Sport Matthew Elliott: The new decade of NRL to start with a photo finish
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Matthew Elliott: The new decade of NRL to start with a photo finish

St George's Jackson Ford and Parramatta's Clint Gutherson dive for the ball at the NRL Nines in Perth. Photo: AAP
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Trial matches are a poor indicator of who is going to finish in the top eight, but there are some early indicators the NRL 2020 competition is going to be closer than it has been for some time.

As is always the case at this time of the year, a bunch of self-professed experts come up with who is making and missing the semis, all validated by insightful research and stats.

Let me make the declaration that even with access to a time machine, predicting what will be happening in the NRL is September is close to impossible.

What I will share here is my best guess on which teams have reason to be optimistic and those who will need to be hit in the backside by a rainbow not to slide down the ladder.

Patrick Carrigan at a Broncos training session in Brisbane on Thursday. Photo: AAP

Brisbane Broncos: Brisbane has some of the best young talent in the NRL – Andrew Fifita, Payne Haas, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pangai and the list goes on.

Without a doubt these guys will be elite NRL players.

However what this competition has taught us repeatedly is that consistency is a difficult challenge for players with less than 50 games under their belt, so the need to strong on-field leadership is essential.

This is my big question mark on the Broncos.

Again their senior players have some special skillsets, but Anthony Milford isn’t a player to run your spine, Brodie Croft is a newbie, and Darius Boyd and Andrew McCullough are showing signs that the massive contribution made over an extended period is taking its toll physically and mentally.

Prediction: The Broncos will have phases during the year when they get on a roll and win consecutive games. Equally because of a lack of poise and leadership in their spine, they will lose some close games. Their talent will get them inside the eight, but only just … with the longer-term prognosis being very positive.

My Guess: Eighth.

Canberra Raiders: There’s a lot to like about last year’s grand finalist, which again will be a force in 2020.

The Raiders do have some challenges that will need to be addressed.

Firstly, the absence of John Bateman early in the season will definitely have an impact as the energy he brings is not only a handful for the opposition but definitely lifts his teammates.

Sam Williams is a great signing, but as a half in his first year of NRL he will have his focus tested as the season goes on.

The UK Super League has some fixtures in which top teams can cruise out a win. The NRL doesn’t offer this opportunity, so running the marathon called the NRL will be his challenge.

The move of Jack Wighton to the halves proved to be a masterstroke by Ricky Stuart, not only because of what Wighton produced but the elite and consistent form of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at full-back was amazing for guy in first season in the position.

This tells me he is a very committed learner and has a high level of preparation. Expect to see even better from him in 2020.

Prediction: The Raiders again will fly under the radar for much of the season, but their early season defence will win them games to gain momentum and to finish the season in the top two.

My Guess: Second.

Jack Cogger will be integral to Canterbury’s fortunes in 2020. Photo: AAP

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs: The Bulldogs have a very handy top 18 to 20 players, but their depth after that is still compromised after cap restrictions and the loss of Kieran Foran. The combination of Lachlan Lewis and Jack Cogger has shown that it can be effective with this hard-working team around them, but I fail to see the threat in this team that will see them climb the ladder.

Prediction: The workload on offer from their pack certainly saw them hang in there to win some game in the final quarter last year however I am struggling to see this getting them inside the top 8 in fact believe that they will slide this year

My Guess: 16th.

Gold Coast Titans: The arrival of coach Justin Holbrook may provide impetus for elevated energy across this squad, however it is still very difficult to see where this team’s road to success lies.

Can they become a defensive unit that has the capacity to stifle oppositions enough to win consistently?

Is this the year we see Ash Taylor arrive as the genuinely gifted player we know he is?

Does Alex Brimson come of age and tear apart oppositions like we have witnessed in moments?

Do Tyrone Peachey, Kevin Proctor and Shannon Boyd rediscover the form we once saw from them?

Prediction: With so many unanswered questions I cannot see where or how this team marks their mark this year. I strongly believe in the value of this franchise, but I don’t see 2020 as the year it finds its way to the top end of the comp.

My Guess: 15th.

Manly coach Des Hasler will need to be at his best for his side to fire. Photo: AAP

Manly Sea Eagles: The health of the brothers Trbojevic, Tom and Jake, is a vital component in Manly finishing in a better position than 2019.

Talent, team focus and tenacity provided by these two individuals is central to the Sea Eagles reaching their potential.

There is one other asset they discovered last year and that was coach Des Hasler’s ability to get the very best out of his player group regardless of external perceptions.

If you have preconceived ideas of the talent within this squad you might need to up the ante just a touch.

Be assured that this will be Dylan Walker’s best season of NRL, and young players like Morgan Boyle and Taniela Paseka will have breakout seasons.

Prediction: Even in the absence of some key players early in the season, the Sea Eagles will find a way to win and end up in a strong position at the end of the year.

My Guess: Seventh.

Melbourne Storm: People will look at last year’s runaway minor premiers and talk about the players they have lost, such as Will Chambers and Curtis Scott, and believe Storm will slide.

I’ve made that mistake before and shall not be going there again.

Coach Craig Bellamy will have this group of players knowing their job and ready to get it done.

If you want my tip on who will be the player that really surpassed expectations this year; it will be Jahrome Hughes.

This guy started last year as a bench warmer before the injury to Scott Drinkwater in the preseason. He slotted into fullback and did an amazing job before moving into halfback at the end of the season.

With a full preseason, working in that position with Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith he will be 10 levels above where he was last year. Be assured he will have teammates that have joined him on this journey.

Prediction: Storm isn’t going anywhere.

My Guess: First.

Jayden Brailey could be the difference between a good and bad year for Newcastle. Photo: AAP

Newcastle Knights: Expectations were high last year after astute recruitment, but I personally always felt that it wasn’t going to be until 2020 we would see the Knights make their run into the top of the competition.

There will be the obvious focus on Kalyn Ponga and Mitch Pearce, I strongly believe that the ingredient that will bring continuity to this unit is hooker Jayden Brailey.

The quality of service he provides and vision from dummy-half is something the Knights haven’t experienced since Danny Buderus.

In attack you will see all their key metrics go up and he will be the last one recognised.

Coach Adam O’Brien has worked under two of the best coaches in the NRL over the past decade in Trent Robinson and Bellamy, so be assured he will bring in some of the most elite preparation and performance techniques.

Prediction: The Knights are going places in 2020, which will generate some genuine excitement around their city.

My Guess: Fifth.

Cronulla Sharks: The off-season focus has been on the loss of Paul Gallen, injuries to Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan, and Josh Morris’s request to leave the club.

But if you have a close look at the Sharks squad they have some genuine firepower, particularly in their 3/4 line with the likes of Bronson Xerri, Jesse Ramien, Sione Katoa and Shaun Johnson.

For me as much as any team in the NRL, Cronulla is very reliant on the health and the form of one key player and that is Wade Graham.

If he can remain healthy and spend most of the time on the park – not just delivering his wide skillset but leading his team – the Sharks could graft their way into the eight.

Prediction: With the burden of rep games and recovering from knee surgery, Graham will miss too many games to get the Sharks into the finals mix.

My Guess: Ninth.

Former St George player, Matthew Elliott has coached NRL teams Canberra, Penrith and New Zealand Warriors

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