January-February tends to be a lull for some, with the festive spirits well and truly gone and, for most, the grind of work for the next 11 months beginning to set in. But for fanatics like myself it spells the beginning of the winter sport season. Within that is the return of the NRL Telstra Premiership, which for another year is set to be filled with everything us fans are accustomed to – drama, excitement, disappointment, surprises… you name it.
There’s about three weeks until the season kick-off, and with every team’s fate for the year beginning to take shape in one way or another, it gives us a deeper insight into who will be celebrating after the big dance in early October.
Premiers: Sydney Roosters
There’s no logical reason not to go with the Roosters here. The 2018 Premiers were impressive in their Grand Final win over the Storm, putting on a performance few have ever against the game’s best side of the past 15 years. As well as that their World Club Challenge outing against Wigan last week was a pleasing performance for their first competitive run out in four months.
Their roster has gotten stronger in the offseason, with second-rower Angus Crichton and outside back Brett Morris being the two biggest additions, covering the losses, in a sense, of Blake Ferguson and Dylan Napa. Including Crichton and Morris, 14 of their likely first 17 have representative experience, headlined by James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary and Jake Friend who will re-join to form the game’s best spine.
If there is a weakness it’s the Roosters depth, as they aren’t up there with the likes of the Rabbitohs and Broncos, but that will only come into play if their injury toll begins to mount at the back-end of the season.
Schedule wise the Roosters’ toughest patch comes with four straight matchups against the Broncos (H), Sharks (A), Storm (A) and Dragons (H) within the opening 10 rounds, as well as matches against the Dragons (A), Panthers (H) and Rabbitohs (A) to round out the season. However neither stretch should post a problem that will derail a top of the table finish, with another minor premiership finding its way to Bondi.
Runners-up: Penrith Panthers
This is certainly a bold pick, but the Panthers showed enough last year that suggests they can take the next step.
Their roster is incredibly talented across the park, highlighted by James Maloney and Nathan Cleary in the halves. The forward pack will hopefully get second-rower Viliame Kikau back soon, and close to his rampaging best after sustaining a knee injury in preseason, and will be led by representatives Regan Campbell-Gillard and James Tamou in the front row.
The big positive is Ivan Cleary taking over as head coach, who is without a doubt an upgrade over Anthony Griffin. Despite his questionable coaching record, Cleary managed to take the Warriors to four finals series in six years as well as a Grand Final berth in 2011. He also quickly changed the Wests Tigers’ fortunes when taking over in 2017, and created a significantly brighter future for the club compared to when he arrived.
The only negative coming with Cleary’s arrival is being the father of the side’s star player in Nathan, which could possibly create tension amongst player in the locker room. However it’s fair to assume that’s a ‘worst possible scenario’ and both parties should remain incredibly professional.
The Panthers’ toughest stretch comes in the final four rounds of the competition, where they face the Broncos (A), Cowboys (A), Roosters (A) and Knights (H), which could potentially see them slide out of the top four if they drop two or three.
The top eight: Sydney Roosters, Penrith Panthers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos, St. George-Illawarra Dragons, North Queensland Cowboys, Newcastle Knights
What remains clear is the difference in class between the Roosters and the rest of the competition, so a second straight minor premiership will be an achievable goal. The Panthers have a more capable coach to lead a talented roster, which is the same for the Rabbitohs who have one of the best teams on paper, which is now led by an experienced premiership winning coach in Wayne Bennett and enough to keep them in the top four. Last year the Storm went against the expectation they’d slide with the loss of Cooper Cronk, and a similar script will play out this year despite Billy Slater retiring. However, their time around the top is running out. The Broncos will fly under the radar slightly, with arguably the most depth along with the Bunnies, headlined by a young and exciting forward pack. For the Dragons, they still have talent spread across the park, but consistency has been their Achilles heel. With no players of established class arriving, it’s hard to see them improving on that. The Cowboys 2018 season was an outlier, and now with clarity around their halves along with two great additions in Josh McGuire and Jordan Kahu, they should have no trouble returning to the finals series. For the Knights, they’ll jostle for that final spot with the Sharks and Titans. They should have a healthy team for 2019, and with more quality there’s a strong likelihood they break the top eight.
The big improver: Gold Coast Titans
Unlike the Cowboys, the Titans improvement should not be assumed and their bid to sneak into the finals will catch many by surprise. They’ll fall short, but only just.
At their best the Titans were an impressive outfit last season, seeming to have the perfect balance across the park. That balance starts with the halves pairing, which this year is set to be Ash Taylor and Tyrone Roberts with the departure of Kane Elgey to the Sea Eagles.
One key positive comes at head coach, where Garth Brennan appears to be getting a lot more support off-field, which he’s said has aided in the preseason preparation. Such a move will have flow on effects through to the team, one that isn’t lacking in quality.
Another positive comes with the arrival of front-rower Shannon Boyd, who joins an already underrated forward pack. Tyronne Peachy also comes in, who can play in the second row, halves or centres and will likely become the side’s utility off the bench. As well as that second-rower Bryce Cartwright is more than likely going to improve on his disastrous 2018 season.
An area of concern comes in their outside backs, which remain thin and could see Peachy injected into the centres sooner rather than later. Overall their roster and coach aren’t as good as other top eight sides, but there’s a lot to suggest a big improvement is on the way.
The big faller: Cronulla Sharks
An eventful offseason looks to have hindered the Sharks’ outlook for the coming season. This year could be one of the worst yet for them, after managing six finals appearances in the last seven seasons.
The headlines have centered around the substance abuse issues in 2014, which have resurfaced and resulted in Shane Flanagan being banned by the NRL. John Morris has thus taken over as head coach, but it’ll be his first outing as a coach in the game so it’s hard to pinpoint how good he’ll be in the role. Valentine Holmes’ departure for a go at the NFL is a big loss, with their backline losing a real ‘game-breaker’. For now, let’s assume the salary caps dramas that are also circling DON’T result in anyone else leaving.
On top of that there’s a fair bit of depth that has departed, with the likes of Luke Lewis (retirement), James Segeyaro and Ricky Leutele all shuffling off. The addition of Shaun Johnson is nice, but it’s unknown how well he’ll slot into a system that functions around a gritty play-style, something that doesn’t exactly fit his on-field personality.
The quality’s certainly there to hover around eighth spot, and if Flanagan had somehow remained in charge it would be a different story. But it’ll all be too tough for the Sharks, with a rookie coach, to overcome.
Wooden spooners: Canterbury Bulldogs
For the first time in a while there isn’t a clear cut choice for the wooden spoon, but the three that pop out are the Sea Eagles, Eels and Bulldogs. The Sea Eagles brought back coach Des Hasler which will result in improvements in areas, while the Eels still have a talented roster to gain some surprising wins despite their culture and/or front office problem, which has hindered their ability to contend for some time.
That leaves the Dogs, who unfortunately don’t have the quality or coach that others do, and look the more likely recipients of the spoon. The losses of front-rower David Klemmer and the Morris brothers in the backline will hit them hard and outside of Kieran Foran and Josh Jackson, there isn’t much in the way of established quality they can rely on.
Although they won’t deliver wins, the team does have exciting prospects to keep track of in 2019, with Lachlan Lewis more than likely commanding the number seven jersey indefinitely with Foran next to him. Kerrod Holland and Reimis Martin will be called on more out wide, as well as Rhyse Martin and Adam Elliott in the second row likely getting starting roles.
Coach Dean Pay will simply have too little to work with to get the team back into contention, which signals another year of figuring things.