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Opinion

The 2019 NRL report card: the top eight

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Expert
27th November, 2019
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Season 2019 was the best of years and the worst of years.

We started off in a morass of off-field scandal. We finished off in a morass of on-field scandal. In between we saw some superb footy. We saw stars rise and fall. We saw teams exceed expectations and we witnessed some horror stories.

So how did each team do? Let’s look at the top eight.

Sydney Roosters
Achievement: A+
Effort: A+
2018 finish: 1st – 16 wins, 8 losses, premiers, +181 points differential (PD)
2019 finish: 2nd – 17 wins, 7 losses, premiers, +264 PD

The Bondi boys backed up their awesome effort from 2018 with an even better one in 2019. While the draw was very friendly to them, they won the matches that mattered all year, mixing stellar defence with superb attack.

James Tedesco won virtually every award there was to win, but the whole team contributed. They were brilliant and deserving premiers. Luke Keary, Boyd Corner and Cooper Cronk were also huge. Isaac Liu, Joseph Manu, Latrell Mitchell, Victor Radley and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves were all excellent.

Brett Morris and Daniel Tupou both had their best seasons for years – Tupou’s effort in the grand final had him right in the reckoning for the Clive Churchill Medal with 17 of the hardest, dirtiest kick returns ever made in a decider.

A special shout-out to Mitch Aubusson, who once more proved to be one of the toughest and most versatile players in the game. They also unearthed a future star in Sam Verrills.

The loss of Cooper Cronk and potentially Latrell Mitchell may pose issues in their efforts for a three-peat. However, they are highly unlikely to miss the finals.

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Canberra Raiders
Achievement: A
Effort: A+
2018 finish: 10th – 10 wins, 14 losses, bottom eight, +23 PD
2019 finish: 4th – 15 wins, 9 losses, runners up, +150 PD

The Green Machine really buckled down, applied themselves and did some hard work this season. Their effort was particularly excellent in defence, where they conceded an average of 7.5 fewer points a match from the previous season. This saw them win five more games and finish in the top four. This was somewhat to the expense of their attack, which scored an average of 2.3 fewer points a game.

Stars were unearthed in John Bateman and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. Josh Papalii became the best prop forward in the game and Jack Wighton really came of age.

The loss of Jordan Rapana and Aidan Sezer may well be balanced out by gaining Curtis Scott and George Williams. They’ll need a repeat of that effort in 2020 if this year’s effort is to be seen as more than a flash in the pan. This squad should feature in the 2020 finals.

Joseph Leilua

(Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Melbourne Storm
Achievement: B+
Effort: A
2018 finish: 2nd – 16 wins, 8 losses, runners up, +173 PD
2019 finish: 1st – 20 wins, 4 losses, preliminary final, +331 PD

The purple horde had a very strong season, losing only four games during the home-and-away campaign. Cam Smith, Cam Munster and Dale Finucane were huge. Kenny Bromwich had his best ever season, with a star being unearthed in Ryan Papenhuyzen.

While a bench player, Christian Welch was a huge loss Craig Bellamy struggled to cover. Bellamy ball proved as effective as ever in strangling opponents and winning games, with all but one of the Storm’s six losses being by four points or less.

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In the finals they were bested by the eventual grand finalists, but it was still a very good year by any standard. We wait with bated breath to see what new stars Bellamy will mould in the off season to replace Brodie Croft, Curtis Scott and Will Chambers – and if Cam Smith can squeeze a 19th year of excellence out of his veteran body.

They’ll play finals in 2020. You can bet on it.

South Sydney Rabbitohs
Achievement: B
Effort: A
2018 finish: 3rd – 16 wins, 8 losses, preliminary final, +145 PD
2019 finish: 3rd – 16 wins, 8 losses, preliminary final, +104 PD

It was groundhog day for the Bunnies in 2019, with virtually the same finish after the home-and-away season, as well as in the finals. They had a superb start to the season but had two trots of losing four games in a row, the first during the Origin period.

They lost Greg Inglis early in the season and by year’s end Sam Burgess was playing badly broken. Given that state of affairs, the effort of Wayne Bennett’s squad was very good indeed.

Cameron Murray continued to be a revelation, with Cody Walker also taking a huge step up. How Inglis and Burgess are replaced will say a lot about their chances in 2020. Expect them to make the finals.

Cody Walker and the Rabbitohs celebrate.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Parramatta Eels
Achievement: B
Effort: B+
2018 finish: 16th – 6 wins, 18 losses, wooden spoon, -176 PD
2019 finish: 5th – 14 wins, 10 losses, semi final, +60 PD

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The Eels received a kick up the bum for their horrible 2018 and came out with real purpose as a ten-point-a-match better side in 2019, resulting in an 11-spot ladder climb.

Mitchell Moses, Clint Gutherson and Blake Ferguson were all very good. Future stars in Reed Mahoney, Maika Sivo and Dylan Brown were also unearthed. Their record flogging of the Broncos in week one of the finals will long be remembered in Eels folklore.

With the arrival of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, there is great promise in this squad and if they apply themselves as well in 2020 they could challenge for the title. I don’t want to put the mockers on them, but they should be finalists in 2020.

Manly Sea Eagles
Achievement: B
Effort: B+
2018 finish: 15th – 7 wins, 17 losses, second last, -122 PD
2019 finish: 6th – 14 wins, 10 losses, semi final, +50 PD

Many – including myself – had the Brookvale boys miles off the mark in 2019, possibly a wooden-spooner and certainly not a finalist. The return of prodigal son Des Hasler reignited their passion and results, leading to a nine-place rise up the ladder.

They were led brilliantly by Daly Cherry-Evans, Tom Trbojevic, Jake Trbojevic and Martin Taupau. The likes of Reuben Garrick, Addin Fonua-Blake and Brendan Elliot rose to the task as well.

Had Tom Trbojevic not been injured in the Round 24 match against the Storm, Manly could possibly have gone all the way.

Expect them to be right in the mix in 2020… if they can find a hooker, that is. I’d be very pleased if they didn’t make me eat more humble pie too.

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New Manly Coach Des Hasler speaks to the media

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Cronulla Sharks
Achievement: C
Effort: C
2018 finish: 4th – 16 wins, 8 losses, preliminary final, +96 PD
2019 finish: 7th – 12 wins, 12 losses, elimination final, +50 PD

Four fewer wins for the Sharks in 2019 still saw them make the finals, although the same points tally (26) would have seen them miss out in 2018.

Wade Graham is now a superstar of the game and his lengthy injury lay-off did not help his side. Paul Gallen’s last season saw the old war horse going as hard as ever. Briton Nikora, Bronson Xerri and Braden Hamlin-Uele were unearthed as stars of the future.

Unfortunately, Shaun Johnson failed to have the hoped-for impact and Matt Moylan continued to under-perform. While Andrew Fifita and Aaron Woods were both very good, they failed to produce their dominance from previous seasons. A year that had so much promise was ultimately wasted, ending in mediocrity.

How they’ll fare in 2020 without Gallen and playing out of Kogarah has a big question mark over it. They must buckle down and do some hard work if they want to arrest this slide. They’ll be on the cusp.

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Brisbane Broncos
Achievement: D+
Effort: D
2018 finish: 16th – 15 wins, 9 losses, qualifying final, +56 PD
2019 finish: 8th – 11 wins, 12 losses, 1 draw, qualifying final, -57 PD

Put simply, this was a dismal effort that displayed how a team with all of the possible advantages at their disposal can under-perform in a massive way.

While the performances of David Fifita and Payne Haas were noteworthy, nothing else looked good at all. The Broncos qualified for the finals courtesy of Kodi Nikorima missing a field goal he should have got in Round 17.

Their 25 ladder points was the second lowest ever to qualify for the finals in the NRL era. The Broncos’ 24 in 2007 was the lowest. Their record 58-0 defeat to the Eels in the first week of the finals was an apt finish to a horrid season that should see the power brokers at Red Hill looking to put a broom through the whole organisation.

Having the likes of Darius Boyd still on their books long term, as well as the mediocre returns from former wunderkind Anthony Milford, are massive issues for a side that has at its disposal the biggest pool of juniors in the rugby league world, but has produced so few genuine stars since the great Cyril Connell stopped running their recruitment and development. Given the state of the club, they’ll be fighting to hold onto Fifita.

Expect big changes at all levels of the Broncos in 2020. If there aren’t, then you can expect more of the same rubbish. At this point, making the finals will be touch and go.

Next week, the bottom eight.

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