PRICHARD: It’s the Bulldogs to win the NRL title in 2013
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs Greg Eastwood tackles the Melbourne Storm's Todd Lowrie during the NRL Grand Final at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Sydney Roosters are one of the teams that can win the premiership, North Queensland, Brisbane and Wests Tigers are among those that can’t – and St George Illawarra are contenders for the wooden spoon.
After taking last season’s results, subsequent player gains and losses and coaching changes into consideration, and then mixing all of that with a bit of gut feel, I have come up with my mid-summer predictions for season 2013.
For starters, I have split the 16 teams into two categories – the teams that can win the competition, and the teams that can’t. Then I have further split those groups, identifying the most serious winning chances and those that are at grave risk of running last.
So let’s begin.
CAN WIN IT: Canterbury, Melbourne, South Sydney, Manly, Canberra, Cronulla, Sydney Roosters.
CAN’T WIN IT: North Queensland, Brisbane, St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Warriors, Penrith, Parramatta.
MOST SERIOUS CHANCES: Canterbury, Melbourne, South Sydney.
WOODEN SPOON CONTENDERS: St George Illawarra, Warriors, Penrith, Parramatta.
I can’t see premiers Melbourne and grand finalists Canterbury not being right up there again.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy and his players won’t be satisfied with having won one competition, and the club has proved that it can stay at a high level for a long time.
Sure, it was cheating the salary cap for some of that time, but I’m talking about the Storm’s mentality more than anything. It is a relentless outfit.
I would prefer the Bulldogs had something approaching a great halfback, but I don’t deny for one second the ability of their coach, Des Hasler, to still find a way to get the team to go one better than last season.
The acquisition of power forward Tony Williams from Manly will certainly help.
The Rabbitohs may have lost Dave Taylor, but Ben Te’o is a pretty good replacement. Halfback Adam Reynolds has got a full season of NRL behind him now, and the same goes for Michael Maguire as a head coach.
Souths bounced back from a comprehensive loss to Melbourne in week one of the finals last year to at least win through to the third week, and they will gain a lot of benefit from that experience.
Manly worry me.
It was extraordinary that they could play as poorly as they did in their grand final qualifier against the Storm, and they have lost a number of players from their squad for this season without picking up anything stunning in return.
They still have a hard core of matchwinners, no doubt, but I just think there is a question mark over the team in what will be another long, hard season.
I like watching Canberra. They’re an exciting team. There is no guarantee David Furner is good enough to be a premiership-winning coach, but if playmaker Terry Campese can make a successful comeback from injury then the Raiders will be capable of winning plenty of games.
On top of their return to the finals last season, Cronulla made a big splash in the player market. I’m not convinced the players they bought will have as big an effect as some people think, but there is no doubt the Sharks have got genuine depth, and that could mean two or three wins instead of losses at critical times of the season.
That leaves the Roosters as the last team in my “can win it” group. Some will say I’m crazy, but the Roosters are the sort of club that can rise or drop sharply in a hurry, given the right circumstances.
You only have to check their finishing positions in recent years to find the proof.
For example, they finished with the wooden spoon in 2009 and made the grand final in 2010.
The Roosters have had a change of coach – Brian Smith out, Trent Robinson in – and have signed Sonny Bill Williams and James Maloney. Robinson is, I’m told, proving to be a breath of fresh air at the club, and Williams is someone who can have a massive effect on a team’s fortunes.
Plus, the Roosters are now making a late bid for representative centre Michael Jennings, from Penrith.
The usual rules about gradually building towards premierships don’t apply to an outfit like the Roosters. They are a yo-yo club, with the potential to go up this season.
Brisbane suffered a post-Darren Lockyer hangover last season, and it is set to continue this season.
I don’t buy the idea of Scott Prince, signed from Gold Coast, as a saviour in the halves. Prince has been on the slide for a couple of seasons, and turns 33 next month.
I know North Queensland have got a superstar halfback, in Johnathan Thurston, and great props, in James Tamou and Matt Scott, but the Cowboys never seem to be able to turn their positives into a premiership.
Their struggles in road games are well documented, and although they will probably make the finals again I just can’t treat them as legitimate premiership contenders.
Wests Tigers are capable of making the finals as long as they have Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah, but the window of opportunity when it comes to winning the premiership has shut on them for now.
If they couldn’t win it in the last few years, why would they win it this year?
I don ‘t like saying a Wayne Bennett-coached team can’t win the premiership, but I think Newcastle are going to have to wait until enough players come off contract for the club to significantly change the lineup for next season before they can hope to push hard.
A chance of making the finals at best. They have some big names in their side, but lack top playmakers.
New Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart will presumably improve the team’s defence, but the Eels are starting off a low base, having run a long last in 2012. Can Stuart get erratic halfback Chris Sandow to fire?
That working relationship has as much chance of ending in tears as anything else.
It is always hard to predict what the Warriors are going to do, and even with a change of coach – Matthew Elliott is now there – I can’t get excited about them. James Maloney is a big loss.
Penrith have bought a few good players, but they have lost a couple of really good ones in Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon.
And Jennings could be going as well.
Which leaves us with St George Illawarra.
They finished ninth on 26 points last season, which was only six points ahead of second-last, and they have lost Ben Hornby and Dean Young, both retired, and Beau Scott, to Newcastle.
The future of their coach, Steve Price, is already the subject of huge speculation, with the Dragons chasing Bellamy for 2014.
The red-and-whites could be headed for a significant drop before they start heading in the right direction again, and if you don’t believe me, check out the odds.
The bookmakers have them ahead of only two teams – Gold Coast and Penrith – in premiership betting. Even the Eels are at shorter odds!
After the Bulldogs, Storm and Rabbitohs, I see nine other teams competing for the remaining five spots in the top eight. They are Manly, Canberra, Cronulla, Sydney Roosters, North Queensland, Brisbane, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast and Newcastle.
My top eight, in order, is Canterbury, Souths, Melbourne, Canberra, Cronulla, Manly, Sydney Roosters and North Queensland.
And to win the premiership?
I don’t think the fanatical Hasler is going to run second two years in a row, and I don’t think he’s going to finish any worse, so it’s the Bulldogs to win.
Greg Prichard has spent all of his working life in the media, from way back when journalists were still using typewriters. He has covered rugby league, football, AFL and various other sports for News Limited and Fairfax newspapers and also worked for magazines, radio and pay television. He is now freelancing. Twitter: @gregprichard