Manly Warringah Sea Eagles season preview
When Manly fans check their Big League programs for the Round 1 clash at Brookvale Oval against the Bulldogs, they will realise that the house that Des built has not just undergone a renovation; it has all but been completely torched and rebuilt from the ground up.
After starting the 2015 season with a 2-8 record and missing the finals for the first time in a decade including an excruciating 10 weeks anchored to the foot of the ladder, Manly powerbrokers didn't waste any time making wholesale changes to the Northern Beaches club.
The all-star backline remains essentially untouched – apart from the departure of Kieran Foran – and is the only throwback to Manly's era of dominance which reaped 10 consecutive finals appearances and two premierships. Their fans are pumped up for the new season and the silvertail tag is well and truly back, but are the Sea Eagles?
Gains and losses
Gains: Dylan Walker (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Nate Myles (Gold Coast Titans), Martin Taupau (Wests Tigers), Lewis Brown (Penrith Panthers), Apisai Koroisau (Penrith Panthers), Darcy Lussick (Parramatta Eels), Tim Moltzen (Wests Tigers), Matt Parcell (Brisbane Broncos), Nathan Green (St George Illawarra Dragons), John Walker (rugby union), Tom Wright (schoolboy rugby union), Fabian Goodall (Parramatta Eels)
Losses: Kieran Foran (Parramatta Eels), Matt Ballin (Wests Tigers), James Hasson (Parramatta Eels), Justin Horo (Catalan Dragons), Jack Littlejohn (Wests Tigers), Ligi Sao (New Zealand Warriors), Michael Chee-Kam (Wests Tigers), Willie Mason (released), Dunamis Lui (St George Illawarra Dragons), Cheyse Blair (Melbourne Storm), Jesse Sene Lefao (Cronulla Sharks), Will Pearsall (Newcastle Knights), Clinton Gutherson (Parramatta Eels), Peta Hiku (Penrith Panthers)
It is one of the most dramatic roster changes in recent memory and there are certainly plenty of high profile acquisitions with the additions of four internationals in Nate Myles, Martin Taupau, Lewis Brown and Dylan Walker. Add highly fancied hookers Api Koroisau and Matt Parcell and the return of hard hitting forward Darcy Lussick and Manly have a team that could do a lot of damage in the NRL Telstra Premiership.
What we know
Manly's backline remains the one constant in an ever changing landscape and it is still arguably one of the best attacking forces in the competition. Brett Stewart is the heartbeat of the club, Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai the unwavering rocks in attack and defence, while youngster Tom Trbojevic is one of the competition's boom youngsters. As long as they are healthy and Daly Cherry-Evans is pulling the strings, Manly will be a tough team to conquer this season. We know their backline will rarely be outclassed.
There are so many questions about this Manly outfit and their identity as a club. The exit of Kieran Foran and Matt Ballin wasn't just the loss of one of the game's best five-eighths and reliable rakes, it was the loss of two players with Manly's very culture and DNA running through their veins. How the Sea Eagles forge a new identity will be as much a battle as the teams they face. Can Dylan Walker make the transition to partner Cherry-Evans in the halves? How will Parcel and/or Koroisau replace Ballin in the hooking role? Will Manly's new-look forward pack return the club to its previous hard-edged glory? Manly's strength in off-season recruiting is also its biggest unknown in 2016.
Matt Parcell looks to be a great pick-up. The hard-working rake gets through a lot of defence while possessing an great turn of speed and guile in attack. He impressed at the Auckland Nines and should get an extended run in the team throughout 2016. His duel with Koroisau for the starting No.9 role should push both men to greater heights.
Manly's lack of depth has been exposed in recent campaigns, however it shouldn't be a shortcoming this season. Their influx of recruits ensures there is plenty of depth in the forward ranks, while Tom Trbojevic looks to be the long-term fullback once Brett Stewart retires. Like any side, Manly will struggle if their leading playmaker Cherry-Evans spends time on the sidelines. They are also only likely to miss one or two players at the most during the gruelling State of Origin period.
DCE is already a top-line Fantasy player – combining a dominant kicking game with a solid defensive game, plus the ability to split the defensive line and provide regular try assists. But with Foran gone, Cherry-Evans may take on even more playmaking responsibilities at Manly – particularly alongside Walker, who is likely to focus on running the ball. At $482,000 he's expensive, but a little cheaper than the top-priced Fantasy halves.
Meanwhile Parcell could make some decent cash if he beats Api Koroisau to the No.9 jersey.
Manly venture into the great unknown in 2016, with new coach Trent Barrett bringing a fresh coaching staff and a bold new philosophy to the northern beaches. Given the drama that engulfed the club and coach Geoff Toovey last season, the pressure will be on Barrett to immediately get results. The talk coming out of the club is all positive in the pre-season, but the real litmus test will come when the season proper begins in earnest.
On paper, Manly are a top-four side with strong premiership aspirations. But it will all depend on how Barrett can get the side to forge its new identity and how long it takes for all the new faces to create a unified and cohesive front. Can the club bounce back from a disastrous 2015 campaign? While there are plenty of question marks, the side on paper is too hard to ignore. We are backing that they'll finish somewhere in the top four.