They went about as close as you can get in 2013 so you can expect more of the same from the Sea Eagles in 2014, especially with plenty of their 2013 grand final side still intact. The big question marks of course are in the front row: astute judges will note some very big players (both figuratively and literally) in the departures column, with noticeably less gravitas in terms of off-season gains.
That doesn't mean the cupboard is completely bare in that department - Brenton Lawrence was one of the form props of 2013, Jason King is still around and reportedly recovered from a shoulder injury, there are some youngsters coming up through the ranks and two of the club's new arrivals are young props with first grade experience.
Manly's spine is one of the best in the NRL and still intact from last year, and the all-international, dynamic young halves combination of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans would be the envy of most clubs. Their backline is also one of the most potent going around, with five players of varying styles who nevertheless each have little trouble finding the tryline on a regular basis.
No doubt the departures of George Rose (Melbourne), Brent Kite (Penrith), Joe Galuvao (retired) and David Gower (Parramatta) will leave a sizeable hole in the front row rotation but there's no shortage of players vying to fill those spots for coach Geoff Toovey to trial over the pre season.
Gains: Cheyse Blair (Eels), Josh Starling (Rabbitohs), Delroy Berryman (Broncos), Jayden Hodges (Cowboys), Tyson Andrews (Mackay Cutters), Dunamis Lui (Broncos), Jack Littlejohn (Bulldogs), Mark O'Dare (Titans), Manaia Rudolph (Tigers).
Losses: Brent Kite (Panthers), George Rose (Storm), David Gower (Eels), Joe Galuvao (retired), Jacob Gagan (Sea Eagles), Richie Fa'aoso (retired).
How They'll Play It
Don't expect Toovey to depart too far from the tried-and-tested script the northern beaches side has been following since the Des Hasler days. Only the Roosters conceded fewer points per game in 2013, although Manly missed more tackles than any other top eight side, which you can expect to be a big focus of the club's pre season workload.
The right side shift that starts with Glenn Stewart then flows through skipper Jamie Lyon and/or Brett Stewart (and frequently finishes with David Williams crossing the stripe) will again be a case of 'you know it's coming but how do you stop it' for opposition defences.
Expect HUGE Things From
It's not a massive call to suggest Foran and Cherry-Evans are set for another big year, but they'll need to be if the Sea Eagles are to challenge for yet another title. Still just 23 and 24 respectively, the pair seems to have been around forever and are now opponents on the international scene as well as premiership-winning clubmates.
In 2013 Foran racked up 19 try assists while Cherry-Evans contributed 14. Their combination with fullback Brett Stewart, who also set up 19 tries, means they were the most effective 1-6-7 combination in the NRL, with a combined 52 assists - slightly ahead of the Roosters and Storm (both 49). Expect more big things from this combination in 2014.
The departure of some senior front rowers has created some room for the club to pick up some talented youngsters - props Josh Starling and Dunamis Lui will be keen to impress at their new club and will be locked in a furious battle with fellow young guns James Hasson, Jake Trbojevic, Ligi Sao, Jesse Sene-Lafao and others to impress Toovey and force their way into the top 17.
The Question Marks
Will the new-look prop rotation turn out to be a strength or a weakness? Jason King is coming off shoulder surgery and while he is said to be on track for Round 1, he is 32 years old and missed most of last season. Brenton Lawrence is the only other experienced bookend at the club and will be absolutely key as Toovey looks to integrate a few of the above-mentioned youngsters into the prop rotation - but none of them are proven.
Who Needs To Lift?
Manly will want to tighten up their defence given they missed more tackles than any other top-eight side in 2013. Glenn Stewart missed more tackles than any other forward last season, with 55, and Watmough wasn't too far behind (48). Steve Matai missed the second most of any centre (55 behind the Storm's Will Chambers with 60) while Jamie Lyon was third among centres for tackles missed (50) and Matt Ballin missed the most of any hooker (54).
How's Their Depth?
Outside of the halves it's pretty good, but if either of Foran or Cherry-Evans go down they'll be in strife. Lyon can fill in at five-eighth but that disrupts a pretty effective centre pairing. Wests Tigers recruit Manaia Rudolph looks a promising prospect as an understudy to Foran and Titans recruit Kayne Lawton offers some utility value but is predominantly a dummy half. Elsewhere, promising youngsters Peta Hiku and Clint Gutherson are on hand to fill in for fullback Brett Stewart if he misses games due to injury or rep duty, or to cover for wingers David Williams and Jorge Taufua. Cheyse Blair and Esi Tonga provide cover in the centres and as outlined above there is plenty of jostling for forward spots.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Cherry-Evans ($418,700) is now officially the king when it comes to halves in NRL Fantasy. Stacks of kick metres, loads of tackles and regular attacking stats courtesy of a dangerous running and passing game means the Manly No.7 boasts a towering average and even his quiet games yield solid scores via base stats. Lyon ($316,800) is one of the NRL's elite centres and has the advantage of being available through the representative season. He gets bonus points for being the goal kicker, makes enough runs and tackles to be a consistent scorer every week and can pile on the occasional large score. Brenton Lawrence ($321,000) became a genuine fantasy option last year and could be even better this year with greater responsibility - although he is a bit of an Origin smoky so may miss a few games mid-year.
There are NRL coaches who are under pressure to justify their positions, and there are coaches that currently are not. Toovey is very much in the latter camp. Along with Storm clipboard-holder Craig Bellamy and current premiership coach Trent Robinson it's hard to think of a coach with a much safer job right now. Toovey has the added advantage of being a much-loved local legend at the club as well as taking his side to a grand final and within a whisker of a premiership last year. There were pretty serious questions being asked about how Manly would deal with the departure of Des Hasler after their 2011 premiership win, and maybe even still after the side's top-four finish in Toovey's first year as head coach in 2012. The only questions being asked of Toovey these days are when his next post match pyrotechnics display will be.
The only way is up for the struggling northern beaches boys. In stark contrast to the overachieving NRL squad, Manly's juniors just can't seem to put it together. Since scraping into the top eight in 2010, the Manly NYC side finished last, then 14th, then last again in 2013. The news doesn't get a whole lot better though - the squad has lost one of its best-performing players and 2013 NRL debutant Clinton Gutherson to senior footy, and coach Dane McKay again has his work cut out for him.
Write off Manly at your peril - people tried it last year and ended up with egg on their faces. We're certainly not going to but it just feels like they overachieved a touch in 2013 - plenty of key players are another year older while there has been some upheaval in the forward pack, which will be significantly less experienced this year. They'll certainly be there or thereabouts, no doubt - we see them landing somewhere between fourth and sixth.
1. Brett Stewart, 2. Jorge Taufua, 3. Jamie Lyon, 4. Steve Matai, 5. Dave Williams, 6. Kieran Foran, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans, 8. Jason King, 9. Matt Ballin, 10. Brenton Lawrence, 11. Anthony Watmough, 12. Justin Horo, 13. Glenn Stewart, 14. Jamie Buhrer, 15. Tom Symonds, 16. Josh Starling, 17. James Hasson
By Chris Kennedy