I think the best way to start these reviews is to set the tone by recapping what I thought would happen back in February. The key paragraph for Manly in this year’s season preview was:
Backing up without the element of surprise and the reversion to mean will be challenging. Reversion to mean is a harsh mistress and often a huge outperformance is punished with an equally severe reaction in the opposite direction in the following season. The law of averages demands its tribute. For now at least, Manly’s prospects for 2020 appear to be good and based on sound fundamentals.
While we definitely saw the reversion to mean referred to, and then some, and less of the sound fundamentals mentioned, the story of Manly’s 2020 is relatively simple.
The carnage caused by injuries was a common theme for many teams in the 2020 season. The statistics indicate that Cherry-Evans had his usual, exceptionally high output season but had little help. The Sea Eagles slid down to finish thirteenth, with a 7-13 record, from sixth and 14-10 last year.
The Sea Eagles are the anti-Cowboys. Much as North Queensland’s season was saved from total disater by the presence of Jason Taumalolo, Manly’s season became a diaster because of the absence of Tom Trbojevic. It’s no coincidence that the Sea Eagles started the season 4-2 with Trbojevic available and then finished 3-11 with a combination of Brendan Elliot, Rueben Garrick and Tevita Funa at fullback and Trbojevic returning for just an hour in round 19.
In tandem with that, Manly lost their two best hooker options in the off-season. Api Koroisau was moved on to Penrith, considered surplus to requirements thanks to the emergence of Manase Fainu in 2019. Unfortunately, Fainu decided to stab someone at a church dance (!), missed the season and seems unlikely to ever play in the NRL again. Given that I don’t think anyone had that particular set of circumstances on their 2020 bingo card, I think the club can chalk this up to bad luck, rather than bad decision making.
Analysis of the on-field production of teams reveals that just eight players are typically responsible for half the team’s output. I call these players the “engine”. Last year, Trbojevic and Fainu were two major components of the Manly engine.
Using Wins Above Reserve Grade (WARG) as our metric to measure player contributions to team success over the course of a season, Manly’s total season WARG declined from 11.3 to 9.4, a loss of 1.9 WARG. This 17% decline came against a 3% inflation in WARG across the league, so the fall is 20% in “real” terms, a significant decrease in production.
Of that 1.9 WARG, 1.3 came from reductions in output at the fullback and hooker roles. The replacement parts were not up to maintaining the previous season’s horsepower.
A small portion of 2019’s miracle run could be chalked up to good fortune but it was mostly founded on high productivity and good coaching. However, the same structure was overly reliant on a few players, principally Cherry-Evans, Fainu, Trbjoevic, Taupau and Fonua-Blake. If two of the most important structural foundations are kicked out, then the whole edifice is going to start to creak under the strain. While Hasler appeared to be something of a miracle worker in 2019, he couldn’t repeat these same feats in 2020 with less to work with.
Injuries will probably provide enough cover for Hasler to excuse the team’s performance in 2020. He is unlikely to get too many more chances. Another sub-.400 season will eliminate any of the gains he has made since retaking the reins at the start of 2019. If that continues, it’s unlikely that he would see out the 2022 season if he makes it even that far.
There is simply no doubt that Tom Trbojevic is one of the best fullbacks in the game, easily justifying a million dollar salary. However, the amount of time he spends on the sidelines each year has to be increasingly concerning for Manly’s management. After effectively playing full three seasons from 2016 to 2018, he played in 50% of Manly’s 2019 fixtures and just 35% in 2020. He may well be the victim of poor happenstance but he may also need to consider a more risk averse playing style. Losing 10% of his production to ensure he is on the field 90% of the time would be a fair trade.
What Manly appears to be missing is depth. Clubs like Melbourne use a pipeline of highly talented and cheap juniors to back up their marquee players. Manly has done less of this, preferring to sign hole fillers from other clubs (e.g. Danny Levi). Having said that, Taniela Paseka came across from the Tigers’ under 20 squad in 2018 and looks poised to replace the imminently departing Addin Fonua-Blake. While Hasler is likely to and can get more out taping together middling prospects into functional teams than the average NRL coach, there’s only so much that can be done. A few tweaks to the roster and some good luck will probably see Manly back in contention.