If you had have asked me at half-time on Thursday night whether this column was going to be remotely positive about either the Roosters or the Cowboys, the answer would have been no.
It’s finally here! We are just hours away from the 2014 NRL season kicking off as fans across the country go into Round 1 with plenty of optimism.
Picking a top eight or selecting grand finalists at the start of the year is as hard as winning lotto some seasons and this season promises to throw up some surprises again.
That said, I’m going to dissect the competition into who I believe are the genuine contenders, potential top eight finalists and cellar dwellers.
I’m sure at the end of the year, I will be proven as completely wrong but hey I’ll have a punt and while I’m at it – I’ll pick some winners for Round 1 as well!
It’s hard to go past the reigning premiers when you’re talking about contenders for the upcoming season.
The Sydney Roosters were the best side in the competition in 2013 and having kept 16 of the 17 players that took part in the grand final together, make no doubt about it – this side will have a target on their back as the benchmark this season and are the team to beat.
The two most dominant sides of the last decade – Manly and Melbourne, will surely be in the mix again in 2014.
Although their squad is a year older and as much as everyone wants these teams to go away, both the Sea-Eagles and Storm will have an influence on this competition for as long as they keep their core group together.
Melbourne still have the best spine and coach in the NRL and Manly have the best backline which will ensure these two heavyweights will contest.
The Cronulla Sharks have had a shocking few pre-seasons off the field however if their performance last year is anything to go by, the men from the shire will be running with the big boys in 2014.
Interim coach Peter Sharp has the best forward pack in the competition which is accompanied by an ever-improving backline headlined by Todd Carney. If Carney stays fit, the Sharks are certain to make a big push for that elusive premiership.
Michael Maguire and the South Sydney Rabbitohs have had their own share of drama off the field this pre-season but with such a methodical and focussed coach holding the reigns, I think the Bunnies will contend again.
The well-publicised Sam Burgess defection to rugby union had me thinking their season had derailed, however the Rabbits have a very talented squad and Maguire’s determination of gaining the ultimate prize will have them physically and mentally on the job in 2014.
There are two sides that I believe have a team when playing at their best will beat any side in this competition and can go all the way but whether they will consistently perform at their best is a different thing altogether.
So I see the dark horses of this year’s NRL being the New Zealand Warriors and North Queensland Cowboys. The Cowboys showed in the back end of last season just how formidable a team they can be.
They again have a terrific line-up led by the Golden Boot winner Johnathan Thurston and a new coach in Paul Green. The problem for the boys up north is they no longer have Matt Bowen at fullback who was an integral part of this team.
At their best, they can match it with the big guns and showed premiership defence during the closing rounds of 2013 but they will need a big year from the other members of their spine to do so.
Matt Elliott has done an outstanding job in recruiting for 2014.
He identified the weaknesses within the Warriors line-up and turned them into strengths. They now have a terrific spine to go with their mobile and physical forward pack along with the devastating outside backs.
Shaun Johnson has all the natural talent in the world and he now has a halves partner with a great football brain in Chad Townsend who can take the pressure off marshalling the side so Shaun can focus on doing what he knows best.
Add to that a world class fullback and your certainly going to cause headaches for opposition defences.
Sam Tomkins can not only read the game well but he has amazing natural talent to go with it, he will be worth the money to the club from across the ditch which should see them as the most improved side in 2014.
Now I can’t 100% guarantee that all seven of the teams I’ve included as contenders will even make the finals but I believe the premiers of 2014 will come from this group.
So with the contenders out of the way, let’s look at teams that are certainly going to cause headaches this year and in patches look like a serious threat without really reaching the heights come September.
The Newcastle Knights made a terrific run to the preliminary final in 2013 and with pretty much the same squad and master coach Wayne Bennett still at the helm, the Knights look like they will certainly challenge for the top eight again in 2014.
The tag ‘Dad’s Army’ was handed to the Novocastrians last season and with the squad a year older and Mullen out for the start of the season, I think they will find it tough to go one better this year.
The Penrith Panthers have recruited more strongly than any other side over the past two seasons and have practically a brand new team.
The team they have built is a top-eight side with quality across the park however I’m not sure they have the halves to go all the way. The Canterbury Bulldogs were grand finalists in 2012 before exiting in week one of the finals in 2013.
This season the Bulldogs again go in with a high quality forward pack however the loss of Barba will hurt them, I can’t see the Dogs being crowned premiers in 2014.
Finishing the 2013 season in ninth position was the Gold Coast Titans.
The Titans were brave last year and only just missed out on the finals. John Cartwright again has a top eight worthy squad in his hands and the addition of Neil Henry to the coaching ranks and another pre-season under the belt for the young halves combination should see this squad produce better results and make the finals.
The Titans local rivals, the Brisbane Broncos, produced their worst-ever season in 2013.
The powerhouse club will not accept failure again this year and the Broncos have a seventeen that can take them into September.
The acquisition of Ben Barba is a great addition for a team that lacked in attacking prowess last season. The Broncos can make the semis but I don’t believe they have the spine to lift the Provan-Summons trophy in 2014.
Well that leaves four teams which look like being in a battle for the wooden spoon rather than the premiership.
The Eels, Raiders, Tigers and Dragons may end up proving me wrong however I can’t see any of these clubs having a significant impact in the 2014 season.
All four of these sides go into the new season with either a new coach, new players or untested talent. I see these four teams struggling and using 2014 as a rebuilding year for the future.
Well that wraps up my thoughts and preview of how I see this season unfolding.
It will be interesting to look back on this at the end of the season and see how I went although with my luck it will probably be a Tigers-Dragons grand final now!
So I’m interested to see which teams other league fans feel will challenge for the title, top eight and wooden spoon as well as who everyone is tipping this opening weekend.
My tips for Round 1 are: Roosters, Bulldogs, Panthers, Sea-Eagles, Cowboys, Tigers, Warriors and Sharks.
Anyways it’s over to you Roarers!