A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Manly Sea Eagles

The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, one time historically bad team, finished the season 16-8 and rounded out the top four. With a points differential of +252, in a normal season, that would have possibly been enough for a minor premiership. They fell five wins short. In the finals, they were embarrassed by the Storm, then embarrased the Roosters and then finally were embarrassed again by Souths. What a rollercoaster.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Depending on which number you want to listen to, Manly’s cattle either look as good as the Raiders and the Knights (projected Taylors) or are looking fairly average (roster and composition simpscore). Des Hasler had his worst coach factor since it started being calculated in 2016. While Pythagorean expectation has a better outlook for Manly in 2021, that’s coming off a lack lustre 7-13 and the Sea Eagles performed more or less at expectation. Even a couple of extra wins wouldn’t make for a winning record. Most of the indicators suggest a pretty average year ahead.

Then why do the projected Taylors suggest the Sea Eagles could be in the finals mix? Daly Cherry-Evans had an extremely productive 2020, finishing with the third best TPR in the league (.222) behind Cameron Smith (.229) and Nathan Cleary (.224)… Kieran Foran comes to Brookvale from the Bulldogs from a similar position, albeit much less productive with considerably more time spent on the side lines, and he has a projection of .130 for 2021. Put them together and it looks like a super-productive duo. In reality, how successful this pairing is (provided Foran stays fit) will depend heavily on how willing Cherry-Evans is to share the workload…

Outside of an already injured Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau and Taniela Paseka, there’s very little to recommend Manly. They certainly do not have the look of a team looking to play finals. Still, I think Hasler might bounce back this season, his 2019 strategy of taping together reserve graders having run out of adhesive strength in 2020. Put that with a good year from Josh Aloiai, Taupau and Paseka, Foran and Cherry-Evans working together seamlessly, Jason Saab pushing one of the other backs out of the lineup and some desperately needed luck on the injury front, the Sea Eagles might surprise a few but that’s a lot of ifs that need to go right.

And they need a hooker. It’s like they forgot to sign one.

Manly more or less got there and then some, exceeding expectations. I was open to a finish in the bottom half of the top eight but avoiding the week one elimination final was a lot more than could have been reasonably foreseen. A lot of that was built off the back of good coaching. Hasler got the hang of the new game right when Tom Trbojevic returned from his first injury layoff and turned a 0-4 / -122 start into a 16-4 / +374 run through the major part of the season before hitting several brick walls in the post-season.

What happened

We could argue about whether this constitutes one of the all time great individual seasons but quite frankly, I don’t care. It certainly was productive for Dally M (positional) winner Reuben Garrick and the other guy though. Manly took a month to work on their game, got their star back and never looked back.

This is both a neat and accurate summary of the season. While playing this narrative out, Manly picked up a reputation for downhill running: pummelling weaker teams while being unable to match stronger teams. There is some merit to that idea.

The green dots are high generally when the black dots are low. Some of that will be Manly’s playing style and some of that will simply be that they played the hardest teams early in the year, got beat down and then took advantage of the absolute disarray of the rest of the competition. Six of one, half a dozen of the other for mine.

It’s less clear cut on an individual player basis. Here’s each of Manly’s players with at least 1.0 WARG (plus Jake Trbojevic) and a comparison of their TPR player rating (average of .100) and the opposition’s Elo rating for that game (average of 1500), as measure of the opposition quality.

The main conclusion here is that the new rules did not suit Jake Trbojevic.

There’s always next year

Ultimately, having one sublime player and something resembling a team around him will run out of ability against a genuinely good team. Considering they were last, 0-4 and having given up 156 points (39 per game) to get to the preliminary final is a fairly massive achievement for Manly.

The question is how do they build on this for next year? That they managed to unlock Vlandoball and convert that into three of the most impressively productive seasons in recent memory is one thing. But when that’s old news next year, what then? When the six again has been tuned down, or worse, when the rest of the league have caught up on a) how to play the game under the new ruleset and b) how to keep a lid on Tom Trbojevic, how will Manly stay ahead?

They made the finals twice, and only just, in the five previous seasons and are only 1-1 in the Vlandoball era. There’s no sense that this has been building up to a premiership tilt, more trying to keep a roster around the Trbojevics, and this year everything went their way.

As with many previous season previews, the range of outcomes for Manly in 2022 feels extremely wide. Let’s keep a close eye on the signings tracker for next year and let’s see if key players decide to race randoms while pissed before we form any concrete views.