As we dive into part two of my NRL team predictions for 2020, the recent injuries and player movement in the past week highlights how quickly the situation can change for player and club.
We saw the impacts of distractions at the elite level in 2019 when the Panthers had off-field issues and one of the big tests for finals hopefuls is how those issues are managed.
Any diversion of energy away from the field, no matter how minor, will always compromise performance in a competition as tough as NRL.
You can be sure that a team like Cronulla waiting on the return of a star like Matt Moylan and also wondering if Josh Morris is leaving will have its focus tested.
With Round 1 kicking off on Thursday, here’s part two of my predictions for the year ahead.
St George Illawarra Dragons
There is a lot of quality in this squad, as demonstrated by the personnel that have representative football experience.
The deep concern that remains with this roster is the lack of depth and the inconsistent nature of some key players.
Corey Norman and Ben Hunt are exceptional talents that can win and control games single handed.
All players must take responsibility if the Dragons are going to prove me wrong.
I believe the strong presence of Shane Flanagan could be the conduit to Norman and Hunt to lift their game to a consistent level.
If they do my low expectations will be proven wrong.
Prediction: Poor early season form will start negative speculation around the team and history tells us they do not handle this attention well.
My Guess: 13th.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The attacking prowess in the Rabbits backline and around the ruck makes them a real nightmare for defensive coaches.
Damien Cook, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell will bring unpredictable play to their spine that spells danger to oppositions.
The big test for Souths will be their defensive structures and vulnerability down back.
The top-end teams will run Mitchell off his feet and target Walker and the new skipper Adam Reynolds relentlessly.
Wayne Bennett’s ability to get a full commitment from his men should see them find a way to remain in the top eight.
Prediction: The Rabbits will struggle to beat the teams that sit in the top six, but will regularly blow the others off the park.
My Guess: Sixth.
I believe we will see this team spend time in the top eight again this season on the back of some focused structures of play.
Unfortunately their lack of depth and the veteran status of key players like Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence will see them struggle towards the back end of the season, particularly if they lose any key players to injury.
Prediction: Coach Michael Maguire is setting up the club up for sustained success, but it has another year of transition to sort its roster and salary cap issues.
My Guess: 12th.
North Queensland Cowboys
Although much of the focus has been on their off-season recruitment of Val Holmes, the key Cowboy is still Michael Morgan. He looked physically and mentally distracted last year and it compromised his proven leadership skills and strike power. I have no doubt that both Scott Drinkwater and Jake Clifford will continue to mature to take some of the pressure off Morgan, but the Cowboys still rely too heavily on one star.
Prediction: The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The Cowboys will validate that saying in 2020.
My Guess: 11th.
The addition of Ryan Matterson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard add a genuine edge to what is already a very tough pack of forwards. This, coupled with the maturing of Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson, will see Parramatta become one of the form teams of the competition. The other bonus being that the Eels won’t be overtaxed during the representative season, allowing them to entrench themselves in the top four at the business end of the season.
Prediction: Reed Mahoney and Dylan Brown will both make big statements with their form in 2020 – they will be among the best players in the next generation of the NRL.
My Guess: Fourth.
This is a squad jammed packed with emerging talent and, if I was a Panthers fan, I’d be super optimistic about the future. However, what we all know about the NRL marathon is that experience brings poise and is the commodity that wins tight games. There is absolutely no doubt that Nathan Cleary has all the attributes of a great leader in these key moments but even ‘Joey’ Johns found it difficult at a young age to make a difference every week.
Prediction: The young Panthers will be thereabouts in every game they play in 2020, but will have narrow loses that dent their confidence.
My Guess: 10th.
New Zealand Warriors
Identifying attacking strike men in this team is never a challenge with so much potency on their edges. The question that remains is do the Warriors possess the stoic attitude and work ethic to defend their tryline at all costs? If the attitude of their skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was contagious, this team would be scary good. They need to overcome history in this area and demonstrate they have the mental strength to follow through.
Prediction: We will see some extraordinary football from this team. Expect inconsistent out-of-the-box performances.
My Guess: 14th.
Be careful of focusing on who is no longer in this team or their lack of depth in the outside backs – the Roosters are still a team chasing history. Their holistic approach to each game and the season will ensure they will again feature at the back end of the season. Trent Robinson’s understanding of human behaviour and how to generate focus is among the best in the sporting realm. If you thought Nat Butcher, Victor Radley and Sam Verrills were outstanding last year, brace yourself because these young players, along with other up-and-comers, will go to the next level.
Prediction: They may not sit in the top four all season, but I expect the Roosters to come alive in August and September and again be playing in the last game of the season.
My Guess: Third.
Former St George player, Matthew Elliott has coached NRL teams Canberra, Penrith and New Zealand Warriors