The teams making the NRL’s top eight in 2017

Jimmy Smith Columnist

By , Jimmy Smith is a Roar Expert

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    Basic maths tells you that 16 into eight just don’t go. The problem with that is, as of right now, there are 16 teams hoping they will be playing semi-final football come the back-end of this NRL season.

    In reality, there are probably only 12 or 13 teams that believe they can make the semi-finals, and as we know, eight of them will be proved correct. So who will they be? What are the changes from 2016? Come with me and I’ll take you through where your team will finish in season 2016.

    1. Melbourne Storm
    Last year’s runners-up had the best defence in the league and you can’t help but think they will be close to that again. They have lost some players but have great cover in Josh Addo-Carr for Marika Koroibete, Cameron Munster for Blake Green and Nelson Asofa-Solomona more than covers Kevin Proctor.

    The big question is Billy Slater. Melbourne played basically all last year without $1 million of their salary cap and they still made the grand final. If they could have scored one more try, they win that game, and you have to believe that Billy would have got it for them somehow.

    2. Sydney Roosters
    Personal bias aside, you know the Roosters will improve dramatically on what they did last year. They need to.

    The Mitchell Pearce distraction and subsequent suspension and injuries to Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner meant their season was over well before the halfway mark of the competition.

    Mitchell Pearce Sydney Roosters

    With only the loss of Sam Moa and the emergence of Connor Watson, Latrell Mitchell, Dylan Napa and the signing of Luke Keary means they will be significantly stronger. At the 2017 season launch, coach Trent Robinson described the pre-season as their best ever under his reign – when a man who isn’t prone to hyperbole says that, you take notice.

    3. Penrith Panthers
    With no players of note lost in the off-season (James Segeyaro, Jamie Soward and Elijah Taylor all left during 2016) and James Tamou added to a strong squad, it would seem the Panthers will be stronger again in 2017.

    Given the age of the squad, their premiership window has the feel of triple bi-fold doors. Nathan Cleary and Te Maire Martin are key – they are young, talented and composed. Can you imagine what Cleary will be like in five years time?!

    The pick-up of Mitch Rein gives them cover at hooker and at halfback (Wallace can move from 9 to 7) and shifting Bryce Cartwright into the second row will be better for both player and team.

    Oh and Matt Moylan, the best clutch player in the league, plays for them.

    4. North Queensland Cowboys
    The losses of James Tamou and Ben Hannant is significant, but they can be covered by Coen Hess as a potential middle forward. He is an outstanding forward who also has the ability to play on the edge.

    Matt Scott’s health is now almost as important as Johnathan Thurston’s. Almost. Although in the twilight of his career, Thurston is still the best player in the league.

    Expect Javid Bowen and Kalyn Ponga to be irresistible this year.

    5. Canberra Raiders
    The Raiders played the most exciting brand of football in the league and finished like a steam train in 2016, coming just a couple of Edrick Lee fumbles short of a grand final appearance.

    Their power through Junior Paulo, Josh Papalii and Joseph Tapine is exceptional, although Canberra’s depth in the halves is an issue; I can’t help but think that both Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer are better ball-runners rather than creators and controllers.

    Canberra Raiders player Blake Austin

    So who runs the team?

    That would be Josh Hodgson, who was brilliant in 2016. Expect him to do more work defensively as teams recognise his importance to the Raiders’ chances.

    6. Parramatta Eels
    If they didn’t rort the cap they would have finished eighth in 2016. When you consider the search for motivation when docked those 12 points, to achieve that is something incredible.

    The Eels had the second-best defence in the league during a year when players could have been forgiven for thinking that extra scramble didn’t mean much in the scheme of things.

    Bevan French will be great at fullback and score plenty of four-pointers (surely McDonalds can get involved here – “would you like French tries with that?”) but the man at the heart of this team is Corey Norman. If the remorse he has shown publicly is genuine, and his talents fully explored, he can light up the NRL in 2017.

    7. New Zealand Warriors
    The spine of this team is just mesmerising. Issac Luke is key, especially without an adequate back-up. His hunger to prepare himself physically will give you an indication of how well the team will perform.

    Kieran Foran makes Shaun Johnson better (a scary proposition) because the former Manly and Parramatta star will run the team. The forwards, lead by Ben Matulino, Charlie Gubb and Sam Lisone, will do their job and the cream will come to the top with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. He will run for an average of over 200 metres per game and has started adding some ball playing on the edge to his repertoire.

    A very, very special player.

    8. South Sydney Rabbitohs
    I know the appendicitis will have him out for a month, but I can’t help but think that premiership-winning and now State of Origin half Adam Reynolds will continue to get better.

    Robbie Farah will get the big forwards over the advantage line better than Cameron McInnes did and an injury-free George Burgess means good things for the team.

    A full preseason means Sam Burgess will have an improved year and the hunger for Greg Inglis, now with his future settled, will be on display; winning their last four games in 2016 was just what coach Michael Maguire needed to instil some belief in him for the pre-season.

    Rabbitohs player Greg Inglis celebrates after scoring a try during the NRL Preliminary final between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)

    “Where’s my team?” I hear you scream.

    Well, they miss out. Four teams from inside the eight in 2016 will miss the semi-finals in 2017 including premiers Cronulla and perennial finalists Brisbane.

    Add to that Gold Coast and Canterbury and you see the changing of the guard that is at play. The Tigers, Manly, Newcastle and the Dragons round out the rest of the competition.

    Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote “the universe is transformation; life is opinion”. This season, we will see a marked transformation of the status quo as we once knew it.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    Jimmy Smith
    Jimmy Smith

    A well-known and respected NRL commentator, Jimmy Smith played professional rugby league in an 11-year career that included stints in both the NRL with the Roosters, Western Suburbs and South Sydney, and England's Super League with Salford. He earned over 150 first grade caps before hanging up the boots and switching to the commentary box. You can find him on Twitter @ThatJimmySmith.