The Run Home: Sea Eagles
How they stand: Things haven't quite gone to plan for Manly this year. Well-publicised contract issues around star halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans managed to drag on all the way up to the Round 13 deadline, which eventually resulted in the former signing with the Eels and the latter staying on a long-term deal. On the field, a raft of injuries – especially in the backline – wrecked their chances of building any momentum. With most of those players back on the field for the latter stages of the season Geoff Toovey's men have strung a few wins together, leaving fans to wonder 'what if'. As it is, a home loss to the Cowboys in Round 19 leaves the team needing to win at least six – of not all seven – of their remaining games to jag an unlikely finals berth. That looks less unlikely when you consider the run home includes matches against powerhouse sides Brisbane, Souths and the Roosters, as well as danger games against the Warriors and Raiders (both away).
Round 20 v Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium, 3pm Saturday July 25
Round 21 v Broncos at Central Coast Stadium, 7.30pm Saturday August 1
Round 22 v Rabbitohs at Brookvale Oval, 7.35pm Friday August 7
Round 23 v Raiders at GIO Stadium, 2pm Sunday August 16
Round 24 v Eels at Brookvale Oval, 4pm Sunday August 23
Round 25 v Roosters at Brookvale Oval, 7.45pm Friday August 28
Round 26 v Sharks at Remondis Stadium, 4pm Sunday September 6
Key clash: With almost every game a must-win and almost all of them against top-ranked opposition they're all key clashes really, but the biggest test is the Central Coast game against the ladder-leading Broncos. Even if Manly can't make the finals, a win against the benchmark team would at least prove they're a better side than their ladder position indicates. Wins against the Warriors and Broncos over the next fortnight would also sound a warning to the rest of the competition that Manly are refusing to go away.
Key player: Marquee man Daly Cherry-Evans went off with a shoulder injury in the loss to the Cowboys and it pretty much signalled the end of his side's hopes. Having set his stall out on the northern beaches for the rest of his career on a big-money deal he knows that, like it or not, he will be the focal point for the public, fans and media through good times and bad from here on in and can expect to wear criticism in the down times as much or more so than praise in the good. If Manly are to spark into life their halfback has to create that spark.
Injury report: It's not as bad now as it was earlier in the season, but the damage has been done. A season-ending ACL injury to young Clint Gutherson sparked an opening-round collapse at Parramatta and set the tone for a season that would barely see anything close to a full-strength backline in the opening 14 weeks. Centres Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai, five-eighth Kieran Foran, winger Jorge Taufua – of 17 possible games in the opening 19 rounds none played more than 13. Fullback Brett Stewart missed games, so too ball-playing second-rower Feleti Mateo, Foran's some-time replacement in the halves. Forgotten man Jamie Buhrer had his season ended just seven games in. In an under-strength forward pack, first-choice props Brenton Lawrence (zero games) and Josh Starling (seven) have hardly been sighted and an ongoing back injury has restricted impressive back-rower Blake Leary to just seven games thus far. Now Cherry-Evans is carrying a shoulder strain and it remains to be seen how much this hampers him in the run home.
NRL.com predicted finish: 12th.