It’s that time of year where rugby league commentators, journalists, ex-players and fans start giving their predictions for the 2018 NRL season.
There have been a few crazy top eight predictions already, so here are my own crystal-ball musings, which are sure to cause debate.
We will see the return of superstar players like Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis in 2018, while some big names may suffer season-ending injuries.
Young players will become stars and star players will flop. We could see teams written off due to a poor start to the season, but deliver a late-season surge to scrape into the finals. Teams could start the year off with a bang, then fall by the wayside at the backend of the season.
Major upsets will undoubtedly be part of the package, while refereeing controversies will just as likely decide results.
It’s all standard in a season of NRL, which makes predictions damn near impossible. But here are my predictions for the 2018 NRL season anyway, which will hopefully lead to a healthy debate.
Wooden Spooners: New Zealand Warriors
Probably the one thing most league fans (apart from Warriors fans) can agree on, is the likelihood of the Warriors capturing the wooden spoon this year. The subject of ‘culture’ was spoken about at great lengths last year and there is definitely something going horribly wrong in regards to team culture and attitude across the ditch.
On paper, the Warriors have a very talented side, yet coach Stephen Kearney looked completely out of his depth when it came to getting the best out of his players. The Warriors will continue to go backwards and I predict Kearney will be the first coach sacked in 2018.
15th place: South Sydney Rabbitohs
Souths have been lacklustre since their 2014 premiership. And a new coach, the welcome inclusion of Wally Lewis medallist Dane Gagai and the return of superstar Inglis won’t be enough to turn around the fortunes of the Rabbitohs in 2018.
Inglis has played one match in the past 16 months, so it’s a given that it will take time for him to regain confidence and return to his best football. Sam Burgess will again be among the premier forwards in the game, but he desperately needs the rest of the forward pack to step up, which they haven’t done in the past couple of seasons, apart from Angus Crichton.
The Rabbitohs will also be hoping Adam Reynolds can return to his best form. Anthony Seibold will need 12 months to make his mark before things start clicking again for the once mighty Rabbitohs.
14th place: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Although I have the Dogs finishing third last, they won’t be ‘easy beats’ during the 2018 season. Despite the signing of a new coach in Dean Pay and star players Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran, the Dogs will struggle to score points.
The ‘Dogs of War’ will pack a punch up front and in defence, but it’s been several years now since we’ve seen the best of Foran and with the impending positional changes, including Moses Mbye to fullback, Foran will be without an experienced five-eighth beside him. It will take another season or two before the Dogs become premiership contenders again.
13th place: Wests Tigers
The Tigers are the most difficult team to predict for the upcoming season. They have a great tactical coach and some decent signings, but based on the last 12 years, it’s hard to see them being successful.
The club’s decision to bring Benji Marshall home will add depth in the halves, but it will be his experience and leadership which will be most invaluable, especially for struggling halfback Luke Brooks. The addition of Josh Reynolds will also add spark to their attack, and hopefully his competitive nature will rub off on his new teammates.
12th place: Gold Coast Titans
The Titans have a well balanced side of youth and experience. With the Jarryd Hayne drama behind them, the appointment of a highly rated rookie coach and new owners, 2018 is a fresh start for a club that’s been under siege for the past few seasons.
The entire club now has a positive outlook and with a future superstar halfback in Ash Taylor, the Titans will definitely score a few wins this upcoming season. New coach Garth Brennan has had a lot of success in the lower grades, so now is his chance to achieve the same successes in the top grade. For now, however, the Titans are another club that is perhaps a season or two away from returning to finals football.
11th place: Canberra Raiders
Josh Hodgson is a massive loss for the Raiders and the unfortunate release of Kurt Baptiste leaves a giant hole at dummy half. Missing the finals last season, Raiders halves Blake Austin and Aiden Sezer desperately need to rediscover the form that took the green machine to a preliminary final in 2016.
They still have plenty of fire power and plenty of points in them, but consistency and an inability to close out tight games will cost Canberra a top eight spot again in 2018. That will see coach Ricky Stuart under pressure to keep his job.
10th place: Newcastle Knights
The obvious big improvers for 2018. A number of key signings will ensure a competitive Newcastle outfit this upcoming season. Having endured a few horror campaigns resulting in three consecutive wooden spoons, the Knights will perhaps be the most analysed team in 2018 and it will be interesting to see how they handle the weight of expectation.
We will see the likes of Kayln Ponga and Herman Ese’ese become stars and the Knights will only miss the eight by a couple of wins. But the season will be considered a successful rebuild, ensuring sustained success for the next few years.
9th place: Manly Sea Eagles
Manly will go into the 2018 season with dark clouds hanging over the club in regards to the salary cap situation. Daly Cherry-Evans will also have the extra workload on his shoulders without an experienced five-eighth after the club decided to release Blake Green. The Sea Eagles will also be without one of their best players from last season, Dylan Walker, who is expected to miss the first month with a leg injury.
However, Manly still possess a strong forward pack and potent backline, therefore they will be there fighting for a top eight spot at the backend of the season, but will fall just short of the finish line.
8th place: St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons fell agonisingly short of qualifying for the finals in 2017 after going down to the Bulldogs in the final round. But with the inclusion of former Broncos halfback and Australia and Queensland representative Ben Hunt, along with Dally M medal favourite Gareth Widdop, the Dragons should be able to do enough to play finals football this upcoming season.
Young fullback Matt Dufty will make significant strides in 2018, providing a real attacking ‘x-factor’ that the Dragons have lacked in recent years.
7th place: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
After their maiden premiership in 2016, it was visibly obvious the Sharks suffered from a premiership hangover last season. Their 2017 campaign was riddled by inconsistency and ill-discipline. It will be interesting to see how key signing Matt Moylan goes with his new club, but he’s not a better player than James Maloney.
Cronulla still have a few big decisions to make regarding key positions, such as where to play Valentine Holmes and new recruit Josh Dugan. On their day, the Sharks have the team to beat anyone, but their ill-discipline and attitude will be their achilles’ heel in 2018.
6th place: Brisbane Broncos
Brisbane welcome new recruit Jack Bird to the club but it’s still unknown which position he will play. With the loss of Ben Hunt, the Broncos will be relying heavily on Anthony Milford to take his game to the next level and for Kodi Nikorima to live up to his potential and establish himself as Brisbane’s next long-term halfback.
Their forward pack will also be under the spotlight. Boosted by the return of Andrew McCullouch at hooker, there are several new faces who will be looking to establish themselves and make the proud and prestigious Broncos jersey their own.
Despite reaching a preliminary final in 2017, Brisbane’s finals campaign consisted of uninspiring performances coming off the back of some big losses at the backend of last season. As usual, they will be certainties for the finals, but they won’t reach the level of the top teams in 2018.
5th place: Penrith Panthers
Many have tipped the Panthers to finish top four but with all the expectations placed on this team for the past few years, they’ve failed to deliver. Nathan Cleary will take his game to the next level in 2018 and with the experience of James Maloney joining him in the halves, the Panthers will be a genuine premiership contender.
My concern with Penrith is their coach and his perceived lack of man management skills. I have my doubts as to whether Anthony Griffin is capable of guiding this club to it’s full potential.
4th place: Parramatta Eels
The difference between Parramatta and Penrith is coach Brad Arthur’s ability to get best out of his players both individually and as a group. The likes of Mitchell Moses and Nathan Brown have improved dramatically under Arthur’s guidance and Parramatta’s key strength is a very skilful backline playing off the back of a very aggressive forward pack.
2017 was a mixed year for the Eels. Their two massive wins over the Broncos were memorable, but their loss to wooden spooners Newcastle and being outclassed by the Cowboys in last year’s semi-final showed they occasionally went into games with a poor attitude.
Brad Arthur is a smart coach and that’s an area which we will see a major improvement. The biggest question mark is obviously the Jarryd Hayne factor. Arthur isn’t the kind of man that will be influenced in any way by Hayne and he could potentially get the best out of him as well.
3rd place: Melbourne Storm
The reigning premiers will be a force again in 2018. But we’ll see the Storm ever so slightly move backwards after the likes of Tohu Harris, Jorden McLean and, most importantly, Cooper Cronk moved on to different clubs.
The only reason Storm aren’t in the top two is that they will likely drop a few games during the State of Origin period, when they lose Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Will Chambers and Cameron Munster. Their depth doesn’t look as promising as it has in previous years.
2nd place: Sydney Roosters
The Roosters have lost a few valuable players but have gained superstars in Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco. When you look at the this team on paper, they’re as complete and as dangerous as any team in the comp. They will be a benchmark team in 2018 and with the addition of Cronk, players like Luke Keary and even Tedesco himself will take their games to another level because Cronk’s guidance and leadership will be invaluable.
My concerns for the Roosters is their forward pack, which lacked consistency at times last year, including the mauling they received in last year’s preliminary final. Also, with the players they’ve lost, they may struggle with depth in key positions should they suffer a few injuries.
Many pundits have the Roosters finishing first, but like the Storm, they will drop a few games during the Origin period, which will prevent them from claiming the minor premiership.
Minor premiers: North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys’ ‘culture’ is the envy of every other team in the NRL. And not just the NRL, but teams from other sporting codes as well. The way this club picked themselves up off the canvas after losing both co-captains Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston – along with the countless other injuries to key players throughout the 2017 season – is nothing short of miraculous.
Most of the credit has to go to coach Paul Green. They entered last year’s finals series mentally and physically busted, but they dusted themselves off and made the grand final. In 2018, they will possess arguably the best forward pack in the competition, led by the returning Matt Scott, Australian representative and premiership winner Jordan McLean and the game’s most destructive player, Dally M medallist Jason Taumololo.
Along with the return of halfback Thurston and Michael Morgan, who is in career best form, the Cowboys will be another benchmark team in 2018 and will take out their maiden minor premiership. The Cowboys will finish ahead of the Roosters and Storm because Origin won’t affect them as much as in previous years.
Thurston is only committed to the Cowboys, they have a ready-made replacement in the halves in Te Maire Martin, and the depth in their forward pack will see them through the representative period. The Cowboys will have several NRL quality players able to fit into their top 17 each week.
Grand final: North Queensland versus Parramatta
If last year’s heartbreaking defeat in the grand final isn’t enough incentive, the Cowboys will have extra incentive this year and that’s to send Thurston into retirement with another premiership. Thurston himself will be motivated like never before.
The Cowboys will qualify for their third grand final in four years because they possess one of the best rosters in the NRL, one of the best coaches in the NRL, they are battle-hardened and have plenty of big match experience.
The Parramatta Eels have improved every year since Brad Arthur took over as coach, even despite the salary cap drama that ruined their 2016 season. And in 2018 they’ll improve on their shortcomings.
There is something about this team that most other teams don’t have, which will enable them to beat the likes of Melbourne and the Roosters and qualify for this year’s grand final. That is ruthless aggression. They will have the ability and enthusiasm to bully top teams out of the contest and have more than enough strike power to finish the job.
The Eels will be motivated to improve on their lacklustre exit in last year’s finals series and have the self belief that they can beat anyone on any day. However, the Cowboys will have too much class and overcome the Eels in a very physical and very intense grand final.
2018 NRL Premiers: North Queensland