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There is a surprise or two in every NRL season, and 2019 will surely be no different.
It’s difficult to pick a top eight for a reason. Punters thought the Cowboys and Eels would be top-four material last season, but instead they languished around the bottom of the table for much of the year.
The fancied sides for 2019 include blue-chip teams like grand finalists the Roosters and the Storm. Sharks, Rabbitohs, Dragons and Panthers fans have the right to dream of bigger and better things in, and the Broncos always seem to do well.
But two or three teams always surprise, just as others unexpectedly falter. So will any of the following four teams be dark horse of 2019, pushing for a finals berth or maybe even more?
The common denominator over the last couple of seasons has been Canberra’s inability to close out close matches and capitalise on what is, on their day, a great attacking game. They were the second-best attacking team last season but still found themselves on the bottom half of the ladder.
In 2017 the Raiders were the third-best attacking side in the competition, but again they weren’t good enough to qualify for the finals.
The Achilles heel is icing games. They lost seven games last season by four points or less, including the first three matches of the season by two points or less.
You only have to watch their four matches against the Panthers in the past two seasons for proof – these were matches they had more or less in the bag but still managed to lose. Last season they led by 10 and 14 points respectively in each of their fixtures but were run down. In 2017 the Panthers scored two tries in the final two minutes to topple them.
It comes down to their game management and defence. If the Raiders are to be more than just a ‘what if’ team for the third consecutive season, they have to fix both. Icing close matches comes down to game management, something you have to get out of their spine.
Josh Hodgson makes a noticeable difference to the side and will help with things if he’s fit the entire season. Aidan Sezer has to step up too. He’s a veteran now, and obviously he has the backing of the club to do the job, having just re-signed for two years.
It’s a make-or-break season for the Raiders. Ricky Stuart has been at the helm for five seasons now, including 2016, when the side made a run to a preliminary final. This is very much his roster, and once again he has placed his faith in Aidan Sezer to be the halfback the Raiders need to close games. The responsibility is not squarely on him, with the defensive lapses an issue the whole side needs to address.
The Raiders will have another frustrating year in 2018, and it might cost Ricky Stuart his job. The Raiders need a game manager, and at the moment they just do not seem to have that, nor have they recruited one. They’ll be in plenty of games once again and score lots of points, but ultimately they’ll fall short of a finals berth.
Last year was a success for the Knights. No, they didn’t make the finals, but they made strides on recent seasons by being competitive in most fixtures and staying in contention for a large chunk of the season. Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga made instant impressions, the latter doing so well he jagged a State of Origin debut after just a handful of first-grade games.
The Knights are a side I’m always happy to see do well. They have a loyal fan-base that has supported them through a dark few seasons at the bottom of the ladder and look ready to embrace the success they are hoping to have. This was a side that had an ageing roster when Wayne Bennett left in 2014 and has had to spend significant time recovering from some poor management.
They have steadily built a competitive and experienced roster over the last few years, which holds them in good stead to improve again in 2019. Mitchell Pearce got on the park only 15 times in 2018, and while it might not seem so significant, it left the otherwise inexperienced spine without a leader. In the nine games they played without him, the Knights came away with a win just twice, highlighting the importance of the halfback to his new club.
The Knights add the experience and grunt of New South Wales enforcer David Klemmer to their pack next year. They also add a forward with more Origin experience in Tim Glasby from the Melbourne Storm as well as exciting up-and-comer Jesse Ramien from the Cronulla Sharks. Some more astute buying, as well as hopefully an injury-free season for Pearce and Ponga, should hopefully pay dividends for the Knights.
Forget top eight; this team will be pushing for a top-four berth as their fans finally get some success to cheer about. Kalyn Ponga looks like a player who will be setting the NRL alight for seasons to come, and coupled with the control and experience that Pearce brings, they will be tough to beat in 2019. Some more experience in the pack and some more strike out wide and this side will be one to watch this season.
The Tigers were similarly successful as the Knights in 2018 in that while they weren’t a finals participant, they certainly looked a chance at times, and they claimed a couple of big scalps throughout the season. There wasn’t a bigger upset in Round 1 than their win over eventual premiers the Roosters before they beat the Storm away from Sydney on two occasions.
The Tigers would wind up three wins outside the top eight but able to hold their heads high with some big efforts throughout the season. While their record of close losses was not as prolific as the Raiders, they would lose four matches by a two-point margin.
When the Tigers won games it was off the back of some stoic defending, especially in the early rounds as they frustrated the life out of some opponents. They were ranked fifth across the league in defence, but all the way down in fifteenth for their attack, something that coach Ivan Cleary aimed to rectify with the additions of Robbie Farah and Moses Mbye during the season.
The big story for the Tigers over the off-season has been the coaching circus that has engulfed them. Mostly inflicted by the Panthers’ decision to move on Anthony Griffin and then re-sign Nathan Cleary, the speculation was rife that Tigers head coach Ivan Cleary would return home to Penrith to coach his son. In the end, and despite initial denials, Ivan would leave the Tigers for the Panthers with two years to run on his deal.
In Cleary’s place premiership-winning coach Michael Maguire has been appointed head coach of the Tigers for 2019. While the hysteria over Cleary’s defection was probably warranted initially, the Tigers have come away from things with arguably a more successful coach and someone who can build on what Ivan had started in 2019.
The Tigers are a real chance of finals football this season. Defence wins premierships and defence is built on attitude. The Tigers clearly have something to work with. The Tigers have an experienced spine and some hard-nosed forwards. While they could use some more strike out wide, they are a real gritty unit that proved in 2018 they could compete with the best.
In 2018 we saw only five games out of recruit Josh Reynolds. He will make a real impact in this side with some energy and a real will to make things happen for his team. Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall are getting on, but you sense there is one more chapter in this tale. It won’t be the flashy and flamboyant Tigers of yesteryear, but Michael Maguire will taste some instant success in guiding te team to eighth spot and giving Marshall and Farah a fairytale finish of sorts.
The Warriors may have made the finals for the first time since 2011, but they exited with a whimper in 2018. This must be the most frustrating team in the NRL. Regardless of the recruits and the roster that they possess, they are so often short of the sort of success expected of them.
Over the off-season they have parted ways with Shaun Johnson with a season still to go on his contract. Mason Lino has also departed, leaving the Warriors without an obvious halfback going into 2019.
Symptomatic of the Warriors’ problems was their showing in Week 1 of the finals against the Panthers. Only two weeks prior they had toppled their opponent to the tune of 20 points. They found themselves up by ten early, but once captain and fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck limped off with a quarter of the game gone, they looked lost.
They had a number of experienced players who should have been able to step up in Tuivasa-Sheck’s absence, including Shaun Johnson, Blake Green and Issac Luke, but instead they failed to fire another shot and it was curtains on their season.
The Warriors have a culture problem that 2018 has papered over with a relatively successful result. They need a head coach with more experience who can get more out of big-game players in big moments. The Warriors may have moved Shaun Johnson on for his inconsistency and his inability to fire in big games, but there were plenty of times in his stint at the Warriors where he was getting his side out of trouble.
Without much of a halves pairing to work with and with Issac Luke now the wrong side of 30 years old, the same old demons will haunt the Warriors in 2019. Talented and skillful on their day, their poor attitude and lack of a game manager will see them return to the lower half of the ladder with more questions than answers.
What do you think? Are any of these teams top-eight contenders? Can any of them win a premiership this season?