Every year us loyal fans look at the new NRL season, consider the year before, consider the news signings of every club and rank them on where they should end up at the end of the season.
We almost all end up with egg on our faces as some or most of our predictions fail to stack up.
Two things have been consistent over the past five to ten years. The first the Storm are predicted by most to do very well and go deep into September, and that invariably happens pretty much every year.
The second is that there are a significant number of upsets in the first seven or so rounds with surprises for many before the cream eventually rises to the top.
I thought I’d go out on a limb like a few others and put down my thoughts before a ball is kicked in anger on where we will be at the end of the regular season and why. We’ll then revisit this list and see how I went come the first week of the finals.
1. Sydney Roosters
The chooks expect to be at the business end of the ladder every year, and who could blame them? With the rosters they manage to roll out year after year,the magic elixir they’re taking in the recruiting office is the envy of every team.
This year they’ve had two massive signings to add to their runners-up position from last year. James Tedesco alone allows coach Trent Robinson a huge amount of depth in his backline, with super talented players like Latrell Mitchell moving into the centres.
This signing alone would have had me tipping a dead heat with the Storm for the minor premiership, but the signing of arguably the best halfback in the last decade and possible future immortal in Cooper Cronk takes a lot from the Storm and gives it to the Roosters.
The loss of Kane Evans may be noticeable, but the Chooks forward pack managed to keep up with the best of them in 2017, and I don’t see that declining too far in 2018. A string of significant injuries aside, anything less than a minor premiership and a grand final appearance would be an underachievement.
2. Melbourne Storm
I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, am I? They’ve had reasons in the past decade not to be the very cream of the crop, and yet every year they find a way. When Billy Slater went down, young gun Cameron Munster stepped up to fill the shoes nicely, and game experience for Brody Croft in 2017 will set him up nicely to fill the shoes of Cronk in his first full year.
A Cronk clone he is not, and nor should he be expected to be. As a result, it’s fair to say that the Storm will come back to the top of the pack rather than streaking out in front of it in 2018.
The Storm formula of taking the discards of other clubs and rejuvenating them into premiership-winning high performers shouldn’t be understated either. While many may be looking to see if Sam Kasiano becomes a fitter and more devastating forward than before, I expect another former dominant forward in Jesse Bromwich to storm back into form and wreak havoc after an injury and scandal ravaged year last year. Kasiano may be the foil that also helps him achieve that.
I expect a certain top four finish, most likely right behind the Roosters.
3. Parramatta Eels
The 2017 season saw the Eels came home with a wet sail following some disastrous preceding seasons. I don’t think this was a 2009-type flash in the pan this time, though.
Brad Arther has been rebuilding this team nicely since the salary cap scandal forced him to let players, including NSW hooker Nathan Peats, go. Since then it is only Peats’s position of hooker that Parramatta has struggled with.
The 2017 success was really down to playing well as a team. The speed at which Mitchell Moses combined with Corey Norman in the halves should alarm some opposition teams and coaches.
With a few rough games at the start, Moses was playing the top-tier footy Tigers fans had been promised since his junior days, and he took it to another level playing for Lebanon at the World Cup. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but his name will be raised come Origin time if this trend continues.
The work and skill of Nathan Brown in 2017 made him the best value signing in 2017, and the addition of Kane Evans for 2018 adds to a pack with plenty of mongrel already.
The Jarryd Hayne signing is largely irrelevant to a top-four finish. If he doesn’t come into form Brad Takarangi has already shown that he can get them there. If Hayne turns the corner, though, it could have a devastating impact on this competition with the talent that’s around him.
4. North Queensland Cowboys
Johnathan Thurston’s retirement from rep footy from can’t be overstated. Last year’s shoulder injury in Origin did two things: it brought something special out of Michael Morgan – and what a year he had – and it made JT sit on the sidelines and watch his team go all the way to the big dance. That must have been hard for him, and it will only make his will to bring home the ring even stronger.
With Matt Scott back to support the best forward in the game in Jason Taumalolo and with boom rookie Coen Hess in for a big second season, I expect the Cowboys to round out a very tight top four
5. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
The 2016 premiers came back to earth with a thud last year. They’re a team that relies heavily on their forward pack and a constant pressure game, but it didn’t quite come together enough in 2017.
The loss of James Maloney and Jack Bird in attack is big, though I expect Valentine Holmes and Matt Moylan to thrive behind a still dominant forward pack. They’ll win more games than they lose, but the teams that match them up front with a bit of mongrel will get the better of them.
6. Brisbane Broncos
They were hot when Ben Hunt went to hooker last year, which gave Kodi Nikorima the chance to shine. They really played well together. The loss of Hunt is still big, though, the acquisition of Jack Bird means there are two star centres running off a very solid spine in Andrew McCullough, Nikorima, Anthony Milford and Darius Boyd.
That back line behind some of the other packs in the NRL would be electric, but this is where I think the Broncos are weak. The addition of Matt Lodge is a boost, but I don’t think they have the pack to consistently trouble the best teams listed above.
7. St. George Illawarra Dragons
On paper, wow, what a team! The Dragons pack last year was very strong, and it only gets stronger with the addition of James Graham. The sight of him chasing Josh Dugan all the way to the try line in the 78th minute of the World Cup opener had me thinking two things: one, there’s no way we’d ever see Aaron Woods do such a thing and, two, it’s just the sort of heart the Dragons need.
Ben Hunt is a really good signing and will be good for Gareth Widdop, who had a cracker 2017. I think they have a very high ceiling, and with a lot of luck they could push right into the top four.
I can’t put them higher than seventh for two reasons. First, I don’t see a lot of depth in this side, and a few injuries could turn their season south very quickly. Second, they have made brilliant starts to the season only to fade over the past few years. They need to show me they have it in them to compete for a whole season before I put them higher.
8. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles*
They were the big surprise for me last year, and I think they played above themselves. The Trbojevic brothers are sensational, as are Marty Taupau and Daly Cherry-Evans.
The loss of Blake Green will hamper them, with a rookie five-eighth due to step up this year. As it stands, I think it’s a flip of a coin on wins and for/against on whether they’ll beat the Titans for eighth spot.
*The salary cap scandal is why I have asterisked this prediction, as them making the eight is dependent completely on their punishment. The investigation will surely have a toll either way.
9. Gold Coast Titans
I think they’ll be the big improvers this year but will narrowly miss the eight. Bryce Cartwright and Leilani Latu are big inclusions and should flourish in this team.
The old but very steady hands (and feet in front of goal) of Michael Gordon are going to benefit the Titans. Obviously Garth Brennan is a bit of an unknown, but if players like Cartwright, Latu and Tyrone Peachey are fleeing Penrith to play for him, he must have something that players like Kane Elgey, Ashley Taylor and Nathan Peats can buy into.
Outside of captain Ryan James, Latu and Cartwright, I think the pack and with it depth are a bit too thin this year to go deep into September. I look forward to who else is signed for 2019, because this squad is beginning to build nicely.
10. Penrith Panthers
At the close of 2017 I had this team pushing for a top-four position with them at least at the top of the second tier of teams. How things have imploded in the off-season.
Two potential superstars in Moylan and Cartwright have left the club along with Latu. Peachy is gone in 2018. They’re putting up a united front right now, but from the outside things aren’t looking good.
Tenth is as good as I can give them, and the potential to go a lot lower is great. I expect that the only thing that will save Anthony Griffin this year is the prospect that Gus Gould will have egg on his face if Griffin is sacked. Reports of Gould ‘helping out’ at training suggests he himself knows how bad things are in the playing ranks.
11. Newcastle Knights
This is the year they dig themselves out of the cellar. Nathan Brown now has a team worth putting on the field. He should be lauded for making the team he had last year so competitive on the field, and we all saw huge improvements.
Mitchell Pearce and Kayln Ponga are great signings for this club. Aiden Guerra and Connor Watson from the Roosters, Herman Ese’ese and Tautau Moga from the Broncos and Jacob Lillyman from the Warriors round out a long-awaited recruitment drive at Newcastle, but it’s too soon to be talking finals footy yet.
12. South Sydney Rabbitohs
The hangover from the return of Sam Burgess from rugby union still haunts this side. The exodus of players to make way for big Sam’s contract still haunts this side and, as a result, the depth is just not there.
The output of Sam’s two brothers simply isn’t up to potential either. Big improvements from them are required in 2018 to even get close to the eight
Cody Walker and Angus Crichton were revelations in 2017, and the return of Greg Inglis is huge. Though question marks will remain about his knee, halfback Adam Reynolds, while touted for NSW honours a few years ago, is an injury waiting to happen.
13. Wests Tigers
New coach Ivan Cleary did the right thing in not letting the ‘big four’ run roughshod over his team. Though I think he managed to sign the worst of them, it allowed one of the biggest recruitment drives in living memory.
With some astute signings in Ben Matulino, Josh Reynolds and Russel Packer, I expect the 2018 Tigers to have a lot more mongrel about them and to play much harder rugby league. They just don’t have the cattle in the squad to push for finals footy.
14. New Zealand Warriors
What can be said about them that hasn’t already been said? If you look at key positions on paper, you see that they should be a top-four side every year.
One of the best spines in the game has been strengthened by the addition of Blake Green, which should suit Shaun Johnston and down to a tee. But they just don’t have the pack to give them the opportunities this back line needs.
Outside of workhorses Simon Mannering, Tohu Harris and Adam Blair the pack is too thin on quality forwards to make this team competitive. The losses of Ben Matulino and Ryan Hoffman are big, and Stephen Kearney might be the weakest coach in the league.
15. Canberra Raiders
At the end of 2016 the Raiders were the hot tip to break open the 2017 season. A huge pack spearheaded by star English hooker Josh Hodgson had them promising to deliver big in 2017. They delivered next to nothing expect to unearth a star young winger in Nick Cotrick, who carried them last year.
Now their best player in Hodgson is likely out for the season and they’ve recruited no-one of note. Coached by Ricky Stuart, perhaps the second weakest coach in the NRL, I can see this side only sliding backwards.
16. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
The Doggies just had to sack Des Hasler. The loss of James Graham for Aaron Woods was seen by many as a sideways movement. I see it as a backwards one. Woods gets lazy, something that you never got from Graham.
The addition of Kieran Foran may look like a masterstroke, but I don’t see it as a significant factor that will magically make this team score points. Last year they were plain boring to watch, and I don’t see where the points are going to come from.
The fullback has never played fullback before. The Morris twins are in their twilight. William Hopoate hasn’t recovered the form that we saw before his European mission. The hooker doesn’t deliver speedy ball to the halves when requested.
The shining lights in this team are Josh Jackson and David Klemmer. I don’t think they will be enough to get this side going forward often enough for blokes like Foran to do their stuff.
Dean Pay may be the best thing to ever happen to the Dogs, but it won’t be shown in 2018. Maybe this will be the catalyst for Dean Pay to have a clean out and recruit the team he wants to build. I have the Doggies in a close race between the Raiders and the Warriors for the spoon.