With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.
As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.
This ignores rugby league’s fairly demanding amount of randomness which tends to make fools of us all and is why I tend not to get too wrapped up in picking an exact ladder. The prospects I’ve assigned each team rely on breaking the ladder into quarters: contenders are the top four, finalists the next, also rans occupy ninth to twelfth and the spooners are at the bottom. We’re also handicapped by last year’s results not really providing any conclusive proof of the existence of any teams with consistent underlying ability. For example, the minor premiers were two losses off missing the finals and were beaten twice by the Broncos, who were in turn beaten twice by the Dragons, who lost to the Warriors twice, and so on.
If you aren’t a regular reader, there are some terms that you may not be familiar with and it would be worth spending some time on the Glossary.
- 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
- Archimedes / Form – Archimedes is the name given to an Elo rating system that tracks the form (short term performance) of NRL teams. An average rating is 1500 with top teams over 1600 and very bad ones under 1400. You can read more about Elo ratings here.
- Eratosthenes / Class – Eratosthenes is the name given to an Elo rating system that tracks the class (long term performance) of NRL teams. The ratings are similar to Archimedes, however, Eratosthenes responds much more slowly to individual results. Whereas a team can add 100 points to their form rating off two or three big results, it would take at least an entire season to add 100 points to a team’s class rating. I usually use a letter to show each team’s class, rather than focussing on the exact rating, with A being the best and E being the worst. C, as in all aspects of life, is around average.
- Poseidon – Poseidon ratings look at a team’s average rate of scoring and conceding tries against the league average and uses that to pass judgement on a team’s attacking and defensive capabilities. The ratings typically range from +70 to -50 and represent the percentage over average that the team is able to score/concede. Positive ratings are good and negative is bad and bigger numbers are better than smaller ones. You can read more about Poseidon ratings here.
- PPG – Production Per Game, or PPG, is a player rating system that works by measuring the amount of valuable work done by a player per game against what an average player in that position is capable of. In the NRL, the average PPG for players with at least five appearances is about .090, with the season’s best topping out around the .190 mark. We can discuss season PPG (sPPG) for PPG across a season or career PPG (wcPPG) for the average across the 2013 to 2018 seasons. You can read more about PPG here.
- WARG – Wins Above Reserve Grade, or WARG, is a player rating system that measures the total volume of valuable work done by a player when compared to a reserve grader in that position. Most players finish with 0.0 WARG after a season, with 10-20% below reserve grade production (i.e. negative WARG). Top players will finish with at least +0.5 and the very best in the range of +0.7 to +1.0. You can read more about WARG here.
- Draw Difficulty – By looking at the Eratosthenes rating of the scheduled opponents for each team, we assess who has a more difficult or less difficult draw ahead as compared to the Eratosthenes rating of the team in question. Teams who have to play the Knights twice, for example, will have an easier time of it than teams who have to play the Storm twice. Last year, the Roosters had the easiest draw and managed to win the premiership. As the class rating does not take into account roster changes, past performance does not guarantee future difficulty.
- Roster Strength – We take the total cWARG for the team’s roster, as per Wikipedia as of 17 February. Teams with more WARG are rated better than teams with less WARG. This will undervalue up and coming talents with a minimal established track record, like Kalyn Ponga, and will overvalue players who are coming to the ends of their careers but have stuck around for one last cash grab, like Paul Gallen. This does take into account roster changes, so Shaun Johnson’s +3.2 cWARG leaving the Warriors and joining the Sharks (pending some entirely foreseeable salary cap issues) is a big boost to Cronulla’s roster strength.
- Transfer Balance – We look at the Ins and Outs for each team, as per League Unlimited’s list on 17 February, and the sPPG (min 5 games) for each player, looking at the flow of player talent within the NRL. This is limited because we don’t necessarily have information for all players being signed, e.g. Super League players who might be very good but haven’t registered any stats or young guns who haven’t played the minimum games to register a sPPG aren’t included. We have 78 players whose club or contract status has changed from the 2018 cohort with a minimum of five games. Of those, 18 are heading to England to play (average PPG of .077) and another 18 have retired or been released (average .082), leaving 42 meaningful transfers within the NRL. The Value Out is the sum of sPPGs of players leaving divided by the league average, with a negative value meaning less talent leaving than league average and a positive value meaning more talent leaving than average. Value In works similarly. The Balance is the sum of these two numbers and the Flux classifies teams by how much significant change there has been on their roster since last season.
Strength – The starting backline for the Broncos will feature some combination of Darius “King of Persia” Boyd, Jamayne “Dally M Rookie of the Year” Isaako, James “Jimmy Bobby” Roberts and Corey “The Goat” Oates, which is good enough that I shouldn’t need numbers to demonstrate that to you. With Jordan Kahu having joined the Cowboys to replace noted piece of shit Ben Barba, that leaves a spot open for some of the exceptionally talented youngsters waiting in the wings, including Indigenous All-Star Kotoni Staggs and Gehamat Shibasaki. There’s plenty of depth there to cover old man Boyd should he (likely? inevitably?) be injured again.
Weakness – Brisbane’s halves “weaknesses” are painfully well documented. That said, Anthony Milford is one of the best players in the league right now. He finished sixth in the league by PPG, having averaged .120 to round 12 and then a monstrous .176 in the back end of the season. There’s no doubting his partner, Kodi Nikorima, has something to offer – the dude is fast and slippery – but there are questions as to whether this is best utilised in as a seven or a fourteen or not at all. His stature is a defensive liability and there’s not a whole lot he can do about it, other than hope his teammates will help him out.
Opportunity – In last season’s preview, I identified that the Broncos had a number of young players coming up through the ranks but I spoke about the potential of the backs. Instead, the theme of 2018 was the emergence of young forwards into the national discourse, including the likes of Tevita Pangai, David Fifita, Payne Haas and, ugh yes, Matt Lodge (you could also include Joe Ofahengaue, depending on whether a 24 year old with 70 appearances is still considered up and coming or is simply here). Their inconsistency made it tough for the Broncos to excel and was shown up emphatically in week one of the finals by the Dragons but with another year under their belt, the young guns can only improve.
Prospect – Contender. There’s nothing more reliable in Australian sport than the Broncos making the top eight. People who pick anything else for any reason short of a meteor wiping out Red Hill, are either trolling or delusional. The premiership window is, if not open, then opening. It might take some time for new coach Anthony Seibold to get into his stride but also the team runs the risk of most of the talented players leaving at year’s end. The time to strike is now but it would be a lot to expect the Broncos to iron out every issue from last year in one off-season under a new coach.
Strength – Josh Hodgson is back. 2016’s Most Productive Player and 2018’s Man I’m Most Likely to Forget Exists When Doing My Tipping will have his first full season since injuring his knee at the 2017 World Cup. The Englishman has put up .149 in 2015, .190 in 2016, .118 in 2017 and .130 in an aborted 2018. Those are good numbers. That’s why I’m telling you about them.
Weakness – The lack of halves is quite concerning. At the moment, we’re staring down the barrel of a pairing that will include two of Aidan Sezer, Sam Williams and Ata Hingano. Sezer, likely to be the only man in history who could play for both Turkey and the Indigenous All-Stars, has put in three seasons of reserve grade level performances and he’s the best of the trio. It’s also possible that Jack Wighton will be moved in because that seems to be the coaching move you make when you’re clever. It’s called playing the percentages. It also remains an important unresolved issue because, while Leilua, Rapana and Cotric will do good out wide, they need to be fed the ball.
Opportunity – This season is yet another opportunity to make good on two and a bit years of under delivery. The Raiders’ chronic inability to close out games where they have a sensible lead with ten or fifteen minutes to go defies belief. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would swear it’s a mistake. Something has to break right for the Raiders this year. On the other hand, if they continue as is, someone at Raiders HQ might finally decide to punt Ricky Stuart, so it could be win-win either way.
Prospect – Spooner. While the Raiders have the potential to be anywhere on the ladder outside the top six positions in 2019, I think the reality is that Canberra have further to fall before they can start coming up again, especially as Ricky Stuart seems intent on outsmarting himself. In fact, it’s quite clever to be in a post-premiership re-building phase without having actually won a premiership. There’s no new NRL-proven signings (hence the -100 Value In) in the roster, so the team that continues to defy Pythagorean expectations seems likely to continue to do so. Instead, of the team that should have won the 2016 premiership, the talented players are starting to drift away.
Strength – You know what? Things were looking OK at the end of 2018. By the end of the regular season, the Bulldogs had pulled themselves up into the top half of the competition based on form. It was certainly not as disastrous as it could have been, given the dumping of the big names from their roster. I am actually impressed.
Weakness – This year’s lineup is the least proven in the league. That’s not necessarily the end of the world but we should see a fair bit of variability in their performances. Some weeks the boys will turn up and others, they’ll get thrashed, but they’ll learn and most, you would hope, will improve. Having a comparatively low roster strength didn’t handicap the Titans or the Knights or the Bulldogs last year. Oh wait.
Opportunity – His supernatural ability to slow down time aside, Lachlan Lewis is looking like a pretty good talent for the future. With only seven first grade games under his belt, Lewis managed a pretty respectable .090, which is more or less bang on league average. That suggests he has a pretty good floor under his performances but his ceiling could be a lot higher.
Prospect – Spooner. I think Canterbury has a pretty tough year ahead. I didn’t mention it but Dylan Napa’s off-season won’t help, especially if he cops a punishment for something where he’s not really at fault. Either way, fans should expect a year of re-building with success someways into the future.
Strength – Is Paul Gallen amortal? He’s not immortal, that is unable to be killed, but the effects of aging do not appear to bother him. That’s not entirely true: last year was his worst by PPG. He “only” managed to produce .123. His career average from 2013 to 2017? a massive .160. Gallen is, unfortunately to say, a very productive player (his fifth tackle options notwithstanding) and will likely manage to be better than players much younger than him for some time to come.
Weakness – It would seem to me that your coach being deregistered for breaching a suspension relating to the use of performance enhancing drugs is not the ideal way to spend an off-season. Having Valentine Holmes pick up and leave for the NFL very suddenly is also not ideal. Losing $3 million and having to retrench staff is not… look, I could go on. Without having a player up on DV or rape charges, the Sharks have had the toughest, albeit self-inflicted, time of it.
Opportunity – Is Shaun Johnson going to replace Chaddington Townsend or will they be partners? If so, then where does Matt Moylan play? Back at fullback, that displaces Josh Dugan but seeing as he has the same constitution as a priceless Ming vase on a ladder, new coach John Morris probably won’t have too many selection headaches. Add in Jayden Brailey at hooker and that makes for a spine with a nice mix of experience and youthful exuberance, however, it remains to be seen whether the Sharks can maintain this arrangement under the salary cap.
Prospect – Finalist. I’ve been waiting for the Sharks to fall off a cliff for a while now and they seem to stay in the hunt. It defies both belief and the laws of thermodynamics. On the other hand, if I call for it every year, eventually I’ll be right. This year, however, there’s simply too many flaws in too many others teams to write off what is a fundamentally decent side, as much as I would like to. Johnson in for Holmes is a masterstroke – worthy of a Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney – and one I think Cronulla will benefit from in 2019.
Strength – If you’re looking for stars of the future, they’re here at the Gold Coast with Jai Arrow and AJ Brimson. Those two could do a lot damage on any other team but if past years is anything to go by, Arrow will spend a season dragging his teammates up the field, only for poor execution to waste his efforts. Meanwhile, Brimson is recovering from a shoulder reco and will likely be played out of position because switching fullbacks to five-eighth is the smart coaching decision du jour. On a team that already has three halves (Taylor, Roberts, Jacks), two of them are going to be displaced so the Mark Webber of the NRL, Michael Gordon, can play fullback?
Weakness – Does anyone really care? The Titans entire organisation feels like it just makes up the numbers. The team desperately needs success to maintain a semblance of relevance. Well, anyway, they had seriously negative numbers across the board on their Poseidon rating: attack and defence, home and away.
Opportunity – I’ll probably say this every year until he retires but it’s time for Ash Taylor to step up. Over the last three seasons, Taylor has put up .088, .091 and .091. While that’s extremely consistent, it is also extremely average, especially for the leading half without a comparable partner. That said, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Tyrone Roberts. The Preston Campbell medal winner is returning to the Gold Coast after a year at Warrington. His prior numbers are a smidge below Taylor’s but if they mesh, they might be able to generate more than the sum of their parts. If that doesn’t work, their fallback is Ryley Jacks, who I’m just saying has a career WARG of -0.3.
Prospect – Also ran. I just spent 300 words ragging on the Titans, so that might be a surprising conclusion. The Titans roster has a lot of potential. Indeed, what’s holding them back more than anything is the human-shaped stick of butter that occupies the coach’s box. In a year or two, especially if they punt Brennan, we might be talking about the Titans as contenders, or at least easy finalists. Right now, there’s still a bit of work to be done to sand the edges off the squad but in the meantime, I think they’ll surprise a few.
Strength – Manly, like the Roosters, Dragons and Bulldogs, are yet another Sydney club being bailed out by talented Queensland halves because they couldn’t get their own juniors to perform at a decent level. Daly Cherry-Evans remains one of the game’s most competent halfbacks – in his worst season (2014) he produced .111, so only a standard deviation above average at his worst – and on an almost justifiable salary. I don’t know if I buy “he goes missing at the big moments” but he will be assisted by Kane Elgey, star of the Tweed Heads Seagulls and the Bollywood & Afghan Fusion Valentine Masquerade Ball. No, seriously, I shit you not:
I don’t actually have any further comments to make. I just wanted to make sure as many people see this as possible because I have absolutely no frame of reference for that poster. Also in that category:
Weakness – A $330,000 salary cap hit for the next two seasons is a pretty big blow in a league as competitive as the NRL and definitely not helpful for a new coach looking to re-establish control. Dessy Hasler is… definitely a person who has coached before. Sure, he was at the helm for the last two premierships but what has he done for Manly lately, besides making sure that the Bulldogs never play finals footy ever again? If he applies the same strategy of signing big and worrying about the backended contracts later, he’s going to struggle at a club with even less cap space than usual.
Opportunity – Manly has some good powerful players in their pack, like Martin Taupau (.141 in 2018), Addin Fonua-Blake (.117) and Jake Trbojevic (.113), making for the second best starting line-up on average, just behind the Rabbitohs and just ahead of the Cowboys. These men will likely, as the saying goes, lay a platform for success if Manly can get a decent rotation going.
Prospect – Finalist. I’m bullish on Manly. One reason is that a lot of people think they’re spoon contenders and I think that largely overlaps with the same people who thought the Warriors were going to do likewise in 2018. Extrapolating the end of the previous season into the current one is not good analysis, folks. The Sea Eagles have a couple of big holes (besides the salary cap hit), which is a lack of depth and minimal strike power outside. The halves and the starters in the pack are well sorted though, which is probably more important. While Manly still need an across the board improvement on 2018, Hasler might be able to put the pieces together to at least get a 2017-style run to the first week of the finals.
Strength – How’s the conveyor belt of talent? Cronk went to the Roosters, Slater’s off into retirement and Smith will probably make 400 games but he’s the last of that generation left at the Storm. Fear not though, because the Easts Tigers and the Sunshine Coast Falcons just keep serving up top line prospects. There’s Brodie Croft (more on him later), Scott Drinkwater (my 2018 QCup MVP), Brandon Smith (New Zealand’s starting hooker despite not having a starting gig at his club), Billy Walters and Cooper Johns (owners of famous last names) all at various stages of coming up through the Storm system.
Weakness – Of Melbourne’s +12.9 WARG roster strength, Cameron Smith represents 21% of that by himself. In a spine of Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Brodie Croft, Smith has 75% of the games played (384 out of 507). Smith is nearly 36 and unlike Tom Brady, still has to take and make a hit every now and again. If he gets injured, a huge amount of experience exits. While I rate Brandon Smith, he would have to replace the all-time hooker, which might be enough to bring the Storm back to the pack.
Opportunity – What of Brodie Croft? Last year was meant to be his break out season, coming out from the shadow of Cooper Cronk. That idea came back to earth with a very loud thud, averaging just .026 (that’s not a typo) over the first five rounds of the NRL. He did a long stint in the Queensland Cup with the Tigers where his QCup PPG was a much healthier .147, albeit boosted by big games against perennial losers Central Queensland and Tweed Heads. The Tigers went to the grand final while Croft returned to Melbourne for a few games in the final third of the season to put up a respectable .131 over four games. Another slow start to 2019 could end his career in first grade but he has shown some promise. He’s got a lot competition to keep at bay to keep a jersey though, including Cam Smith who might be shuffled into the halves to make room for Brandon Smith at hooker.
Prospect – Contender. Who would say otherwise? I’ll keep tipping them for the same reasons we do every year until the heat death of the universe or the Storm’s system finally falls apart, maybe when Bellamy retires.
Strength – David Klemmer joins Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. That’s a pretty handy triumvirate of talent to lead your team in to what is likely to be the most successful season on the field in many years (yes, that is a very low bar to hurdle over). Indeed, Klemmer alone adds +1.5 to the roster strength, putting the Knights about 20% up on where they were last year.
Weakness – The Knights’ defence was the worst in the league last year, with a Poseidon delta of -40. The only thing worse was their performance at home, with a beta of -44, which was coincidentally also the worst in the league. Somehow, despite this, the Knights finished with the second highest attendance for 2018. I guess there’s not much else going on in Newcastle.
Opportunity – The suggestion that Kalyn Ponga is going to be Mitchell Pearce’s halves partner is an odd one. Yes, Ponga has a running game and can pass but that also works when he wears the number one jersey or any jersey, really. Between this and the fuss that was made when he was put into Origin and started doing an impression of a second rower, which was well received, I’m starting to wonder if I know what I’m talking about because it all seems so at odds with common sense. The only reason I can think for doing this is that the replacement fullback, likely Connor Watson (.099 PPG in 2018), is significantly better than the replacement five-eighth, who might be Mason Lino (.061 for comparison but I think that undersells Lino significantly). Maybe that decision pays off but I have my doubts. If not, then what? How much will the inevitable mid-season deck chair reshuffling affect the team?
Prospect – Also ran. It’s hard to deny that Newcastle look pretty good on paper but let’s be blunt here. Despite winning nine games, the Knights were as terrible as ever in 2018. They were much luckier in close games than they have been in the past but otherwise they lost pretty conclusively. The Knights’ average winning margin was about six points and their average losing margin was closer to sixteen. We can put some of that down to Ponga and Pearce missing games through injury but realistically, even with those two healthy and Klemmer on board, that only gets them to a level where they deserve nine to eleven wins, instead of falling ass backwards into them, and that’s not enough.
Strength – The Warriors forward pack isn’t far off rep quality and includes Adam Blair, Tohu Harris and Isaiah Papali’i. They are joined by Leeson Ah Mau, who put up a very respectable +0.3 WARG for the Dragons last year. Getting down the field shouldn’t be an issue if they can focus and maintain possession like they did for about two-thirds of 2018.
Weakness – When it rains, it pours. Shaun Johnson: off to Cronulla. Mason Lino: off to Newcastle. Blake Green: out for a couple of weeks. That just leaves 19 year old Chanel Harris-Tavita and an eroteme to fill in the Warriors’ halves jerseys to start the season. If they start 0-2 or 0-3 because of a lack of experienced playmaking and a punctuation mark wearing the six, that puts them well behind the eight ball and in no position to repeat last season’s 5-0 start.
Opportunity – When he returns, Blake Green has been handed a golden opportunity to leave a mark in the game. For a dude who has never played rep footy and is now 32, he has a chance to be the linchpin for the Warriors’ 2019 season with all that entails. He’s done OK numbers in the past, ranging from a low of .087 in 2016 to a high .098 in 2015, but that’s in the shadows of the likes of Cronk, Cherry-Evans and Johnson, situations that don’t offer much opportunity to rack up stats. As the top dog, he’s got control of his and his team’s future.
Prospect – Also ran. New Zealand are a very difficult team to pin down but, unlike Canberra, I don’t think the Warriors are in any danger of an actual wooden spoon. I had them pegged as, at worst, thirteenth, whereas the Raiders are at risk of plumbing some seriously low depths. So while the Warriors have offloaded the single most talented member of the team and his understudy, the rest of the team isn’t in too bad shape. If Tavita-Harris can deliver, then they might even challenge the top eight.
Strength – Jason Taumalolo has been the best performing forward of the last three years (if you don’t count hookers as forwards and I don’t) putting up .170, .179 and .158 from 2016 through 2018 and he has another eight years left to run on his contract. That completely bonkers fact aside, we should appreciate the fact that we are alive to witness the Pacific Dally Messenger tear up teams on the regular with the same efficacy as the real Dally Messenger.
Weakness – Do we want to talk about Paul Green? My dude loves a completed set and maintaining possession but he is not a huge innovator when it comes to playmaking. If there’s been a wall the Cowboys have had to clamber over the last couple of years, it’s that they have really lacked effective fifth tackle options, even with a future Immortal and probable future Hall of Famer at the helm. My sneaking suspicion is that he relied a lot on Johnathan Thurston to direct things on the paddock and now that he has retired, I don’t know if Michael Morgan has the spark required in the absence of a coach who does. It is worth remembering that in 2017, when this last happened, the Cowboys made the grand final. They also finished eighth and limped through most of the season. Jake Clifford might be the remedy here but he’s got to be a few years off seriously running a first grade team. On the other hand,
Opportunity – If we pretend 2018 didn’t happen, we would look at the Cowboys’ roster and be impressed. The outside backs have been flushed out into the Super League septic system and, while Ben Barba is too big a turd for even that, Jordan Kahu might be a half decent stop-gap until Valentine Holmes gets rejected from the NFL for being too slow. The 2018 MVP’s return will likely spark the Cowboys on to something special and his signature alone would push the Cows ahead of the Storm on roster strength, adding another 12% in cWARG.
Prospect – Finalist. We can talk about confidence being smashed but really the Cowboys’ biggest problems last year were: Morgan injured, couldn’t work with Thurston when he was there and an attacking strategy that was both boring and carried out by pensioners. The pensioners are gone and replaced with the likes of the very exciting Nene Macdonald and the considerably less stimulating Tom Opacic, Morgan’s back, Clifford’s developing and the forward pack remains one of the league’s most formidable, so that should be enough to put the Cowboys into the top eight race.
Strength – Blake Ferguson, the eighth most productive player of 2018 (.144) and a huge metre-eater, will come in and will attempt to fill the enormous hole left in the squad by Semi Radradra’s departure for France. Junior Paulo is another good signing, coming in from Canberra with .121 last year, to help bolster a forward pack that lacked direction and effectiveness last season.
Weakness – 2018 was a disaster. It really defied belief that the team that gave the 2017 Storm a run for their money in the finals turned into… that, which speaks a lot to rugby league’s randomness but also the fact that we all collectively got too excited about the 2017 Eels, thinking that was their typical efforts instead of an outlier. I don’t know if the club review, Ferguson, Paulo and offloading Norman on to the Dragons is really what’s required to lift the club out of the mire. Last year’s away performances (-26) were a serious issue and overwhelmed their slightly above average performance in front of the home crowd (+8), when the home crowd could be bothered attending.
Opportunity – I don’t normally show much interest about developments of rugby league in Sydney but the new Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta is genuinely an exciting development for the game. It looks like it will turn into a noisy, parochial bowl of a stadium and with a 30,000 capacity, is the perfect size for the NRL. The Eels have already sold a bunch of tickets for the new stadium (in some cases, the only way to get to some games now is to buy a membership) and if they can capitalise on the surge in interest, that will set them up very nicely into the future.
Prospect – Spooner. There’s not a whole lot to get excited about in the immediate future, other than The Cumberland Throw’s post-match player ratings. Parramatta are re-pitching themselves as a development club, which I think is an exercise in managing fan expectations for the foreseeable future. If the plan is to develop a conveyor belt for talented and cheap kids to come through the ranks, the pieces are moving into place but it will take time and certainly more than the couple of months since the club review was handed down. In the meantime, any club whose biggest off-season signing is Blake Ferguson and who doesn’t already have several future Immortals on the roster cannot reasonably set a high bar.
Strength – Perhaps surprisingly, it was Viliame Kikau, and not Reagan Campbell-Gillard, that was the key forward for the Panthers in 2018. Not withstanding Campbell-Gillard’s multiple fractured jaws which, if nothing else, is going to be a knock on his confidence, Kikau led from the front with an outstanding .151 over 23 games and nearly 3,000 running metres. For comparison, Campbell-Gillard has never bettered .117.
Weakness – Upending the team to get Nathan’s dad seemed a bit extreme. Doing it a few weeks out from the finals was inexplicable. Ivan Cleary, a man I remember as a player from my childhood which makes me feel really old, has one of the longest careers of any coach in the NRL. What’s amazing about that fact is that he hasn’t won a premiership. He must have some serious schmoozing skills and will need to bring everything he has to bear to the Panthers to get the absolute best out of the team, especially Campbell-Gillard and Mansour, if they are to seriously compete for the premiership. Whether he’s had enough time to do that remains to be seen.
Opportunity – We all got a bit too excited about Nathan Cleary but he’s seemingly had a season of mean reversion, at least qualitatively. Quantitatively, he was .118 in 2017 and fell massively down the rankings to .114 in 2018 (ironically, he was actually ranked higher by PPG in 2018). At that rate, he’ll be below average sometime in the late 2020s, so I think we’ll continue to see good things out of Cleary the Younger. But if he does really suck, Jarome Luai is in the wings, ready to take over.
Prospect – Finalist. The Panthers have spent three years in the 5th-8th positions on the ladder and I think they will add another year in 2019. With the exception of Trent Merrin, the pieces from the last couple of successful seasons are in place for the next go around, which includes a feared forward pack, the Origin-winning NSW halves pairing and some strike power out on the wings. The question is whether this team can put themselves in the same conversation as the Roosters.
Strength – Damien Cook was the most productive player of 2018, finishing the year with .187 and a Dally M hooker of the year award to his name. The pretty obvious not-so-secret? Being fast off the mark. Insert a cliched reference to his teenaged beach sprint national title here. While it’s possible to neutralise his running game and he will lose speed as the nearly-28-year-old continues to age at the rate of one day per day, the threat of his running at the line is almost as useful as actually executing it. His other secret? He’s consistent as hell. While his COP is negative, he only had one game below .090 when the Rabbitohs lost 24-20 to the Broncos in round 8. The good news is that the coach of the only team that got two regular season wins over Souths is now running the show at Redfern in 2019.
Weakness – Despite the narrative that Seibold getting the Burgess brothers moving forward quickly with minimal errors was the key to the Bunnies’ success, PPG suggests they played about the same as they did in 2017, when Souths won only nine games. The truth is that the Burgii aren’t working as productively as they were the last time Souths won a premiership. In 2014, Sam, George and Thomas averaged .146, falling to .110 by 2017 and 2018. With them taking up three spots in the forward pack, John Sutton now old enough to qualify for a testimonial and Angus Chrichton changing sides in the Old Firm derby, is the rise of Cameron Murray (not to be confused with the economist of the same name) sufficient to keep the forward production high enough that the Rabbitohs can seriously contend?
Prospect – Contenders, I guess? I’m struggling to sort some teams into neat groups of four, partly because last year gave us so little useful information to assess. Souths were there in the late stages of the finals. The roster strength seems to be up there thanks to a wealth of experience. Wayne Bennett is a new coach to Souths but he’s hardly an unknown in rugby league, especially as he’s been the national team coach of the Rabbitohs’ main stars for the last three years. There’s no reason to doubt that they’ll be in the top four again come September.
Strength – The Dragons start the season, again, with one of the top two or three halves pairings in the league. Some clubs struggle to get even one representative calibre half and the Dragons have two in Gareth Widdop (career high .149 in 2017 returning a career low of .085 in 2018) and Ben Hunt (.154 in 2014 and .121 in 2018). Picking up Corey Norman (.127 in 2017 and .113 in 2018) might mean a switch to fullback for Widdop though, which is a gambit I will need to see pay off repeatedly if I am to believe it works, even though I did see Widdop play at fullback in the 2017 World Cup final where he gave the world’s best team a run for their money.
Weakness – St George Illawarra have decided to turn themselves into the Broncos circa 2012 with Lachlan Maranta, Corey Norman, Korbin Sims and Jonus Pearson (OK, neither Sims nor Pearson were in playing 2012) coming in while letting go of genuine talents like Leeson Ah Mau and Nene Macdonald. Those are, politely, odd moves and leaves the transfer balance with some explaining to do. More to the point, the 2012 Broncos were far from the best vintage that Brisbane has produced so I’m not sure this is the model that should be replicated.
Opportunity – Gareth Widdop is homesick for England, despite having lived in Australia for the best part of a decade and a half. He will in all probability land in Super League in 2020 with a top team and add a bunch of titles to his resume before retiring after five years of marquee payments. Good for him. But for now, he has a final opportunity to cap his time in Australia by becoming a dual-club premiership winner, a feat few people can claim, and that should be motivation to play his best.
Prospect – Also ran. So after all that Widdop-riding, why am I so down on the Dragons?
- They’ve learnt nothing from being April premiers and do not appear to have done anything to remedy the sharp drop-off in performance as the season progresses.
- Widdop is halfway home, Norman is halfway in and Ben Hunt can’t lead. After a relatively quiet year from Paul Vaughan, Jack de Belin facing jail time and Leeson Ah Mau plying his trade in New Zealand, a good squad on paper has a lot of holes in it that have been papered over with mediocrities.
- Jack de Belin is, lightly, facing some legal issues.
- There’s always a team that fails to live up to expectation and I feel that the Dragons fit that measure perfectly this year.
Strength – After a stunningly good season with the Rabbitohs in 2017, big things were expected of Angus Chrichton in 2018 and beyond with his move to Bondi. Consensus seems to be that he did not deliver. I think it’s worth a post in it’s own right but, by the numbers at least, he was .103 in 2016, shot up to .143 in 2017 and then settled back to .125 last year. This is means he is still very good and, while he may not return to the lofty heights of 2017, he does not need to because he is a strong addition to what is one of the best and most balanced rosters in the league.
Weakness – I don’t know that the Roosters really have any weaknesses. Halves? They’re good. Backs? Yep, also good. Forward pack? Fine. Coach? Can speak French, so he’s miles ahead of his colleagues. Finances? Politis will ensure that’s ever going to be an issue. Something about low attendances? That’s all I got, sorry.
Opportunity – The obvious opportunity is that the Roosters are in the box seat to be the first back-to-back NRL premiers and the first in first grade since, depending on your point of view, the Broncos did it in 1992-93 and/or 1997-98. Last year, Matthew Johns said,
“I think in 2018 they’ll be a very, very good football team. But I don’t see them being premiers because I just see a bit of clunkiness in the combinations,” Johns said on Triple M’s The Grill Team.
“In 2019 I see them as a great football team.”
So there’s that.
Prospect – Contender. The Roosters lucked out in many ways last year. It was an extremely strange year, with so many teams clustered together in the top eight and a shadow of the usual Storm team turning up to the grand final. Credit where credit’s due for the Roosters, they took advantage and won a premiership. Now with their combinations set, I agree with Matthew Johns, and I don’t say that lightly, that they will likely take another step up this year.
Strength – This might surprise people but the Dally M halfback of the year is pretty good. Out of the “Big 4”, if you were going to keep anyone and couldn’t afford Tedesco, then Luke Brooks would be your dude. Brooks has always been there or thereabouts, consistently averaging .099 from 2014 through 2017, but he took a big leg up last year, finishing on .116 putting him in the top half dozen or so established halves and in the same conversation as (admittedly hobbled versions of) Mitchell Pearce (.121) and Shaun Johnson (.115).
Weakness – Unfortunately, it takes more than a single half to build a team and the Tigers’ roster is patchy at best. Their roster strength sandwiches them between the Panthers and the Sea Eagles but half of that strength comes from the combination of Marshall, Farah, Matulino and Reynolds. Putting aside the fact that Robbie and Benji should be protesting franking credit reform by now, at least two of those guys will spend a significant amount of time on the sideline this year. With Brooks, Marsters and maybe Matterson picking up some slack, the roster depth is wafer thin.
Opportunity – A lot of clubs have had messy off-seasons. The Tigers’ was roughly on par with the Sharks’ on the drama scale, losing their CEO due to dodgy dealings (he may come back on appeal), new signing Zane Musgrove immediately getting into trouble and punting Ivan Cleary to Penrith. None of that is great but the Tigers have done well to pick up Michael Maguire to replace Cleary. The coach behind Souths’ 2014 premiership and current New Zealand national coach has had a year off to refresh and should be an injection of stability for the club (we probably said the same thing about Cleary’s arrival).
Prospect – Spooner. The 2018 Tigers were lucky, catching a number of big teams off guard, and also unlucky, as managing to scrape together twelve wins would normally be enough for top eight. Except that is in 2018, where the buy-in was fifteen and they will be hard pressed to repeat their luck. A lack of big name signings plus the absence of a referee crackdown – in fact the refs seem like they’re going to do the complete opposite this year – makes a steep climb steeper. When you look at their record against their fellow cellar-dwellers last year, the ladder is going to look more like a wall.