Was Manly's 2017 a success, or a failure? Like many things the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
After two years in the finals wilderness and a 2016 in which very little went right from start to finish, 2017 proved a welcome return to form in many ways for the northern beaches boys.
Trent Barrett proved he is the real deal as a coach and skipper Daly Cherry-Evans produced one of his best years. A bunch of potentially underwhelming recruits proved masterstrokes; it's no surprise Blake Green was good but the value the club got from the likes of Aku Uate and Curtis Sironen was impressive.
Yet, after surging as high as equal third on the Telstra Premiership ladder after 19 rounds with some big wins against good teams, to then slump to a sixth-place finish and be bundled out in the first week of the finals will leave fans feeling flat and asking what could have been.
Where they excelled: Manly had no trouble getting across the stripe in 2017. They finished with the third-most tries of any club after 26 rounds with Cherry-Evans equal top of the tree for try-assists with 19. Fullback Tom Trbojevic had a breakout season, laying on 18 tries of his own in the home-and-away season. Cherry-Evans and Blake Green combined to set up the most repeat sets of any team with 47.
Where they struggled: If anything Manly just seemed to run out of puff towards the end of a long season. They won just four of their final nine regular season games to slip down the ladder. While their stout goal-line defence proved the difference in plenty of close wins, they still managed to miss the second-most tackles of any team with 820 at 34 per game. In fact the only team that did worse just happened to be the one that ended their season – the Panthers fell off a whopping 872 at 36 per game. Manly also made the equal-most errors (225) across 26 rounds.
Missing in action: One factor that has been largely glossed over is that Barrett essentially started 2017 in a boxing match with one arm tied behind his back. Club veterans Steve Matai and Brett Stewart were on the books for a big chunk of the 2017 salary cap but didn't play a game between them due to chronic injuries that forced them into retirement. Throw in the season-ender to tackle-busting winger Jorge Taufua halfway through and the pec injury to Curtis Sironen that forced him to sit out from Round 17 to Round 25 (it's no coincidence that was the period Manly struggled most in) and it's clear Manly's depth was tested.
Turning point: Without doubt the beginning of the end came in Round 20, with a 52-22 thrashing by the Dragons in Wollongong. Manly had won six of their past seven leading into that, including their best win of the year (35-18 away to premiers Cronulla). The Dragons were at a low ebb themselves at that point, with four losses in five weeks, including against the Titans and Bulldogs, with the lone win being a get-out-of-jail act at home to the struggling Knights. Which is why no one envisioned the Red V piling on 50-plus against the in-form Sea Eagles. That game rattled their confidence and they collapsed to a 40-6 hiding in Melbourne the next week. A false dawn at home to the Roosters the next week preceded two more losses to bottom-eight teams and Manly were never quite the same again.
Hold your head high: As mentioned above, Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic piled on the try assists with 19 and 18 respectively in the regular season. Tom's brother Jake had a fair season too, making his Origin debut (he and Bulldog Dave Klemmer were probably the only Blues who could lay claim to playing well in all three games) and proving super-consistent for his club. Nine tries is a huge haul for a hard-working lock, even more so when paired with his 37 tackles and 134 metres per game. Special mention must go to Curtis Sironen; 25 tackles and 72 metres per game doesn't sound mind-blowing but he made a huge difference to Manly's right edge after coming over from playing reserve grade at Wests Tigers and his absence over the latter third of the year was keenly felt. Last but not least, hooker Api Koroisau was arguably the club's best in 2017 and was surely their toughest. The little No.9 put himself in the Origin conversation by punching above his weight on a regular basis and proving not just defensively sound but a real spark in attack too.
2018 crystal ball: Very little happening on the player movement front for Manly so far, although Titans-bound prop Brenton Lawrence will leave a gap up front. There are whispers under-contract playmaker Blake Green may be lured away by a long-term deal elsewhere which would create an even bigger gap. There is no reason they should go backwards next year, the question is how much the same roster can go forwards with another off-season together. At this early stage we reckon probably a bit – expect them to be at least pressing for top four in 2018.
Conclusion: If you offered fans in the pre-season a return to the finals and a sixth-place ladder finish most probably would've taken it. It's not a resounding success but it's an improvement on last year. While they did fall away late lessons learned should see them improve again next year.
Home Record: 7-6
Away Record: 7-5
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Round 11-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Round 1-2, 6-7, 20-21, 23-24)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored: 101
Tries Conceded: 90