Should the alarm bells be ringing at Brookvale?
Or was Penrith’s exploitation of Manly’s frailties assisted by a lengthy injury list, including to star player Tom Trbojevic?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes.
Another defeat, this one a record capitulation at Brookvale, albeit against a devastating Penrith team, should be taken as a stark warning that this season could be a long and disappointing one for Sea Eagles fans.
As important as it is not to panic about the state of a team so early into a new season, supporters on the northern beaches will be exchanging nervous glances at each other at the Sea Eagles’ current form.
Defensively, the Sea Eagles were a shambles, particularly so on their right side.
“There was a bit of miscommunication and disconnect and we need to address that,” Manly coach Des Hasler said after the match.
That seemed about as bigger understatement as could be, illustrated perfectly by Penrith’s first try after three minutes.
Manly were exposed by a simple mis-read off a central scrum 10 metres out, when Jarome Luai came across from the Penrith right to create a four on three down the left, looping behind Nathan Cleary.
Compounding the issue was Manly’s formulaic approach to closing down the Penrith attackers, with the right-side defence of Daly Cherry-Evans, Moses Suli and Jason Saab racing up to the 10-metre line, but then stopping and ending up back-pedalling.
Cleary, at first receiver, was standing wide enough of the scrum to take away any pressure coming from his right and, using Matt Burton outside him as a decoy runner, passed to Luai, who drew the tackle of the over-eager Saab coming in off the wing, flicking the ball out to To’o, who ran over the covering Suli and Cherry-Evans to score in the corner.
It didn’t get much better down that right side for the Sea Eagles.
Of the eight tries they conceded in the game, five were scored down that right defensive channel, with two coming down the middle and one on the left.
At NRL level, having such a blatant and obvious fallibility in any one area just invites those better teams to probe at that point of weakness.
Penrith hooker Mitch Kenny looked left throughout the game, using Luai’s guile and the raw power of Burton (one try), To’o (two tries) and Viliame Kikau (two tries) to hammer home its supremacy on that edge.
Of course, it may be that having Penrith on the other side of the field simply served to amplify those weaknesses as the form team of the competition, who are simply going from strength-to-strength this year.
Cleary, back in the side after his enforced concussion absence, was brilliant, linking superbly with Luai and his outside backs thanks to the superb work rate of his forwards, who made easy metres and gave him the platform from which to launch attack after attack on the Manly line.
Injuries impacting Manly form
There’s little doubt that Manly is in a deep hole at the moment, not aided by the lengthy list of injuries.
“We’re a bit out of shape, we’ve got more injuries to contend with,” Hasler said, confirming that Morgan Boyle suffered a dislocated shoulder in the heavy defeat.
Hasler said post-match that he currently had no second-row forwards at the moment, with Haumole Olakau-atu and Curtis Sironen both two and four weeks away from a return respectively.
“We might get a few back, but we’ll keep turning up, we’ll keep aiming up and that’s all we can do,” he said.
Of course, there’s the absence of Tom Trbojevic at fullback too, with the star man poised to return in the next week or two after a littany of injuries.
Hasler warned that his start fullback is not going to fix all of Manly’s woes though, when he does return.
“He’s not going to make us hold onto the ball,” Hasler said.
That being said, Trbojevic, as fullback, is such a key player for Manly as a whole, as well as an aide to Cherry-Evans.
With him in the side, Manly has won 14 out of 19 games — 73 per cent — during Hasler’s second spell in charge.
Without him, their win rate drops to below 30 per cent.
Trbojevic has not played a single game this season, and although Hasler has a point that the Blues and Kangaroos can’t catch every ball that his teammates are dropping, he can help organise that defensive shape and provide some form of attacking assistance to under-fire halfback, Cherry-Evans.
On Fox Sports, former NRL star Michael Ennis proposed Manly take the dramatic step of ditching Cherry-Evans who, as one of the team’s biggest earners, could be jettisoned to make some salary cap space.
“I worry about Manly. I know we talk about it a lot, [but there is] a lot of money tied up in Tom Trbojevic, Daly Cherry-Evans and also Jake Trbojevic,” Ennis said before the match against Penrith.
“When you look at where the Manly squad is, Daly [Cherry-Evans] for me is such a high-quality player, but at the moment what he is being able to distribute to the side, particularly in the last three weeks, certainly hasn’t been what you’d expect from a marquee player.
“I wonder whether Des [Hasler] has got a big decision to make.”
In terms of big decisions, Manly made their own relating to Hasler after round one, agreeing to an incentive-filled two-year contract extension at Brookvale.
Close to a full year of speculation over the 60-year-old’s new contract ended, but with rumours of a clause suggesting finals football would be required to trigger extra years, Hasler must be concerned over the direction his team is currently travelling.
Since Hasler signed the contract, the Sea Eagles have lost by 14 points, 26 points and 40 points to the Bunnies, Dragons and Panthers respectively.
Thursday night’s 46-6 capitulation at the hands of the Panthers was not necessarily the worst of those scores, but there was little to suggest a revival was imminent — with Tom Trbojevic or without.
“You always go through tough periods, this is another one,” Hasler said.
“These experiences are certainly going to be part of our recovery.”