TO state the obvious, times are tough at Manly.
Starting the season with two defeats after losing five on the trot to end 2016 has put the Sea Eagles on the verge of losing a club-record eight straight losses for the third time in its history.
Coaching in the NRL is a fickle game and second-year mentor Trent Barrett is finding that out firsthand as he tries to guide his troops to the finals for the first time in three years. To do that, he needs halfback Daly Cherry-Evans to fire.
The 28-year-old took over the captaincy from the retired Jamie Lyon this season, heaping extra pressure on a key playmaker who already has plenty to worry about.
After infamously reneging on a deal to join the Gold Coast Titans at the 11th hour, Cherry-Evans committed to being a one-club man when he signed an extraordinary eight-year deal worth $10 million in 2015. Manly put all its eggs in one basket with this deal (worth $1.25 million a season) — paying him roughly one sixth of the club’s entire salary cap for 2017 ($7 million).
It was an unprecedented deal in rugby league circles. But while Cherry-Evans helped lead the Sea Eagles to victory in the 2011 grand final when he was one of the best young players in the game, the huge amount of cash thrown at the No. 7 to keep him on the northern beaches may come back to haunt the club sooner rather than later.
Since recommitting to Manly he’s already seen former coach Geoff Toovey get the axe. A dismal 2016 in which the team finished 13th put the heat on Barrett, who is desperate for a win to escape the furnace in 2017.
While one player can hardly cop all the blame for a team’s failings the reality is, with a $10 million price tag, Cherry-Evans will bear the brunt of whatever criticism comes Manly’s way for on-field performances.
And that criticism has already arrived two rounds in.
After Souths beat Manly 38-18 on the weekend, Gorden Tallis said the first receiver was struggling to get his team going in attack.
“For mine, Manly’s defence last week was terrible but there’s something wrong with their attack — and it’s Daly Cherry-Evans,” Tallis said on Triple M Sunday NRL.
The former Broncos skipper continued his honest appraisal of the Manly star on Fox Sports on Monday night.
“Cherry-Evans has got to own that footy side,” he said. “You see the good players, they just take ownership. He’s got to run it, he’s got to be the guy that wants the football. That’s what Manly lacks, just that leader to take them around the park.”
News Corp’s Paul Kent was of a similar opinion. “He needs to pick his game up in a big way. That team doesn’t belong to him right now, it belongs to the Trbojevics (brothers Tom and Jake), it’s their side,” Kent told NRL 360. “Daly’s got the eight-year $10 million deal and with that comes responsibility.”
Former NSW forward Bryan Fletcher also hinted at Cherry-Evans’ rough start to the year when he said Manly’s kicking game “went out the window” in its loss to the Rabbitohs.
Cherry-Evans’ representative hopes have nosedived in recent times too. After making himself a walk-up utility on the Queensland bench and first in line to replace an injured Cooper Cronk or Johnathan Thurston, he’s been usurped by Cowboys star Michael Morgan in that role. He hasn’t donned the Maroon jersey since his solitary appearance in game two of the 2015 series.
Playing in the most important position on the rugby league field, Cherry-Evans didn’t perform at club level in 2016 and he’s already under pressure in 2017.
To be fair, he’s also been the victim of circumstance. Last year his halves partner was Dylan Walker, who Barrett moved from the centres into the number six jersey for the first time in his NRL career. Perhaps realising the error, Walker is back playing in the centres this year.
New recruit Blake Green has played five-eighth in the first two matches of the season since moving to Sydney from the Melbourne Storm. The 30-year-old’s win-loss record stands at 34-13 when sharing the playmaking duties with Storm gun Cronk, but that slumps to an abysmal 1-24 with every other halfback he’s played with (Triple M’s Dan Ginnane pointed this out after Round One).
An absolutely absurd stat:
Blake Green's record with his halves partners.
34-13 with Cooper Cronk
1-23 with all the others
— Dan Ginnane (@DanGinnane) March 5, 2017
Remember, Cherry-Evans started his career with Kieran Foran — the two forming the perfect tag-team under Des Hasler. But without his former partner-in-crime, Manly’s results don’t stack up.
He won’t like it, but the harsh truth is when a club commits to paying you $10 million at more than $1 million a season, your job is to win football games. The extenuating circumstances and excuses will count for nothing this year if Manly fails to make the top eight for a third year running.
That Cherry-Evans earnt himself plenty of haters by snubbing the Titans at the last minute despite publicly declaring he was heading to the Gold Coast in 2016 will only make it easier for the critics to jump all over him, and his club, should success elude them this season.
In a sign of just how little faith the rugby league public has in the Silvertails, losses to Parramatta and Souths have convinced punters season 2017 is a write-off. Manly has firmed from $34 into $4.50 with Sportsbet to win the wooden spoon and is now second favourite to run dead last, behind the Newcastle Knights ($2).
“When the Sea Eagles were backed to win the spoon in the pre-season, we put it down to people just hating Manly, but the amount of money for them since Saturday suggests punters genuinely think they’ll run last,” sportsbet.com.au’s Christian Jantzen said.
If Manly was to run last, you’d have to think Barrett will be the first man out the door. And if he fails to live up to his $10 million billing, there’ll be plenty at Manly wondering if the club should have let Cherry-Evans walk out that same door when it had the chance.