The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.
This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.
(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)
There are some terms that you may not be familiar with and it would be worth spending some time on the Glossary but otherwise, get stuck in:
- Brisbane Broncos
- Canberra Raiders
- Canterbury Bulldogs
- Cronulla Sharks
- Gold Coast Titans
- Manly Sea Eagles
- Melbourne Storm
- Newcastle Knights
- New Zealand Warriors
- North Queensland Cowboys
- Parramatta Eels
- Penrith Panthers
- South Sydney Rabbitohs
- St George Illawarra Dragons
- Sydney Roosters
- Wests Tigers
Prospect – This is my wild stab in the dark at where the team will roughly finish on the ladder. I do not expect these to be accurate and the ratings are not based on facts or figures, just hunches:
- Contenders are likely top four finishers
- Finalists in the next four slots
- Also rans occupy ninth through twelfth
- Spooners will be contesting positions thirteen through sixteen
Anyone who tells you they can predict the future with more accuracy than this is a charlatan and I’m not even promising this will come off.
Draw – See Who has the softest draw?
Engine – According to StatScore, seven or eight players are responsible half of the team’s total StatScore. I call this the team’s Engine (everyone else on the roster is the Ballast). It’s not as simple doubling the Engine number to get the team total, as it is not adjusted for number of games played or whether seven or eight make up the top half of the roster, but I think it is useful for sizing up the core playing talent on each team.
Also keep in mind that when a star player has left, there is a hole that will be filled by his replacement, who is unlikely to have had the same opportunity to rack up as high a StatScore as his predecessor, so we don’t yet know to what degree to the hole will be filled. Some teams, like Brisbane, might look a little leaner than they otherwise would. Swaps like Cronk for Pearce at Sydney are rare.
Transfers – While only the two or three biggest transfers are listed (as per League Unlimited’s Ins and Outs list), the In and Out number are the sum of the transferred players’ 2017 StatScore. The Net figure is the difference between the two. Keep in mind that it doesn’t account for Super League or Intrust Super comp players because we don’t have StatScores for them.
Tranfers are up to date until Bryce Cartwright’s departure from Penrith but does not include any transfers from Trent Hodkinson’s departure from Newcastle onwards.
Strength – Some of the best, and most under-rated, Broncos play in front of the halves. Josh McGuire, Matt Gillett and Andrew McCullough, all rep quality players, will likely be joined by Corey Oates.
Weakness – Brisbane has a roster of limited depth, even accounting for the highly paid fullback that isn’t in the Engine, and more talent walked out the door than came in during the off-season. Games last year, particularly against Melbourne and Parramatta, exposed that weakness. If a repeat of 2017 occurs, where most of the Engine spent at least a few weeks on the sideline, there isn’t a lot of proven talent to take their place.
Opportunity – If called on, the unproven youngsters (including but not limited to Tom Opacic, Jamayne Isaako, Payne Haas and, for some reason, we have to include test international and prolific tryscorer, Kodi Nikorima in this group too) may choose to take the opportunity to prove themselves and provide the next generation of Broncos stars.
Prospect – Finalist. The Broncos lack a bit of sparkle on the star power this year and it remains to be seen whether the Milf/Niko combo functions consistently at a high level. The big risk of losing some key players to injury leads me to hedge my bets and rein in expectations but fundamentally, the team and the club is good.
Strength – This is largely the same team that finished second in 2016, still led by a terrifyingly huge forward pack, albeit now minus Jarrod Croker and Paul Vaughan.
Weakness – Anger got the better of the Raiders towards the end of last season, with a number of outbreaks of frustrated violence. Better discipline will be required if a march up the ladder is to be attempted.
Opportunity – Last season involved a huge number of close losses for the Raiders. Canberra endured eight losses by six points or less in 2017, the most in the league (the Knights and Tigers were next closest with six). If just half of those had gone the other way, the Raiders would have been knocking on the door of the top four.
Prospect – Finalist. I expect the Raiders to overcome last season’s bad luck and come good, aided by a not overly difficult draw and a consistent line-up who are unlikely to be majorly affected by rep duties. It might not be a rerun of 2016 but certainly enough to finish in the top half.
Strength – The Bulldogs put in a hell of a defensive performance last year. They finished in sixth place on points against and had –19% DVOA, which put them on par with the Roosters.
Weakness – They were bloody useless at scoring points last year and played one of the least inspiring styles of football in recent times. History books will record it as “dour”. Their only demonstration of proto-flair was attempting the rarely seen short drop-out, which did not work as often as it failed.
Opportunity – Aaron Woods might actually justify his reputation as a top class player and Kieran Foran might deliver on his promise. Combine those two with significantly improved performances from Moses M’Bye and Will Hopoate and the Doggies might be a threat.
Prospect – Spooner. I actually don’t believe what I just wrote and think if any of these guys were any good, we’d have seen it by now. Otherwise, the same club that failed last year is going to repeat this year under new coach, Dean Pay.
Strength – Cronulla won a premiership. It wasn’t that long ago either. Even more recently, they beat the 2017 Storm fair and square which, really, only they and the Titans managed last year. There’s very good, recent history behind them.
Weakness – The team is built on brute force (Gallen, Fifita) and fullbacks (Holmes, Dugan). The main player in between is Chad Townsend and he appears to lack the kicking nuance required to set up high quality playmaking. Unless Matt Moylan gets his head in the game immediately and finds some scintillating form, the Sharks are going to find themselves badly missing defensive liability James Maloney.
Opportunity – If the Sharks fall flat, Paul Gallen might finally retire. It offers the chance for the organisation to put the broom through and revitalise with new leadership. Ideally, it would be falling into line behind Valentine Holmes but more realistically, I think Josh Dugan (who I expect to fit in like a glove) and Matt Moylan will be pushed forward first.
Prospect – Also ran. I find it hard to believe that the Sharks can continue to string together the good performances that got them to third in 2016 and fifth in 2017, not least because they elevated last minute, come from behind victories to an art form. They’ll run out of luck eventually. Continuing that slide down the ladder, especially as the core group ages and now without the talents of Maloney, will see them outside of finals football this year.
Strength – The Gold Coast are one of the few teams to register a net positive series of transfers. Disruptive Hayne and McQueen are gone but incoming are some decent backs that should more than compensate. Oh and somehow they beat one of the greatest rugby league teams of all time in 2017.
Weakness – 16th, 11th, 9th, 14th, 14th, 8th* and 15th. That’s the finishing position of every Titans team since 2011. They were very lucky to play finals football in 2016 thanks to Parra’s cap breach penalty. When ninth on the ladder is considered a good result, you know the Gold Coast have made their home at the bottom.
Opportunity – There are many. Hayne is gone. There’s a rookie coach and new owners. A lot of transfers have come through, with the Titans acting as a clearinghouse for anyone other clubs must get off their books like a cheap rug. Anything is possible.
Prospect – Spooner. The Titans haven’t hit rock bottom yet and, until they do, they cannot head upwards. Their team is still filled with second rate talent, there’s a leadership vacuum and even if those things weren’t the case, they still need all the new bits and pieces to settle down. It’s going to take time.
Strength – Tom Trbojevic is one of the best young players in the game. Between him, Mitchell Moses and Nathan Cleary, the future of Origin is looking very blue. Daly Cherry-Evans is one of the handier veterans in the league.
Weakness – Dropping Blake Green to make way for Mitchell Pearce, who promptly legged it to Newcastle rather than play at Brookvale, is not looking like a particularly inspired decision. Unless there’s a hidden talent in Blacktown, Manly are going to struggle to find a strong, or even weak, partner to Cherry-Evans.
Opportunity – The Sea Eagles looked shit hot for about six rounds last year after a shaky start but an equally shaky finish to the year put to bed their premiership hopes. They need to find what clicked and replicate that. Hopefully, it wasn’t just luck.
Prospect – Also ran. The team is still fine, particularly with little net change over the off-season, but were lucky to finish in the top half last year and will struggle unless a miraculous five-eighth appears.
Strength – It’s the New England Patriots of the NRL. Just about everything is a strength, including ownership, coach, line-up, professionalism and being one team in a city of five million with the third largest membership in the league.
Weakness – The Storm plan on rotating Cameron Munster’s halves partner which seems to me, a non-übercoach, to be a really bad idea. Melbourne will likely have the least experienced halves pairing in the league.
Opportunity – On the other hand, the guys coming through, Brodie Croft, Ryley Jacks and Scott Drinkwater, are top prospects and have shown themselves to be pretty handy with a football. Plus, you know, the rest of the team is still pretty good.
Prospect – There is no way that the Storm will go 20-4 again in 2018 and march unimpeded to the premiership but, even without Cooper Cronk, there’s plenty to keep the rest of the league occupied.
Strength – The only way is up. Baby. You and me now. So many new pieces of the puzzle to integrate but if it clicks quickly – and the Knights are 1-0 in pre-season trials as of writing – then scaling up the ladder over the likes of the Tigers and Titans should be no issue.
Weakness – Well, it’s hard to go past a team that posted a 1-22-1 season two years ago and has a nice collection of wooden spoons as being somehow fundamentally flawed but I’ll pin that on Nathan Tinkler and acknowledge this is basically a brand new franchise with a thirty year old paint scheme.
Opportunity – We’ll soon be able to drag Knights fans on social media again.
Prospect – Also ran. I don’t think the Titans have hit rock bottom but the Knights definitely have. They’re now on their way back up with new owners and a resilient fanbase that has stuck out some of the worst years of any first grade rugby league team with good attendances. While there has been an enormous influx of players, not least Mitchell Pearce, playing finals feels a stretch too far but they should comfortably avoid the spoon again.
Strength – The Warriors’ biggest strength is that they are basically the fully fledged New Zealand national team. This year Adam Blair returns to his homeland with Blake Green, foolishly released by Manly, in tow. They should bolster what is already a strong line-up.
Weakness – Despite their strengths, the team consistently fails to perform. Some news outlets like to pin the blame on club culture. Others prefer to blame the coach. A permanent state of jet lag from the travel schedule is my explanation. Likely, it’s a combination of negatives.
Opportunity – The Warriors have the chance, as they do every season, to shake it off and be good. In theory, all the pieces are there but you would think that after being bailed out of last year’s World Cup at the quarters, confidence would be shaken.
Prospect – Also ran. I don’t think that the Warriors will ever be bad enough to worry about getting the wooden spoon. Like Brisbane, they are one town team so there’s enough money to keep them out of trouble but recent performances do not indicate anything other mediocrity.
Strength – Check out the Engine. Top of the league and I haven’t even included one of the greatest of all time in Johnathan Thurston and a test quality prop in Matt Scott. Thurston was out most of last year so fell about 250 points short of his usual StatScore. Add that in to the above and it’s game on.
Weakness – The Cowboys at the end of 2017 ran out of playmaking options. When they got in the red zone against the Storm in the grand final, they couldn’t get across the line. A reliance on excess possession starving opponents of opportunities worked against the likes of the Rabbitohs but against top four teams, North Queensland will need more strategic options.
Opportunity – Michael Morgan was our top rated player last year, having a breakout performance picking up the slack of an absent JT. Together, who knows what they can achieve but, based on the World Cup, Morgan is still the apprentice. By the end of 2018, he may be the master.
Prospect – Contender. How could you look at that and think anything else?
Strength – Semi Radradra was the only player to exit Parramatta after the Eels’ first trip to the finals since 2009. While he was phenomenal on the edge, he is still a winger and therefore expendable. More players have been added to the roster, including club legend Jarryd Hayne, but otherwise the team is probably the most stable in the league right now.
Weakness – Parra and Sydney topped the Fortune Index last year by significantly outperforming their Pythagorean expectation with two big (24 points or more) losses not quite offsetting the six close (6 points or less) wins. I expect some mean reversion this year but I also expect the team to be better.
Opportunity – Mitchell Moses coming in mid-season as partner to Corey Norman was the catalyst for the Eels’ charge to the finals. In a prelim final where they played as well as possible against a Storm team that were playing about as badly as at any point that season, they couldn’t get the job done. The gap will be closer this year.
Prospect – Finalist. I’ll think it’ll be a close run thing whether the Eels or the Panthers make the top four. Giving preference to Penrith feels like I’m almost certainly dooming them but I think they will have the edge on the Parra line-up, who are a touch less experienced in key roles. Nonetheless, I expect the Eels to be competitive and up among the best.
Strength – Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Tamou both put up 200+ seasons last year. A similar performance this year will form the bedrock of the Panthers’ campaign in 2018.
Weakness – The revolving door system of raising juniors and then casting them aside when they become inconvenient or expensive needs more scrutiny. Adopting a similar policy within the front office does not seem particularly wise for long term stability.
Opportunity – Now that Josh Mansour no longer looks like he should be robbing stagecoaches in 18th century Ballarat, he needs to lift his game significantly to be part of the Panthers’ Engine this year. He played for Australia at the World Cup so the NRL shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge. James Maloney recorded a StatScore of only 167 last season, the lowest in his career (2014 – 2017). He too needs to find a new level, preferably somewhere around the 283 he pulled out in 2014.
Prospect – Contender. I had to pick one of the two ‘P’ clubs and settled on the Panthers. Maloney and Cleary is a very good halves combo – balancing experience, smarts and skills – and the rest of the team, especially all the boys with double barrelled last names, has flashes of talent scattered through. They just have to keep them in Penrith.
Strength – Did you know Russell Crowe owns the team and that Souths have won more premierships than any other team?
Weakness – Angus Crichton, Souths’ best hope for a replacement for Sam Burgess, has one foot out the door. While he seems committed, once the season seems to slipping, it’s hard to imagine him putting in the effort to get it right again when he can be thinking about the big pile money he’ll soon be sleeping on.
Opportunity – Souths were the top of our Hope Index in 2017, juxtaposed against their finish atop the Disappointment Index. They finished strongly and showed flashes of what might be. Greg Inglis is back to bolster the firepower of the squad.
Prospect – Spooner. The Bunnies are overly reliant on a couple of players, especially Inglis and Burgess. Those two in particular are getting on, prone to injury and/or indifferent performances. Their best hope is new boy Dane Gagai but, while he is an attacking weapon, he strikes me more as a finisher than a manufacturer. There’s something of foundation of a good season but it is seriously at risk of falling apart.
Strength – Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop, products of the Bennett/Bellamy coaching systems, is one of the strongest halves pairing in the game. There’s not a lot of brand name backs but how hard can it be to catch a ball and put it down?
Weakness – Whatever it was that killed the Dragons’ streak last year, going from premiership contender to losing to the Titans and missing a gimme shot at the finals, is their weakness. I suspect the wheels started coming off when Widdop exited injured and there was no one to pick up the pieces.
Opportunity – This site had the Dragons pegged as the best team after round 7. After that, the Dragons copped a serious streak of bad luck/incompetence and were still looking very likely to make the top eight until they fell apart against the Bulldogs on the final day. The Cowboys got in instead and made the grand final. Small changes can yield big results.
Prospect – Finalist. Saints finished near the bottom of the Fortune Index, down with the Raiders. Luck is mean reverting so if they can manufacture some, they’ll be in the mix. More recruitment will be required for a serious attempt at a premiership but they can get the boat pointing in the right direction.
Strength – The boys from Bondi have an historically easy draw. I make it the easiest since 2002. Tim Gore agrees.
Weakness – The Roosters won seveteen games in 2017. Twelve of those were by six points or less, by far the most in the league. In a reversal of the Canberra argument, if half of those go the other way (and they easily could have!), the Roosters miss the finals.
Opportunity – Cooper. Cronk. Ditching Mitchell Pearce was harsh but StatScore, and most people with a brain, rate Cronk the superior player. Not only are his stats better but he has a much better track record in big games and wants to prove himself as one of the talents of his generation.
Prospect – Contender. The sombrero wearers have a lineup only matched by the Storm and Cowboys for on paper talent and they have not shied away from being successful in recent years, with three minor premierships and one minor runners-up over the last five years.
Strength – Ivan Cleary is one of the better coaches in the game. He was a big part of getting the Warriors to a grand final in 2011 and now he’s at the helm, for his first full season with some say over player selection, for the Tigers’ 2018 drive.
Weakness – The Tigers have five different home grounds this year, including Tamworth and Auckland. 2018 is going to feel like a perpetual road trip.
Opportunity – There’s not going to be a lot of pressure on the Tigers this season, other from their vocal fanbase. Avoiding the wooden spoon would be the immediate goal with challenging for a finals spot being a larger goal. It buys them time to get the roster sorted out.
Prospect – Spooner. The Tigers desperately need to restock and rebuild towards a premiership in a few years time. Benji Marshall was good for Brisbane but is
getting older old. Tedesco and Woods are gone, as are smaller fry like Littlejohn and Lovett. Until they can find or buy the next big thing (Nathan Cleary coming to work for Ivan, anyone?), it’s going to be tough going.