The Broncos and Eels open the 2016 season tonight so I guess I should have a crack at trying to predict how the season might pan out. Silly really given the variables – injuries, rep season, rookie impact, momentum, refereeing decisions, impact of new rule changes etc but I’ll have a go none the less.
As boring as it might be it is hard to go past the two teams from last year’s grand final as the two leading contenders again in season 2016. The Cowboys are putting out the same side that won the grand final in round one this year while the Broncos have added some attacking spark in Dally M Centre of the Year in James Roberts. Both teams should feature deep into the playoffs should they remain fairly healthy.
The Sharks look to me as a genuine title contender this year. They have had a side capable of getting into the grind in games for a while now but until last season lacked the polish to grab the initiative in close games. The emergence of Rookie of the Year Jack Bird and exciting winger/fullback Valentine Holmes gave the Sharks some much-needed game-breaking ability. Throw in the goal-kicking of James Maloney and a few other small improvements here and there and the Sharks have the ability to go further than last year, when they were 80 minutes away from a grand final.
There’s my top three. After that I have a bunch of teams vying for the remaining top eight spots – the Panthers, Roosters, Bulldogs, Storm, Sea Eagles, Warriors and Raiders. The Panthers were a top four side two seasons ago but were hammered by injuries last year. They have experience in key positions and I expect youngsters Matt Moylan, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Bryce Cartwright to make big gains this season.
The Roosters have lost plenty of talent but have plenty more waiting in the wings through the likes of Jackson Hastings and Latrell Mitchell, who get their chance in the starting side. They’ll be a threat if they can hang in there until Mitchell Pearce and Boyd Cordner come back into the side a couple of months into the season.
The Bulldogs and Storm have to be in the mix – their coaches have a long track record of producing top eight teams. There are question marks around both teams. Melbourne’s big three has to start to decline at some point, though they aren’t showing any signs of it just yet. The Dogs have a massive pack, which could be affected by the new reduced interchange rules and the halves pairing of Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds have a bit to prove.
Manly are on the re-build and have recruited well with Nate Myles, Martin Taupau, Lewis Brown adding to an under-strength forward pack from last year. Matt Parcell is a tremendous talent and could be a real hit at hooker for Trent Barrett’s side.
The Raiders are many pundit’s big improvers this season. They have recruited well and look to have a pretty handy top side. Depth remains a bit of an issue but if they can improve their record at home, where they were tough to beat previously, they should be knocking on the door of the top eight.
The Warriors have the best roster they have possessed since the Daniel Anderson era and there is a heap of expectation this side of the Tasman. Shaun Johnson looked like his old self in his NRL Nines return and he should combine well with Kiwi teammates Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke, while veteran halfback Jeff Robson will take some pressure off him as well, taking over some of the game management role. Everyone seems on the same page after the change in captaincy with Ryan Hoffman taking over from Simon Mannering, easing fears of it having any kind of negative impact in the short term. As has been the case in recent seasons the Warriors season will be determined on how they perform without the ball. Coach Andrew McFadden has shown his hand early by leaving Konrad Hurrell out of the first 17 for the season-opener, placing great emphasis on defense. If the Warriors tighten up on the edge and out wide, they should be a clear top eight side and will push for a top four finish if healthy.
The Rabbitohs have been plagued by rumours of unrest over the off-season. Questions around coach Michael Maguire’s style, a bust up involving Luke Keary and owner Russell Crowe and the return of Sam Burgess at the expense of Tim Grant and Chris McQueen will have alarm bells going off. This looks like the makings of a train wreck and, if they have a tough run early, the wheels could easily fall off quickly. I have them missing the top eight.
The Eels should be better with Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon, tough nut Beau Scott and Kiwi half Kieran Foran making the move to Parramatta. Their depth remains questionable however and a mid-pack finish would appear to be a best-case scenario.
The Dragons over-achieved last season in my opinion and while they are capable of beating top sides, I can’t see them finishing in the top eight even with the return to first grade of former Warriors prop Russell Packer, who should have significant impact.
The bottom three would appear to be a battle between the Titans, Knights and Tigers. I have them finishing in that order. The Titans have some good young talent and could be better than expected if they can stay healthy. Losing Kane Elgey for the year before it began was a major blow but halfback Ash Taylor is a can’t-miss prospect, who needs only time to become a star. The Knights are young and will take time but have some lethal attacking backs if they can get enough quality ball. The Tigers have apparently sorted the Robbie Farah issue but surely it can’t be a good feeling when the highest paid player at the club was embarrassed publicly by the coach. Their roster looks weak and will almost certainly be also-rans in 2016.
There it is – my prediction for the season ahead. Now watch the NRL destroy what little credibility I had by flipping my predictions on their head. That’s rugby league for you.