Winter is coming. And thank the good Lord! Because if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past three months it’s that summer and rugby league don’t mix.
For some strange reason, the hot weather seems to affect NRL players a little differently than the rest of us. And the hotter it gets, the worse they seem to behave.
Don’t believe me? Go and check out the action at the Coogee Bay Hotel on a steamy January evening and you’ll see the true impact of global warming.
Climate change aside, what cannot be disputed is how truly awful this off-season has been. The toxic culture infecting the game has everyone talking about rugby league for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, it’s been embarrassing to be associated with the sport.
But after many long months of negative headlines, finally rugby league fans have something positive to talk about – the footy!
The Melbourne Storm host the Brisbane Broncos in a blockbusting opener on Thursday night. But before we kick-off another NRL season, I thought it was time to dust off the crystal ball and make a few predictions.
Roosters keep on crowing
I hate the Roosters. Hate everything about them.
I hate their sustained success in a competition designed to achieve parity. I hate their unrivalled ability to restock their roster with top-end talent on a seemingly annual basis. I hate the power and influence wielded by their front office.
But most of all, I hate the fact that they’re likely to become the first side to win back to back premierships in the NRL era.
Who’s going to beat them? Melbourne? Maybe, but they still have uncertainty at halfback, inexperience at fullback, and infirmity at hooker.
The Cowboys are dealing with life after JT, Cronulla have more on their plate than Mark Tookey, while South Sydney have to adjust to life under Wayne Bennett.
The Dragons perhaps? They seem like the most likely contenders, but the loss of – and distraction surrounding – Jack de Belin shouldn’t be underestimated.
And all the while, the Roosters have only gotten better. They are returning 14 of the 17 players who dominated and decimated the Melbourne Storm in the 2018 decider, including all four vertebrae of the competition’s strongest spine.
In a salary-capped competition, such squad retention following grand final success is simply unheard of.
The loss of Dylan Napa and Blake Ferguson will hurt, but in true Roosters fashion, they’ve replaced them with players of even higher quality.
Origin forward Angus Crichton might not have Napa’s raw aggression, but he’s versatile, consistent, coachable and plays longer minutes.
And while Brett Morris is unable to match Ferguson’s kick returns, he remains one of the game’s finest finishers, and will flourish outside the premier scrum-base combination in the NRL. I expect him to top the try-scoring tally.
And if you think their roster is scary, consider this – they didn’t even play very well in 2018.
For the best part of the season, their attack looked clunky and their defense was rather paltry.
They finally clicked during the finals series and delivered their best performance on the game’s biggest stage, but imagine if they played at even close to that level all season?
Ponga’s form on the nose
As a proud Novocastrian, I am unreservedly and unashamedly in love with Kalyn Ponga.
He is truly the greatest thing to happen to the Hunter Region since the Karuah Bypass. And at a time when iconic bakery chain Darby’s Pies announced they were shutting up shop after almost 50 years, the people of Newcastle need a reason to hope again.
Ponga is that reason.
The hype around this kid is incredible. After almost snaring the Dally M in an electrifying rookie campaign, everyone is expecting massive things from this young Queenslander.
And that worries me. Not only is he shouldering a massive weight of expectation, but he is doing so in what’s likely to be a very challenging year.
For starters, Ponga is making the positional switch from fullback to five-eighth. And while Darren Lockyer made it look easy 20 years ago, the likes of Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne have attempted and failed at making this switch.
The move from fullback will require Ponga to put his still developing frame in the front line of defence while also sharing in some of the kicking duties with Mitchell Pearce. I have confidence that he can handle both, but the learning curve will be steep.
Secondly, coaches have had an entire summer to watch film on Ponga and formulate plans to negate his attack.
They will have analysed his signature move of bouncing out to the left edge, drawing in a defender, and then slipping a late pass to a surging Lachlan Fitzgibbon. And they’ll be ready.
I think of how Cronulla minimised the impact of Cooper Cronk by rushing up on him every time he received the ball, and I can see a similar tactic being deployed against Ponga.
And finally, I just worry about him handling the pressure.
Ponga is not only seen as the future of football in Newcastle and Queensland, but he is also viewed as the fresh face the game has been craving.
A well-spoken clean-skin with a solid set of values is a rare thing in rugby league these days, so I fully expect the NRL to latch on to Ponga and milk him for everything he’s worth.
The kid has a great head on his shoulders, but this has all the hallmarks of second-year syndrome.
Sea Eagles soaring once again
Outside of Dylan Walker’s court case and Tom Trbojevic’s hamstring, no one is talking about Manly.
No one is giving them a chance of qualifying for the finals in 2019, let alone making a premiership push. But I really like Manly’s chances of not only making it to September, but also doing a little damage when they get there.
Why? Let’s start with Daly Cherry-Evans. Say what you will about the acrobatic No.7, but you cannot deny he put together a very strong 2018 season.
DCE racked up eight tries, 15 try assists and 17 line break assists en route to reclaiming his Queensland and Australian representative jumpers, and he did so despite the constant distraction surrounding Trent Barrett.
And speaking of Barrett, his replacement knows a thing or two about Manly.
Des Hasler’s reputation may have taken a bit of a beating during his last season at Canterbury but it would be naïve to write him off.
This is still a coach with a 60 per cent winning percentage spanning almost 400 first grade games, not to mention five grand final appearances.
He will have the Sea Eagles fit, focused and flying under the radar.
And then you have the Trbojevic brothers. Each a superstar in his own right, the development of the tongue-twisting siblings bears a striking resemblance to another set of Manly brothers.
Jake, a hard tackling back-rower with silky hands and a secret desire to play halfback, is an almost carbon copy of Glenn Stewart.
And Tom, with his blistering pace and uncanny knack for popping up precisely when and where he’s needed, has a very similar style of play to Brett Stewart.
But I think Jake is a better ball player than Glenn, and Tom is a more complete player already than Brett was at even the height of his career, which all bodes well for Manly.
Some will say that they don’t have the depth to be competitive, but you could say that about most sides.
If the Sea Eagles get a little luck with injuries, I think they are a red hot chance to play finals football in 2019.
Everyone deserves a seventh chance
Make no mistake, had Mitchell Pearce not succumbed to injury last season, he would have been the NSW halfback.
He was the form No.7 of the competition during the first two months of the 2018 season, and Brad Fittler was poised to select the former Rooster as his halfback.
But then injury struck, Nathan Cleary got his chance and the Blues won the series.
It felt like the dawn of a new era and the end of Queensland’s decade of dominance. In fact, had Cleary been a Maroon, he’d probably be guaranteed a spot in the side for the next half-decade.
I’m a big fan of Nathan Cleary, don’t get me wrong. He represents the future of NSW football.
But the reality is that Cleary was a passenger for the majority of the 2018 series, and his form post-Origin wasn’t much better.
Fittler has staked his coaching reputation on selecting players on form rather than incumbency, so I fully expect the halves to be an open competition heading into the 2019 campaign.
Many will shudder at the idea of Pearce once again leading the NSW attack. And up until recently, I was one of those people. The memories of his clearing kicks being magnetically attracted to Billy Slater’s chest still haunt me to this day.
But after a strict regime of aversion therapy and the fact that Pearce is no longer a Rooster, I have finally come around.
If Mitchell Pearce is the best halfback available when they select the side for the series opener – and I fully expect that to be the case – I say pick him. A halves pairing of Pearce and Luke Keary will certainly give the Maroons a run for their money.
Stay tuned on Wednesday for part two of my 2019 season predictions.