THEY call it the “off-season” but, in reality, rugby league never stops.
Player movements, board blues, player managers linking their clients to other clubs, or even other codes before they miraculously re-sign with their current club on extended deals – all that jazz.
It’s been enough to send Kickoff to our regular stool at Dicey Rileys to stare blankly into pints of Guiness – our very own crystal ball.
Now, finally, the time has come, time to upturn those soggy beer coasters and decipher the thought bubbles we’ve scrawled with Keno pencils. Here you have it, Kickoff’s rundown of every teams’ 2018 prospects – cue debate.
Melbourne Storm: It’s become the conventional argument that teams simply can’t go back to back in the NRL. It’s the only really compelling argument you can make in regards to the defending premiers but if you look a little bit harder you can find a couple. No more Cooper Cronk is the obvious one, but the loss of Jordan McLean and Tohu Harris will also take some punch out of their pack. Expect them to be top four again but could just fall short of another title.
North Queensland Cowboys: This columnist’s tip for the 2018 premiership. Plenty will depend on whether Jonathan Thurston stays healthy but we’re in for a hell of a farewell tour if he does. The club found a silver lining to his absence last season in the emergence of Michael Morgan as a genuine match-winner. Matt Scott returns with new recruit Jordan McLean in a pack that already includes Jason Taumololo, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and Cohen Hess. Throw in the JT farewell tour factor and they’re the team the beat for this year’s crown.
Sydney Roosters: The betting favourites for good reason given the arrival of Cooper Cronk. How he clicks in a system not as regimented as Craig Bellamy’s remains to be seen but it’s a good bet he’ll do so seamlessly. Was very unconvinced by the Roosters last year despite their 17 wins and they ultimately went out of of the finals with a whimper. Ridiculous to suggest Trent Robinson is under pressure but, with this team at his disposal, fans will demand rather than hope for success. Will be aiming for the top two.
Brisbane Broncos: Big question mark hovers over Kodi Nikorima in the No. 7 and, unlike previous seasons, Anthony Milford will have the be the man at Red Hill. Some departures haven’t raised a lot of eyebrows but Herman Ese'ese was their best forward last season and has moved on. There’ll also be plenty of expectation on Jack Bird whatever position he ultimately turns out in. Never write off a Wayne Bennett coached side but they look a shade off the top contenders. Top four though, is definitely within reach.
Parramatta Eels: We’ve seen plenty of teams exceed expectation one season only to wobble under it the next. That seems unlikely to happen under Brad Arthur though most attention will be on whether the Jarryd Hayne’s return is a success or a distraction. It doesn’t appear there’ll be a middle ground on that score. Corey Norman was arguably the form half of the competition before hitting some off-field skids while Mitch Moses showed encouraging signs at the back end of last season. A genuine top four prospect.
Penrith Panthers: Possibly the hardest team to get a read on. You’d expect Nathan Cleary to go up a gear and press for an Origin jumper and success has followed James Maloney wherever he’s gone. However, rumours still persist that the playing group still hasn’t warmed to Anthony Griffin. Whether the clean-out the club’s undergone remedies that remains to be seen.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks: Expect them to continue to scrap every week but James Maloney leaves a huge hole. Matt Moylan’s a more than handy pick-up, as is Josh Dugan, but a lot will depend on whether they can steer clear of Northies. Still boast a formidable pack and a fully fit James Segeyaro is a boost. Easy to see them matching their 2017 finish, harder to see them going beyond it.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles: Proved one of the unexpected success stories last season, got real value out of bargain buys Curtis Sironen, Frank Winterstein, Akuila Uate and Brian Kelly. Salary cap stain still hangs over the club and has limited their recruitment, specifically in regards to finding a halves partner for Daly Cherry-Evans. Could find themselves on the edge of the eight at season’s end.
St George Illawarra Dragons: Showed they can be a top four side last season… and then showed why they’ve finished outside the eight in five of the last six seasons. Early indications are that Ben Hunt’s signing will be a good one and the attack looks more balanced with Matt Dufty at the back. Gareth Widdop is Kickoff’s tip for the Dally M. With this roster, top four is not beyond them – missing the finals would be an unmitigated failure.
Canberra Raiders: Were arguably the biggest disappointments of 2017 after reaching the prelim final a season earlier. Plenty of players have since admitted they got too comfortable. A look at Ricky Stuart’s career shows he’s often had early success at a club before falling away. He’ll be looking to buck that trend in 2018 but could ill-afford to lose Josh Hodgson for what will be at least part of the season. In danger of missing the eight again.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs: Have endured tumultuous times off the park of late with messy board elections and will head into the season with a rookie coach. Off-field dramas aside, Keiran Foran’s body has started to quit on him with some regularity. There’ll be plenty of pressure on Aaron Woods to deliver on his big-money deal. Not a knock on him, but still baffled as to why the club made a front-rower such a huge recruitment priority. Points, or rather a lack of them, was their issue last season. Hard to see what, or who, is going to fix that.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Anthony Seibold is one of the more unheralded coaches to rise to the NRL ranks in recent seasons but, if the Charity Shield is anything to go by, he looks to have broken off some attacking shackles. Greg Inglis back from injury, Damien Cook coming into his own, the addition of Dane Gagai all point to an improved showing. Bottom half of the eight is realistic.
New Zealand Warriors: Fans will hope Blake Green will have a positive effect on Shaun Johnson’s game but we’ve seen enough to surmise that, despite his highlight reel, Johnson is not capable of leading a side to finals let alone beyond that. The form of Isaac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has fallen off a cliff since crossing the Tasman. Long considered the NRL’s sleeping giant… expect them to hit the snooze again.
Wests Tigers: The basket case of the NRL but Ivan Cleary has a history of righting wayward ships. Took the great under-achievers the Warriors to the finals four times in six years and rebuilt the Panthers despite minimal finals success. Certainly the right man for the Tigers job but expect them to fall short of the finals this year.
Gold Coast Titans: Now free of the Jarryd Hayne circus, expect the Titans to climb this season. Garth Brennan has long been regarded an NRL coach in waiting and he’s recruited smartly. Michael Gordon seems undervalued everywhere he goes but never by those who play alongside him. At their best Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey, can be more than handy pick-ups. Expect them to be in the top-eight fight in rounds 24-26.
Newcastle Knights: Now for the boldest prediction of the lot, expect the Knights to make the finals this season. It would be a dramatic rise for the wooden spooners but remains possible. Mitchell Pearce is a near perfect signing for both parties. They’ve added genuine experience in Aiden Guerra, Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman, while Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese were outstanding for Brisbane last season. Connor Watson will be also be a good foil for Pearce. It’s enough to scrape into the eight...just.