Manly coach Trent Barrett believes one or two experienced recruits could transform the Sea Eagles into a highly competitive team and the tough times his players have endured will hold them in good stead for the future.
The Sea Eagles had been keen to lure Test prop Matt Scott from North Queensland and thought they were going to land Matt Moylan during the off-season but the NRL's salary cap investigation impacted on negotiations.
Manly are forced to operate $330,000 under the salary cap as part of the penalty imposed by the NRL, but their financial situation has been compounded by a crippling injury toll which leaves Barrett virtually unable to change his team from week to week.
Jonathan Wright and Tevita Funa were the only available players excluded from the 21-man squad named for Saturday's match against St George Illawarra, which included Manase Fainu, who has since been ruled ineligible.
Barrett made it clear earlier this season that Jackson Hastings would not be considered again after altercations with Daly Cherry-Evans before and after the round five match against the Titans in Gladstone.
Hastings is one of nine Manly players off contract at the end of this season and winger Akuila Uate recently agreed to join Super League club Huddersfield on a lucrative three-year deal.
However, none of the remaining unsigned players are on big-money contracts, forcing the Sea Eagles to try and restructure their roster so they can recruit Telstra Premiership-level talent.
"We are planning as best we can and trying to retain the blokes we want," Barrett told NRL.com.
"I think we will be able to, but blokes that we got here for a gift on a second chance, like Shaun Lane, Jack Gosiewski and Kelepi Tanginoa, have proven themselves to be good solid first-graders again and all of a sudden other clubs are interested.
"I think the majority will stay and if we can keep them together and add a little bit of experience we will be alright.
"If we can stick solid with the core group of blokes we have got here – the Trbojevics [Jake and Tom], Dylan Walker, Cherry, Adam Fonua-Blake, Brian Kelly and Brad Parker – and be very selective about who we put with them we are not that far away."
The Sea Eagles will learn on June 25 whether they have been granted leave to appeal the salary cap penalty imposed at the start of the season.
Unless the club is successful they will again have $330,000 less to spend than other clubs in 2019.
"It is a lot when you are talking about retaining $150,000 to $200,000 players because $30,000 across them all is your $330,000," Barrett said.
"For a player on $150,000 per year, $30,000 or $40,000 is a lot of money. It mightn't sound like a lot in the big picture but it is when you are talking about the bottom 10 blokes in your squad.
"Coupling into that is the fact that we had $330,000 this year that we couldn't spend and that would have built forward into next year so it is really $660,000 that we were banking on having that we don't now and that hurts."
Despite the cap penalty, the Hastings saga and the loss of Apisai Koroisau, Curtis Sironen, Lachlan Croker, Walker, Gosiewski and Tanginoa with long-term injuries, Barrett believes there are positives to take from the season.
"We have had a pretty shit hand dealt to us with some of the things we have had to endure but we have just got to look at it with the attitude we will be better for it," he said.
"Short term, you are thinking about this session, this week and getting the two points but some of the experience our younger players are getting now and the adversity they have had to go through will benefit them longer term."
Barrett is committed to turning around the fortunes of the club and admits he has been on a steep learning curve after taking on his first NRL head coaching job with the Sea Eagles in 2016.
"I will be better for this as a coach because I will be well equipped to deal with lots of different situations down the track but it has been pretty tough," he said.
Despite being 13th with just four wins, Manly have beaten the Broncos in Brisbane and the Storm in Melbourne, while suffering narrow defeats to Sydney Roosters, Newcastle and Canberra.
They also thrashed Parramatta 54-0 and beat the Raiders 32-16 before the drama with Hastings reared its head.
"I don't think anyone won out of that," Barrett said.
"We had a couple of rough weeks after that and you would like to think it doesn't affect your players but it does.
"Looking back, we probably could have done things a bit differently and handled things a little bit differently. It was a difficult one and it was something we never wanted to play out like it did.
"That was a tough one and it came at a bad time. It probably exaggerated the losses that we did have because there was a bit of drama around it."
Had the outcome of their one-point losses to the Knights and Raiders been reversed, along with the 22-20 defeat by the Roosters, Manly would be just two points outside the top eight on 14 points.
Last season, the Sea Eagles won three extra-time games but with an inexperienced squad they have not had the same success in close matches.
"With younger players, when you do get a lot of injuries and you have a squad that is running low on numbers, you are playing blokes every week that you probably only expected to pay five or six first-grade games," Barrett said.
"It is a learning curve for them to do it every week and just because you are in first grade doesn’t mean you are an out and out NRL player.
"A lot of our guys are still learning to do it and making a pretty good fist of it but I have to be a bit of a realist with some of the circumstances we have been dealt.
"It certainly doesn’t mean I am accepting losing, not at all. I would like to be winning every week but me flogging the shit out of them at training or abusing them when I know some of them are new to first grade isn’t going to help."