New coach Geoff Toovey’s concerns about early season burnout given five tough weeks on the road to open the premiers’ 2012 premiership defence appeared validated when Manly slumped to three successive defeats through Round 5.
Position after 13 rounds: 5th
Competition points: 16
After losing the World Club Challenge to Leeds a fortnight before the NRL season kick-off, Manly dug deep to record back-to-back wins over the Warriors in New Zealand and Wests Tigers in Gosford (ironically a home game). But then they faltered. Whether it was jetlag, fatigue, or a combination of both, Manly looked flat in falling to the Sharks in Cronulla, Dragons at Kogarah and then the lowly Eels in Parramatta.
A return to Brookvale Oval in Round 6 did the trick, with the Sea Eagles responding to the support of their home fans to thrash the Panthers 30-nil. However, since then it’s been a mixed bag, with the scalps of the Bulldogs and Broncos offset by losses to the Titans (at home) and Panthers in their rematch in Round 12. They took to the air again last week with a dominant 20-8 home win over the Dragons.
Such inconsistency makes it tough to get a guage on exactly how the team is travelling – although it must be noted they have struggled with some key injuries and suspensions so far.
Are Things Going to Plan? Um, just a pass mark, really. Their benchmark attack of 2011 has slumped dramatically: they have fallen to 10th for points and tries scored (averaging a converted try less each week).
And despite their kickers booting more metres than any other team (676 per game), their runners have failed to make much of an impression – they’ve slipped from third for territory in 2011 to 8th, with 90 metres less each week.
Their biggest issue has been the stop-start nature of five-eighth Kieran Foran’s year, with a troublesome hamstring strain limiting him to just seven appearances. Although his older brother Liam has filled in okay, their consistency in the halves has suffered.
Injury Front… Despite using just 24 individuals to date (the equal fourth fewest) they’ve been hampered by some key absentees at various stages.
Kieran Foran aside they lost enforcer Tony Williams to a seven-week suspension for a dangerous throw in Round 3, with coach Toovey then left to watch in disbelief as he suffered a back injury in his return to the paddock for NSW in Game One of the State of Origin series before even donning the Manly jersey again. He’s scheduled to return in Round 18.
Ben Farrar suffered a season-ending knee injury in the pre-season; Glenn Stewart picked up a finger ligament injury and has played just six games; brother Brett missed two games with damaged ribs; while Steve Matai has missed two games through injury as well as picking up a two-game suspension.
Their most recent casualty is David Williams who did his hamstring in Round 11 and is out indefinitely.
If Only… Tony Williams had not experienced his brain snap and thrown Isaac De Gois like a rag doll in Round 3, who knows how much higher up the ladder they’d be?
Also, they’ll wish they could have their time over again after low-intensity efforts to fall to the Titans (26-14) in Round 7 and Panthers (22-4) in Round 12.
Still, they did have their own share of good fortune in scraping home against the Tigers in Round 2 and snatching the game at the death against the Broncos in Round 10.
Also, the Sea Eagles would be in much better shape if they weren’t as butter-fingered as they have been – they’ve conceded 15 tries to kicks, just one fewer than the most conceded (16, Parramatta).
Who’s Flying… The coach. Geoff Toovey has handled himself with calm and assurance filling the boots of Des Hasler. And getting bragging rights over Hasler’s Bulldogs in Round 8 was some sweet achievement.
Daly Cherry-Evans has acquitted himself well in his second season, doing his best to spark the backline despite considerable disruption. DC-E has made 10 try assists and leads his team for tackle busts (55).
Co-captain Jamie Lyon has worked hard on the right edge, with nine try assists and eight line-break assists, while Steve Matai has been punishing down the left fringe with eight line-breaks and five tries.
Jamie Buher was rewarded for some good efforts with selection in the New South Wales side for Origin I. Buhrer averages 94 metres and 22 tackles and has shown ability to offload, throwing 12 late passes.
Manly’s right-side attack is the NRL’s fifth most potent, with 21 tries to date.
Needs To Lift… They need dynamic attack weapon Brett Stewart to cross the stripe more often – although he’s won back his NSW Origin jersey he has scored just three tries to date. If the Sea Eagles are going to go all the way again, their No.1 is going to have to start owning the opposition tryline like in past banner years (15 tries last year, 22 in 2008).
Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough have been brittle in defence – Stewart’s four misses a game are the most by a lock, while Watmough’s 52 misses are the most by a second-rower.
In fact, the whole squad need to steel themselves in defence; rated a bruising tackling unit in 2011 with just the second-fewest tackle misses, they now have a heap of problems, making the second-most missed tackles every week (34.5).
Predicted Finish… There’s plenty of upside to the premiers, no question. Fans would be concerned about their lack of consistency but that is tempered by their ability to go up a gear when needed, as shown by their stirring comeback win over the Broncos and a solid last-start win over the Dragons.
They have a tough run home, featuring games against the Broncos, Warriors, Cowboys and Rabbitohs, but their next month-and-a-half is kind. They bank two byes quickly (Rounds 14 and 17) and have very winnable games against the Roosters, Eels and Knights.
However, their litmus test comes in Round 15 when they meet the Storm just three days after State of Origin II – if they can topple the ladder leaders there’s every chance they’ll be in the top two heading into the final six weeks of the scheduled rounds. From there they will be the masters of their destiny. If injuries are kind we see no reason why they can’t finish at worst third heading into the semi-finals.
Under-20s… It has been a season to forget for the fledgling Sea Eagles who have just one win (over the Titans 28-24) and a draw (Bulldogs 28-all) to show for their efforts so far. Their lowlights have included thrashings to the Wests Tigers (50-22), Sharks (78-10), Eels (52-20) and Dragons (46-16). Arguably their best game so far was holding the ladder-leading Panthers to just a 28-20 win in Round 12. Their turnstile defence has been a real issue – they are conceding on average 40 points to oppositions every week and with 520 put past them at the halfway stage there is a very real danger they could set Toyota Cup history for all the wrong reasons by allowing in 1000 points by season’s end.
Halfback Josh Drinkwater can hold his head high though, after a consistently high quality of play to date. A Daly Cherry-Evans in the making, Drinkwater is ranked first among NYC halfbacks for line-breaks (14), first for try assists (18), third for tackle-breaks (48) and third for line-break assists (11). He’s also crossed for seven tries – all of this towards what have been the third-fewest points by any team so far. Where would they be without him?