Why Sea Eagles are shot birds Brent Read August 26, 2005 TWO months ago, everything was going swimmingly on Sydney's northern beaches. Manly had won nine of its 12 games, entrenching the Sea Eagles in the top four, and finals football seemed a formality. The club's seven-year finals itch was about to be scratched and life was good. Few expected what happened next. Since the club's round 13 win over the Sydney Roosters, Manly has become a haven for controversy, defeat and, after last Sunday, embarrassment. The club has won only two of its past eight games, culminating in a humiliating 68-6 loss to Cronulla at Toyota Park when a win would have cemented its place in the play-offs. The finals remain likely. At this rate, however, Manly will be cannon fodder for one of Brisbane, St George Illawarra or Parramatta in the first week. Sea Eagles supporters are asking: What's happened? "In fairness, taking out last Sunday, over the previous five to six weeks we have played some very good football," Manly coach Des Hasler said. "We had the Townsville game won two weeks ago and we had the Penrith game won. If you put it in that light, there's been some missed opportunities." No argument there, Des. The bounce of the ball isn't going Manly's way. With an ounce of luck the club could have beaten the Panthers and Cowboys. But the fact is it didn't. And Manly's inadequacies in recent months can't be all put down to bad luck. Cast your mind back two months to when Manly's season was at its apex. At the time, halfback and captain Michael Monaghan had been told he was playing for his future at the club. The Sea Eagles were circling Melbourne playmaker Matt Orford. Monaghan responded by producing two of his better performances and was rewarded with a two-year deal. Even after Monaghan signed, the issue bubbled and hissed for weeks. A month later, Orford inked a lucrative four-year contract, sparking more conjecture over Monaghan's future. On the field, Manly's form was sliding and its season unravelling and Monaghan's form mirrored that of his side. After winning consecutive man-of-the-match awards in round 12 and 13, the Sea Eagles playmaker has had little influence in recent weeks. "It's topical, that's why it's out there," Hasler said of the Monaghan issue. "I don't attribute it to that at all. It's just topical. That's why it is thrown about." However, Hasler concedes Monaghan's form is below what it has been. "Michael knows the side is down and his own form can improve," Hasler said. "He's already stated that. As can everybody's." The captain's cause hasn't been helped by the the lack of an adequate foil. Since Hasler sent five-eighth Michael Witt and his defensive deficiencies back to premier league, the No.6 jersey has been shared by regular back-rowers Steve Menzies, Sam Harris and Luke Williamson. Take a look at the ladder. The top four sides all have quality halves combinations. At Brisbane, it's Darren Lockyer and Brett Seymour, St George Illawarra boasts Trent Barrett and Ben Hornby, Parramatta has struck gold with John Morris and Tim Smith, and Wests Tigers' Benji Marshall and Scott Prince are in dynamic form. Teams don't win big matches without quality halves. Menzies and Harris are exceptional players. However, they are not five-eighths and they can't take pressure off Monaghan. "I think the way we're playing it would be tough to win the competition but I think when we play our best ... we can match it with the best sides, so I think the belief is still there," Menzies said. "It's just a matter of getting a bit of momentum started ... and carrying that through." First things first, though. A win over the Warriors would make sure of a place in the finals. It's a big ask. The players have been lambasted by club legends this week following their meek surrender against the Sharks. Hasler has shielded them from the media and declined to comment on last Sunday's game. As far as the coach and his players are concerned, it's been consigned to the record books. "All those things test you," Hasler said. "Even though it's two out of eight ... the thing is we're still in, we're still hunting in there and this Saturday night we get to give it another shot. "We recognise and the players accept they were devastated and hurting pretty bad. "We have to put those negatives behind us and we have to give a good account of ourselves on Saturday night." At stake could be nearly a year of hard work. Lose to the Warriors and the club may need to win in Canberra in the last round to make the finals. "The players realise what's at stake," Hasler said. "If you don't have belief you're wasting time."