Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans says he's not letting go of his representative jerseys without a fight as he targets further personal and team improvement at the Sea Eagles.
Manly looked headed for the wooden spoon early in 2021 before a Turbo-charged run to the top four but struggled against the top sides when it counted, with that defensive side of things a huge focus of the pre-season.
Improving from 2020, to 2021, to 2022
DCE admitted the team struggled in 2020 with both injuries and adapting to the COVID havoc and subsequent rule changes.
"We didn't have our best players on the field in 2020 so that made an impact," Cherry-Evans said of that 13th-place finish.
"That was the first year of COVID and that really affected us. We just didn't keep up with the rule changes, our heads were spinning a fair bit around the season stopping and coming back together.
"Some teams handled the situation really well and unfortunately we weren't a club that handled it really well. That's no-one's fault but we just needed time to get away and start again. We did that in the pre-season and rolled into 2021.
"We knew we had all the right pieces, great coaching staff, really good playing group. We started 0-4 but there was still belief there we could claw our way back and we did that. As the season went along we grew in confidence, the belief came back and the foundations were laid for what we believe is hopefully going to be some good years ahead for the club."
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Unsung heroes of 2021 improvement
While Dally M medallist Tom Trbojevic grabbed non-stop headlines for his scarcely believable attacking feats once he returned in round six, there's no way Manly make the top four without the emergence of back-rowers Josh Schuster and Haumole Olakau'atu, without Lachlan Croker developing into an NRL-calibre hooker, and without career best years from wing duo Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab.
"This year they're not going to be recognised for a breakout season; we're going to need them to just back it up and be consistent first graders," Cherry-Evans said.
"That's what Penrith did last year and the Storm did the year before, the premiership-winning teams had people across the board play their best footy.
"That's the challenge for us as a side, show that it wasn't a fluke, it wasn't a one-off, we've actually got a good group of players here that really have high expectations and standards of themselves and each other and now it's time to get out there and put it all into action again."
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Fit Foran a blessing for DCE
Another that didn't dominate the headlines was Kieran Foran. Having paired up back in 2011 to claim a premiership, the two hadn't combined since 2015 with Foran suffering a torrid run with injuries since. His first season back on the northern beaches was also his first season of 20-plus games since 2014, and the pressure he took off his skipper was critical.
"Having Foz back was a really good help for my game," Cherry-Evans said.
"It definitely freed me up as a halfback. He plays five-eighth and has number six on his back but Foz is a veteran, he knows how to play halfback if he needed to and get a team around the park which freed my game up last year and he was that steady hand for us.
"He was super reliable last year which is what we've grown to love about Foz … Having Foz back is good for me and helping me relax and enjoy footy a bit more."
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Can Trbojevic match – or improve – on a remarkable 2021?
It's the question on everybody's lips when it comes to Manly's 2022 hopes but DCE is backing his superstar fullback to improve further this year.
"Obviously Tom's the focal point of our team, there's no denying that," he said.
"The best thing about our team this year is we all want to get better. If Tom's going to get better we all have to get better.
"If we're not all getting better then no-one else is going to stand out. We're all right if Tom gets the headlines again this year and if Tom win another Dally M that's good for the Manly Sea Eagles. We're all trying to get better here. Tom's trying to improve on his season.
"I know that's a big task from the outside looking in but if there's someone that can do it it's Tom Trbojevic."
Cleary coming for green and gold No.7 jersey
DCE was buoyed by recent comments from Australian coach Mal Meninga that he was still very much in the frame for the Kangaroos halfback job with a World Cup at the end of the year.
Cherry-Evans is the incumbent, having taken over once Cooper Cronk retired.
But after four starts in 2018-19, there have been no tests played by Australia since, with Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary having since stepped up at Origin level and won a premiership.
"Mal's been the Australian coach for a few years and I've been lucky enough to get back into the Australian side while Mal was the coach," Cherry-Evans said.
"I've built a really good relationship with Mal and I feel like he wouldn't make those comments unless the footy was there to back that up.
"I've been really proud of the way I've played the past few years and understandably Nathan Cleary's got a heap of credit for the way he's played but I certainly haven't lost any confidence in where I stand when it comes to the level of footy I'm playing.
"I've certainly got my eye on Origin again this year and I've got my eye on a World Cup at the end of the year.
"I'm working really hard to make sure I play really good football with my Manly teammates and we'll cross the Origin bridge when we get to it but it's an exciting year ahead and there's some great match-ups like Mal said so I'll back myself.
"I've been in and out of rep sides throughout my career so I know how hard it is to get in and how easy it is to get out.
"One thing I have learned throughout my career is every season and every game, you continue to earn your spot. I'm looking to earn my spot in Origin again this year and I'm looking to earn my spot in the Australian side by the end of the year.
"Players are itching to play for their country and this world cup will be so exciting. There's some great footy to be played before then but a lot of people have that pencilled in for the end of the year."