The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles went from wooden spoon contenders to a finish inside the top four in 2021, returning to the finals after missing out last year.
Boasting a lineup that involved experience in captain Daly Cherry-Evans and coach Des Hasler, after a 0-4 start to their season, the Sea Eagles completed a strong turnaround in 2021.
The club made their way to the third week of the finals, though their season would come undone by eventual runners-up, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the year in review for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
Manly was one of the best teams in the league when it was on the attack, which contributed to its charge up the ladder and eventual top-four placing at the conclusion of the regular season.
The Sea Eagles were the second-best side in breaking the lines of their opponents, doing so on 175 occasions. Similarly, the Sea Eagles ranked second for tackle breaks with 936, leading to the team gaining more running metres and getting further towards the try line.
The side’s ability to run with ball in hand allowed them to gain a greater amount of meterage up the ground, ending up in the top five among run metres, all runs and kick return metres. Winger Reuben Garrick had 4,234 of the Sea Eagles’ 4,784 run metres for the entire year. He also ranked second for linebreaks with 38.
The Sea Eagles were, at times, hampered by slow starts to their matchups throughout the season, often giving up early tries to their opposition – especially within the first 15 minutes of the game.
Overall, 13 of their 24 regular season games saw their opponents draw first blood, and in 15 games of the home and away season, saw their opponents scoring within the first 15 minutes. In two of their three finals, their opponents scored first, and again, within 15 minutes
The first month of the season was the worst, from the opening round where the Sea Eagles were on the backfoot after two minutes against the Roosters, seven minutes against the Rabbitohs and Dragons, and three minutes against the Panthers. In the three latter instances, the side wouldn’t score until closer to halftime.
Tom Trbojevic was one of the most prolific players to wear the maroon and white, the fullback capping off a captivating season with the Sea Eagles by winning the Dally M Medal.
He scored 25 tries in the regular season – adding a further three in the finals series -, along with 30 try assists, doing so after missing parts of the season due to injury also.
Reuben Garrick lead the league in points with 334 – 74 more points the the next-best player and eight points off the all-time season record set by Bulldogs winger Hazem El Masri in 2004.
It was a mixture of Garrick’s try-scoring ability, and his accurate goal-kicking that saw him score 23 tries for the year and 121 goals at 82 per cent efficiency.
Jason Saab showed a massive improvement from his previous two years at the Sea Eagles, making the wing position his own, appearing in each of the club’s 27 games throughout 2021, after only managing a combined seven games from 2019 and 2020.
This year, he stepped up his offensive output, scoring 26 tries for the year, scoring a try in 16 of the 27 contests. It included scoring a hatrick of tries against New Zealand in Round Nine and Canterbury-Bankstown in Round 16.
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Manly went into its Round 13 bye after suffering an 18-10 loss to Newcastle, however, after the bye, the club had a new breath of life, and improved more as the weeks followed. The club posted a combined score of 172 points from Round 14 to Round 16, handing crushing defeats to North Queensland (50-18) and Gold Coast (56-24) before a 66-0 drubbing against Canterbury.
While the ones either side of Round 15’s win against the Titans were impressive in their own respect, it was that such game that was the pick of the bunch, due to the odds not favouring the Sea Eagles in the first half.
Gold Coast’s Jayden Campbell took the ball to beyond the goal line for the first try of the contest, the conversion from Jamal Fogarty coming shortly after. Manly, through Tom Trbojevic scoring twice within three minutes had the side leading 8-6.
However, the remainder of the first 40 minutes was all Gold Coast’s, taking a healthy 24-8 lead into the halftime break. Yet, it would be Manly who gained a greater ascendency to completely turn the encounter around to its favour, piling on 48 points in the second half while restricting Gold Coast to zero, to complete a memorable victory – in captain Daly Cherry-Evans’ 250th game.
The stretch of three games saw records tumble for Manly, including it being the first time in the club’s history that it had scored 50+ points in three successive games, and fourth time overall following Sydney (1935), Parramatta (2001) and Canterbury-Bankstown (2003).
As well, the 66-point margin against Canterbury-Bankstown in Round 16 became the franchise’s biggest-winning margin, surpassing a 63-point win (a 70-7 scoreline) against Penrith in 1972. The 66-point victory was also the second-biggest winning margin of the NRL era after Parramatta’s 70-0 triumph of Cronulla in 2003, and sixth-biggest in premiership history.
Manly, situated in the lower fourth of the ladder after 2020 were dealt a cruel start to 2021 – facing three of last year’s finalists within the first four weeks -, falling to a 0-4 record, the coupling of low scores and heavy losses contributing to a less-than-ideal opening start to its 2021 campaign.
Losses to Sydney (46-4), South Sydney (26-12), St George Illawarra (38-12) and Penrith (46-6) showed how far behind Manly may have been to begin a new season, however what was more troubling was the differential in scores itself.
Manly averaged the second-lowest points for across the first month of play, a low 8.0 points per game. The Bulldogs were the team who was worse in that respect, averaging 4.0 points per game throughout the same stretch of games.
Additionally, the cumulative 122 points against ensured the Sea Eagles would sit on the bottom of the ladder at the conclusion of round four. It was 16 points more that the Sea Eagles had given up than the 15th-placed, winless Bulldogs.
Number one off-season priority
The Sea Eagles will be looking to develop their younger talent, with an increase in experience at the top level looking to help the team as a whole, and ensure they remain within the finals frame for years to come.
Coming into this season, Morgan Harper, Haumole Olakau’atu and Josh Schuster hadn’t had much NRL experience between them but found plenty of time on the park which should translate into more consistent minutes, should the Sea Eagles continue to develop them in this way.
A return to Brookvale Oval in the off-season – after only playing five games there in 2021 – will achieve a feeling of familiarity heading into the next season. The chance to be back at their base for training and not on the road interstate will also be important for helping the playing group feel right at home again and prepared for matches at the ground in 2022.
Way too early best 17 for 2022
Manly has re-signed much of its talent on its roster heading into the off-season, however will be sweating on the progress of talks with centre Dylan Walker. Having been with the Sea Eagles for six seasons (and three with the Rabbitohs before that), Walker was relegated to the bench in place of Kieran Foran and with the top-end player exploring his options, clubs will be circling.
Not going too hard in making off-season moves in luring opposition players to the club, Manly’s only acquisition thus far is Ethan Bullemor from Brisbane, poised to be at the club until the end of 2023. The Broncos prop came off the bench in 25 appearances in 2021, and gives the Sea Eagles a bullocking presence, able to avoid tackles and continue charging down the ground.
Manly, in 2021, showed how much it can respond to hardship and adversity when it looks like the club is down in form and where everything might’ve been working against them. The club, while disappointed with a preliminary finals exit, will be holding onto their momentum and use that to work towards a better result next season.
The experience of playing in finals, and sensing how difficult it can be, especially getting a taste of how tough that stage of the season is – and the power of finals-made sides – will help the club in the long-run.
Des Hasler knows how to produce winning teams, and with a star-studded lineup representing an ability to change its fortunes around quickly, and produce miraculous moments of adrenaline-pumping plays, the Sea Eagles should be destined to be in the mix once more in 2022.
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