Statistically, two or three teams that finished in the top eight in the previous season usually drop out of the top eight in the next season.
But last season was exceptional, and rather than the usual 26 to 28 points that would normally would get you into the top eight, all teams had 32 points from 15 wins and one bye. In fact teams placed fifth to eighth each had 32 points while teams in places first to fourth were all just one win ahead.
So the competition in the top eight was the tightest in living memory, but the ninth team, Wests Tigers, trailed well behind the top eight by six points. The Raiders were a further four points behind and the Knights were another two behind them on 20 points.
In 2018 the Parramatta Eels, Manly Sea Eagles and the North Queensland Cowboys dropped out of the eight, and in 2019 I am predicting the Broncos, Sharks and Warriors to struggle, with the Titans, Knights, Raiders and Cowboys likely to press them for spots.
At this time last year I tipped the Broncos to struggle to make the eight because of their halves combination but was proved wrong. In 2019 the Broncos have a new coach but have lost three experienced forwards and are looking to their young promising forwards who kept them competitive towards the end of last season to fill the gaps.
The Broncos need to overcome the spectre of their finals elimination by the Dragons at Suncorp and a tough start to the season if they are to make the finals with all their expected Origin commitments. I think that the Broncos halves are of no concern in 2019, but a lack of experience in the forwards appears to be a worry for coach Anthony Seibold with his late hiring of Shaun Fenson and from the Cowboys.
For the Broncos young pack to perform defensively they need confidence, which may evaporate with a tough start to the season and Origin commitments.
The Cronulla Sharks have likewise lost a few experienced players while some others starting to reach their use-by date. The retirement of Luke Lewis and an injury to Wade Graham add further weakness to the forwards roster. The backs have lost centres Jesse Ramien and Ricky Leutele, with the shock loss of fullback Valentine Holmes to the NFL.
In this context the recent addition of Warriors half Shaun Johnson does not seem to address potential gaps in the team and the Sharks depth looks likely to be tested in both the forwards and the backs as the season progresses. The departure of deregistered coach Shane Flanagan and replacement with the inexperienced John Morris adds to the mixture which may not gel as well as it did last season.
New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors have lost star half Shaun Johnson as well as replacement half Mason Lino but are apparently content to rely on potential ISP replacements with no NRL experience to speak of to do the job in 2019.
It is a big ask for an ISP player to perform in the NRL week in, week out – particularly in a position as important as halfback. The chosen replacement for the Warriors is likely to see big second-rowers targeting him in attack and defence to both test his confidence and tire him out, and it is really not fair for the Warriors coach to be putting any ISP player into that position at the beginning of the season.
No doubt there will be other views as to who may drop out of the eight, but I cannot see the Roosters, even with the addition of Angus Crichton; the Storm, even with the loss of fullback Billy Slater and his combination with hooker Cameron Smith; Souths, even with Wayne Bennett as coach; or the Dragons, even with Corey Norman providing additional attacking options, dropping out.