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The NRL 2018 prospectus – every club analysed

The Cowboys head to Brisbane to take on the Broncos. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
7th March, 2018
125
2860 Reads

The footy is back! The long, empty desolation of the off season is over and we can finally get back to what is really important in life: rugby league.

For all of our complaints and discontent we love this game and here’s hoping this season is the best ever. To paraphrase Conan the Barbarian when he was asked what was best in life: ‘crush your opponents, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their supporters’.

Right now every one of us supporters has that most magical of things: hope.

Right now we can all believe that this season can be great for our club and that just maybe on the final day of the season our tribe will be in joyous frenzy as our captain and coach raise the Provan Summons trophy.

However, the cold reality is that there will be 15 vanquished sides whose supporters will be left to search through the debris of the season to find just what went wrong and what they need to do to fix it.

So what does each side look like coming into the new season? What looks good? What looks bad? Where are they going to finish?

The Brisbane Broncos Ltd

Roster changes
Big ins
: Jack Bird, Matt Lodge
Big outs: Ben Hunt, Adam Blair

The stars
Anthony Milford had an ok 2017 with 16 line break assists and 17 try assists. But his six line breaks and seven tries were well below what he is capable of. If the Broncos are to improve Milford must be leading the way.

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Andrew McCullough is pivotal to the success of the Broncos. His organisation of the defence, his own superb defence, and his ball distribution is massively underrated. But not by me. He’s had the unfortunate luck to play in the era of Cam Smith. Any real chance the Broncos had in 2017 was cruelled by McCullough’s injury.

Who needs to lift?
Lots of Broncos need to lift. Milford and Kodi Nikorima probably have the most heat on them, but the forward pack must give them room.

The pressure is on
Wayne Bennett. It is his third season back at the Broncos and there are huge expectations on the supercoach. Nothing less than a top-four finish will be tolerated.

Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett gives directions during training

(AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Matt Lodge. The amount of flack the Broncos and their sponsors are copping for signing Lodge up is quite immense. Not only must he keep his nose completely clean, he needs to show form bordering on that of Shane Webcke and Glenn Lazarus. There is nowhere to hide.

Their challenges
Defence. They conceded the second highest average missed tackles and highest metres conceded in 2017. They’ve got to fix those stats.

What they’ve got going for them
A huge crowd, a great draw, a very experienced coach and a lot of talented players. Now to make it click.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: seventh. Jack Bird and Matt Lodge could change the landscape a fair bit if they perform to their potential. I just don’t see a true leader in this side and you need a true leader – a Darren Lockyer, Paul Gallen, Johnathan Thurston, Sam Burgess – to really succeed.

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The Canberra Raiders

Roster changes
Big ins
: Charlie Gubb, Sam Williams
Big outs: Dave Taylor

The stars
Josh Hodgson. Sidelined with an ACL, the likeable Yorkshireman is pivotal to the success of this Raiders side. The question is whether they can still be in contention when he returns.

Jordan Rapana. Amongst all of the disappointment of the 2017 season Rapana just continued on where he left off. Breaking tackles and lines, scoring tries and running hard.

Who needs to lift?
The lot of them really. Shannon Boyd, Junior Paulo, Blake Austin, Jack Wighton and Aidan Sezer have more gears to then than they got into last year – and they know it.

However, Joey Leilua needs a big 2018. His undisciplined play in 2017 lost a few crucial games. He needs to get back to his best brand of simple and hard footy.

Their challenges
Josh Hodgson being absent from Hooker is their biggest problem. Sivila Havili is likely to take the first 25 minutes of each game before Aidan Sezer comes into the hooking role, adding another kicking and passing option. The question is whether it will work.

Aidan Sezer Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2016

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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Further, they’ve got to learn to grind wins. So many games they lost by small margins – including three in golden point – were the death of their 2017.

What they’ve got going for them
Talent throughout their roster, a reasonably good draw and a fire in their bellies.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: sixth. Barring major injuries or misfortune, the lessons learned from 2017 should see the Raiders back as contenders.

The Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

Roster changes
Big ins
: Kieran Foran, Aaron Woods, Moses Suli
Big outs: James Graham, Josh Reynolds, Sam Kasiano, Moses Suli

The star
Well, that’s the big question at the Bulldogs: who is the star? David Klemmer is certainly superb, as is Josh Jackson. What they need is some real stars to rise in attack.

Who needs to lift?
Kieran Foran needs to get back to his best form and quickly. The Bulldogs total inability to score points in 2017 was at the core of their problems. Moses Mbye, Will Hopoate and Michael Lichaa need to be right there with him.

Their challenges
Scoring tries. It is as simple as that. No side scored fewer tries in 2017. Dean Pay will ensure that their defence is in order but they’ve got to get that old Bulldog entertainer back into their game.

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What they’ve got going for them
Dean Pay is Bulldog to the core and will add a no nonsense approach to the club. Further, you wouldn’t want a more dedicated band of supporters. The Bulldogs are a great club that are unlikely to spend any great amount of time in the doldrums.

Dean Pay Bulldogs coach

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Where I reckon they are going to finish: ninth. I don’t think they’ll be as flashy as their fans will like but I expect the Dogs to grind out a lot of tough wins in 2018.

The Cronulla Sutherland Sharks

Roster changes
Big ins
: Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan
Big outs: Jack Bird, James Maloney

The star
Andrew Fifita. On his day the big unit is just awesome. When it isn’t his day he is often pedestrian and a liability. I reckon Fifita is going to have more of the former than the latter in 2018.

Who needs to lift?
Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan, in top form, will see the Sharks as an incredibly dangerous side. However, both of their form can be patchy. They both need to get rid of that qualification if the Sharks are to prosper.

Their challenges
Is Wade Graham a good choice as captain? Can Moylan provide the same quality service that James Maloney did? Can Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen squeeze full seasons out of their ageing frames?

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Paul Gallen Cronulla Sharks NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

What they’ve got going for them
Andrew Fifita and Valentine Holmes can break open games. Further, young Jayden Brailey showed in his debut season that he could be a great hooker.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 10th. There are a lot of old bodies at the Sharks, as well as injury prone players. Further, I think Maloney for Moylan was a bad exchange and I think it is going to cost the Sharks.

The Gold Coast Titans

Roster changes
Big ins
: Bryce Cartwright, Michael Gordon
Big outs: Jarryd Hayne, Chris McQueen

The star
Ash Taylor. There is a lot of pressure on the young halfback but he’s up for the challenge. He’s got a very handy front row of Jarrod Wallace, Ryan James and Nathan Peats to play behind too.

Who needs to lift?
Bryce Cartwright needs to decide what he is: a 5/8, a second rower or lock. Whichever it is he must also get his defence in order because he is going to be targeted. And it is now or never for Kane Elgey.

Their challenges
The Titans seem to be a home for waifs and strays. However, there is a great deal of potential and skill across the park. If Garth Brennan can make this team gel then they could very well surprise quite few sides.

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However, their line breaks and tries conceded in 2017 were very bad.

What they’ve got going for them
There is a complete lack of expectation from the Titans in 2016. That could really work in their favour and free them up to play some good footy. They can fly under the radar quite easily.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 16th. Their roster really struggled in 2017 and it is hard to see it being much different this year. But to quote Principal Skinner “Prove me wrong children! Prove me wrong…”

Ashley Taylor Gold Coast Titans NRL Rugby League 2017

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Roster changes
Big ins
: Moses Suli?
Big outs: Blake Green

The stars
Daly Cherry-Evans. I know lots of you love to hate this bloke. But I don’t. I reckon he is superb. Not only is he a lovely guy but he is a fantastic player. In the last five seasons he is behind only Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and James Maloney for try assists. There will be plenty more in 2018 too.

The Turbo Brothers. Jake and Tom are just wonderful ornaments to the game of rugby league. And they are only beginning. No one wants to get the “next Brad Clyde” tag but Jake is a guy who bears comparison in his work rate and skill. And Tom could be one of the best fullbacks we’ll ever see.

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Who needs to lift?
Dylan Walker needs to realise his clear talent by becoming consistent. Further, the forward pack needs to give Martin Taupau more support in bending the line and giving the backs room to move.

Their challenges
Replacing Blake Green is their obvious issue. At present ex-Raider Lachlan Croker has the running for the role. However, his defence is suspect. Personally I’d put Dylan Walker in the six jersey.

Dylan Walker Manly Sea Eagles NRL Rugby League 2017

What they’ve got going for them
The Brookvale crowd is a wonderful force of parochialism that I’ve seen influence referees many times. However, they can’t play all their matches at that rolled mud heap surrounded by dilapidated grandstands. So their fortunes in 2018 come down to whether the rest of the team can follow the examples of DCE, Taupau and the Turbo Brothers and get some good team performances going.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 11th. In spite of Jake Trbojevic and Taupau, I don’t rate the Sea Eagles pack enough to see them as true contenders.

The Melbourne Storm

Roster changes
Big ins
: Sam Kasiano
Big outs: Cooper Cronk, Jordan McClean, Tohu Harris

The stars
Cam Smith. He’d be the first player picked in pretty much anyone’s dream team.

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Billy Slater. Can he squeeze one more year of greatness to add to his stellar career? How bad is that shoulder?

Cam Munster. There may be issues with this guy. But not with his game.

Who needs to lift?
Brodie Croft. Just imagine trying to fill Cooper Cronk’s boots. Just imagine that amount of pressure.

Sam Kasiano. He is almost unrecognisable after a preseason with the Storm. I am drooling with expectation about Kasiano as a Bellamy zealot. It could be remarkable.

Their challenges
Adjusting to life after Cronk and getting the ageing bodies of Smith and Slater through the season. If they can do both of those things well then they should be right there when the whips are cracking again.

What they’ve got going for them
A superb list and a proven game plan. Add to that a religious zeal in following the plans of coach Craig Bellamy.

Craig Bellamy tall

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Where I reckon they are going to finish: second. Their draw isn’t as good as some other sides but I don’t see Cam Smith going quietly into gentle retirement.

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The Newcastle Knights

Roster changes
Big ins
: Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Tautau Moga, Herman Ese’ese, Slade Griffin, Mitchell Pearce

Big outs
: Dane Gagai

The star
Mitchell Pearce. There is a whole heap of pressure on Mitchell. Lots. There’s been a fair bit of recruitment to support him though.

Who needs to lift?
Jacob Lillyman. If this just isn’t to be the last contract before retirement then Lillyman needs to step up. Last year’s form with the Warriors was unremarkable. Mind you, the Warriors have a habit of turning very good into pedestrian I guess. However, if Lillyman doesn’t improve he’ll be out of the first team.

Their challenges
The only way is up. But they must go up. They’ve got to become a bonded team that plays consistent footy. They’ve got to earn the respect of those 15,000 hard core, rusted on, die hard Knights fans.

If things don’t improve rapidly they Nathan Brown will be gone, and gone quickly.

What they’ve got going for them
A completely new list full of experienced players, added to a few really good existing players: Mitchell Barnett, Nathan Ross and Sione Mata’utai. They’ve also now got a stable hierarchy off the field and the most loyal bunch of fans I‘ve ever seen.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 12th. It takes a while for a new side to gel. By mid-season this mob should be getting their act together but it might be too late to make the finals.

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Mitchell Pearce training Newcastle Knights.

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

North Queensland Cowboys

Roster changes
Big ins
: Jordan McLean, Todd Carney?
Big outs: Kalyn Ponga

The stars
Johnathan Thurston. He’s back. Normal transmission will be resumed.

Jason Taumololo. Good luck trying to stop him.

Michael Morgan. He’s a bit special this one.

Who needs to lift?
Hard to really point out someone. Javid Bowen could improve at centre. I personally would like Ethan Lowe to get a haircut.

Ethan Lowe North Queensland Cowboys NRL Finals Rugby League 2017

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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Their challenges
Living up to expectations now they are back at full strength. The Cowboys – now with added Jordan McLean – are level in the betting with the Storm and the Roosters.

What they’ve got going for them
The Cowboys are an awesome side. Minus Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jordan McLean they made the grand final from eighth spot. They’ve got masses of big game experience and self-belief.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: first. Yep, I think the Cowboys are the team to beat in 2018. Injury is their greatest risk.

The Parramatta Eels

Roster changes
Big ins
: Kane Evans
Big outs: Semi Radradra

The stars
Nathan Brown. Yeah, that’s right. You heard me. Nathan Brown. If the Eels are to do well in 2018 Brown must get great metres. In order to be flashy out the back the Eels pack must go forward and this big unit knows only one way.

Sure, he’s stomped a groin or two in the past, but his performance in 2017 highlighted that the Rabbitohs list management perhaps wasn’t going so well, and also that Brown is a very good player.

Jarryd Hayne. Last chance saloon for the great Australian dreamer and Parramatta prodigal son. How we love hacking down the tall poppies in this country. It’s a good thing we also love redemption stories. This would be a good one – at least if you are part of the Blue and Gold faithful.

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Who needs to lift?
Cameron King. The Eels have had issues at number nine since Nathan Peats had to depart. If the Eels are to proper in 2018 then Mr King (or Kaysa Pritchard) must deliver.

Their challenges
Life after Semi will be a big challenge. Living up to their top-four finish in 2017 will also be a challenge. There is no question that the Eels have a very exciting backline. However, if the forward pack doesn’t make room for them then there may not be much excitement at all.

What they’ve got going for them
There is a lot of attacking power in that backline. The above celebrated Nathan Brown. Kane Evans arrival. Oh, and Brad Arthur. He’s pretty good indeed.

Is Arthur the man to lead the Eels out of the mire?

. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)

Where I reckon they are going to finish: fourth. I reckon the Eels will go pretty well. I think their experience in 2017 will be built on and the Eels will prosper.

The Penrith Panthers

Roster changes
Big ins
: James Maloney
Big outs: Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright

The stars
James Maloney. My love letter to James Maloney says it all.

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Josh Mansour. The best ball returning back in the NRL.

Nathan Cleary. The up and coming star of the NRL.

Who needs to lift
James Tamou. The bloke with the biggest head in the NRL needs to get back to the type of metres he made for the Cowboys if those star backs are to get the room they need.

Their challenges
The rumours of disharmony coming out of Panther Park are loud. Watching Regan Campbell Gillard and Trent Merrin stumble through denials of issues at the foot of the mountains on NRL 360 was painful. The best way to put that to rest is by performing on the field.

Panthers' Trent Merrin looking strong

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

What they’ve got going for them
The ability to perform well on the field. There is some real star power in the Panthers side and partnering young Nathan Cleary with the wizened James Maloney may well be a master stroke.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: eighth. I reckon they’ll struggle early but come home strongly to sneak into the eight.

The South Sydney Rabbitohs

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Roster changes
Big ins
: Dane Gagai, Greg Inglis
Big outs: Nothing of great note.

The stars
Sam Burgess. Had an injury plagued 2017 but is still a game breaker. I suspect he is a bit unbalanced.

Greg Inglis. Will he still be a superstar after an ACL injury?

Who needs to lift?
The Twin Towers of Burgess, George and Thomas, need to get back to their 2014, the Rabbitohs desperately need it to happen if they are going to succeed in 2018.

Their challenges
Can John Sutton keep his place in the side to achieve his 300 games? Can the Burgess Twins get back to top form?

Can Angus Crichton perform well with one foot out the door – to the Rabbits arch enemy no less?

Cody Walker: what’s happening there? Anthony Seibold. Can he coach?

What they’ve got going for them
Dane Gagai is quite the signing. Damien Cook is playing great footy. Sam Burgess is injury free – for now.

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Where I reckon they are going to finish: 13th. I have distinct doubts about the Rabbitohs ability to overcome their challenges.

greg-inglis-south-sydney-rabbitohs-nrl-rugby-league-2017

(AAP Image/David Moir)

St George Illawarra Dragons

Roster changes
Big ins
: James Graham, Ben Hunt
Big outs: Josh Dugan, Russell Packer, Joel Thompson

The stars
Gareth Widdop. The Englishman just keeps getting better. This could be his best season yet.

James Graham. The big, angry red head will have a point to prove. He’ll be a handful.

Ben Hunt. This is his chance to show how good he can be.

Who needs to lift?
Euan Aitken. Lots of us have big wraps on the kid. It’s time for him to step up.

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Mary McGregor. The Dragons list is now good enough that anything but good results will probably be the end of the Dragons coach.

Dragons coach Paul McGregor

(AAP Image/Michael Chambers)

Their challenges
Making it all click. The Dragons now have the talent so they’ve got to put it all together. Missing the 2017 finals in the way they did must have really hurt.

What they’ve got going for them
Like I said: the list is good. Really good. The best it has looked since 2010.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: fifth. The Dragons will just miss the top four but they’ll make the finals.

The Sydney Roosters

Roster changes
Big ins
: James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk
Big outs: Mitchell Pearce, Aiden Guerra, Kane Evans

The stars
Cooper Cronk. The Queensland halfback now faces his greatest challenge. Can he bring the famous Storm discipline to the frequently undisciplined Roosters. Will they buy in? Can they buy in? There is no question that Cronk has some good cattle at the Tri-colours, but are they Wagu grade?

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James Tedesco. This bloke has only just started. Now he’s in a quality side where he can pick his moment instead of having to carry the sides attack. I’m tipping him to score 20+ tries this season.

Latrell Mitchell. If this bloke gets his head straight – if he can quell the brain explosions – he has all the ingredients of a superstar.

Who needs to lift?
Jake Friend. Cooper Cronk is used to playing behind a super disciplined pack that made reliable yards. A large part of the reason for that was Cam Smith. If Cronk is to get the room he needs then Friend needs to drive the pack to deliver it.

Their challenges: Living up to the expectations. With their recruiting and incredibly favourable draw they have little excuse for failure. A preliminary final is a pass mark. However, their depth isn’t that great. If they get a few injuries things could go the shape of a pear.

What they’ve got going for them: A superb team. A settled coaching panel. A brilliant draw.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: second. If the Roosters don’t finish top two I’ll be stunned. And if they don’t make that mark expect heads to roll.

Cooper Cronk Roosters trial

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

The Wests Tigers

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Roster changes
Big ins
: Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer
Big outs: James Tedesco, Aaron Woods

The star
Josh Reynolds. He’s been hampered by injury and not up to his brilliant 2012 form. But don’t doubt this bloke. He’s an incredible competitor and has a huge heart. Fans – including me – love him for his passion and drive. He is ready to take on this challenge.

Who needs to lift?
Luke Brooks. It is time for the number seven to stop being a speed bump. He has to aim up in defence.

Luke Brooks passes the ball

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

Tuimoala Lolohea. We can all see his potential. We saw it when he was at the Warriors. It is time to deliver.

Ben Matulino. Repeat above comment for Lolohea.

Their challenges
The most threadbare list in the NRL. The most unstable front office. A difficult draw. An expectation that they’ll fail in 2018.

What they’ve got going for them
Ivan Cleary. Outside my own team’s coach, this bloke is my favourite. He got the Warriors to a grand final. The Warriors. To a grand final.

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Then he got a battered and bruised Panthers side to a prelim. I still have no idea why Gus Gould sacked him. If anyone can get this mob to become a force it is Cleary.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 15th. The mountain is too big for them to climb this year. However, expect improved and professional performances from the Wests Tigers in 2018.

The New Zealand Warriors

Roster changes
Big ins
: Tohu Harris, Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Peta Hiku, Blake Green
Big outs: Kieran Foran, Manu Vatuvei, Ben Matulino, Ryan Hoffman, Jacob Lillyman, Bodene Thompson

The star
Shaun Johnson. This bloke – when he is on – is as good as any playmaker in the game. He is fast, skilled and damned good looking. Possibly the best looking player in the NRL.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. This bloke is poetry in motion. The problem is we need ‘Man from Snowy River’ length poems from Roger and less hi-ku.

Jacob Saifiti, left, and Tyler Randell of the Newcastle Knights tackle Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the Warriors

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

Who needs to lift?
Shaun Johnson. We all know how good he can be. However, he hasn’t been influential. He rarely wins games. He only has a 44.75 per cent win ratio at the Warriors. He needs to become a dominant player, not just a guy who does flashy cameos now and then.

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The forward pack. The Warriors pack is usually big and fearsome – and completely ineffective. It is 15 years since Kevin Campion put some real starch and go forward in the Warriors pack. I suspect he sorted a few of his team mates out behind the sheds to focus them too. Perhaps Kevin needs to be brought back to do it again.

Their challenges
Where do you start… I can’t think of any aspect of this side that isn’t a distinct challenge. What is working?

What they’ve got going for them
Blake Green. It’s a lot to put on the bloke but he might be the bloke to get this side going in the right direction.

Where I reckon they are going to finish: 14th. Expect a coach sacking and player departures. The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

Shaun Johnson running with football

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

Tim’s predicted ladder after the home and away rounds
Cowboys first
Storm second
Roosters third
Eels fourth
Dragons fifth
Raiders sixth
Broncos seventh
Panthers eighth
Bulldogs ninth
Sharks 10th
Sea Eagles 11th
Knights 12th
Rabbitohs 13th
Warriors 14th
Wests Tigers 15th
Titans 16th