HEADING into Season 2016, two No. 7s face significant challenges.
For Moses Mbye it’s about proving he has the smarts, skills and class to cut it as an NRL halfback.
For Daly Cherry-Evans, who now operates as the sole playmaker and central focal point to all Manly’s fortunes, it’s about proving himself as a truly great player and not just a good one.
I don’t have the Bulldogs in my top eight for this season. I look at the creative spine of the team, and I just don’t see enough finesse and playmaking ability.
At fullback they’ll start the season with Will Hopoate after news Brett Morris will miss half the year through injury. Hopoate is a terrific runner of the football but in no way a playmaker, and the same goes for Morris.
In the six jersey is Josh Reynolds.
Reynolds is a super competitor and plays with furious energy, he has the ability to drive opponents, and at times teammates, crazy with his all action style. If Reynolds drives likes he plays I can’t imagine him still having a licence. But as far as controlling a game and clever playmaking is concerned, that has never been Josh’s strength and probably never will be.
That heaps a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Mbye.
Organising, creating, using the right kick at the right time to complete the set of six, these are skills learnt from years of NRL experience. The question is, can Mbye be this kind of player?
Des Hasler obviously thinks so. Mbye just penned a lucrative contract on elite money. Granted, quality No.7s are few and far between, but the nature of the Mbye deal tells me the Bulldogs are building their future around him.
Ball playing is an art form, which 6s and 7s tend to master through the middle-to-later stages of their career. It’s more than going to the defence and hoping for the best. It’s about pulling defenders apart, creating holes and space.
Given Mbye is new to NRL football, it’s hard to fully gauge his playmaking credentials just yet, but my early opinion of him is that his primary strength is his ability to run the football.
But the Bulldogs need more of him than just that, and they need it now.
For the Bulldogs to make the finals and enjoy a successful season, they need Mbye to come out of the ground and establish himself as a quality and reliable No. 7 who can control a game.
A lack of creativity in the halves has been the Dogs’ Achilles heel in recent seasons. Trent Hodkinson can push a team around the park, but rarely threatened the defensive line, while as I wrote earlier, Reynolds’ fire is his forte, not his poise and creative presence.
To compensate for this Hasler has leant heavily on James Graham, who often not just leads the hit ups and tackle count, but is required to be the focal point of the Bulldogs’ attack as well.
It’s too much.
In 2016 Mbye is the Bulldogs’ most important player. If Mbye enjoys a really good season, the Dogs make the eight. If he has a great season, they’ll be in the top four.
Likewise, Cherry-Evans is Manly’s most important man. He’s been handed the keys to the football team.
The responsibility of being the centrepiece player can make or break a halfback.
In the early stages of DCE’s career he shared playmaking responsibilities with his five-eighth Kieran Foran, and a dominant ball-playing back rower in Glenn Stewart. On occasions the Sea Eagles looked as though they had too many ball handlers, and consequently their football tended to be a little too sideways.
But that’s about to change. No longer will Cherry-Evans be nailed down to the right-hand side of the football field. Instead, he’ll be controlling the whole team, with his running No. 6 Dylan Walker reacting to whatever it is Cherry-Evans can create.
I much rather this style of relationship between a half and a five-eighth — one being the dominant shot caller, the other sitting back reading how the defence reacts to what the other has created.
This trend of giving a half and five-eighth half a field each in which to operate leads to predictability and dysfunctionality. Halves should work in combination, not as separates.
Imagine allowing an Allan Langer, a Greg Alexander or an Andrew Johns to operate only on one side of the field? The Cowboys did it for a few seasons with Johnathan Thurston and couldn’t work out why they were underachieving.
Suddenly Thurston was given the full field freedom great players deserve, and he and his Cowboys collected almost every bit of silverware on offer.
There is pressure on Cherry-Evans.
When you carry the type of responsibility he carries into his team’s 2016, a lack of form, or a crisis in confidence are simply not options.
This will be Daly’s most challenging season yet because it requires him to be consistent every single week. Consistency, the most undervalued quality in an age where people salivate over highlight reel moments, rather than reliability and dependency, I know what wins grand finals.
I pencilled in Manly to come fifth in 2016, which is a bit soft really. Looking at it now I’m hedging my bets.
The bottom line is, if Cherry-Evans enjoys a great season, expect Manly to be there grand final day. If he suffers injury or poor form, they’ll be fighting hard to just make the top eight.