Recent history suggests otherwise, but the Sydney Roosters are specials to collect back-to-back premierships in 2014. With only one member of their Grand Final squad departing (veteran forward Luke O’Donnell) and again fielding an incredibly well-balanced line-up, the Tricolours are nicely placed to become the first club since Brisbane in 1992-93 to win consecutive titles in a full competition. The Roosters are laced with brilliant individuals, while their sizzling attack and brutal, water-tight defence are two qualities rarely seen in conjunction. They will be hard to topple.
The Roosters’ biggest obstacles are complacency and questionable depth. The Tricolours were only lightly grazed by injuries in 2013, with their first-choice Grand Final 17 all playing in at least 20 of their 27 games – an incredible statistic given the average NRL club’s annual casualty ward. If a couple of their blue-chip stars are sidelined for extended periods, it could upset the Roosters’ finely-tuned apple cart.
The usual suspects, South Sydney, Manly and Melbourne are the best-equipped sides to knock off the Roosters, but have all had their squads weakened to varying degrees by off-season player movement. Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs’ capitulation against the Sea Eagles one week short of the club’s first Grand Final appearance in 42 years – their second straight preliminary final exit – will have the club psychologists working overtime this September, attempting to find a cure for the star-stacked line-up’s mental fragility in the big games.
The North Queensland Cowboys have shown enough in their late-season rally last year and a bumper pre-season campaign to suggest they could challenge for a maiden premiership, while fellow title-less 1995 entrants the Warriors are looming as the genuine smokies of 2014.
Only two of the also-rans of 2013 appear to have the capacity to muscle their way into the finals this season – the Panthers and the Warriors. Penrith’s wide-ranging, savvy recruitment, along with their quality off-field set-up, strong batch of youngsters and improving performances last year has put them squarely in the dark horse category. The Panthers boast a well-balanced squad with plenty of depth.
The Warriors are rarely too far off the radar at the beginning of any given season, but the club is – quite rightly – scoffed at as the NRL’s great enigma, a brilliant but woefully inconsistent outfit. This shapes as the year it all comes together. The arrival of Sam Tomkins, the increasingly reliable genius of Shaun Johnson and mind-blowing depth across the park holds the Warriors in good stead to make a run at the top four. The Warriors had the toughest draw in the NRL in 2013, playing the top four teams twice and the bottom three clubs just once. This year that balance is reversed, but that may prove problematic – the Warriors are notorious for upsetting the heavyweights before crashing against the lesser lights.
From the lower reaches of the 2013 ladder, a new-look Parramatta Eels’ side under highly-rated former assistant coach Brad Arthur is capable of winning at least a third of their games and getting out of the bottom three. St George Illawarra has also been active on the recruitment front and could move to mid-table or higher if Josh Dugan and Trent Merrin can both play more than 20 games before the year is out.
The Brisbane Broncos would like to think of 2013 as the nadir of their 26-season existence – the lowest ebb before a triumphant return to contender status. But there is every chance the former glamour club will tumble further down the ladder this season. The halves situation is a mess, they are skinny in the front-row department, their quality three-quarters are injured and their fit wingers and centres are ordinary.
A stirring finals charge masked an incredibly inconsistent 2013 campaign for Newcastle; ditto North Queensland’s late-season rally to scrape into the top eight. Russell Packer’s jailing has the two-pronged effect of being an unsavoury disruption and a massive blow to Newcastle’s prop stocks, while the long-term injury suffered by captain and linchpin Jarrod Mullen will be the straw that broke the Knights’ age-weary back.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, have the maestro Johnathan Thurston and an inflated sense of confidence after their Nines triumph. But replacing fullback Matt Bowen effectively will make or break their season under new coach Paul Green, who needs to get the best out of some dynamic but inconsistent backrowers who are currently commanding first grade spots.
Despite a perennial inability to score points (prop Andrew Fifita was their top try-scorer last year with nine) the Cronulla Sharks possess the line-up to go all the way, but the ASADA cloud continues to hover ominously, while the absence of suspended coach Shane Flanagan should have more of an impact on the pundits’ predictions than it has.
The Wooden Spooners
Parramatta is desperately trying to avoid becoming the first club since the basket-case Gold Coast Seagulls (1991-93) to finish last three years in a row. The Eels have bought well enough to climb off the bottom if captain Jarryd Hayne can better his 2012-13 average of 13.5 appearances.
Wests Tigers should be red-hot favourites for the spoon, boasting a barely post-pubescent roster sprinkled with a handful of over-the-hill journeymen, while the club has been beset with a slew of injury problems already. Granted, the Tigers’ batch of young stars is brilliant, but there is little else other than skipper Robbie Farah and NSW prop Aaron Woods binding the inexperienced squad together.
The St George Illawarra Dragons will loiter near the foot of the ladder if they do not improve drastically on their insipid Charity Shield performance, while Brisbane and Canberra are potential wooden spooners if they start the season slow.
If there are two occurrences that can be counted on in a Rugby League season, it’s Craig Bellamy bemoaning the hectic representative schedule and burnout on his Storm stars (that’s what happens when your club illegally assembles a team stacked with marquee players) and Geoff Toovey throwing an ill-conceived wobbly over a refereeing performance which wasn’t actually that bad. At least the latter is moderately entertaining.
The NRL’s raft of forward-thinking minor rule changes to speed up the game will inevitably prove a vehicle for the insular Tooveys and Haslers of the competition to have an ‘if it aint broke why fix it’ whinge. The League should be commended for taking these steps – particularly replacing scrums with tap restarts in several instances, and restricting captains’ authority to approach referees – which will make for a more attractive spectacle.
It would be naïve to say player misbehaviour has plumbed new depths in the last 12 months, but it has been a particularly bad year. The Cruiser-drinking, rooftop antics of ‘Dorguson’ provided endless fodder for the media and meme-makers alike, but when off-field incidents begin to have devastating real life consequences for all involved – such as Russell Packer’s two-year jail term for a vicious assault – it’s time for a summit to help eradicate it from our code.
Expect marquee player and loyalty exemptions in the salary cap structure to get a solid run in the press and the boardrooms this year, while the expansion race is set to heat up with the proposed Brisbane Bombers announcing themselves as the real deal.
Trent Robinson, Craig Bellamy, Geoff Toovey, Michael Maguire, Des Hasler and Ivan Cleary are like monarchs at their respective clubs, with only abdication or death able to unseat the revered coaches from their roles. If you want another royal analogy, Anthony Griffin and Steve Price are like Henry VIII’s wives: one wrong move – a slow start to the season, a lengthy losing streak or a player revolt – and it’s off with their heads.
Incoming coaches Paul Green, Brad Arthur and Ricky Stuart are secure in their jobs barring a complete first-season disaster, while the old master Wayne Bennett is relatively safe and suspended Cronulla mentor Shane Flanagan has been guaranteed a three-year deal from 2015, with the experienced Peter Sharp filling in this season.
Matt Elliott, John Cartwright and Michael Potter will live and die by the results of their teams. Failure to reach the finals would make it difficult for the Warriors to extend Elliott’s contract or for the Titans to retain Cartwright, while getting out of the bottom-three would probably be regarded as a pass mark for Potter given the Tigers’ roster.
British superstar Sam Tomkins arrives in Auckland amid stratospheric expectations, but has the killer instinct the mentally brittle Warriors are lacking – expect the livewire fullback to douse the doubters. Ex-Cronulla backrower Jayson Bukuya is another great pick-up for the Auckland-based club, a tackle-busting forward in a side brimming with them. Ben Barba is set to return to somewhere near his Dally M-winning best, but his brilliance won’t be enough for the ailing Broncos on its own.
Penrith has been the most active club in the player market, with dynamic backrowers Elijah Taylor and Tyrone Peachey, veteran prop Brent Kite and quicksilver outside back Kevin Naiqama the pick of the Panthers’ recruits. New halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace are rocks or diamonds propositions, and hold the fate of the club’s 2014 hopes in their experienced hands.
The arrival of young gun halves Gareth Widdop and Sam Williams is a merciful relief for the Dragons, while backrower/centre Joel Thompson provides them with much-needed punch on the edges. Reigning wooden spooner Parramatta has welcomed three buy-of-the-year contenders in Will Hopoate, Nathan Peats and Corey Norman.
Backline leviathan Jamal Idris was a shock January signing for Penrith, another marquee acquisition on the surface. But the fact the Gold Coast let its star centre go – two years into a five-season deal, no less – without a struggle says more about Idris’ injury-prone and high maintenance traits than it does about the Titans management’s compassion. True to form, Idris will miss the start of 2014 with a hamstring complaint.
Souths have attempted to plug some gaps and depth issues by rescuing Lote Tuqiri and Joel Reddy from the scrapheap – despite the pair averaging just eight and 11 NRL appearances respectively over the past three seasons. The Dragons have mixed some quality signings with some ordinary buys, with prop Matt Groat struggling to get a start at the lowly Tigers and inconsistent 30-year-old playmaker Michael Witt returning to the NRL after a five-year absence; both are likely to do little more than get in the way at Wollongong.
Craig Bellamy is renowned for turning mid-level recruits and journeymen into key members of his Melbourne machine, but the Storm guru believing he can transform erratic former Canterbury and Parramatta pivot Ben Roberts into a fully-functional NRL footballer is the height of coaching conceit. Former Rooster Martin Kennedy is a desperately needed front-row recruit for Brisbane, but there are rumblings already that the enforcer is not fitting in, which could prove to be another disruptive influence for a club on the brink.
The season is just days from getting underway, but speculation around where certain stars will be playing in 2015 is dominating the headlines. Cronulla faces a monumental challenge retaining its front-row megastar Andrew Fifita, with Souths, Canterbury, St George Illawarra, the Roosters and Australian Rugby Union keen to get the blockbusting forward on their books. The Broncos should join that bidding war. Other guns coming off contract this year include Wade Graham, Kevin Locke, Tohu Harris, Josh Mansour, Kyle Stanley and Joseph Leilua, while Glenn Stewart will be in hot demand if salary cap restraints force him out of Manly. Expect Melbourne to hang on to Cameron Smith.
Another season, another couple of teams being labelled ‘too old’ to win the premiership – this year, again, it’s Manly and Newcastle. In short, the Sea Eagles aren’t too old and the Knights are. The difference is Manly’s mature brigade – Lyon, the Stewart brothers, Watmough – are still among the NRL’s finest players, while Newcastle’s over-30 contingent, including Gidley, Tahu, Mason and Newton, are injury-prone and well past their best.
Dally M Contenders
There is never much scope for an out-and-out bolter to snare the Dally M Medal, even less for a forward that isn’t a hooker. Forget about centres and wingers, too – they’ve never won one. That leaves Melbourne’s ‘Big Three’, Daly Cherry-Evans, Johanthan Thurston, Adam Reynolds, Greg Inglis, James Maloney, Todd Carney, Josh Reynolds, Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins to battle it out for the game’s highest individual honour.
Playing for a struggling club is likely to thwart Jarryd Hayne, Robbie Farah and Josh Dugan, but Sonny Bill Williams and Andrew Fifita are a chance if the anti-forward bias dissipates. A rumoured revamp of the voting format – with SBW’s poor showing in the 2013 count after a stellar campaign believed to be the catalyst – could throw the race for the gong wide open, however.
Rookie Class of 2014
Teenage halfback Luke Brooks has already been heralded as the Tigers’ saviour and compared with the Immortal Andrew Johns. No pressure there. But based on his NRL debut late last year, Brooks has the chops to back up the fanfare, and is a clear Rookie of the Year favourite. Other tyros that will come into contention if given a decent crack at first grade include Warriors winger David Fusitua, Bulldogs playmaker Moses Mbye, Canberra three-quarter Brenko Lee, Roosters behemoth front-rower Kane Evans, the Bulldogs’ equally terrifying prop David Klemmer, Penrith NYC sensation Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Brisbane halves hopeful Kodi Nikorima.
Under Pressure Players
Veteran captain Michael Ennis’ increasingly cumbersome dummy-half play is thwarting the Bulldogs’ attack, while halfback Trent Hodkinson could do with a form upswing after finally regaining the Canterbury No.7 last year. Sam Thaiday needs to prove it was the captaincy blunting his previously dynamic form at Brisbane after relinquishing the duties to Corey Parker and Justin Hodges.
Warriors centre Dane Nielsen, a former Queensland Origin rep, repeatedly hindered his side’s attack last year. His winger Manu Vatuvei picked up his customary swag of tries, but precious few came from Nielsen passes – the defensive specialist is clueless with the ball in hand. How he can command a starting spot with the likes of Ngani Laumape, Carlos Tuimavave and Jerome Ropati frothing for a backline opportunity is one of the NRL’s great mysteries.
Enigmatic types Feleti Mateo, Adam Blair and Chris Sandow must start producing the goods week-to-week or risk slipping into NRL oblivion, with feasible alternatives available at their respective clubs. Gold Coast monster Ryan James has some Fifita-like wraps coming from his coaches to live up to.
Breakout Season ahead
In 2013, the breakout stars included Andrew Fifita, Sam Moa, Dean Whare, Albert Kelly, Boyd Cordner, Aidan Guerra, Brad Takairangi, Glen Fisiiahi, Tim Simona, Justin Horo, Brenton Lawrence, Tyrone Roberts and Dane Gagai. Keep an eye out for the likes of Sione Lousi, Josh Mansour, Corey Norman, Edrick Lee, Kyle Feldt, Tyrone Peachey, Kenneath Bromwich, Josh Starling and Chad Townsend to send their value skyrocketing with career-best campaigns this year.
The NRL’s two most destructive backrowers, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess, are off at the end of the year to chase Rugby Union World Cup glory as midfield backs. At least SBW is adhering to his contract this time, but Sam Burgess’ petulant self-imposed media ban – due to the public backlash after he sought an early release from Souths – is a disappointing move from one of the game’s personality players.
Confirmed retirees are conspicuously thin on the ground at present, but there is a good chance we will be savouring the talents of Anthony Minichiello, Brent Tate, Braith Anasta, Fuifui Moimoi, Willie Mason, Luke Bailey and Nathan Friend for the last time, in the NRL at least.
There are more NSW certainties for the 2014 Origin series than in recent years, but several spots remain up for grabs. Incumbent halves Maloney and Pearce will enter a selection melting pot with Todd Carney, Adam Reynolds and Josh Reynolds if the Blues struggle in game one, while Brett Stewart, Dugan and Hayne are in a shootout for the fullback role. Everyone loves a bolter, so watch out for Josh Mansour, Dylan Walker, Tyrone Peachey and Jayson Bukuya to receive a call-up.
Queensland will field a predictable line-up as Mal Meninga aims for nine straight. Will Chambers and Dane Gagai are the front-runners for a centre spot if Justin Hodges fails to recover from an Achilles injury. If the Maroons suffer a loss during the series and jettison any under-performing forwards – as they did last year with stalwarts Ashley Harrison and David Shillington – look for Brenton Lawrence and Aidan Guerra to surge into contention for a Maroon jumper.
Injuries permitting, the Australian Test side will line up as per the World Cup final, with Sam Thaiday the only player who should be looking over his shoulder on the basis of form. New Zealand fielded one of the greatest sides in its history during the World Cup, but their poor final showing and the Kiwi selectors’ penchant for rewarding form should see the likes of Konrad Hurrell, Tim Simona, Sosaia Feki and Brad Takairangi pushing for inclusion in May’s trans-Tasman Test.
1. Sydney Roosters
2. South Sydney Rabbitohs
3. Melbourne Storm
4. Manly Sea Eagles
5. Canterbury Bulldogs
6. North Queensland Cowboys
7. Cronulla Sharks
8. Penrith Panthers
9. New Zealand Warriors
10. Newcastle Knights
11. Gold Coast Titans
12. Brisbane Broncos
13. Canberra Raiders
14. St George Illawarra Dragons
15. Parramatta Eels
16. Wests Tigers