Can you smell it? It’s in the air. No, not the false optimism emanating from every team’s fan-base. That’s a given at this time of year, before dreams are inevitably and brutally squashed.
I’m talking about that unique smell that can only be my annual fearless predictions.
It smells like success, no?
Over the last two seasons, I’ve scored 7.5 out of nine for my ten fearless predictions. If that maths seems a little wonky, you must be new around here.
So strap yourself in, take out a second mortgage on your house, call your bookie, and plan that overseas holiday, because here are my five fearless predictions for the 2020 NRL season.
1. The Roosters will win the minor premiership – but not the grand final
I was originally going to predict that the Chooks won’t win the premiership, then realised how lacking in boldness it is to pick one team out of 16 to not win it all; even if that team happens to be the back-to-back premiers.
The Roosters are still the team to beat this season. They have plenty of talent, an exceptional coach, and are a well-run club with fantastic infrastructure. They’re the bookies’ favourites in 2020, and they’ll finish on top of the ladder.
However, the absence of Cooper Cronk and Latrell Mitchell will be felt.
Cronk is a winner, plain and simple. The calmness, poise, intelligence and tactical nous he provides his teams are irreplaceable, and come finals time, I can easily envisage the Roosters missing his direction and leadership when it matters most.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s ability to be a game-winner is not easily replicated. For all the drama he may have generated last season, he’s still immensely talented, and talent wins games.
There may be some ‘addition via subtraction’ from a culture perspective with Mitchell’s departure, but players of his ability still need to be replaced.
It’s two losses significant enough for me to predict the repeat premiers won’t repeat again.
2. Latrell Mitchell won’t finish the season at fullback
The line of thinking that Latrell Mitchell isn’t completely suited to fullback has been expressed by many people since he announced last year that he wanted to make the move to the back.
One of those people is yours truly. Mitchell is a brilliant centre, yet I’m far from convinced he’ll make a great fullback.
The qualities of good first-grade fullbacks include defensive positioning with quick reads and instincts, a good ‘motor’ for the constant movement required, the ability to stay focussed for almost the entire game, and excellent communication skills with your teammates.
I’m not sure the above paragraph has ever been used to describe Mitchell.
You need to be incredibly active at custodian. As just one example, observe the support play of James Tedesco. Watch how many times he runs in support of a teammate, but doesn’t actually get the ball. His ability to continue to do so all game – waiting for the one opportunity that pays dividends – is truly impressive.
While it’s not fair to compare Mitchell to the world’s best fullback, that level of activity does illustrate that Mitchell will need to change his game considerably to be an effective No.1.
It wouldn’t shock me if he’s back in the centres by the end of the year.
3. Kalyn Ponga will win the Dally M
I’ll keep this short and sweet: Ponga is a dynamic, exciting player, and a media darling. If he remains injury-free, he’ll poll strongly in the Dally M.
He led the count for most of the season in 2018, and was in the mix halfway through last season as well, before injuries derailed his season.
Could 2020 be his year? Why not.
4. A 20-40 kick will decide a game
You read it here first. Well, actually, maybe you didn’t and someone else has predicted it! Regardless, the new 20-40 kick rule will decide the outcome of a game this season.
Though the rule’s addition has some opponents, I actually like it.
Despite the fact only 39 40-20s were kicked in 201 games last season, we’ll see a team behind on the scoreboard, pinned on their own line, and with the clock ticking down, decide to roll the dice. They’ll kick from inside their own 20-metre line, find touch 40 metres out from their opponent’s line, get another set, then score and win in the dying seconds.
And it will be great for the game.
5. Paul Kent will be positive about rugby league all season
5. Canberra will win the premiership
Normally I’d apologise to Raiders fans at this point and declare that, sadly, their team will now definitely not be winning the premiership. However, after a couple of years of exceptional predictions, the nation’s capital can begin stocking up on champagne. Or green milk.
I’ll admit I was late onto the bandwagon last year – it wasn’t until the grand final that I started believing they were a good side. Better late than never, right?
Heart-breaking losses can make or break a team, and Ricky Stuart’s side will actually be better for last year’s gut-wrenching defeat.
They now know they’re good enough to win the premiership, and that confidence will see them be even better in 2020.
What’s better than runners-up? You know the answer.
It’s the Green Machine’s year.
Bonus prediction – the ladder at the end of the season
1. Sydney Roosters
2. Melbourne Storm
3. Canberra Raiders
4. Parramatta Eels
5. Manly Sea Eagles
6. Penrith Panthers
7. South Sydney Rabbitohs
8. North Queensland Cowboys
9. Newcastle Knights
10. Brisbane Broncos
11. Wests Tigers
12. Cronulla Sharks
13. Canterbury Bulldogs
14. St George Illawarra Dragons
15. New Zealand Warriors
16. Gold Coast Titans