Manly Sea Eagles: 2018 NRL season preview
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles punched above their weight in 2017, but they won't be flying under Des Hasler's old radar this season with a similar squad, and familiar expectations returning on the Northern Beaches.
Trent Barrett is entering his third season as head coach with a talented roster but one which is under a cloud due to the salary cap investigation into the club.
As has been the case for the last few seasons, Manly's fortunes will depend on Daly Cherry-Evans. If he fires, the Sea Eagles will again be bound for the finals but if he has a down year, they could quickly fall out of contention.
His halves partner is likely to be former Canberra Raiders five-eighth Lachlan Croker, who has Barrett's backing and has received plenty of praise from his new teammates in the pre-season.
The expectation. It's never far away on Brookvale, but few expected Manly to perform as well as they did last season, returning to the finals for the first time since 2014.
It would be a major disappointment for the Sea Eagles if they didn't return to the playoffs, with little changing as far as the playing ranks go.
Blake Green's exit leaves Barrett in need of another game-managing playmaker to ensure Cherry-Evans is at his off-the-cuff best and until the club's salary cap concerns are sorted, that looms as Croker.
Former St George Illawarra Dragons forward Joel Thompson will offer a point of difference in attack and help shore up that left-edge defence, otherwise it's a similar full-strength line-up to last year.
Manly will be filthy if they don't take flight early in 2018 given they play just one finalist from last year in the opening six weeks – Parramatta in a mouth-watering round-two Sunday afternoon clash at Lottoland.
Origin III does herald a danger period, particularly if they lose any of their big guns, with Penrith, Melbourne, the Roosters, Penrith again and Cronulla looming between rounds 16 and 21 along with a bye.
A soft landing follows though, with a final month against Canterbury, Gold Coast and Wests Tigers finished off with a round-25 blockbuster against the Broncos in Brisbane.
The stat that gives you hope
The Brett Stewart comparisons between the old champion and Tom Trbojevic live on for a reason, with Manly's new No.1 involved in more tries – with 18 try assists and 12 of his own – than any other fullback in the game.
No doubt the fact Manly threw the second most inside balls back behind the ruck last year (78 at 3.25 per game) had something to do with it, just like in the day when Stewart reigned as Prince of Brookvale.
Manly have their fair share of NRL Fantasy stars with Jake ($817,000) and Tom Trbojevic ($688,000) among the elite scorers in their positions, while Martin Taupau ($757,000) and Cherry-Evans ($715,000) should score around 50 points a game. Whoever grabs the five-eighth role alongside Cherry-Evans should be great value.
Few have copped as rough an introduction to NRL coaching and come out smelling like roses quite as well as Barrett, who in his first two seasons has weathered a salary cap scandal, match-fixing allegations that have since been thrown out and by his own admission, a "split" in the team that has been stitched up throughout an extensive roster overhaul.
A three-year extension was duly granted in November once whispers of another coaching shake-up were doused by the Sea Eagles' surprise run in 2017.
Barrett has done a fine job to lift the club back into finals contention, though he'll need another big gun in his pack to close the gap on heavyweights like Melbourne, North Queensland and the Roosters.
They're all hamstrung by Manly's ongoing salary cap saga, with the club officially rejecting claims of any rorting and the NRL working out its verdict.
Until that lands the Sea Eagles' wheelings and dealings are on hold, which left the door open for Cronulla to win the race for Trent Hodkinson and put a mooted three-year extension for Apisai Koroisau on ice until the NRL hands down its verdict.
A long-term deal for Curtis Sironen sits in the same holding pattern, with the prospect of a hefty fine potentially meaning these contracts would have to be restructured.
It's believed Manly have up to $800,000 free in their 2018 cap, which could mean they wield serious clout when it comes to the mid-season signing rush.
A five-eighth and another big body in the pack are on the shopping list, but it all depends on where the NRL Integrity Unit lands with that breach notice.
The burning question
That No.6 jersey - because its effect on the No.7 jersey can't be overstated. Cherry-Evans has been at his best with a calm, organising five-eighth alongside him like Kieran Foran or Blake Green.
Barrett knows he needs a foil for his skipper in the halves to unlock DCE's potent running game, no easy task for Croker or the alternatives in his squad, Jackson Hastings and one-time pivot Curtis Sironen.
Green's short kicking game will also take some replacing, he forced more line drop-outs (25) than any other player in 2017.
Api Koroisau. The diminutive hooker has ripunched above his weight ever since catching the eye in Souths 2014 premiership charge, when he stood in for the suspended Issac Luke and more than held his own.
Last year saw Koroisau deliver on his undoubted potential in his most consistent season yet, averaging a healthy 10.8 metres each time he took the line on and trailing only Luke's 1432 metres (by just 42m) in season yardage tallies for hookers.
Defensively he also churned through 39 tackles a game (10th in the NRL) but also missed 116 for the year (five each game) – the most of any player in the comp.
The 25-year-old has been sounded out by Barrett as a potential NSW Origin candidate, and if he can improve his effectiveness in defence could well tip Nathan Peats out of a sky blue jersey.
The player you should follow on social media
Joel Thompson. One of the most giving players with his time in the NRL, Thompson's social media channels will deliver the good rugby league stories that often get brushed over by the daily news cycle.
A proud Indigenous man, the back-rower is forthright with his opinions and keeping fans updated, answering individual questions around his off-season move from the Dragons to Manly – few are as up front when it comes their playing futures.
Star lock Jake Trbojevic: "Get to Brookie. Everyone has been working really hard and we're really excited about 2018."
Jamie Soward says…
“The player to watch is the player with most at stake, Tom Trbojevic. One of the most exciting players in the NRL. Love him supporting in and around the ball on his brother Jake. Can he be the big X-factor that Manly need to get them into the eight.
“Sea Eagles finish 10th.”
Backs: Akuila Uate, Brad Parker, Brian Kelly, Daly Cherry-Evans, Dylan Walker, Jackson Hastings, Jonathan Wright, Jorge Taufua, Matthew Wright, Tevita Funa, Tom Trbojevic & Tom Wright.
Forwards: Addin Fonua-Blake, Apisai Koroisau, Curtis Sironen, Darcy Lussick, Frank Winterstein, Jack Gosiewski, Jake Trbojevic, Joel Thomspon, Kelepi Tanginoa, Lewis Brown, Lloyd Perrett, Martin Taupau, Shaun Lane, Taniela Paseka & Toafofoa Sipley.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.