The Manly Sea Eagles were the surprise packet of the 2021 NRL season.

Widely backed to finish at the wrong end of the table, a Tom Trbojevic-inspired masterclass inspired the men from the Northern Beaches to a top-four finish, before they went into the preliminary finals to be eventually upended by the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Still, if a preliminary final had of been offered to Manly fans pre-season, they would have gleefully taken it with both hands and run a mile.

Whether they can maintain the rage in 2022 is anyone’s guess.

Let’s take a look at Trbojevic and the rest of the cast who will attempt to go a step or two better.

The recruitment report

Ins: Ethan Bullemor (Brisbane Broncos, 2023)

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 04: Ethan Bullemor of the Broncos runs with the ball during the round 25 NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Newcastle Knights at Suncorp Stadium, on September 04, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Outs: Cade Cust (Wigan Warriors), Tevita Funa (rugby union), Jack Gosiewski (St George Illawarra Dragons), Zac Saddler (released), Curtis Sironen (St Helens RLFC), Moses Suli (St George Illawarra Dragons)

Re-signed: Morgan Boyle (2022), Lachlan Croker (2023), Kieran Foran (2022), Reuben Garrick (2023), Morgan Harper (2023), Sean Keppie (2024), Haumole Olakau'atu (2024), Brad Parker (2023), Josh Schuster (2024), Toafofoa Sipley (2023), Jorge Taufua (2022), Dylan Walker (2022)

Full squad
Josh Aloiai, Morgan Boyle, Ethan Bullemor, Daly Cherry-Evans, Lachlan Croker, Andrew Davey, Manase Fainu, Kieran Foran, Reuben Garrick, Morgan Harper, Sean Keppie, Tolutau Koula, Karl Lawton, Haumole Olokau'atu, Brad Parker, Taniela Paseka, Jason Saab, Josh Schuster, Toafofoa Sipley, Jorge Taufua, Martin Taupau, Ben Trbojevic, Jake Trbojevic, Tom Trbojevic, Christian Tuipulotu, Alec Tuitavake, Dylan Walker, Kaeo Weekes

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 30: Sean Keppie of the Sea Eagles is tackled by David Klemmer of the Knights during the round 12 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Manly Sea Eagles at McDonald Jones Stadium, on May 30, 2021, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Who plays where?

The only point which is even close to being worthy of a discussion here is who will be Trbojevic’s back up if he goes down injured at any point, and during the Origin period when Manly play the Warriors before Origin 1, the Tigers just four days after Origin 1 and the Knights three days after Origin 3.

And it is a good question.

It's likely that Des Hasler would simply elect to shift prolific try-scorer Reuben Garrick to the back for a short-term, however, that isn't ideal if Trbojevic was to go down injured for a long period.

He could look at moving the versatile Dylan Walker to the back, while young wingers Kaeo Weekes or Christian Tuipulotu could also fill in, but the depth at the back behind the man they call Turbo Tom looks a little thin.

The wingers, a little like the fullback, pick themselves.

Reuben Garrick is the first-choice goal-kicker for the club and scored bags of tries last year. He was a star for the Sea Eagles and will be again this year once more if those spine players continue their level of performance.

Jason Saab's spot is slightly less secure than Garrick, but he brings height and pace which few wingers can match across the competition. His problem is that his performance seems to go a long way backwards the moment Trbojevic isn't playing.

Weekes and Tuiplotu could both come into contention for spots if a change is made, while the form and fitness of Jorge Taufua is one of the big unknowns heading into the new year following a season where he didn't make it onto the field.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 09: Jason Saab of the Sea Eagles scores a try during the round nine NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the New Zealand Warriors at Lottoland, on May 09, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The two centres might be locked in to start the season, but don't be surprised if Brad Parker and Morgan Harper are put under the pump from Tolutau Koula at some point this season.

Harper is defensively excellent, but struggles at times with his ball-playing, while Parker has developed into an excellent first-grade centre over the past 12 months.

Koula, now that Moses Suli has departed the club, is next in line for a debut in the three-quarter line and has a long-term contract with the club until the end of 2024 indicating he is a prospect they will look to get into the top grade in the coming years.

Another position where there will be no need for change after such a strong position is in the halves.

Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans were both excellent for the most part in 2021 and won't be challenged for their spots at any point this season unless they suffer dramatic dips in form.

Both experienced veterans, the Sea Eagles need them to remain fit and in form all year. There is no other recognised half in the system, with only Josh Schuster and Dylan Walker likely to be able to swap positions and play in the halves out of their current top 30.

Given the important roles both Schuster and Walker play elsewhere though, that is hardly an ideal situation.

NRL Rd 10  - Sea Eagles v Eels
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 18: Daly Cherry-Evans and Jake Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles celebrate winning the round 10 NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Parramatta Eels at Lottoland on July 18, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Middle forwards
The Sea Eagles have plenty of depth in the middle third of the park. So much so that only two players are guaranteed a start, with Martin Taupau to play in the front-row and Jake Trbojevic to take his customary position at number 13.

The other starting front-row spot could go to any number of options - Josh Aloiai, Sean Keppie, Taniela Paseka, Ethan Bullemor and Toafofoa Sipley are the front-runners, and that doesn't even mention young gun Sione Fainu - brother of Manase - or Morgan Boyle.

Depth in the middle third can be a hallmark of a strong football team, and so Manly are well equipped.

Who they pick to start is anyone's guess though. Josh Aloiai's form, despite being a regular starter, has been sub-standard, and so it's surely time for one of the young guns to have a prolonged run in the middle third.

That said, Taniela Paseka provides the most spark early in matches and should be the one to take this spot after starting virtually every game in the first 20 rounds last year, averaging more than 100 metres per contest.

Sean Keppie was strongly considered for this spot, but his versatile abilities - which saw him start matches at prop, lock and in the second-row last year, as well as having the ability to provide big minutes - make him the ultimate bench weapon.

The Sea Eagles, given Manase Fainu is still unable to play under the NRL's no-fault stand-down rule, are without a genuine hooker.

That argument has become far less weighty than it once was though given the emergence of Lachlan Croker. He will once again take the starting number nine jumper.

With Cade Cust departed from Manly, it means Karl Lawton becomes the back-up.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 28: Lachlan Croker of the Sea Eagles celebrates scoring a try during the round 7 NRL match between the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and the Canberra Raiders at Lottoland on April 28, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Rarely are a club in possession of as many breakout talents as the Sea Eagles, but there are another two in the second-row with Haumole Olokau'atu on the right and Josh Schuster on the left.

Neither of the stars are under any pressure for their spots in the Round 1 team.

Depth here looks a little shakier than the front-row, with the likes of Andrew Davey, Karl Lawton and the third Trbojevic brother - Ben - sitting in the background.

The bench starts with Dylan Walker. His role as a ball-running lock last year, but also having the ability to fill in for the halves, centres or fullback, saw him become one of Manly's most important players.

He is followed by Karl Lawton, who is the back-up to Lachlan Croker, but can also be used in the second-row if need be.

That leaves two spots for middle forwards. The versatility of Keppie means he goes straight into the next spot, with the ability to play all three forward positions, although he will be used mainly through the middle.

The final spot is a little more tricky. Des Hasler is likely to pick Josh Aloiai somewhere in this side, but it's hard to justify his selection meaning Bullemor, Sipley and Fainu would all miss out.

That said, the Broncos recruit brings the most out of the trio and should be handed the final spot.

The best 17

1. Tom Trbojevic
2. Reuben Garrick
3. Brad Parker
4. Morgan Harper
5. Jason Saab
6. Kieran Foran
7. Daly Cherry-Evans
8. Martin Taupau
9. Lachlan Croker
10. Taniela Paseka
11. Haumole Olokau'atu
12. Josh Schuster
13. Jake Trbojevic

14. Dylan Walker
15. Karl Lawton
16. Sean Keppie
17. Ethan Bullemor

Other best 17s

Brisbane Broncos
Canberra Raiders
Canterbury Bulldogs
Cronulla Sharks
Gold Coast Titans
Melbourne Storm
Newcastle Knights
New Zealand Warriors
North Queensland Cowboys
Parramatta Eels
Penrith Panthers
South Sydney Rabbitohs