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Manly coach Des Hasler enters the NRL season with a familiar problem, but it could be worse.
Early injuries to star fullback Tom Trbojevic have crippled the Sea Eagles’ title hopes on several occasions in recent seasons.
Last year he missed the first five games but came back with one of the best individual seasons on record as he deservedly returned home to win the Dally M.
This season, Hasler will miss two of his most important players on the edges of the ruck with second rowers Josh Schuster and Haumole Olakau’atu sidelined the opening rounds with knee and elbow issues respectively.
Leading forwards were Manly’s stars in 2021 – Schuster showed off the deft pair of hands that made him a standout star in the junior ranks as a five-eighth while Olakau’atu made an impact a lot more direct on the team as he leaned back opposing defensive lines with his blend of size and pace.
They each played 21 games to kick off a new generation in the back row, succeeding club stalwarts Curtis Sironen and Joel Thompson.
Schuster had the NRL’s best try assists among forwards alongside Melbourne star Brandon Smith, while his 12 line assists were only bettered by Smith (14) for platoon members.
Olakau’atu was the top tackle breaker in the Manly pack with 65 and finished third in the NRL in tries by strikers with eight, bettered only by the 12 of Roosters second rower Sitili Tupouniua and Penrith star Viliame Kikau (nine ).
With those two in the injured ward until Round 4 with suspended prop Josh Aloiai, Hasler is likely to roll with former Brisbane striker Ethan Bullemor and ex-all-around warrior Karl Lawton as his second rowers for next Thursday’s trip to Penrith to take on the Prime Ministers. .
They couldn’t have asked for a tougher start to the season with another title contender at the Roosters, their second-round follow-up mission, also on the road at SCG,
Manly has just one game at Brookvale in the first five weeks, in the third round against the Bulldogs, as their next home game against the Raiders will be at Mudgee before traveling to Newcastle for a clash with the Knights .
Despite the injury hiccups from their young forwards, Manly have enjoyed one of the smoothest off-seasons of any legitimate contender for the premiership.
The only members of the NRL squad to leave the club were Sironen – who barely played last season due to injury – and Super League utility Cade Cust center Moses Suli after falling behind over Brad Parker and Morgan Harper in the pecking order and second rower Jack Gosiewski, who have linked up with St George Illawarra.
And their only new face is Bullemor. Until recent years anyway, the Broncos have generally retained their best young talent, but the former Queensland Under-20 representative has shocked club officials by turning his back on the club to move to Manly.
He could be one of the best under-the-radar signings for 2022.
Manly doesn’t need to do too much to make it to the premiership after going so close last year, losing in the preliminary final when he was beaten by the surging Bunnies 36 -16 in Brisbane.
They were elite in most major statistical categories – third in points per game with a whopping 30.1 (usually more than enough to be a great final team), line breaks (6.9) and tackle breaks ( 34.6), slightly down in defense at 18.7 conceded on average to be fifth overall.
And how insanely good was Tommy Turbo? Second in tries with 28 despite four games less than leader Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston (30), tied second in assists with 31, second in tries with 62 behind Souths star Cody’s 71 Walker and No. 1 overall for tackle breaks at 7.3 per outing.
It’s no wonder he became the first Dally M Medal winner despite playing just 15 games in the regular season.
The big question will be whether Trbojevic can replicate his sensational performances from last year. If he can’t, the Sea Eagles will still make the playoffs but will struggle to compete with the Panthers, Storm and Roosters.
But with the best and most influential player in the game, an established halves duo in Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, plus a pack that combines tough heads like Martin Taupau and Jake Trbojevic with the likes of Olakau’atu, Schuster and Bullemor, Hasler could offer the club a third premiership 11 years after their previous trophy.