5 burning questions: Sea Eagles
With several senior players reportedly wanting out, will Manly be forced into a rebuilding phase in 2015 or will predictions of the side's demise once again prove wide of the mark? Here are some of the club's big questions ahead of 2015.
1. Has Anthony Watmough played his last game in maroon and white?
If you're one who's sold on the perpetual rumour mill of rugby league land; put the house on it. Watmough will be wearing blue and gold soon enough. Which means the question should probably read: Who replaces the 31 tackles and 120 metres 'Choc' churns out at a thousand miles an hour each week? It would be a sad way for Watmough's 11 years and 278 matches (plus another 8 in Northern Eagles garb) of service to come to a close, with rumours and innuendo about his relationship with Daly Cherry-Evans dogging his and the Sea Eagles' 2014 campaign. Should the NSW and Kangaroos star remain on the peninsula, it'll certainly make for interesting viewing. All that speculation about a not-so-happy Manly family won't just disappear.
2. Is this the actual end?
Two years ago Manly were blown apart 40-12 by the Storm in the 2012 preliminary final and the writing was supposedly on the wall. The house that Des built was starting to crumble. To which the Sea Eagles responded, true to form, with a run that took them all the way to a compelling 2013 grand final showdown with the Roosters, who they led 18-8 with less than half an hour to play. So it's a case of softly, softly when it comes to predicting the decline of one of the most dominant sides of the past decade. But with Watmough all but out the door, talk Brett Stewart is hot on his heels, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai and Matt Ballin on the wrong side of 30 and a worrying lack of depth up front all compounded by their limp departure from this year's finals; plenty will again be piling in should there be any early signs that the Sea Eagles are on the wane in 2015.
3. How much of a distraction will all the contract drama be this time around?
Just as significant to Manly's fortunes is the fact that all the brouhaha over who signs what at the club and for how much is, if anything, set to intensify over the course of 2015. Expect Stewart and Matai to again request releases if Watmough's is granted, and then there's the fact Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are both due for sizable top ups on their current deals and will be fair game for the rest of the competition come November 1. As the pre-eminent halves pairing in the game, should either be allowed to go to market they're both capable of attracting $1 million a year. Not to mention Ballin, Clinton Gutherson, David Williams, Justin Horo, Michael Chee-Kam and 11 other members of the extended squad are all coming off contract at the end of next year. Geoff Toovey has a hell of a job balancing the maroon and white chequebook.
4. Where do they find the extra grunt needed up front?
Manly always looked a big man or two short in 2014 when compared to the collection of behemoths running around for the likes of Canterbury, North Queensland and Souths. Now with Jason King retiring a year after Brent Kite's departure, their prop rotation again looks a tad skinny, with Brenton Lawrence leading youngsters Jesse Sene-Lefao, Josh Starling, James Hasson and Dunamis Lui. All showed a fair bit of promise last year but as a pack they struggled to lift in the big games as the season wore on, leaving them ranked dead last for metres made from hit-ups. A bloke like Willie Mason or Jack Stockwell would make Toovey's life a fair bit easier over there across the Spit Bridge.
5. What happens if they cop another batch of injuries?
The Sea Eagles' forward depth was tested late in the piece when Jamie Buhrer and Ballin went down with season-ending injuries, and Watmough's exit, not to mention Glenn Stewart's, will again test their back-row stocks. Out wide there's healthy competition, and Jack Littlejohn showed enough promise in five starts last year to offer reasonable coverage in the halves should Foran or Cherry-Evans be unavailable for a short period, but amongst the big boppers the pickings are a tad slim, particularly if there are any long-term casualties.