Daly Cherry-Evans has hailed the commitment of Manly big men Jake Trbojevic and Addin Fonua-Blake in making surprise early returns from off-season shoulder surgery as the Sea Eagles turn their attention to a showdown with reigning premiers the Roosters.
Trbojevic and Fonua-Blake were expected to miss up to the first month of 2020 after going under the knife on the same day late last year, but both Test forwards led from the front in a gruelling 18-4 loss to Melbourne.
Match: Sea Eagles v Storm
Round 1 -
Venue: Lottoland, Sydney
The pair delayed their surgeries in order to play last year's end-of-year Tests for Australia and Tonga with Des Hasler's blessing, and in turn repaid the faith by getting back on the paddock in quick time for the Sea Eagles season opener.
Trbojevic was typically industrious with a game-high 49 tackles in an 80-minute effort, while Fonua-Blake tussled with Cameron Smith more than once and churned out 53 minutes in the front row.
Such was their rapid recovery that even when Hasler named both star forwards on Tuesday plenty suspected he was playing mind games, but Cherry-Evans paid tribute to his teammates off-season recovery efforts.
"I guess there was probably some smoke and mirrors there," Cherry-Evans said.
"But for us they trained with us all week so we were under the impression they were always playing this week.
"It wasn't as if they said 'here we go, let's see if they're ready?' There's a long process that would have begun four and half weeks ago.
"As a teammate it's really exciting to see people want to play football that bad. We see how much it means to them. We see how much they want to be out there helping the team, and they're obviously important parts of this team.
"To see them not take the cautious approach and push themselves as much as they possibly could, I really take my hat off to them. It shows how committed they are."
Despite their best efforts in defence Manly's 16 errors cruelled any chance of keeping pace with Melbourne after holding a 4-2 lead midway through the second half.
Life doesn't get any easier on the northern beaches in round two with the Roosters up next in a tough opening to the season that sees Manly also drawn to play fellow grand finalists Canberra in the first month.
Next week's clash against the Tricolours will be played at an empty Central Coast Stadium due to safety measures around coronavirus, while the following week's home game against the Warriors is also up in the air due to uncertainty around the Kiwi side's travelling schedule.
Manly began last year's eventual run to the finals with losses to the Tigers and Roosters as well, but Cherry-Evans said taking on the back-to-back premiers would bring the best out of his side.
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"It's not ideal but we were 0-2 last year as well," the Sea Eagles skipper said.
"I hope we're not 0-2, let me make that very clear, it'd be nice to get the Roosters... any side like the Roosters they don't often lose back-to-back.
"We've got a big challenge on our hands, they'll be extremely prepared and we'll be looking forward to the challenge. Who doesn't want to beat the reigning premiers?"