Manly Sea Eagles season preview
The Sea Eagles shrugged off the now-customary predictions of their fall from prominence last year, coming within a whisker of the minor premiership as a couple of late-season injuries to key players cruelled their finals charge. Will 2015 mark the first time in a decade the northern beaches boys miss out on the top eight or will the usual attempts to write off Geoff Toovey's men once again fall wide of the mark?
Gains and losses
Gains: Blake Leary (Cowboys), Sosaia Vave (Sharks), Feleti Mateo (Warriors), Brayden Williame (Knights), Willie Mason (Knights), Luke Burgess (Rabbitohs).
Losses: Anthony Watmough (Eels), Richie Fa'aoso (Eels), Glenn Stewart (Rabbitohs), Jason King (retired), Daniel Harrison (London Broncos).
Three huge names have left the forward pack in Watmough, Stewart and King, and Sea Eagles fans will be hoping Mason, Mateo and Burgess can plug the gap. Former Cowboy Leary may also prove to be an astute buy in the back row.
What we know
At time of writing we're not sure we're Manly's star halves will be in 2016 but we know where they'll be in 2015: once again spearheading one of the best backlines in the NRL. With Brett Stewart at fullback and Matt Ballin at hooker, Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran also form one of the best 'spines' in the NRL. In senior men Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai the club also boasts arguably the best centre pairing in the competition. We also know they'll be well-drilled, well-coached, very fit and in all likelihood will come out of the blocks firing just about every time they take the field.
Will uncertainty over the future of the halves drag on the way the Glenn Stewart issue did last year? If one or both do sign on elsewhere, how will that affect both the players and the squad as a whole for the rest of 2015? There are also plenty of question marks over the forward rotation with a number of spots – especially on the bench as well – still up for grabs.
His time may not quite have come yet but there are ginormous raps on junior Kangaroo Tom Trbojevic. The 18-year-old fullback may be eased into first grade on the wing when his time comes, while his older brother Jake may be looking at game time at prop this year having played a solitary first-grade game in 2013. Speaking of one-gamers, back-rower Michael Chee-Kam will be desperate to cash in on his enormous talent in what is a contract year. Utility playmaker Manaia Rudolph could be one to watch during Origin time or if injuries strike.
Room for improvement
Manly's halves need to pick their socks up. 'What!? You can't be serious, NRL.com,' we hear you cry. 'Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are the envy of every club in the land!' Ok, first of all, calm down a little, and second, just hear us out.
While Manly finished a lofty second after 26 rounds, their points differential was only fourth-best and if you take out the effect of their typically stubborn defence, their attack was only eighth-best in the competition. On paper they have arguably the best back seven in the comp, so what gives?
When it comes to line break assists Cherry-Evans (five LBAs, equal 63rd-best in NRL) and Foran (seven LBAs, equal 41st best) were miles behind Roosters pair James Maloney and Mitch Pearce (first and fourth respectively with 39 LBAs combined). And try assists, a playmaker's bread and butter? A key playmaker from every club other than Cronulla and Gold Coast ranked the equal or better of both Manly halves last year, who each set up 11 four pointers apiece to be ranked equal-32nd best. They're both brilliant players, no doubt, but if Manly are to get another premiership out of them as a combination they may need to produce some more successful attacking plays.
It's probably not the deepest roster in the NRL, to be blunt. Even with Mason and Burgess the front-row stocks are fairly thin, especially in terms of experience after those two and existing props Brenton Lawrence and Josh Starling. Their back five will be fine with Clint Gutherson and Tom Trbojevic on the up and Cheyse Blair and David Williams likely to be in the NSW Cup when a full roster is available. The second row also has quite a few options but seems a touch short on game-breakers; if Feleti Mateo can return to vintage form it will make a huge difference.
Daly Cherry-Evans ($456,000) is the most expensive player at the club and generally does enough tackling and kicking that he doesn't get too many low scores – and his big games can be massive. Jamie Lyon ($354,000) remains one of the best centres in NRL Fantasy while Jamie Buhrer ($361,000) really came into his own at lock in the absence of the injured Glenn Stewart last year.
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Geoff Toovey has well and truly stepped out of Des Hasler's shadow, taking the side to three consecutive top-four finishes and one Grand Final. As far as NRL coaches go his job seems pretty secure right now but he'd love to add another title to the two the club won in the four years prior to his appointment as head coach.
This will definitely be the year the wheels finally fall off and Manly's period of sustained excellence finally comes to an end – and if you believe that you probably don't go very well in your footy tipping comp. While we're not sold on Manly going all the way in 2015 we really can't see them slipping out of the top eight either. NRL.com prediction: 6th.