Part 1 of my 2019 NRL season predictions proved two things.
First, based on the steady stream of taunts populating the comments section, my powers of prognostication are about as popular as Elon Musk at a Rio Tinto shareholders meeting.
And secondly, that there’s one thing in rugby league less popular than the Manly Sea Eagles – Mitchell Pearce.
But rather than be deterred, I’m doubling down on my efforts and channelling my inner Tim Bailey. Apologies in advance to Parramatta fans.
Parramatta will add to their cutlery draw
The Eels were a hot mess in 2018. And although the sight of Parramatta fielding an uncompetitive, ill-disciplined band of wooden spooners might be familiar to many, last season was supposed to be different.
Coming off a fourth-place finish in 2017 and with Jarryd Hayne returning to the club, it was believed that 2018 might finally break one of the code’s longest premiership droughts.
Instead, Brad Arthur’s men were a rabble. Their defence was painfully porous, while their attack was clunky and disjointed. Despite a backline featuring the likes of not only Hayne but Corey Norman, Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson — albeit not for the entire season — Parramatta ranked dead last in points scored.
They created the fewest line breaks (69) and line-break assists (43), while ranking second-last for try assists (48).
And if being awarded the wooden spoon last year wasn’t already painful enough, Parramatta enter the 2019 season with a weaker roster compared to this time 12 months ago.
Some will say that Corey Norman leaving the club is addition by subtraction. However, when his replacement is an 18-year-old with precisely zero minutes of NRL experience, it sounds like straight subtraction. Remember, only 18 months ago Norman was Parramatta’s most potent attacking weapon and forced his way into Queensland Origin discussions.
Despite my bleak prediction, blue and gold preseason reports are predictably spectacular. Junior Paulo, unwanted by the Eels only three season ago, is back and in the best shape of his life. The forwards have packed on extra muscle, Blake Ferguson has been a model citizen, Gutherson has shaved off that atrocious tash, and Moses has even learnt how to tackle. Optimism is soaring and the expectation is a return to finals football.
But the reality will be far less rosy. Save for Moses receiving divine intervention or Dylan Brown scheduling a Nicholas Cage-style Face/Off with Cameron Munster, a dramatic improvement in Parramatta’s point scoring ability seems unlikely. A fourth wooden spoon in eight seasons is on the cards.
Perhaps six NRL coaches are under pressure heading into the 2019 season, but four will get the chop.
Firstly, Nathan Brown has to make the finals to keep his job. Simple as that. Newcastle persisted with Brown as he undertook one of the most ambitious transformations since Darren Lockyer’s new rug, but it’s time to see a return on investment.
Sadly, it won’t be forthcoming this season.
The Knights have recruited heavily over the past two years, and collected some superstar talent in Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and David Klemmer. But their roster still has plenty of holes.
Connor Watson is a largely unknown quantity at fullback, and a dummy-half rotation of Danny Levi and Kurt Mann fills me with less confidence than a clean-shaven barista.
I’m expecting the Knights to make some progress and win a few more games, but they still feel another year away. And while Nathan Brown has done a fantastic job of turning this club around, he won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Secondly, it may come as a shock, but we’re entering year six of the Ricky Stuart era at Canberra. Even more surprising is that, despite routinely fielding a lethal attack, Stuart’s sides have only qualified for the finals once.
To put this in perspective, only Newcastle and the Wests Tigers have made fewer post-season appearances during Stuart’s tenure in the nation’s capital. And the Green Machine won’t improve on that record in 2019.
With the combination of Jordan Rapana’s injury, the growing pains that will come with Jack Wighton’s shift into the halves, and the loss of considerable size up front, Canberra are no better positioned to make the finals this year than last.
Stuart may be a living legend in the city, but he’s cashed in his last remaining status points at the Canberra Raiders. If the club miss out on September football once again, Stuart will be out the door.
Third is Dean Pay, who was sold a lemon when he signed up to coach the Bulldogs. Nobody in their right mind, knowing the full facts surrounding Canterbury’s salary cap situation, would have willingly volunteered to take on that job, especially as a rookie coach.
As expected, it’s been another tough off-season for Pay. He’s been forced to shed multiple quality players to remain cap-compliant, while his biggest off-season recruit was embroiled in an unsavory scandal before even lacing up a boot. And that’s without even mentioning the financial fall-out from the Mad Monday fiasco.
Pay missed the finals in his first year as coach, and he now enters the season with his career resting on the weary shoulder of Kieran Foran. In 2015, that would have been a sensible decision. In 2019, it will prove to be a coach killer.
Finally, Brad Arthur is as good as fired already.
After his side regressed significantly last season – dropping from fourth down to 16th – Arthur needs a miracle to keep his job in 2019. Or, at the very least, a return to the finals.
But that won’t happen.
On top of boasting the competition’s worst attack and the most underwhelming spine, the Eels have finished as the 13th rated defence in three of Arthur’s five seasons in charge, including last year. And if Melbourne and the Roosters proved anything over the last two seasons, it’s that defence wins premierships.
Josh Hodgson wins his first Dally M medal
Prior to last season, the Dally M was routinely awarded to the game’s best player, which kinda makes sense.
Johnathan Thurston won four, Cooper Cronk and Jarryd Hayne each got a pair, while Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Jason Taumalolo each picked one up.
But not last year. In winning his first Dally M Medal, Warriors fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck narrowly edged out Tigers halfback Luke Brooks and Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga. No offence to this talented trio, but they aren’t considered the top-three players in the game today.
However, based on the way points are awarded, they didn’t have to be. They just needed to be the best player for their respective clubs on a weekly basis.
With this trend set to continue, Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson will win.
Hodgson missed most of 2018 as he recovered from a torn ACL, but he certainly made up for lost time when he finally got back on the field. In just nine games, he accumulated nine try-assists and seven line-break assists. Projected over a full season, Hodgson would have gone close to topping both counts.
And with the departure of Blake Austin, a new fullback in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and Jack Wighton needing time to acclimatise to life in the halves, the hooker will be afforded plenty of playmaking opportunities. He’s the best of a bad bunch at the Raiders, which will give him the chance to pick up the three points on a routine basis.
Queensland win back the shield
A lot of things had to go their way for the Blues to win the series last year – first and foremost being the representative retirement of Cameron Smith, who was the Maroons’ captain and best player. The sudden nature of the withdrawal was the antithesis of Queensland’s well-oiled juggernaut, and threw their plans into disarray.
Along with Billy Slater, Smith was supposed to ease the loss of legends Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, and take the pressure off of the new halves combination. Instead, coupled with the injuries to Greg Inglis, Michael Morgan and Matt Gillett – not to mention the non-selection of Matt Scott and Darius Boyd – Queensland were suddenly devoid of experience and lacking leadership.
NSW played an exciting brand of football and deserved to win the series, but don’t expect the Maroons to remain on the canvass for long. Pending their availability, Queensland will enter Game 1 with a backline simply dripping with points and featuring the likes of Kalyn Ponga, Corey Oates, Will Chambers, Greg Inglis, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans.
As a proud New South Welshman, this terrifies me. The sad reality is that the Blues have scored more than 20 points in only three of the last 15 Origin encounters. Even worse, the last time Queensland scored 20 points and lost an Origin was Game 2 in 2005, when Andrew Johns led the Blues to a 32-22 drubbing of the mighty Maroons in Sydney. Ah, those were the days.
So while the Blues gained plenty of confidence last year, and blooded a host of potential Origin mainstays, I’m not predicting they can make it two straight.
History suggests that Queensland only need to score 20 points to win a match, and NSW can’t keep that backline in check for two out of the three games.
The Maroons will take the series 2-1.
Rock solid final ladder
1. Sydney Roosters
2. St George Illawarra Dragons
3. South Sydney Rabbitohs
4. Melbourne Storm
5. Cronulla Sharks
6. Brisbane Broncos
7. Penrith Panthers
8. Manly Sea Eagles
9. North Queensland Cowboys
10. Newcastle Knights
11. New Zealand Warriors
12. Wests Tigers
13. Canberra Raiders
14. Gold Coast Titans
15. Canterbury Bulldogs
16. Parramatta Eels