The Melbourne Storm are in a prime position to become the first club to win back-to-back titles in the NRL era.
Melbourne dropped just four games last year – and beat the North Queensland Cowboys 34-6 in last year’s grand final – before taking out the World Club Challenge against Leeds a fortnight ago.
In 2018, it is likely to face the most opposition from the Sydney Roosters and the Cowboys, who both have star-studded rosters.
But if any team can win consecutive titles – the Brisbane Broncos last achieved the feat in 1992-93 – then it’s the Storm, according to former Melbourne halfback Brett Kimmorley.
“They have a great forward pack, are the fittest team in the competition and have the best player in the world in Cameron Smith,” Kimmorley told The New Daily.
“Obviously we saw them play that World Club Challenge and not much had changed since last year. To win a competition by 28 points means you are a pretty dominant football club.
“I know Cooper Cronk is a massive loss for them in the way he steers them around, but Brodie Croft seems to be a good young kid.
“If any side can go back-to-back since the Broncos did it, the Storm are the closest team we’ve seen to be able to do that.”
The major hurdle will be whether fullback Billy Slater and hooker Smith, who both turn 35 this year, can make it through the season physically.
Slater is already out of the opening round with a shoulder injury.
“I think their biggest weakness is going to be the ageing of their (number) one and nine,” he said.
“They show no signs of slowing down but, at some stage, it will be whether their bodies can keep holding up.”
In Sydney, the Roosters are everyone’s favourites with Cronk and star fullback James Tedesco bolstering Trent Robinson’s side.
They decided to let long-time halfback Mitchell Pearce go to bring in the former Storm playmaker.
And it’s a move that could backfire, according to ex-Roosters halfback Gary Freeman.
“The big thing for the Roosters this year is how they recover from releasing from Mitchell Pearce,” Freeman told The New Daily.
“He has been there since he was 18 – it was a big move to release him.
“I think he couldn’t stay there and play with Cronk. There can be only one leader in a football side, and that (for the Roosters) is Pearce – that’s why they made him co-captain at Newcastle.”
The Roosters look good on paper, but if they lose a couple of key players, like Cronk or Tedesco, they will struggle.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves leads their forward pack but is coming off a middling World Cup campaign with New Zealand and the club’s other big-time players must step up.
The Cowboys should also go deep into the finals off the back of their halves – Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan are the best pairing in the NRL – and Jason Taumalolo, Matt Scott and Scott Bolton bossing teams up front.
This is also Thurston’s last season in the NRL, only increasing the motivation for the Cowboys.
Expect the New Zealand Warriors to make the top eight, too, as new additions Blake Green, Adam Blair and Tohu Harris lead their charge, while Brisbane and Cronulla should also feature in the post-season.
And excellent recruitment might just help St George Illawarra and Newcastle into the top eight, perhaps at the expense of Canberra, Parramatta and Penrith.
Kieran Foran will prove a fascinating watch at the Bulldogs, but if he continues to suffer from injury, it is hard to see them having a good year, and the situation is similar with Greg Inglis at South Sydney.
As for the wooden spoon, that appears likely to be a battle between Manly, Wests Tigers and the Gold Coast Titans.
Round 1 fixtures
Thursday March 8
Dragons v Broncos
Friday March 9
Knights v Sea Eagles
Cowboys v Sharks
Saturday March 10
Tigers v Roosters
Rabbitohs v Warriors
Bulldogs v Storm
Sunday March 11
Panthers v Eels
Titans v Raiders