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With my predictions for the bottom eight now sorted, there are no prizes for guessing the eight teams I have selected to be still alive in September next year.
But where exactly will they finish? Today I reveal the sides that will finish between fifth and eighth position.
8th – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
After an early exit in the 2017 finals series the Cronulla Sharks will be hoping that some fresh faces will be enough to catapult them back into title contention. The signing of Matt Moylan is an interesting one. The former Panther displayed glimpses of his enormous potential at the foot of the mountains, most notably in his one-man show at Bathurst in Round 14 against Canberra last year.
However, Moylan does not yet have a developed long-range kicking game and is more suited to chiming in and out of play rather than controlling game management. Hence, if Cronulla are to push for another premiership, halfback Chad Townsend must step up in James Maloney’s absence as to allow Moylan’s natural abilities to shine. I am just not quite sure that Townsend can take ownership of his team.
Josh Dugan’s arrival on the Shire offsets the departure of Jack Bird, and the former Dragon should add to an already threatening backline that includes Kangaroos sensation Valentine Holmes. While aging, Cronulla’s forward pack is dominated by representative footballers and remains an asset.
Regardless, discipline is still the primary area of concern for Shane Flanagan’s men. Cronulla averaged the most errors and penalties conceded in the competition last year. The Sharks are still capable of a top-four finish, yet the Moylan-Townsend combination just does not fill me with enough confidence to predict immediate success.
7th – St George-Illawarra Dragons
Paul McGregor’s men experienced a bitterly disappointing end to their 2017 campaign. However, wise purchases in the form of halfback Ben Hunt and international prop forward James Graham see them as a strong chance of featuring in next year’s finals series.
St George Illawarra’s forwards were the primary reason for their improvement in 2017. The addition of Graham will bolster an already formidable pack that includes Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizell and the rapidly improving Paul Vaughan.
Meanwhile, the acquisition of Hunt should provide the Red V with much-needed stability in the halves. Five-eighth Gareth Widdop is a talented player, yet during his time at the Dragons his development has been hindered by the lack of a defined halves partner. Hunt is in many respects a very similar player to Widdop, particularly in relation to his dangerous running game. The pair also possesses a strong kick game, and each player should complement the other well.
With an exciting new halves pairing, powerful forward pack and solid backline, there is no reason why the Dragons cannot push for even a top-eight finish in 2018.
6th – Penrith Panthers
Will 2018 finally be the year that the Penrith Panthers take the next step towards being true premiership contenders? Anthony Griffin’s men entered the 2017 season burdened by high expectations. Unable to reach the lofty heights of premiership glory, the Panthers still remain a team of potential.
Could the purchase of two-time premiership winner James Maloney be just what Penrith need to qualify for their first grand final since 2003? Maloney’s wealth of experience and game management seems ideal for Penrith’s current situation.
The rapid rise of Nathan Cleary has been a joy to witness, with the young halfback becoming the youngest player to score 200-plus points in a season last year. However, with Maloney at five-eighth, Cleary will no longer have to shoulder full responsibility for Penrith’s attack.
Up at the front, 2017 saw the emergence of Corey Harawira-Naera and sudden improvement of Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Conversely, experienced campaigners Trent Merrin and James Tamou were unable to provide the impact that their high salaries demanded. Bryce Cartwright also had a year to forget on and off the field in 2017. This season shapes as a critical year for the skilful forward, who has great potential yet is still burdened by inconsistency.
Ultimately the Panthers will never be true premiership contenders unless they overcome key faults in their game. Griffin’s men missed the most tackles on average in the competition last year (32.9) and averaged the fourth-most errors (11.0). Until these old habits are resolved, Penrith will struggle to match it with the elite teams of the competition.
5th – Brisbane Broncos
While the Broncos still possess a high-quality list, the loss of halfback Ben Hunt may prove more significant than first thought. Anthony Milford’s $900,000 price tag suggests that he is the one that must now shoulder the added responsibility. Milford is a brilliant player, yet he will need to aim for more consistency if he is to grow to become the dominant playmaker that Brisbane now need.
Of equal concern is Brisbane’s losses up front. The departures of Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese’ese will require fresh faces to step up in their absence. Matthew Lodge returns to the NRL for the first time in four years – a significant period away from the game. Coach Wayne Bennett will need Lodge to undertake the enforcer role previously held by Adam Blair, yet there is no guarantee that he will be the solution.
Brisbane’s other big name recruit is NSW Blues representative Jack Bird. Bird is a highly versatile player who may prove to be worth $1 million a year. However, he is simply not worth that much playing in the centres, where his impact is limited. If the Broncos are to get the most out of Bird’s purchase, his future is as a ball-playing lock.
The Broncos should figure in the top eight once more, yet they will need Milford and Nikorima to perform consistently if they are to challenge for a spot in the top four.
Do you agree with my selections? Let me know in the comments below.
Tomorrow I will reveal my predictions for the remaining four teams as well as my pick for the premiership for 2018.