NRL 2013 – Fearless and somewhat belated predictions
With only a few hours to go until season 2013 kicks off… hang on, what day is it? Oh. Ok. Right.
So, with only a few hours to go until the 2nd match of Week 2 of the 2013 NRL season, I thought there was no time like the present to dish up the 2nd annual TRIJS NRL season preview.
The 2012 preview, (which was released on time) didn’t actually steer readers too badly in hindsight. I correctly tipped six of the eight eventual finalists. The two teams I underestimated were Souths and Cronulla. Souths in particular I had badly underrated, placing them in my group of sides that had no chance of making the 8. My only defence in this judgement is that in large part I had thought Souths’ chances were slim due to the fact they had a rookie filling the crucial number 7 jersey. Adam Reynolds amazing season was hard to predict and was a big reason for Souths’ success. Two sides I tipped for top 4 did not make the 8; Wests Tigers and Newcastle. And while I tipped the Dogs to make the 8, I had them scraping into 8th spot, not running away with the minor premiership.
The triumphs from my 2012 crystal ball were having Melbourne and Manly correctly in the top 4, the Cowboys and Broncos correctly in the bottom half of the 8, and the Raiders, whom few had tipped to taste finals, just one spot off perfect in 7th. Finally, for no real reason other than the hunch they may have a letdown, I had the Warriors in 9th, which proved to be on overestimation of their success, not an underestimation as might have appeared likely this time 12 months ago.
I would be happy to be as close again this year, though I should point out that none of the above correct predictions appeared to assist me in any way whatsoever when punting or tipping last year!
On to 2013. I can honestly claim that although this is written midway through round 2, I have not changed any teams predicted finishing position that I finalise prior to round 1. The early form of the Eels, Warriors and Tigers is already threatening to make this list seem comical.
Blow that whistle, ref.
Will not make the 8
16. Parramatta Eels
2012 Prediction – 10th
2012 Result – 16th (6 – 18)
Expert Consensus – 15th
Note: All ‘Expert Consensus’ rankings are derived as the average of Big League, 2012 NRL Punter’s Guide and Daily Telegraph season preview rankings.
To say that 2012 was a poor season for Parramatta would be an understatement. Any preseason optimism generated by the arrival of high priced recruit Chris Sandow was quickly dispelled by a horror start which saw the Eels enjoy just 1 win from their first 11 games. The attack was disjointed and the NRL’s worst defence rarely kept the Eels in the game long enough for them to apply pressure to the opposition. The one positive to be taken from 2012 for the Eels is that their performance can at least partially be blamed on the absence of their talismanic fullback Hayne, who managed only 12 matches in the blue and gold last season. Parramatta did show some ability to spring an upset, with 4 of their 6 victories coming against eventual top 8 sides with a highlight being their home victory over eventual premiers Melbourne.
Very little has changed on the paddock for the Eels, with the retirements of Hindmarsh and Burt offset against the arrival of Darcy Lussick. Supporter’s hopes rest instead on the arrival of Ricky Stuart in the coach’s box. Stuart promises to improve a defence that couldn’t conceivably become much worse; however his current popularity as a coach is belied by his recent NRL record that saw him achieve a 40% win record over his last 6 seasons at the Sharks and Roosters. Stuart has shown an ability to get the best out of strong squads such as NSW and the 2002-04 Roosters, but lifting the Eels out of the cellar is a much different task and one that I believe will prove beyond him in 2013.
15. Penrith Panthers
2012 Prediction – 16th
2012 Result – 15th (8 – 16)
Expert Consensus – 16th
The Ivan Cleary era at Penrith began promisingly enough, with early season wins over the Roosters and Eels leaving the Panthers 2-2 after 4 rounds. That was followed by 5 straight losses, including back to back 30-0 defeats to the Sea Eagles and Tigers, which effectively ended their finals prospects by midseason. Penrith’s squad lacked the quality of many of their rivals across the park, and depth was tested by the early season injury to Michael Gordon, who was restricted to only 7 matches in what proved his final season at the foot of the mountains. Stalwart Luke Lewis missed close to half the year, while origin reps Tim Grant and Michael Jennings were out for vital stages as well. The season was notable for the sudden and unexpected departure of Luke Lewis to Cronulla, following an earlier controversial loss of the captaincy. On the bright side, in Blake Austin and Josh Mansour the Panthers unearthed two young players who look set to feature in the NRL for years to come.
2013 OutlookThis season again shapes as one of rebuilding for Penrith. The overt strategy has been to clear the decks of any large contracts, and to build depth for this season with mid-tier veteran signings which do not jeopardise long term cap flexibility. Overall the top 17 looks decidedly weaker than last year, with Lewis, Jennings and Gordon all departing – though none of those 3 played a full season. Perhaps the less explicable departure was that of young half Harry Seijka to the Warriors. The local junior would’ve seemed to fit perfectly into Penrith’s plan to promote local youth. Depth has increased through the arrival of Lewis Brown, Sika Manu and Dean Whare. The fact that much of the pre season excitement has been focussed on a possible superstar signing for 2014 is an indication that this season is viewed as a stepping stone to future glory by the Penrith hierarchy. Penrith will cause problems on their day but should fall well short of finals football.
14. Gold Coast Titans
2012 Prediction – 15th
2012 Result – 11th (10 – 14)
Expert Consensus – 14th
The Titans can take several positives out of what was an encouraging finish to the 2012 campaign. Their first half of the year was a disaster both on and off the field, with the side winning only 2 of their first 11 matches (including 0/5 at home… take that Gold Coast Suns!) and teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Whether player performance was impacted by the instability in the front office is a question for the sports psychologists; what the record shows is that the 2nd half of the year was much more successful, as a revitalised Scott Prince led the Titans back into playoff contention. Their hopes were finally snuffed out following a disappointing loss to also rans Penrith in round 25. Major positives were the form of Prince, especially after a poor 2011, the emergence of Aiden Sezer in the halves and the good form of recruits Nate Myles and Luke Douglas. A poor record of 1-4 in close games (decided by less than 6 points) ultimately cost the side which finished 2 games out of the 8.
The Titans prospects in 2013 took a sharp dive following foundation recruit Scott Prince’s move to Red Hill. Since their last finals appearance in 2010, the Titans have lost Matt Rogers, Preston Campbell, Nathan Friend and now Prince from the crucial playmaking spine. Young guns Matt Srama and Aiden Sezer have bright futures, and Albert Kelly is talented, but they don’t appear to have the quality and experience to steer the club to finals this year. The acquisition of Dave Taylor continues the trend of the Titans constructing their side as if to succeed at NRL dream team circa 2011 – namely to stack the side with as many backrowers as possible. In Bird, Harrison, Myles and Taylor the Titans back row rotation forces an origin player to the bench (though many will argue that is the natural place for the high impact Taylor) and Jamal Idris to the centres, where he does not appear a natural fit. The strength in the forwards leaves the side weaker out wide and a lot rests upon the young halves and hooker if the titans are to make any impact in 2013.
13. St.George-Illawarra Dragons
2012 Prediction – 12th
2012 Result – 9th (11 – 13)
Expert Consensus – 12th
With a rookie coach and ageing lineup, the Dragons performed largely to expectation in 2012. Their defensive standards remained high, allowing 4th fewest points and 5th least missed tackles. At Kogarah and Wollongong the record was an impressive 8-3. On the negative side, the attack failed to fire and could not produce the points required to win consistently, and the away record, even in Sydney, was poor. The Dragons were the first team in 5 seasons to finish in the top 4 defences and still miss out on finals football. The form of Brett Morris at fullback was a relevation and for such a poor attacking side the back 3 was an area of strength. The continued regression of Jamie Soward from his premiership winning form was the primary concern. Losing Weymann half way through the season was a blow, and while the dragons remained in the finals race until the final weeks they never seriously threatened to impact the playoffs. Highlight of the season for fans was probably the remarkable comeback to win the ANZAC day game in front of a well lubricated crowd of 35,000. The match had seemed over with 5 minutes to go but back to back tries including one from a short kick off saw the Dragons home.
The Dragons appear to be stuck in the decline phase that afflicts nearly all premiership winning squads not coached by Craig Bellamy or Des Hasler. Gerard Beale is the main recruit who bolsters an area of strength. Getting a full season out of Weyman will help though this may be an optimistic hope given his injury history. The departure of veterans Scott, Young and Hornby reduces depth and opens opportunities for juniors to step up. Perhaps the most exciting development for the Dragons is the recruitment of Josh Drinkwater, a star in U20’s with huge wraps on him. We have seen in the last two years that it is certainly possible for a rookie half to lift a side significantly. The fact that Steve Price has opted to start the season with Nathan Fien instead does not auger well for Drinkwater’s chances of emulating Cherry Evans or Reynolds however. The Dragons will once again be competitive however they lack the attacking firepower to trouble the top sides and will miss the 8 again.
May Make the 8
12. Canberra Raiders
2012 Prediction – 7th
2012 Result – 6th (13 – 11)
Expert Consensus – 11th
In many ways, 2012 was a typical season for the Raiders under David Furner. For the 4th year in a row they started slowly and were out of the 8 at the 2/3 mark of the season. In similar fashion to 2010, they stormed home from nowhere to make the finals on the back of a huge winning streak. Continuing the groundhog day theme, 2012 again saw a much awaited return by Terry Campese and another season ending injury, while Josh Dugan again missed time through injury. This is team that is inconsistent and seems to rely heavily on momentum and confidence, both within matches and throughout seasons. At their best they were unstoppable, beating the Minor Premier Bulldogs 34-6, Premiers Melbourne 40-12 at Aami park, and Cronulla 36-4 at Shark Park. They also lost 40-0 at home to the West Tigers in the wet. Major positives were the emergence of Josh Papalii, Jack Wighton, Reece Robinson as more than effective injury cover for Dugan and Sam Williams and Josh McCrone seizing the playmaking duties in the absence of Campese.
The Raiders return with an almost identical side in 2013, so the judgement on whether they will reach the finals seems to rest upon the question of ‘who is the real Canberra Raiders?’ Is it the team that started the year 4-8, or the one that finished 9-3? Yet again, the return of Campese is cited as a positive, but he struggled in his 7 matches last season and the side played their best football without him. The Raiders have plenty of talent across the park and at their best are world beaters but they are too inconsistent and prone to form slumps to be confidently tipped for finals.
11. Sydney Roosters
2012 Prediction – 14th
2012 Result – 13th (8 – 1 – 15 )
Expert Consensus – 13th
2012 was a bit of a year to forget for the Bondi glamour club. Individual players shined on occasion, and in Tautau Moga, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Daniel Tupou some exciting outside backs were unearthed. Yet for a side with so many exciting attacking players they often appeared bereft of ideas and directionless in attack. This is despite having the NSW halfback steering the side. Pearce’s inability to drag the Roosters into the finals reflects poorly on him when you consider the NRL record of recent blues number 7’s such as Brett Kimmorley and Andrew Johns, and may indicate that it is his continued selection in the NSW team that is the aberration. One team the Roosters did not seem to have trouble scoring against was the Tigers, whom they thrashed 42-28 and 44-20. The season was also notable for the amount of exciting and devastating finishes they were involved in. In round 1 they stunned arch Rivals South Sydney with two late tries. The tables were turned in similar fashion by the Dragons on ANZAC day, and Souths had their revenge later in the season in similar circumstances. All three finishes had to be seen to be believed.
The hype is huge for 2013 and on paper the Roosters have an enviable top 17. The NRL, not swayed by handshake agreements, has recently ratified and confirmed the return of Sonny Bill Williams to the NRL, a story which has dominated headlines in the offseason. Sonny Bill was a force of nature in his previous spell at the bulldogs, one of the most physically damaging players ever to play the sport. He will take time to settle in 2013 and expectations as to his impact may be too high. Malcontent Michael Jennings has arrived at Moore park and wasted no time belittling his former teammates. Jennings is a top class finisher and an upgrade over the departed BJ Leilua. The key to the Roosters though will once again be playmaking which is where James Maloney is expected to help. Maloney was ordinary last year at the Warriors after a strong 2011 season, and how much of his form slump was due to his already having signed for the Roosters is a question we should see answered this season (and is a question AFL fans sceptical of the NRL’s mercenary attitude with such dealings would no doubt believe is already settled). The Roosters are one of the most talented sides in the comp however major concerns remain in the areas in which they struggled last year – attacking structure and organisation and defence. Who do they go to on the 4th and 5th tackles in the red zone? SBW or Jennings? Pearce or Maloney? It is an advantage to have so many options but I wonder if at times this year the chooks will be running around headless. A lot depends on new mentor Trent Robinson. If he is as good as Michael Macguire he has the troops to achieve similar success to Souths last year, but with so many question marks I see the roosters missing the 8.
10. Wests Tigers
2012 Prediction – 4th
2012 Result – 10th (11 – 13)
Expert Consensus – 10th
About 30 minutes into last season James Tedesco’s knee went and it is tempting to declare the Tigers season never really recovered. While that would be overstating Teddy’s importance to the side, it was followed by an injury to key forward Keith Galloway and then a suspension to Robbie Farah, and by the time the captain was back the Tigers were in full crisis mode with a 1-4 record off the back of a devastating (yet somewhat familiar) golden point loss to Souths. A mid season seven game win streak pulled the side back into the 8 and they were in contention going into the final round against Melbourne, but in reality the Tigers never hit the heights expected. The Tigers were heavily hit by injuries. Gareth Ellis managed only 11 games in his final NRL season, Galloway missed 6 matches and Farah missed 8. The Tigers were not competitive without Galloway and Farah, the absence of the hooker in particular led to some gaping holes up the middle and huge opposition scorelines. The Tigers struggled to find a replacement for Robert Lui at halfback. Moltzen was ineffective, Miller was given minimal chance and the stop gaps trialled out of position did not provide support to Marshall who was left trying to do too much. The Tigers good patch of form coincided with Curtis Sironen partnering Marshall in the halves, before his season was ended by shoulder problems. Another positive was the superb form of Aaron Woods who stamped himself as a representative star of the future with his strong performances each week. Big name signing Adam Blair was hugely disappointing, further supporting the theory that Craig Bellamy coached forwards underachieve once they leave Melbourne. He has a lot of work to do in 2013 to regain the love of the Tigers faithful.
The Tigers side which contains NSW hooker Farah, NZ captain.. wait, former NZ captain Marshall, Galloway, Woods and Chris Lawrence still has enough talent to make the finals. The key issues are at Fullback and Halfback. Jacob Miller will be given a chance at half and the Tigers success this season will be closely correlated with Miller’s. Marshall is most effective when partnered with an organising half and it is here that Miller’s success (or failure) will manifest itself. Tim Moltzen had a poor 2012 and is the worst number 1 for kick returns in the league. Looking at the custodians for the top 4 sides last year it is clear the Tigers need more from this position and fans will be hoping James Tedesco is the answer. The backrow still seems undersized and understrength following the exit of Ellis and Heighington. A lot rests on the ability of Eddy Pettybourne to prove that he is deserving of a starting spot. The Tigers have potential for much better, but there are too many unknowns to tip them for finals.
9. New Zealand Warriors
2012 Prediction – 9th
2012 Result – 14th (8 – 16)
Expert Consensus – 9th
The Grand Final curse struck the Warriors hard last year. Like the Eels and Roosters before them, the Grand Final hangover was long and painful. What had been a poor season turned disastrous in the final 3rd of the year. The Warriors enter 2013 on the back of an 8 game losing streak, which included them throwing away three match winning leads against the Knights, Sea Eagles and Raiders and being thrashed by 40 points in back to back weeks against the Sharks and Cowboys. Alarmingly, commitment appeared to be missing and the reputation of the club and players took a battering due to their meek capitulation.
Hopes for 2013 largely rest upon the vast room for improvement available. The squad is not dissimilar to that which nearly went all the way in 2011. The Warriors are stacked with young talent all across the park – all that is required is for new coach Matthew Elliott to get the best out of them. Kevin Locke played a large part in the 2011 campaign and if fully fit this year he will provide a boost. Thomas Leiluai returns from the UK and should provide a steadying presence to complement the extravagance of Shaun Johnson. The Warriors were an abysmal 1-7 in close games last season. History shows that those results even out over time, so even a marginal improvement in overall performance will see the warriors hovering around the 50% win mark and the playoffs.
8. Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
2012 Prediction – 2nd
2012 Result – 4th (16 – 8) – Eliminated Preliminary Final
Expert Consensus – 8th
At times during Manly’s injury interrupted 2012 campaign they looked the team to beat for the premiership. Many picked them to be the dark horse contenders entering the playoffs. However the strain of defending the premiership against motivated opponents week in week out proved too much, as it has for every premier since Brisbane in the 1990’s. (1998 or 1993, depending on your opinion of Super League). Manly hovered around the 50% win rate for much of the season with key players Glenn and Brett Stewart, Tony and David Williams and the oft suspended Steve Matai all missed chunks of time. Once the key players returned later in the year, the Sea Eagles hit their straps and entered the playoffs on a 6 match winning streak which had included impressive wins over the Rabbitohs, Cowboys and a thrashing of the Knights in which T-Rex was at his unstoppable best. For the 3rd time of the season they faced off against former coach Des Hasler’s Bulldogs, and that narrow loss effectively ended their season, by forcing them into a tough knock out semi against the Cowboys with a battered squad. The Sea Eagles were about to win that week, but were no match for a fresh and clinical Storm outfit in the preliminary final. Thus ended the best premiership defence since 2008, when the Storm made if all the way back to the Grand Final after winning in 2007.
Manly appear to be undergoing a period of decline that usually follows in the years after a premiership is achieved. While Tony Williams is the only top line star to depart this offseason, the additional loss of Lussick, Mauro, Oldfield and Whare leaves the 2013 squad thinner in depth than in 2012. At full strength, their top 17 is a match for any in the competition, halves Foran and Cherry Evans have their best football in front of them, and most of the key players from 2011 are still in place. The attack is very dependent on a healthy Glenn and Brett Stewart, and given history it seems unlikely both will get through a season unscathed. Glenn being out for round 1 is not a good start on that score. Manly’s success this season will be heavily correlated with the top 17 staying injury free. An average run with injuries should see them finish toward the bottom of the 8.
7. Cronulla Sharks
2012 Prediction – 11th
2012 Result – 7th (12 – 1 – 11) – Eliminated Finals Week 1
Expert Consensus – 7th
2012 was the best Cronulla season since 2008. New recruits Todd Carney, Jeff Robson, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fafita, Ben Ross and Isaac De Gois all justified their moves with strong seasons, complementing the existing core of Gallen, Graham and Jeremy Smith. Few in Cronulla missed the recently departed Douglas and Snowden. An early 6 game winning streak had them entrenched in the top 4, a recently unfamiliar position that they stayed in for most of the season. The Sharks were the first team to defeat the storm in 2012, and also tasted success against Manly and Souths. The season faded a little in the 2nd half as the inspirational Gallen struggled with injury post Origin, and a loss in their final home game of the season to North Queensland condemned them to a week 1 trip to Canberra to face the red hot Raiders. Despite the early finals exit, 2012 was a big step in the right direction for a club which had struggled in recent seasons. Shane Flanagan has built the squad nicely and their strong defence ensured the Sharks for competitive week in week out in 2012.
The 2013 Sharks outfit is the strongest on paper since the halcyon days of ET, Peach and the immortal Martin Lang. Gallen and Lewis are two of the strongest backrowers in the competition, Michael Gordon (when healthy) offers attacking class from fullback and Todd Carney is one of the key difference makers in the league. Goal line defence was much improved last year. Where the Sharks are lacking relative to the top sides is in attacking strikepower, especially in the centres. This was reflected in poor red zone conversion last year – the sharks were ranked 1st in metres gained but only 13th in points scored. Michael Gordon should help with this aspect of the game, but major improvement in attack is required if the Sharks are to be serious contenders come September, rather than in autumn.
6. Brisbane Broncos
2012 Prediction – 5th
2012 Result – 8th (12 – 12) – Eliminated Finals Week 1
Expert Consensus – 6th
The first season post Lockyer was a tale of two halves for the Broncos. After 8 rounds they were 7-1, and having finished 2011 with a 20-7 record, a return to super power status seemed imminent. Then, as it often has in the past, the representative period hit and hit hard. The Broncos won only 5 matches out of their remaining 17, and were blown away by the Cowboys in week 1 of the finals. When on song early in the year the talented and young side seemed to outskill their opponents all across the park, with everyone in the 17 playing their part. When struggling they appeared to really lack leadership, direction and that one superstar to step up and take control when the game was there to be one. In short, they missed Lockyer badly. After a strong start to the year the Wallace and Norman combination could not get the job done for the broncos and they were short of ideas and points as they slipped down the ladder.
Recruitment focussed on addressing the playmaking issues by bringing back to the club the familiar face of Scott Prince. When Prince ended his injury plagued Broncos stint by signing for Wests Tigers in 2003, you’d have received long odds that he would win as many premierships as the Broncos would over the next 10 seasons. Even at this late stage in his career, Prince will represent the best Broncos halfback since Langer if he can match his 2012 Titans form. Brisbane have lost some forward punch with Civoniceva retiring and Teo following the Dave Taylor route to South Sydney, however the pack remains an area of strength. This side has a habit of starting the year well and with Prince steering the side they should avoid last year’s fade out to make the finals. The level of improvement throughout the season of the younger brigade such as Hoffman, Norman, McCulloch, Gillett and Glenn will determine how deep the Broncos will play into September. Motivation should not be an issue after a poor finish to 2012 during which some reputations were damaged. This shapes as a crucial season in the careers of many Brisbane players.
5. South Sydney Rabbitohs
2012 Prediction – 13th
2012 Result – 3rd (16 – 8) – Eliminated Preliminary Final
Expert Consensus – 3rd
In 2012, Souths achieved their highest ladder position, only 2nd finals appearance and 1st finals win since the days when Mario Fenech was captain and George Piggins was coach. Coach Michael MacGuire proved an instant hit in the NRL. He made two critical selection decisions early in the year – Rookie Adam Reynolds would get first crack at the halfback spot vacated by Chris Sandow, and Greg Inglis would shift back to fullback. These two players rewarded the coach with monster seasons. Reynolds in particular was a revelation, as the playmaking area which had seemed a critical weakness for Souths turned into a strength. Inglis was destructive from fullback on a weekly basis, after a 2011 season which saw him too often isolated out wide while Sandow and Sutton monopolised the ball. MacGuire achieved drastic improvements in South’s defence and attitude and the results were plain to see. From 14th in points conceded and 16th in missed tackles in 2011 to 4th in points conceded and 1st in missed tackles. A side which was notoriously inconsistent and easy to put points on is now capable of playing tough football and grinding out results.
The stage is set for Souths to give the premiership a huge shake in 2013. The squad is as strong as last year, with the losses of bench forwards Taylor and Pettybourne offset by the arrival of Ben Teo from Brisbane and Jeff Lima from Wigan. Greg Inglis comes into the season fully fit for the first time in years and he is capable of exceeding the heights of last year. The forward pack remains menacing with 4 Burgesses, Asotasi and Crocker. The pack consistently sets a platform for Luke, Sutton and Reynolds to exploit. The one note of caution would be to note that in many ways the bounce of the ball favoured Souths last year, to an extent that may not repeat itself. Of 8 close games they contested in the home and away rounds they won 6, which indicates composure under pressure but also may hint that their 16-8 record was slightly inflated. Regardless, expect them to be thereabouts in the 2nd, 3rd and possibly 4th weeks of September 2013.
4. Newcastle Knights
2012 Prediction – 3rd
2012 Result – 12th (10 – 14)
Expert Consensus – 4th
2012 ReviewThe Knights were tipped for big things in 2012 with the arrival of Darius Boyd, Kade Snowden, Timana Tahu and the supercoach Wayne Bennett. Bennett had achieved instant success at St.George-Illawarra and most had expected similar dramatic improvement immediately for Newcastle. The fact that the Knights actually went backwards on the ladder was perhaps one of the biggest shocks of the season. A disjointed start saw them win just 4 of the first 13 games, essentially ruling out finals by midseason. Newcastle’s struggles in attack, particularly in utilising Boyd effectively, were much less surprising than their flimsiness in defence. At the Dragons Bennett’s coaching produced an immediate stark improvement in defensive structure and intensity, which did not occur at the knights. The cause was not helped by the mid season loss of captain Kurt Gidley. Nonetheless, the Knights did revive somewhat in the 2nd half of the year, winning 5 of their last 11, as they picked up two valuable mid season recruits at opposite ends of their careers. Willie Mason was thrown a lifeline by Bennett, one of the few coaches who could realistically deal with such a personality, and Big Willie rewarded him with strong play which belied the terrible form of his previous NRL stint with North Queensland. Dane Gagai was released by Brisbane due to off field issues. His on field form at the Knights could likely to have the Broncos regretting that decision in coming years.
The transformation of the Knights into a Wayne Bennett team is much closer to completion now that two more key players from the 2010 Dragons, Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith have arrived. They will add defensive starch up the middle. If the toughened forward pack can get on top up the middle, the Knights have oodles of pace and skill out wide to punish teams – Uate, Gagai, Boyd and Macmanus. A fit Gidley, possibly an optimistic hope, will also provide a big boost. The expectations of improvement in Newcastle this year are based on the improvements to the roster, the better form displayed over the 2nd half of 2012, and the belief that Bennett has now had time to fully implement his teachings. Before last year Bennett hadn’t missed the finals in 20 straight seasons – odds are against him making it two disappointing campaigns in a row.
3. Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
2012 Prediction – 8th
2012 Result – 1st (18 – 6)
Expert Consensus – 1st
Despite falling at the final hurdle, the Bulldogs were the Rugby League story of 2012. The Minor Premiers dazzled the competition with an exciting attacking style of football on their way to 18 regular season victories, 16 of those wins being by 7 or more, and were undefeated from late May until early August. They achieved these results with unique style of attack which is likely to be much imitated in 2013. Lacking a dominant playmaking half, Canterbury’s structure utilised ball playing forwards James Graham, Sam Kasiano, Aidan Tolman and even Frank Pritchard to instigate the attack and create room for their speedy outside backs. This interchange passing and variation within the forwards also neutralised the gang tackling and wrestling that has become omnipresent in the modern game, allowing the Dogs forwards to get one on one with defenders and achieve extra yardage and quicker play the balls than they otherwise would have. Once the space was created, Canterbury had the speed out wide to punish defences. The Dogs led the league in tries scored from within their own half, and in the average number of passes. These Bulldogs were the heirs to Ted Glossop’s Entertainers, with a dash of the defensive ability of Warren Ryan’s Dogs of War. Their achievements were a testament to the coaching ability of Des Hasler. The side which struggled in 2010 and 2011 was transformed in 2012 with minimal personal change. Frank Pritchard and James Graham were the key pre season signings, while Sam Perrett and Krisnan Inu were added for next to nothing during the season, moves that paid off handsomely for Hasler. The improvement in the remainder of the squad was huge. Ben Barba went from talented but unreliable to the undisputed Dally M winner. Josh Reynolds emerged as a contender for a NSW halves spot while Josh Morris reclaimed his place as the top left centre in NSW. Pritchard and Greg Eastwood both had career years, while Inu found a consistency of performance that had eluded him (to say the least!) at Parramatta and New Zealand.
2013 OutlookOn paper the squad is stronger than in 2012. On his day Tony Williams can tear defences apart, and Hasler will be expecting to get the best out of an enigmatic player. The likely return of Trent Hodkinson provides additional options in the halves. The key risks for the Bulldogs are the loss of James Graham for 9 weeks, the uncertainty over Ben Barba’s return date, the possibility of several of the stars of 2012 being unable to replicate their form in 2013, or that opposition defences will start to figure out the bulldogs attacking style. These concerns are minimised by the presence of Hasler, who to date has a proven ability to stay one step ahead of the pack and to keep his players highly motivated and focussed. Over the past 6 seasons Hasler has achieved 6 finals appearances, 4 Grand Final appearances and 2 premierships. It would be a brave man to bet against him adding a third in 2013. The Bulldogs could easily be premiership favourites, however due to the personnel who are out of action at the start of the season and the increased focus and expectation on them in 2013, I expect them to finish slightly behind the regular season pace setters.
2. North Queensland Cowboys
2012 Prediction – 6th
2012 Result – 5th (15 – 9) – Eliminated Finals Week 2
Expert Consensus – 5th
The Cowboys took a further step in the right direction in 2012, however ultimately the season finished on an unsatisfactory note. There were 5 strong clubs in last year’s competition, each vying for the top 4 and the 2nd chance in the finals system. By missing out on that chance, the Cowboys road to the grand final was made significantly harder, and the trip to Sydney in week 2 for a 2nd week of knockout football proved too great an obstacle to overcome. The fact that a week 2 finals exit was considered a major disappointment indicates how strong the season had been and how justifiably high hopes were that NQ could make the 2nd grand final in their history (a direct contrast to the other side who exited in week 2, Canberra, who were happy just to be there). Once again, co captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott led from the front, ably supported by a resurgent Matty Bowen and James Tamou, whose meteoric rise was capped with Kangaroos and Blues jerseys (to accompany the junior kiwis kit already in his closet). Perhaps the highlight for Cowboys fans was the rare 3-0 season whitewash of big brothers Brisbane, including a comfortable first week finals victory at Dairy Farmers stadium. Wins against the Broncos have been rare for much of the Cowboys history, so to best them three times in a year, and in the process extend their finals record against the Broncos to 2-0 marks 2012 as a banner Cowboys year in the history of the rivalry.
It’s time for the North Queensland Cowboys. Johnathan Thurston, arguably the best player in the game, is at the peak of his powers at age 30. He will remain at the club until 2017 however his window of opportunity must start closing in the next 2-3 seasons. The Cowboys squad is powerful across the park and has I believe the greatest depth of any in the premiership. Of their 25 man squad, only 2 players have less than 20 games NRL experience, and one of those is England international and NRL newcomer Scott Moore (The other is Joel Riethmuller). In contrast the Bulldogs have 7 players and the Storm have 5 with less than 20 games experience in their top 25. This means that the Cowboys are capable of fielding a strong and experienced team even on weeks when injuries hit during the season, and all players in the 17 have pressure on them to keep their spots. Players who did not make the cut for Round 1 2013 include Scott Bolton, Kalifa Fai Fai Loa, Clint Greenshields, Robert Lui, Anthony Mitchell, Michael Morgan (broken jaw) and Ricky Thorby. After their exit last year, the Cowboys must realise that securing a top 4 spot or ideally a top 2 spot is essential to them having any serious chance of advancing to the Grand Final. They have the squad to do it.
1. Melbourne Storm
2012 Prediction – 1st
2012 Result – 2nd (17 – 7) – Premiers
Expert Consensus – 2nd
After the devastation of 2010 and the disappointment of 2011’s preliminary final exit, the Storm could’ve been expected to enter 2012 somewhat dispirited and thinking their best chance at a title was behind them. Not a bit of it. Once again the formula of Slater, Cronk, Smith and coach Bellamy went about their work with a minimum of fuss, racking up wins with the usual blend of rock solid defence, excellent discipline and an increasingly slick and expansive attack. Over recent years there has been speculation of the Storm slipping as the likes of Greg Inglis, Israel Folau and Adam Blair have left for greener pastures. 2012 was the ultimate proof that the Storm’s player retention strategy has been aimed correctly, at the spine that has now seen them make 5 Grand Finals in 7 seasons and win 3 of them. The storm won their first 9 matches and 12 of their first 14 to essentially wrap up a finals spot by mid season. A slump coinciding with the representative season and an injury to Slater was arrested with a win over Penrith in Round 22. The Storm then went on to win their final 8 games to wrap up the premiership. Their dominance is perhaps best expressed by the fact that with a healthy Slater, Smith and Cronk on the park, their record last season was 19-2. Their defence was the stingiest in the league for the 4th time in 5 seasons (In the 2010 season, when they were playing for nothing, their defence slipped all the way to 2nd best in the league). Attack improved to 2nd in the league as the Storm attempted to blow sides away more quickly rather than grind them out. What a luxury! To adapt a playing style which was previously amazingly successful merely to improve the ease of victories and reduce the grind of the season on the players. Many other teams in the premiership attempt to reproduce the formula, but at this stage the Storm simply do it better than all of them.
Predictable as it may be, it is impossible to go past the Storm as favourites for season 2013. As long as the big 3 are fit and firing they have earned the right to enter the season on top. Some depth has again been lost over the off season with Lowrie, Sika Manu and Qld origin rep Dane Neilsen leaving, but reflecting on history there is little doubt that Bellamy will get the best out of new recruits Junior Sau, Lagi Setu and Junior Moors. Spinning gold from yarn is his specialty. Loyal soldiers Hinchcliffe, Hoffman, Finch, Widdop and Chambers should ensure there is minimal let down when any of the big guns miss through injury or representative duty. Canterbury, North Queensland, Souths and Newcastle have all reloaded for serous shots at the title, but once again the road to the premiership has to go through Melbourne.