Manly have had a tough start to the year. Backing up from a grand final win is always difficult. Due to playing for longer than the other teams, in the toughest games of the year, the teams who play the decider have a diminished preparation time for the following season. The premiers are then asked to travel to the other side of the world to play in the World Club Challenge on the eve of the new NRL season.
Flying time and jet-lag further impede preparations and ensure they begin the new season under-prepared and tired. Manly played the Warriors in round one this year which meant they were immediately back on a plane to New Zealand.
The Eagles had a victory in that match but they lost forward Glenn Stewart to injury for six weeks. A number of Manly's other big-name players such as Brett Stewart, Jamie Lyon, Kieran Foran and Steve Matai have also missed games this year because of injury. These are all reasons why Manly aren't where they'd like to be right now, having lost four of their past five games. Oh yeah, one other thing that may be a factor - the premiers also lost their two-time premiership winning coach, Des Hasler, who was poached by tonight's opposition, the Bulldogs.
So can we put Manly's poor start down to a grand final hangover and injuries to key players or are they, in fact, missing their old coach? No team can play at its best when players of the calibre of the Stewart brothers and Lyon are missing. However, when I look closely at the Sea Eagles' performances of late I am seeing some defence that is very un-Manly like. In their recent losses Manly have conceded some soft tries, the likes of which were very rarely scored against the premiers last year. Let's take a look at some examples.
Picture one is from the Eagles' loss to St George Illawarra in round four. Dragons hooker Mitch Rein ran from dummy-half and short-passed to front-rower Michael Weyman. It is hard to believe that Weyman carried the ball between Matt Ballin and Jason King and hardly had a hand laid on him. Weyman then stepped past fullback Brett Stewart and scored a miraculous try. The only explanation for this is that Jason King, at the last second, assumed Weyman was a decoy runner and wouldn't get the ball. This was a big mistake.
Picture two is from round five when Parramatta had their only win of the season, beating the premiers. Parramatta hooker Matt Keating picked up the ball at dummy-half with the intention of passing to Ben Roberts, who had the Eels' No.1 strike weapon Jarryd Hayne on his outside. However, the Manly defenders, including Darcy Lussick who was at marker, were so intent on tackling Roberts, they forgot about Keating. Keating dummied to pass and ran himself along the line of the arrow to score the easiest of tries.
Picture three is from Manly's last-start loss to the Gold Coast where debutant Aiden Sezer scored a soft try for the Titans and so too did Jamal Idris. In the picture, Scott Prince is running across-field and dummying to pass the ball to Greg Bird. Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans assumed Prince would pass to Bird and started to head in-field to tackle the Titans back-rower. Another mistake. This allowed Prince to get on the outside of Cherry-Evans. Prince then ran along the line of the arrow and drew in Lyon, creating an over-lap. Prince then threw a short pass to Idris who ran into a gaping hole, between Lyon and his winger, before scoring under the posts.
In all of these examples the Manly defenders committed the most basic of defensive errors by assuming they knew what the ball carrier was going to do next. The most dangerous attacker is the man with the ball, with the second most dangerous attacker being the ball carrier's closest support runner. These players must be defended first and foremost. Any thought of moving to tackle other attackers must be resisted until the defenders are certain the ball has been passed. In picture one, Ballin had Rein covered. King meanwhile had no reason to be concerned with any other attacker than Weyman, who was Rein's closest support player. In picture two, Keating is the most dangerous man on the field as he has the ball. Lussick had to stay on Keating until he was sure the ball had been passed. While in picture three, Cherry-Evans had to stick with ball-carrier Prince by following him across the field. Had Prince passed the ball to Bird, Cherry-Evans' teammates on his inside would have made the tackle.
There are certainly plenty of reasons why Manly haven't played their best footy so far this season. Their pre-season was disrupted and injuries have played a part. However, as the big names return, the Eagles' defence will need to improve accordingly. Manly's new coach, Geoff Toovey, would have been taught by Hasler that the big games are won by defence. Tonight will be no different.