NRL Season Review: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

It was drama central on the Northern Beaches as the Sea Eagles' season disintegrated into chaos. In between they played some football, and narrowly avoided last place.



Overview

Record: 24 matches, 7 wins, 17 losses

Season Placing: 15th

2017 looks very far back in history and 2019 cannot come soon enough for the Sea Eagles. That probably sums up the season for the Manly-Warringah club as they plunged downwards from an elimination finals appearance last season to 15th this year, narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon for the first time in their history. Only the struggling Eels beat them to that unwanted title. 

2018 saw a salary cap breach, friction between players, injuries, internal spats and a coach letting loose on the CEO. And that was just what happened off the field. Despite beating four top eight sides and looking good in doing so, the Sea Eagles struggled for any momentum and consistency throughout the season. They are a team that on paper, and at times on the field, looked like they keep up with the best of them, and 500 points scored through the season will tell you that. But they as easily could fall apart and that’s what prevented them from making any progress.

There is a lot of work required behind the scenes to get this side back up and running, and several months of off-season time to do so. Whether anything changes come next year remains to be seen.

Highlights

During the May there was a small period where Manly looked like they could compete. They came into their round 10 clash against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium having won two of their opening nine matches and a five-game losing streak but then went onto the field and dominated the Broncos by 38-24. In league terms, it was completely against the run of play. And it was no surprise the Trbojevic brothers, Jake and Tom, were at the helm of that victory.

They then travelled to Melbourne the following week and handed the Storm, who came in with a full-strength backline, a 24-4 thrashing in an ugly contest which saw two Manly players sin-binned and Curtis Scott sent off for punching Dylan Walker, fracturing his cheekbone. It seemed a turning of the corner of sorts, but then they lost a one-point thriller to Canberra the following week and wheels came off as they only won three matches in the second half of the season. An exciting 33-32 win over the Sharks late in the season, courtesy of a Daly Cherry-Evans drop-goal showed a team capable of more than what they achieved. 

Lowlights

Where do we start?

The season started with the club being fined $750,000 ($250,000 suspended if they undertook appropriate governance changes to avoid a repeat breach) for breaches of the salary dating back the past five years and involving 15 different players. Two club executives were suspended until January next year, Trent Barrett was given an official warning and a penalty of $660,000 applied to the club to keep the club’s salary cap operating at $9m. 

Daly Cherry-Evans’s value to the club was clear after he came to blows with the young upstart Jackson Hastings on an away trip which resulted in Hastings being banished to reserve grade and beyond. This was despite Api Koroisau struggling with injury throughout the season. Barrett would accept some blame for his lack of man-management, something which former Manly player Anthony Watmough would let Cherry-Evans know about. 

Trent Barrett’s tenure as the coach is over, fed up with the lack of support from the hierarchy at the club. He had made clear his frustrations with the issues in the footballing department at the club and sent a legal letter to CEO Lyall Gorman to document his grievances. Three CEOs and footballing managers into his third year as coach, Barrett could understandably see the lack of stability, frustrations boiling over after having one of those seasons.

When the Sea Eagles got on the field, it didn’t get much better. They won seven games, their lowest number of wins since 2003. There were low crowd numbers at their home ground, Lottoland, and when they were hammered 56-24 by the Roosters in round 19, it was the most points they had conceded in a game. 

The Sea Eagles ranked fifth in ineffective tackles this season (379) whilst their 212 penalties also had them ranking fifth. While they could score points, they often provided invitations to their opposition to score in short spurts of time during games. Injuries to Api Koroisau, Akuila Uate, Lachlan Croker and Curtis Sironen during the season, to go with Dylan Walker’s broken cheek did not help things.

Best performer

Tom Trbojevic’s star continues to rise. He’s only 21-years-old but is undoubtedly their best player and he had another great season in an otherwise disappointing year for the Sea Eagles. The statistics speak for themselves. He averaged 147 metres per game, set up 19 tries and 18 line breaks and made 21 line breaks himself. When he wasn’t breaking the line, he averaged four tackle busts per game and made 28 offloads, something Manly did well this season. Again he was in the NSW Origin side and again he delivered this season. However, when the fullback is missing in action, the Sea Eagles seem to go missing too. 

Powerhouse prop Addin Fonua-Blake also had a solid season. He only averaged 48 minutes per game over the year, but still made 120 metres per game and was good for at least 20 tackles. Despite his limited time on the field he still made the same number of metres as Andrew Fifita and more than Paul Gallen. Partnering with Marty Tapau up front provides an encouraging glimpse into the future. Jake Trbojevic made 39 tackles per game and ran for 111 metres, continuing his role as a real all-rounder in the team.

Needs improvement

Cherry-Evans looked fantastic at times, which resulted in his recall to the NSW side for game 3 of State of Origin. But he’s missing a five-eighth outside him to help run the plays, ironically in the way Blake Green, who left Manly for the Warriors this year, did so for Shaun Johnson. Hodkinson did his best, coming into the side mid-way through the season, but ultimately didn’t have the same impact. Having settled in for a season now, and with Kane Elgey coming in from the Titans, there is some potential. 

Their stocks in the no.9 also weren’t helped with injury to Koroisau. Manase Fainu was brought in from nowhere and asked to fill in that role. Again, he played nine games during the season, but there wasn’t quite the penetration on attack in that role. As with Hodkinson, a bit of game time now behind him will help going forward.

And while the Sea Eagles’ pack also looks intact, they need to work on their tackle effectiveness and discipline at the ruck which resulted in so many penalties and led to conceding tries in quick succession.

2019: A brief look ahead

Gains: Kane Elgey (Gold Coast Titans), Trent Hodkinson (Cronulla Sharks).

Losses: Jackson Hastings (released), Shaun Lane (Parramatta Eels), Darcy Lussick (Toronto Wolfpack), Joey Lussick (released), Akuila Uate (Huddersfield Giants), Jonathan Wright (retired).

Manly are hamstrung by their salary cap penalty for the coming year so the only addition to date is Kane Elgey from the Titans, who will look to bolster their five-eighth stocks, besides Hodkinson. Cherry-Evans will need to make it work with those two players.

With Jonathan Wright retired and Akuila Uate going to the UK Super League, they will need two wingers to fill the void, with Dylan Walker most likely shifting there though he has played at five-eighth this past season. Moses Suli and Koroisau are both off-contract at present and they will want to retain both, to keep them in the centres and at hooker, respectively. 

Fortunately, the forward stocks are looking good with both Tapau and Fonua-Blake contracted to 2020 and add in Jake Trbojevic, Frank Winterstein and Joel Thompson, and there is some optimism. 

With Barrett now gone thoughts turn to whom the coach will be, and former Titans coach John Cartwright may well be hired to take the team forward. Whoever does though, will have a lot of work to do.

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