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Manly prop Martin Taupau.

Premiership and Origin-series winning coach Phil Gould has always maintained a club needs at least six representative players in their team to push for the title.

The Manly Sea Eagles have five incumbent internationals in the Trbojevic brothers Jake and Tom along with Daly Cherry-Evans in the Australian team; Addin Fonua-Blake for Tonga and Martin Taupau for New Zealand.

Then you inject Fiji's Api Korisau and former Kangaroos and NSW player Dylan Walker – who both won premierships with South Sydney four years ago – and another former NSW Origin series winner in Trent Hodkinson and Manly seem to have all the ingredients.

Yet they came 15th in 2018, when they finished ninth on the NRL ladder for points (500), averaging 20.8 per game – premiers the Roosters averaged 22.1.

But dig a little deeper and Korisau missed 11 games through injury, Walker missed 10 and Hodkinson only joined the club from Cronulla mid-season. Knee reconstructions after anterior cruciate ligament tears early in the year to back-rower Curtis Sironen and five-eighth Lachlan Croker also hit hard.

Five key matchups of the Sea Eagles' 2019 draw

Manly's depth was tested severely. So was their siege mentality as the club was hit with a $750,000 fine for salary cap breaches over the previous five years, restricting their ability to cover for injured players. Then a bust-up in the player ranks happened when utility Jackson Hastings was stood down from first grade – just when the Sea Eagles desperately needed a hooker-half.

Just when it seemed things couldn't get worse, head coach Trent Barrett resigned in July, enacting a 12-month clause in his contract, which was due to end in 2020.

"We really got affected in the hooking role and went a good month in the season without a recognised No.9," assistant NRL coach John Cartwright told

"We couldn't use Manase [Fainu] because he was a development player and Jackson Hastings was moving on.

"That really hurt us through the State of Origin period [won just one from five games rounds 13-18].

"You don't want to make excuses but you look for reasons why things went bad and that's one area. Because we've got the basics of a very, very good team.

"And the good sign is that it's a pretty young squad and even our better players have still got improvement in them."

The rotten luck showed on the scoreboard – seven losses by six points or less, including three by just one point.

"That was the difference between this year and last year," Cartwright said, referring to Manly playing finals football in 2017.

Sea Eagles prop Addin Fonua-Blake.
Sea Eagles prop Addin Fonua-Blake. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"Those six or seven games were wins for us then that put us not far outside the top-four [two wins], plus we had a better run with injuries.

"We've worked hard on improving our depth. Your depth gets better when you can maintain players as well. We haven't got a big turnover in our squad for 2019 so a lot of guys who gained a bit of football have got that experience."

And then there is a new mentor in former Manly coach Des Hasler arriving just two weeks before the 2019 pre-season starts.

Manly has 28 players off contract in 2019 – the highest of any NRL club by a fair margin. The Cowboys and Dragons are next with 20 players.

Home and away record

4-8 home, 3-8 away

Normally a reliable on-the-road performer, Manly lost three more games in 2018 than they did in 2017. Lottoland didn't improve either. After six wins there last season, just four came this year.

"Those stats pretty much described our year," Cartwright said.

"Anyone who has been around Manly knows how the club and fans pride themselves on 'The Fortress'," he added, referring to Lottoland at Brookvale.

"You've got to remember there's been a lot of new players in the squad over the last three years. You don't just learn a culture overnight.

"So with a whole new roster and staff over that time they've picked up on how important it is for the people on the northern beaches that their football team is doing well."

Leading try scorers

It seems incongruous that a squad which boasted Tom Trbojevic, Dylan Walker, Jorge Taufua and Akuila Uate did not have one player in double digits for tries.

Another blow is that joint top-scorer Shaun Lane has left for Parramatta.

"Our tries scored and our total points scored was still pretty high for the season so it's not a bad sign that you're not getting all your points in one area," Cartwright said.

Manly finished 9th in goals and 10th in the number of tries for 2018.

Post-contact metres

Little surprise that representative props Taupau and Fonua-Blake feature high up the list, but Jorge Taufua topped his club with an average 56m per game. He made the most of the 12 games he played as injury again robbed him of a full season.

Try-scoring - attacking channels

Manly's right edge seemed to let the side down when it came to points. But injury played a part – Uate started there but then moved to the left when Taufua was injured before Uate also ended up in the casualty ward.

The normal right-side centre Walker started the season late (round five) due to off-season surgeries but only had four games there when he was moved to No.6 for the rest of the year to cover for the injured Croker.

Tries conceded – defending channels

The figures aren't pretty for any section of the field, but the forwards in the middle of the park need to be better. Manly conceding 622 points in 2018 is the Sea Eagles worst since 2005 (633) but they still finished eighth that year.

"In our own [post-season] briefings and stats we worked out pretty quickly we've got to be better defensively," Cartwright said.

"If we're stopping sides from scoring tries on top of what we can score ourselves then we're going to be better.

"Des [Hasler] has his own ideas on that, so we pretty much start again as he will have his own styles and systems. Even the way he uses the interchange will be different.

"Through injury and necessity our middle guys were pretty much the same shape and that can affect how we use Jake [Trbojevic] sometimes.

"You don't want him making 40 and 50 tackles every week, and again that's something Des will have his own views on that," Cartwright said.

"We've already spoken a lot about how to use our interchange, changing the body shapes of guys in the middle of the field. The game changes are subtle every year and you need a couple of workers in the middle of the field."

Tries conceded from penalties

Manly had 39 tries scored against them in the set after a penalty - ranking them 14th in the NRL.

Undoubtedly one of the Sea Eagles' hardest workers was also guilty of being the most penalised – Jake Trbojevic with 32 – far out-stripping three teammates on 17 (Cherry-Evans, Taupau and Fonua-Blake).

"I was surprised Jake had that many but he makes, and is going to be involved in, more tackles than other people. He's going to be a little more fatigued than others and that's probably when you do give up a few penalties," Cartwright said.

"Jake hates coming off the field but he's going to be playing a lot of rep football. So there'll be a point where we as staff have to start looking after him more."

Metres gained from off-loads

Taupau (71) was second in the NRL to Cronulla's Andrew Fifita (82) for off-loads, but his ability to put his teammates in the clear from a pass is impressive. He was well ahead of Sea Eagles teammates with  446.7m from his off-loads, nearly three-times higher than the next closest in Tom Trbojevic (172.9m).

Goal-kicking accuracy

Manly were in the middle of the pack – eighth – when it came to how many goals a match they kicked (3.6 average). They were ninth in the NRL for the number of goals 87 (from 110 attempts) giving them a 79% average. Mid-year arrival Trent Hodkinson at 81% topped his skipper Cherry-Evans at 78.3%, when the 2018 season average across all 16 clubs was 73.6%.

Hodkinson was 100% accurate in penalty goals – eight from eight – while Cherry-Evans wasn't far behind in 19 from 21.

"Goalkicking is something you think of when you're recruiting," Cartwright said.

"When there were so many penalties blown earlier in the season, penalty goals were really important."

Reasonable on-field discipline

While defence was an obvious bugbear for the club, the Sea Eagles appeared to contain their frustrations on the field, despite the constant off-field noise throughout the year.

Manly was 6th in missed tackles (29.6) and line breaks conceded (4.9) per game – and 8th in total errors conceded in 2018.  

Hard men to bring down

Manly has two players in the top-10 across the NRL for drawing the most defenders.

Martin Taupau attracts three defenders 71% of the time – topped only by David Klemmer (Bulldogs) with 75%. Fonua-Blake is eighth on that same NRL list, attracting an opposition trio 65% of the time. That pips players like Jason Taumalolo (64%) and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (63%).

"Three or even four players sometimes because they are such big, strong lads," Cartwright said of the pair.

"They've got a good off-loads so oppositions have got to focus on them and cut their post-contact metres.

"But they've got to find a balance in their games as well where they can hit and drop so they're not attracting so many defenders – to find the time to look to really bend the line and come up with some second phases off the back of those." 

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