end through, when hooker Matt Ballin and lock Jamie Buhrer – who had been on fire in Stewart's absence as well as being Ballin's logical understudy – both went down in Round 25 against Penrith. Anthony Watmough's one-game suspension ahead of their season ending golden point semi final loss to Canterbury couldn't have come at a worse time.
Turning Point: Which brings us to the turning point. That last-gasp win over the Panthers at Brooky kept the Sea Eagles in with a shot at the minor premiership but came at a massive cost, with season-ending injuries to Ballin and Buhrer. They lost in Townsville the next week to hand the JJ Giltinan Shield to 2013 winners the Roosters, then were walloped by Souths in their qualifying final to well and truly suck the momentum out of their season. It was the first time all year they had registered back-to-back defeats, and their loss to the Bulldogs the week after making it a hat-trick of despair.
Best Games: There were plenty of tough wins to keep the fans happy in 2014 but arguably the best of the lot both came against their 2013 tormenters, the Roosters. Manly went down to the Tricolours no fewer than four times last year (five if you count trials) but had their measure this year with a gritty 8-0 shutout at Allianz Stadium in Round 4, then an even better 24-16 win at Brookvale in Round 16 on the back of a Brett Stewart masterclass.
Worst Games: Getting swamped at a sodden Leichhardt in Round 5 was bad but getting embarrassed at Allianz in a qualifying final was worse. Manly barely touched the ball – let alone in an attacking part of the field – in an opening 60 minutes that saw the Rabbitohs' forwards charging the ball up relentlessly and their outside backs simply running riot, swerving into, through and around Manly players like they were standing still. By the time Manly got some quality ball they were already down 40-0 and the contest was long gone.
Hold Your Head High: It was a huge season from the Prince of Brookvale. Brett Stewart still has plenty of zip but it's his ball-playing, rather than pure searing speed, that makes him such a threat these days. His 22 try assists after 26 rounds (and just 20 games) was equal second among all players behind only Johnathan Thurston, and he crossed for eight himself. Peta Hiku was a threat not just on the wing but also at fullback or centre when his side needed him, finishing the regular season with 17 tries in 24 games. Plenty of other players – such as Buhrer, Sene-Lefao and Foran to name just three – had seasons they can be proud of.
Conclusion: No matter how you cut it, a second-week finals exit is a disappointment if it follows on from a top-two finish, let alone for a side that was running first from rounds 18-25. They had their fair share of luck throughout the season but it deserted them at the wrong time – a fortuitous grubber from Josh Reynolds into the referee ahead of a crucial Trent Hodkinson field goal in that semi final all but ended Manly's season and encapsulated their late downturn in fortunes. There are huge questions over which senior players will stick around until the end of, or beyond, their current contracts. This could be very much a new-look Manly side in the next year or two but as long as the club can lock down its two star halves past their current 2015 deals the future should remain bright.
Position (after 26 rounds): 2nd
Position (after Finals): 5th
Home Record: 11 wins, 1 loss
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Rounds 18-21)
Longest Losing Streak (after 26 rounds): 1
Longest Losing Streak (after Finals): 3
Players Used: 27 (= 11th most)
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 90 (=7th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 73 (=3rd best)