The Manly Sea Eagles resembled something of a one-man team at times during the 2021 season.
For a team most experts had well out of contention for the finals, it was a remarkable rise. It goes without saying that Trbojevic won just about every possible prize the game has to offer. The Dally M, Rugby League Players Association medal for player of the year, fullback of the year, Zero Tackle’s MVP. He might have only played 15 games, but he was as close to unstoppable as it got.
But Manly need more than Trbojevic is they are going to make the next step in 2022 and go all the way.
Making the finals is one thing, but continuing those good performances in September is another, as they found out when they were handed a beatdown at the hands of first the Melbourne Storm in Week 1 of the finals, and then the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Week 3 of the finals.
They over-achieved as far as overall season expectations went, but then greatly under-achieved come finals time as their defence fell apart in the face of strong teams.
Simply put, when faced with knockout footy against the best, you need more than one player to see your team over the line, and while Manly have other powerful players - Martin Taupau, Daly Cherry-Evans and even Tom’s brother Jake - it wasn’t enough to climb the ladder and make the decider.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t do it this time around.
Here are the burning questions which will shape the Sea Eagles season in 2022.
Can Tom Trbojevic stay fit and keep his form?
This is the question which will undoubtedly be the deciding factor hanging over Manly’s campaign.
The bottom line is this - if Trbojevic stays fit, they are a chance to do what they did last year, or potentially make greater strides and go higher. If he doesn’t stay fit, or even has the slightest drop in form (see more, Finals Week 1 and Finals Week 3), then the Sea Eagles suddenly become uncompetitive.
It’s rare that one player holds an entire team’s destiny in his hands, but that is the exact case for Trbojevic and his men from the Northern Beaches.
If he is on the park, you’d have to assume he is going to be somewhere near the form he showed during the 2021 season, but you also have to wonder if opposition teams will start to figure not only him, but the new rules out as well.
There is no doubt Trbojevic benefited from the rules and speed of play more than just about any other player in the game, maybe outside of Cody Walker at South Sydney.
Regardless, he is the key for Manly.
Is Lachlan Croker the right man at number nine?
Outside of Trbojevic though, the Sea Eagles need others to continue standing up, and find a way to do it when the pressure is on during the biggest matches of the season.
That’s what failed them during the finals campaign of 2021, and frankly, whenever they played top-four sides throughout the regular season given their overall record against those other top sides in Penrith, South Sydney and Melbourne.
So much of that starts at hooker, and while it’s impossible to say Lachlan Croker had a bad season - if anything he showed continued improvement during the year and is now a genuine number nine - it’s still up for debate whether he is going to be someone who can guide a team to a premiership wearing that jersey.
The Sea Eagles don’t have any other options of course given Manase Fainu is still subject to the game’s no-fault stand-down rule, but Croker’s role will be crucial in 2022.
Why can’t the outside backs be consistent?
Manly’s outside backs have plenty of questions hanging over them heading into the new campaign.
There is untold talent and potential in the players who will line up on the wings and in the centres, but seemingly like the rest of the team, they require Tom Trbojevic playing to be good enough to compete at the top.
Jason Saab is the best and biggest example of that, scoring tries for fun when the star fullback was playing, but not so much when he wasn’t, and often barely touching the ball when he wasn’t.
That comes about on the back of Morgan Harper’s inability to be a strong provider, instead preferring to run the ball at every opportunity. The other side of the park sees Brad Parker and Reuben Garrick, who were more consistent, but again not perfect.
Manly rely on scoring points like few other teams at the top, and they will need these four to play big roles in 2022.
The second-rowers both went to another level, with Schuster having claims on a halves position, but settling to play out wide. The former New South Wales junior captain had a breakout year in the second-row though and, while Kieran Foran is still fit and firing, will clearly be retained there by Hasler.
Olokau’atu, who was in his first full season, played 21 games and was a candidate to be named to the Dally M team of the year after consistently excellent performances.
Eight tries, seven line breaks, 17 offloads, 113 metres per game and strong defensive work saw him in excellent form from start to finish.
But as can be the case with young players, inconsistency is a scary thought. They need to be spot-on in 2022 if Manly are going to go any further.
Is Martin Taupau still the enforcer at the front of the pack?
The 31-year-old Martin Taupau has gone past 200 NRL appearances without too many signs of slowing down, but it could be argued his 2021 wasn’t quite on the same level as previous seasons.
He played all 26 games, but was bafflingly demoted to the interchange bench by Des Hasler for their last two finals matches against the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs, having come from the pine earlier in the season.
After not playing less than 40 minutes in any game between Round 7 and Round 25, Taupau didn’t play more than 40 at any point during the finals.
It’s not as if his output diminished, but Hasler seems a little unclear on his role given he may not be at the club past the end of 2022.
It doesn’t make sense, but it will impact Manly if Taupau isn’t at his barnstorming best for 2022.