Turbocharging: Why Manly Can Win The NRL Premiership
The Panthers and Storm have both had turns as premiership favourites this season while the Eels and Rabbitohs have been flirting around as the most likely two of 'the rest' to cause a problem in September. But with Tom Trbojevic in career-best and Dally M-winning form, the Sea Eagles are flying towards the finals and look every bit like premiership contenders.
They're getting up the field, scoring points at will, and improving on the defensive side of the football. Manly have the characteristics to cause an upset at some point during the finals, and maybe even end up lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy.
Yardage is always a key attribute of premiership-winning teams and the Sea Eagles are having little trouble with getting up the field. Everything about their season needs to be measured in pre and post-Trbojevic injury terms. In the five rounds before the superstar fullback made his season debut, the Sea Eagles managed just 1,491 running metres per game. That's a mark that would have them 15th in yardage had it stuck all season.
Since then, the 1,727 running metres they have averaged per game has them in at 5th behind only the Panthers (1,840m), Eels (1,766m), Rabbitohs (1,761m), and Storm (1,729m).
Trbojevic's 212 metres per game has played a big part in getting that number up. However, it's the metres that come after one of his carries or quick shifts to the edge that really makes the difference. A powerful ball-carrier that can pick his spot in the defensive line and take on a defender that he knows he can beat in contact, Trbojevic so often finishes a tackle on his front to generate a quick play-the-ball.
From there, Marty Taupau is being played onto the ball for 155 metres per game - his highest mark since 2018. Taniela Paseka is playing out a career-best season for 113 metres per game while Toafofoa Sipley is doing the same for his 83 metres per game. Josh Aloiai has been battling injury all season and only managed 11 games this year but is starting to get into his work and looks primed to peak in time for finals football.
On the edges, Trbojevic often has an influence on the play whether he touches the ball or not.
He is the focus of the defence and has the opposition on their heels waiting to see what he does. If it's taking possession out the back of shape and using his quick hands to get the ball wide, Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab are combining for 275 metres per game. Should Daly Cherry-Evans or Kieran Foran play short, Haumole Olakau'atu and Josh Shuster are using their size and strength to break tackles and destabilize the defensive line while taking the Sea Eagles further up the field.
Manly are a threat across the park and use different ways to work from their own end and into attacking positions. Although, they don't always need to be up the field to find points.
Attacking from everywhere
Again, the difference between pre and post-Trbojevic is incredible.
In the five rounds before his return, the Sea Eagles played out their worst start to a season since 1999 to score 9.4 points per game while conceding 33.6 points per game. Des Hasler found himself under immense pressure with the Sea Eagles a 20.1% chance to just reach the Top 8 let alone be relevant to the premiership conversation should they get there.
Now locked into finals football, Manly's attack is flying them to new heights to be an encouraging 8% to win the premiership.
They have scored a whopping 37.25 points per game since Tom Trbojevic returned from injury in Round 6.
The Sea Eagles don't need to attack from inside the opposition 20-metre line to pile up points. In fact, they're only 8th in tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line with 26.9 tackles per game.
With speed to burn on the edges and Jake Trbojevic in the middle transferring the ball from one scrum line to the other, Manly are finding success all the way up the field. Their Try of the Season candidate in Round 22 is a perfect example of how quickly they can turn a regulation exit set into points.
However, it's the variation in which they're scoring points that promotes the idea of the Sea Eagles entering September as premiership smokies.
As we've seen from the Storm, Panthers, and more recently the Rabbitohs, variation is paramount. The Eels have been found out as one-dimensional and are struggling to find answers in time to save their season. The Sea Eagles, on the other hand, are scoring points in different ways and keeping the defence guessing.
The speed out wide allows the Sea Eagles to find points down the edges but they have also used that ploy to create through the middle. Defences are sliding to get out to the edge as quickly as possible. That is providing the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran with the opportunities to play short at the line when an overeager defender turns out and makes their move out wide too early.
Foran's improved health has been the major influence on his form, but it's no coincidence that he has been able to turn his career around with Trbojevic lurking out the back of shape. Similarly, Josh Schuster and Haumole Olakau'atu have become household names on the edge. Schuster is a five-eighth by trade and Olakau'atu had only played seven first-grade games before running out in Round 6. With Foran and Schuster developing an elite ball-playing partnership on the left while Cherry-Evans uses Olakau'atu's destructive carries on the right to provide Saab with space to fly down the sideline, Manly have a menu of options in attack.
Defence wins premierships
Regardless of the time, trends in the game or the attacking players on show, a top defence has been a consistent factor of premiership-winning teams throughout the NRL era.
"Since 2006, only the 2015 Cowboys have entered the finals with a defence outside the top three and gone on to win the premiership." - Stats That Matter: Defence wins Premierships
The Panthers were defending at the best level in NRL history earlier in the season. There is every chance they get back there now that injuries are starting to heal and the intensity of finals footy is fast approaching. Still, despite the dropoff in recent weeks, their 12 points conceded per game is still the best in the NRL ahead of the Storm at 12.3 points conceded per game.
The Sea Eagles have allowed 20.9 points through them per game in 2021 to be sixth in defence through 23 rounds. Historically, being so low on the list of defensive rankings makes winning the premiership terribly difficult. However, the Sea Eagles have conceded just 16.8 points per game since Round 6. That mark across the full season would have them third on the list, a spot that does provide hope of an unlikely premiership upset.
Having a strong individual defensive fullback and one that can order the side from the back has made a significant difference. Trbojevic is a smart footballer and Manly are better off with his voice directing traffic in defensive sets. But it's their attack, and the time they're in possession of the ball, that has helped most with their defensive improvements.
The Sea Eagles are still on their own island as premiership contenders behind the Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs.
Still, they're in the conversation given their current form and the influence Tom Trbojevic has on the side. He's the best player in rugby league right now. If he's on the field, Manly are a chance at beating anybody.
Where they finish on the ladder could play a big part in how far the Sea Eagles fly in 2021. Currently 5th on the NRL ladder but with the second-easiest remaining schedule in the competition, they still have an eye on the Sydney Roosters at 4th.
The Sea Eagles have the Roosters covered for points differential so one slip from the tri-colours will flip the two and provide Manly with free passage to at least Week 2 of the finals.
Most consider Melbourne as morals for the premiership - for good reason. However, most also know that nothing is ever certain in rugby league. The Sea Eagles have gone from one of the worst teams in NRL history throughout the first four rounds of the season to a top four side and premiership smokey. We can't rule them out of completing one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the sport by lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy on October 3.
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