BY MICHAEL DI LONARDO
After an all too-familiar summer plagued with negative headlines and off-field drama, the NRL returns with the now permanent Thursday Night Football- commencing another captivating premiership season.
Every punter will give you their ‘expert’ tip, but there can only be one winner. Can Johnathon Thurston’s Cowboys go back-to-back? Will Manly rise back to the top with a freshly revised roster? How far can the Warriors go with arguably one of the best spines in the competition?
The 2016 NRL season is predicted to be one of the most evenly matched of all time with plenty of player movement and a plethora of young talent coming through the grades. Most pundits believe there are 13 teams in contention- excluding the Knights, Tigers and Titans- but in a competition that is so evenly matched from first to last, there are bound to be a few surprises.
Fans are waiting to see what effects the 30 second shot clock and eight interchanges will place on players, especially prodigious forward packs. The new rules encourage more flash and less smash, but teams will comfortably adapt to the changes just like they did when the number of interchanges was modified from 12 to 10 in 2008. The rules could mean that teams will opt to use a utility player off the bench to add some energy around the ruck late in the game once the fatigue kicks in.
The opening rounds provide a brief insight of where teams will sit come September, but as we’ve seen in the past it is the final two months that separates the contenders from the pretenders. If you glanced at the ladder after round four last year, the Knights had their third premiership in the bag and the Cowboys would have claimed the notorious wooden spoon. Talk about the tables turning…
Trent Barrett, Andrew McFadden and Brad Arthur will be shouting their recruitment team a beer or two after a successful break which has seen an influx of superstars to each side’s roster. But will they be shouted in return? With a strong roster comes plenty of pressure and coaches will be feeling the heat if promises aren’t met. Warriors coach Andrew Mcfadden has already been told by the club that if they don’t see results by round eight he can pack up his bags. Rough, but isn’t that the beauty of being an NRL coach?
With all 16 teams laden with talent, it was quite challenging devising a top eight without excluding a genuine final contender. Although the Raiders have a promising team that could easily put 50 on any side on a good day, there was still no spot for them within the competitions finest eight. And as for Parramatta? Yes there is Kieran Foran, Beau Scott and Michael Jennings; but at the end of the day Parra will be Parra and there is still a few more years of rebuilding left.
So, who formulate the hateful eight?
It’s hard to look past the 2015 grand finalist’s- Broncos and Cowboys- who haven’t done much adjustment to the squad that brought them much success last year. In fact, the Cowboys are identical from 1 to 17 and the Broncos only loss, captain Justin Hodges, has been replaced by a younger, fitter and faster version in James Roberts. Speaking of eight, it’s looming to be another propitious year for Queensland.
After the favourites come the regulars. It’s almost impossible to leave out the Roosters, Melbourne and Bulldogs who year in year out have proven themselves to be a competition threat. Although the Chooks are without a few key players in the opening rounds, they still acquire the depth and talent to push for a place in the finals. With a spine that consists of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater you can never write off Melbourne, although this could be the year the age factor kicks in and an injury or two could spoil the party. As for the Dogs, they are the finals specialists and under Des Hasler are yet to miss a September appearance, but with a lack of experience in the halves they are a gamble.
That leaves us with the Warriors, Sharks and Manly. All three have had a highly successful recruiting campaign, the Warriors boosted with Roger Tuiavas-Sheck and Issac Luke, Sharkies added with a new halves combination in James Maloney and Chad Towsend and Manly have been revitalised with Martin Taupau, Lewis Brown, Dylan Walker, Nate Myles and Apisai Koroisau. The fans are expecting big things and there will be no excuses for this trio.
Where there are eight there must be one, and look no further than the Broncos. After a devastating last minute defeat in the 2015 decider, Wayne Bennett’s men will be hungrier than ever and will ensure they finish the job off this time. Young halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford are the most exciting package in the competition and there is strong belief they can guide the Broncos to their seventh premiership title.
1. Brisbane Broncos
2.New Zealand Warriors
3.North Queensland Cowboys
4.Manly Sea Eagles
5. Cronulla Sharks
6. Melbourne Storm
7. Sydney Roosters
8. Canterbury Bulldogs