Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
Manly made some big strides under Trent Barrett in 2017, reaching the finals on the back of brilliant campaigns from Daly Cherry-Evans and the Trbojevic brothers while playing some of the most attractive football in the NRL.
But a first-week finals exit and some atrocious defensive displays throughout the season provided stinging reminders the club is still a fair way away from returning to title-contender status.
Revelations of a salary-cap breach then rocked the Sea Eagles over the summer, stymieing their bid to sign Mitchell Pearce or Trent Hodkinson to replace valuable five-eighth Blake Green, who was released to join the Warriors.
Brenton Lawrence is the only other 2017 top-liner to leave the Sea Eagles, who have bolstered their forward stocks with Joel Thompson, Kelepi Tanginoa, Toafofoa Sipley and Jack Gosiewski. But the No.6 role remains a glaring problem area.
Green was crucial to Cherry-Evans rediscovering his best form last year, and there is a very real fear that the skipper could backslide again with utility Jackson Hastings and Raiders reject Lachlan Croker currently the most feasible five-eighth options.
But if the Sea Eagles can plug that gap – and there have been rumours Todd Carney could emerge as a late signing – they boast a line-up brimming with talent, speed out wide and muscle up front.
Anything but a repeat finals appearance would be bitterly disappointing, but on the surface Manly has a few more hurdles than last year to play into September.
BEST RECRUIT: Former Canberra and St George Illawarra back-rower Joel Thompson was something of a surprise signing just prior to Christmas – surprising because of the club’s salary-cap crisis, and because he has been an integral member of the Dragons’ pack in recent years. A veteran of 174 NRL games, Thompson is a superb edge runner and hardworking defender. The 29-year-old creates much-needed second-row competition at Manly, with Frank Winterstein and Curtis Sironen the first-choice pairing last season.
STRENGTH: In DCE, Dylan Walker, Tom and Jake Trbojevic, Akuila Uate, Apisai Koroisau and Martin Taupau, the Sea Eagles boast a posse of instinctive game-breakers most teams could only dream of.
WEAKNESS: Manly’s sizzling attack in 2017 was juxtaposed against an 11th-ranked defence that conceded 30-plus points on seven occasions. The Sea Eagles must tighten up without the ball if they’re to take the next step, but that could be difficult with a near-identical roster.
KEY MAN: Cherry-Evans’ 2017 season was a masterpiece – arguably the best of his career to date, and certainly the most impressive since signing a highly-publicised eight-year, $10 million contract with Manly back in 2015. An Origin recall controversially eluded him, but DCE reclaimed a place amongst the NRL’s top echelon. The Sea Eagles’ success largely rides on their captain’s ability to produce another year mirroring that quality.
PLAYER TO WATCH: After a subpar first year on the northern beaches, Dylan Walker probably didn’t get enough credit for his superb 2017 efforts. Walker, back in his specialist centre spot, racked up 13 tries and 10 try-assists, and formed a lethal right-side combination with rejuvenated winger Akuila Uate. Still only 23 and with four Test guernseys and a pair of Origin jumpers in his wardrobe, don’t be surprised to see Walker climb back into the representative conversation in 2018.
YOUNG GUN: Brian Kelly lived up to the big wraps placed on him ahead of his move to Manly from the Gold Coast, scoring eight tries in 23 games during a stellar rookie year. The 21-year-old has a few defensive deficiencies to iron out, but the classy centre proved he is more than up to NRL standard.
UNDER PRESSURE: Fiery front-rower Darcy Lussick started nine of his 14 first-grade appearances in 2017 from the bench. With Brenton Lawrence gone, however, Trent Barrett will be looking to the experienced local junior to fill the run-on breach at prop. But with Kiwi tyros Addin Fonua-Blake and Lloyd Perrett beginning to enter their prime, Lussick doesn’t have the runs on the board to earn the starting spot by default – and an injury suffered during the trials won’t help his prospects.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Lewis Brown truly became a victim of his own versatility in 2017, starting just twice in 22 appearances and used sparingly off the bench as a back-rower or dummy-half. The lack of game-time cost the 196-game veteran his New Zealand Test spot. At 31 years of age, Brown is entering a crossroads season at Manly and needs to provide more impact to either force his way into the starting pack or get more time on the paddock from coach Barrett.
THE COACH: Trent Barrett gets a pass mark for his first two seasons as an NRL head coach, helming an admirable Sea Eagles turnaround in 2017 after a trying debut campaign. But Barrett will come under immense pressure if the team regresses this year – particularly if Manly’s defensive frailties are the underlying factor rather than anything out of their mentor’s control.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Trent Barrett (2016-current)
Geoff Toovey (2012-15)
Des Hasler (2004-11)
Peter Sharp (1999, 2003)
Bob Fulton (1993-99)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $15.00
GAINS: Lachlan Croker (Canberra Raiders), Jack Gosiewski (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Toafofoa Sipley (New Zealand Warriors), Kelepi Tanginoa (Parramatta Eels), Joel Thompson (St George Illawarra Dragons)
LOSSES: Pita Godinet (Wests Tigers), Blake Green (New Zealand Warriors), Brenton Lawrence (Gold Coast Titans), Jesse Martin (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Steve Matai (retired), Nate Myles (retired), Brett Stewart (retired)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Tom Trbojevic
2 Jorge Taufua
3 Brian Kelly
4 Dylan Walker
5 Akuila Uate
6 Lachlan Croker
7 Daly Cherry-Evans
8 Martin Taupau
9 Apisai Koroisau
10 Darcy Lussick
11 Curtis Sironen
12 Joel Thompson
13 Jake Trbojevic
14 Lewis Brown
15 Lloyd Perrett
16 Addin Fonua-Blake
17 Frank Winterstein