Penrith versus Gold Coast in the 2013 NRL grand final

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Phil Gould and the Penrith Panthers need a rethink (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)

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Fellow Roarer Greg Pritchard has made his January predictions for the NRL this year.

Can’t disagree with most of what he said, so I’m going to focus on the coming season’s dark horses.

I’ve selected two teams and rated their chances of being a major surprise in 2013.

Really, most ‘predictions’ aren’t really predictions at all – just rather obvious statements of fact. The vast majority of the time, teams perform to expectations based on their talent level.

That’s why any sane person will say last year’s top four will be up there again, with Manly possibly sliding a game or three. The Dragons will probably be worse. Cronulla might be one or three wins better.

Great. Got that out of the way. Now let’s see if we can find anything else in our NRL tea leaves.

The two teams I’ve nominated to surprise everyone and win the title next year are Gold Coast Titans and Penrith Panthers.

(I hear you saying two teams can’t win the premiership in one season. Wrong. 1997, anyone? Alright, not fair. I know that two can’t win it, but it’s not fun to nominate dark horses if you’re not tipping them to go all the way.)

I have a feeling about the Coast. Scott Prince is not a big loss – his form has been mediocre in recent years when he’s gotten on the field. I don’t know who the new halfback is going to be – maybe Albert Kelly – but Aiden Sezer is going to be a tremendous player and, as Canterbury and Souths showed last year, with enough talent elsewhere it is possible to contend without an absolutely dominant halves combination.

Gold Coast have good talent spread across the park. Greg Bird, Dave Taylor, Jamal Idris (who may even be training this pre-season), William Zillmann finally started to show signs of fulfilling some potential last season. Matt Srama is a future rep hooker. Then you have quality workers in Nate Myles and Ashley Harrison.

In this situation, you only need a couple more things to go right to contend.

Kelly or Jordan Rankin stepping up at halfback (I’d consider moving Bird to five-eighth with Sezer at halfback as well). One of their prospects having a breakout year. Maybe another acquisition – Michael Jennings is making a fool of me by not yet signing with the Roosters; he would be a huge addition for the Titans.

So that’s dark horse number one: Gold Coast will win the title in 2013.

The Panthers’ case has weakened in recent weeks, given the fact they’re going to lose one of the best attacking centres in the game.

Except that in recent times, if you watched their games, Penrith haven’t really had Michael Jennings anyway. Not the way NSW had him last year, probing out of dummy half and looking dangerous with every possession.

So he may not be a loss but in some ways it might help, forcing Ivan Cleary to re-orient his attack.

Penrith have not added outstanding talent, but they have added a lot of useful talent and, once again, if some of their prospects pan out, they will move up a lot of notches in 2013.

Dean Whare, Lewis Brown, James Segeyaro, Wes Naiqama, Mose Masoe and Sika Manu are all players that will make a team better.

Segeyaro can give them a weapon at dummy half, and I like Penrith’s pack – Dayne Weston, Sam McKendry, Tim Grant, Masoe and Manu could be a handful and provide a terrific platform.

Although Luke Lewis has been a fantastic player, I agree with Phil Gould and Ivan Cleary’s decision to start over and get younger and, by extension, hungrier.

Okay, so the forwards might set a good platform – but for what?

This is where it might get tricky, but Lachlan Coote and Luke Walsh gave me hope toward the end of 2012 – especially Coote, who seemed more relaxed at five-eighth, without the pressures of being an attacking force from the back, a mantle he didn’t quite live up to.

Josh Mansour, when healthy, could be outstanding for Penrith at fullback. Naiqama and Dean Whare could be a decent centre combination, and….

Yeah. I know. I’m essentially banking on Mansour and Coote breaking out, with strong support from the halfback, an okay three-quarter line and a surprise from the under-20s.

But something niggling at me says that Penrith’s whole will be a lot better than its parts. At least I hope so, because it would make me look really smart (and lucky).

So there it is. Penrith and Gold Coast to battle it out in the grand final. With both winning. Place your bets.

Another year, another great season of NRL and international rugby league. Do you have reflections on the year that was? What's on your wishlist for 2015? If you're feeling inspired, you can share it with other Roarers by submitting an article.
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