SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25: Kieran Foran of the Sea Eagles celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the round seven NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the Manly Sea Eagles at Bankwest Stadium, on April 25, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The Manly Sea Eagles were the surprise packet of the 2022 NRL season.

From almost certain outsiders to a top-four finish and eventual preliminary final exit, Des Hasler's men exceeded all expectations.

They were led around the park by Tom Trbojevic - of that there can be no doubt. From a side who were barely competitive over the first month of the season, his return sparked them up the table.

Trbojevic was joined by other stars though. The breakout of second-rowers Haumole Olokau'atu and Josh Schuster, the form of their young props or Daly Cherry-Evans continued consistency as one of the best halves in the game.

But there is still that nagging doubt?

What about when Trbojevic isn't there? Outside of a monster win over the North Queensland Cowboys during the Origin period, they looked a different team without the game's best player who took out the Dally M Medal at the back-end of the year.

There are ways to fix it though, and part of that will be the continued growth in experience for their crop of unbelievably talented youngsters.

GOSFORD, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler walks to a press conference following the round seven NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Cronulla Sharks at Central Coast Stadium on June 28, 2020 in Gosford, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This is a side who will once again push for the top four in 2022, but may not have the tools to turn that into a premiership.

But what if they could steal anyone to make that happen? Here is who they'd chase.

Who would your club steal?
» 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
» St George Illawarra Dragons
» Sydney Roosters
» Wests Tigers

Current squad for 2022

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, Jorge Taufua, Martin Taupau, Ben Trbojevic, Jake Trbojevic, Tom Trbojevic, Christian Tuipulotu.

The gaps in the Sea Eagles' best 17

The big question right now for the Sea Eagles is whether Dylan Walker will be re-signed or not. Given pre-season is just weeks away from starting for those sides who made the pointy end of Septeber, it's looking less and less likely by the day despite how important he was for Hasler's side in 2022.

The fact he is still without a contract is almost baffling, and the lack of rumours or speculation around him equally so.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Dylan Walker of the Sea Eagles looks dejected after the try to Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs during the NRL Semi Final match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Manly Sea Eagles at ANZ Stadium on September 20, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The Sea Eagles, coming off an exceptionally solid season however, will be looking to improve little areas of their game, rather than outright identifying enormous weaknesses.

At this point last year, hooker would have been a pressing need, but Lachlan Croker has turned himself into one of the best in the game. Five-eighth too would have been an issue, but Kieran Foran has wound the clock back to find career-best form.

Their young forwards have all stood up, although it could be argued they are one gun prop short. Martin Taupau is there, as is Taniela Paseka, Sean Keppie and Ethan Bullemor, but seemingly Josh Aloiai could start for Hasler, which indicates another strong, experienced prop could be on the agenda.

Jason Saab was excellent, but only when Trbojevic played. He barely scored a try without the star fullback. That's not purely his fault however. Morgan Harper inside him doesn't have a great passing game and didn't provide Saab with all that many opportunities, so when the ball wasn't singing from further in field, Saab struggled to become involved in matches.

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)

That being said, an experienced centre with proven credentials in assisting tries could also be the way to go for the Sea Eagles, while a bench utility could also play a role in the event Walker doesn't re-sign.

Other than that, it's hard to fault the Sea Eagles. Jake Trbojevic is one of the game's best locks, Haumole Olokau'atu and Josh Schuster have kicked on incredibly well and Cherry-Evans is in fine form.

The candidates to steal

Option 1: Payne Haas (Brisbane Broncos)
Haas and Taupau up front is a scary prospect.

The Brisbane Broncos' forward found another gear in the 2021 season, and building a platform for a bench featuring Keppie, Bullemor and Paseka screams something incredible.

It would mean he could play less minutes than he currently does in Brisbane, which would only add more value to the enormous output he is able to dish out.

Haas has one of the biggest motors in the competition, and while Manly don't have a great deal of pressing needs, this would be one way to potentially take them from a top-four contender to a premiership hopeful.

PAYNE HAAS
Prop
Broncos
2021 SEASON AVG
161.8
All Run Metres
0
Tries
3.2
Tackle Breaks

Option 2: James Fisher-Harris (Penrith Panthers)
The man they call 'The Fish' has been superb for the Panthers for many years now, turning himself into one of the game's elite front-rowers.

Make no mistake about it - when he missed a couple of weeks late in the season owing to COVID restrictions and quarantine upon return to Queensland, the Panthers missed him - enormously.

Penrith's go forward has been the best in the competition for the past two seasons, and while that takes a team effort, it also requires a leader.

Fisher-Harris is that. He runs and tackles, and runs and tackles, and never stops. While he has the ball-playing at the line to go with a nice turn of footwork, he would create a damaging combination with Taupau, who could turn his attention to being a wrecking ball instead of needing to play a more consolidated role at times.

J. FISHER-HARRIS
Prop
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
152.8
All Run Metres
0.1
Tries
1.6
Tackle Breaks

Option 3: Kotoni Staggs (Brisbane Broncos)
When you think of centres who have the whole package, they don't come much better than Staggs.

The Wellington (New South Wales)-born star missed most of the 2021 season with various injuries, but there is no surprise that the Broncos suddenly improved out of sight for the rare games he was able to play.

Staggs is a gun at the worst of times. A rare talent, he has the whole package and would also provide Manly some cover should Foran succumb to injury this season, given he is potentially gearing up for a future shift into the halves.

From a pure centre point of view however, his defence won't be a step down on Harper at all. Staggs is one of the best right edge centres in the competition at both ends of the park.

What will be a step up is the ability to utilise Saab far more in the corner, as well as his own creativity and attacking might. With a far superior passing game, it would only turn Manly into a strong entity on the ball.

They ran up some cricket scores during the 2021 season, but all of them relied on Trbojevic. A player of Staggs' quality with a licence to roam could take that reliance away from a week to week basis.

KOTONI STAGGS
Centre
Broncos
2021 SEASON AVG
0.3
Try Assists
0.5
LB Assists
0.8
Tries

Option 4: Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters)
Watson only really becomes a viable player to steal if Dylan Walker was to be lost to the system.

Having both Walker and Watson would be a waste of a squad spot for the Sea Eagles, or any team for that matter.

But if Walker isn't re-signed, then Watson has turned himself into the ultimate bench utility. With a skill for ball-playing, some solid footwork, a turn of pace and the ability to play multiple positions, it's little wonder Trent Robinson and the Sydney Roosters were so keen on him for 2022 and beyond.

He will be a major loss for the Knights. By the end of the year, he had turned himself into a player capable of starting lock.

Despite the size he gives up, the quickness of the game is changing the role of a lock more than just about any position on the park, and Watson is the one who leads the new breed of players in the position.

CONNOR WATSON
Lock
Knights
2021 SEASON AVG
0.4
Offloads
0.1
Tries
0.2
Try Assists

The verdict

It's very tempting to say Watson would be the ultimate player to steal for the Sea Eagles. He is the sort of player who can turn a game on its head, but also play lock to a suitable quality.

He would be the ultimate replacement - or in some respects - upgrade to Walker, regardless of whether he re-signed.

But with Karl Lawton in the squad, it may not be their most pressing issue, and so you'd have to say a prop would be the way to go in adding to their forward pack.

It's a relatively youthful forward pack, and so experience here would be important too. With Haas still filling out that side of the game and wanting to learn from other experienced props, that leaves Fisher-Harris.

The Kiwi international would form a dream team up front with Taupau, and the platform built for Cherry-Evans and Trbojevic would be scary to say the least, while the likes of Keppie and Paseka would gain plenty from having a Fisher-Harris type figure - who is just coming of a premiership - in the team.

James Fisher-Harris (Penrith Panthers)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 17: James Fisher-Harris of the Panthers reacts after a Rabbitohs error during the NRL Preliminary Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Next up in this series we will check out the club who never seem to fail, the Melbourne Storm.