Sea Eagles praise influence of real-deal Barrett
While Manly's past month of form hasn't quite matched the lofty standards the Sea Eagles set throughout the rest of season 2017, the fact they have reversed their disastrous 2016 campaign – now sitting inside the finals zone with three rounds to go – is just reward for unfairly-maligned coach Trent Barrett, according to the playing group.
Barrett, a first-year coach last year, got the mother of all baptisms of fire in his debut season.
Called over from his gig as a Penrith assistant to replace popular club legend Geoff Toovey, nothing short of a top-four finish and/or grand final appearance would have sated the army of Toovey supporters among the Sea Eagles faithful.
What he got instead was a perfect storm – a playing roster weighed down by a decade of back-ended deals collapsed under the departure of a mountain of experience combined with a scarcely believable injury toll. The patched-together crew won just a single home game in the first 16 rounds and three for the season as a club accustomed to success finished out of the finals for a second straight year.
This season, with a chance to have a say in the roster (which still has millions of dollars of salary cap sidelined in the retired Brett Stewart and Steve Matai plus injured regulars Jorge Taufua and Curtis Sironen), Barrett has got remarkable mileage out of a stack of players who were barely first graders last season.
Sironen, unwanted by the Tigers, has produced the best footy of his career – made even more noticeable by Manly's struggle in his recent injury layoff. Akuila Uate has reclaimed something like the blockbusting form that earned him NSW and Kangaroos call-ups before being dumped to reserve grade at wooden spooners Newcastle last year. Journeyman Frank Winterstein has gone from strength to strength and star centre Dylan Walker is back in form after a lacklustre 2016.
"He's a great coach – I've always thought he was a great coach," lock Jake Trbojevic enthused this week.
"He's really brought the boys together, he's really good tactically, he's very passionate.
"You can see that it means the world to him and we love playing for him. It's been good that we could turn it around this year because everyone was giving it to him [last year] but we always had faith in him. It's been good, it's good he's starting to get the credit he deserves."
In a classic twist of rugby league serendipity, Manly face the Bulldogs this week – the club rumoured to be considering an attempt to lure the impressive second-year coach away from the northern beaches to Belmore as their club continues to struggle for form despite recently re-signing coach Des Hasler.
"They work that out on purpose I reckon!" laughed five-eighth Blake Green of the Canterbury rumour.
"We haven't even spoken about it, a lot of that stuff we don't pay attention to unless we get told about it from Trent."
Trbojevic wasn't expecting Barrett to leave any time soon either.
"I hope he hangs around forever, he's a great coach, I love playing under him," Trbojevic said.
"He's very smart; very smart at football and he's very passionate so everyone buys into what he believes and what he wants. It's really worked this year.
"Last year was tough, we had a lot of injuries and that sort of thing but this year's been good. It's great to see him getting the credit he deserves."