The 2017 NRL season gets underway Thursday evening so let’s take a look at the team line-ups for 2017 and where we see each team finishing at the end of the year based on current projections.
2016 Finish: 5th – Eliminated Week 2 of Finals by the Cowboys (W: 15 L: 9 Diff: +120)
Gains: Moses Pangai (Townsville Blackhawks), David Mead (Titans), Tautau Moga (Cowboys), Benji Marshall (Dragons), Mitchell Dodds (Warrington)
Losses: Greg Eden (Castleford), Brett Greinke (Rabbitohs), Corey Parker (retirement), Jarrod Wallace (Titans), Jack Reed (retirement), Carlin Anderson (Cowboys), Darren Nicholls (Panthers), Lachlan Maranta (rugby union)
Coach: Wayne Bennett
Suffering just two losses in the first 10 Round of the competition, it was a possibility that the Broncos were capable of going one better in their quest for a Premiership. Rounds 11-21 were their undoing though, where they won just two matches and had the form of their halves reversed. It is no coincidence that this period was around Origin and while they lifted towards the Finals, they were never really considered a genuine threat from that point onwards. This is a crucial year for a highly successful organisation, with player-contracts only increasing the pressure on them. You can never doubt the quality within their team though, yet a few losses may increase the noise about the true potential in their halves pairing. Many would suggest that the forwards also contribute to this area and they will not want the same decrease in performance during the middle stages of the season.
Strength: Forwards – They have a very strong, mobile and large forward pack that boast plenty of big names. Expect majority of their games to be won in this area and they will set a strong platform for their backs. You can also anticipate that their opponents will look to combat this strength through relentless pressure up front but going by the quality they have in this area, they should be able to cope.
Weakness: Halves – The recent departure of Ben Hunt to the Dragons is sure to raise concerns. Bennett has shown in the past that he will not persist with a player who is leaving and underperforming. This could mean a new halves combination, heaping further pressure onto Anthony Milford. This could ultimately be the downfall in their season if they’re not careful.
Key to their success: Managing fatigue during the representative period as best as they can.
Verdict: The draw is kind to Brisbane and they have a quality roster. All things considered, they should be able to make the Top 8. It would be surprising to see them anywhere but in contention and to take it a step further, this should be within the Top 6. However, if the pressure of leaving gets to Ben Hunt and his form suffers, expect the Broncos form to do the same. It could make for some very interesting viewing as to how they handle it.
Prediction: Top 6.
2016 Finish: 2nd – Eliminated Week 3 of the Finals by the Storm (W:17 L: 6 Diff: +232)
Gains: Jordan Turner (St Helens), Dunamis Lui (Dragons), Makahesi Makatoa (Bulldogs), Scott Sorensen (Mounties), Brent Naden (Mounties)
Losses: Lachlan Lewis (Bulldogs), Sisa Waqa (rugby union), Zac Woolford (Bulldogs), Sam Williams (Wakefield), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Paul Vaughan (Dragons)
Coach: Ricky Stuart
Ricky Stuart finally got his squad to where he wanted and coinciding with that was a pleasing improvement in their performance. The Raiders were the surprise of 2016, finishing high on the ladder and coming within 3-points of making the Grand Final. If it were not for a few fitness clouds hanging over players, perhaps their fortunes may have been different. A major part of their improved success was their 78.6% winning record at home; losing just 3 matches out of 14 there, including a Qualifying Final to the Sharks, the Raiders managed to recapture their menacing home ground advantage. Their efforts in 2016 have many touting this young squad as potential Premiers, but injuries to key players will test their depth. Furthermore, while they have a strong pack of forwards, they need to reduce their error rate as a team and ensure that they relentlessly build pressure on their opponents. This became a major part of their play last season and you can be assure that a “Ricky Stuart blow-up” or two will feature during their 2017 campaign. The challenge now for this young team is living up to their potential after it increased last year with lower expectations. Opponents are now wary of what they offer and will be making plans to combat their power.
Strength: Flair – Last year the Raiders surprised many with their play. They found a balance between structure and flair, with the latter causing their opponents headaches. If they can repeat that again this year, they will be a tough team to stop, especially at home. The forwards also play a key role in setting this up
Weakness: Defence – Despite finishing second on the competition ladder, the Raiders had the third highest points conceded. Thankfully they were dynamic in attack but with teams wary of how to shut them down, they will rely on their defence more this year to get them through matches. Expect a strong structure from Ricky Stuart and if they can maintain it, they will be a very dangerous team.
Key to their success: Josh Hodgeson, keeping him fit and controlling the team from the ruck.
Verdict: The Raiders are high on betting markets mainly because they are expected to improve on last year. This is very possible, however Ricky Stuart will have trouble maintaining a balance between intensity and flair for the entire season. As long as the players continue to buy into his theory and technique, they will be strong. If the Raiders can also maintain their consistency, they will be a very dangerous side that can prolong their season much longer than 2016.
Prediction: Top 6.
2016 Finish: 7th – Eliminated Week 1 of the Finals by the Panthers (W: 14 L: 10 Diff: +58)
Gains: Zac Woolford (Raiders), Josh Cleeland (Sharks), Rhyse Martin (Townsville Blackhawks), Brenko Lee (Raiders), Tom Carr (Dragons), Francis Tualau (Storm), Richard Kennar (Storm)
Losses: Pat O’Hanlon (retirement), Sam Perrett (retirement), Curtis Rona (rugby union, Western Force), Tim Browne (Panthers), Tony Williams (Sharks), Richard Coorey (released), Makahesi Makatoa (Raiders), Jarrod McInally (Queensland Intrust Super Cup), Graham Clark (released), Jake Kamire (released), Reubenn Rennie (released), Lamar Liolevave (released), Lloyd Perrett (Sea Eagles)
Coach: Des Hasler
2016 was very similar to the previous year for the Bulldogs, except they were bundled out a week earlier in the Finals and at many times, looked lost for answers in attack. Predicable as they may be, they still finished the season with the same win/loss record as 2015, albeit two positions lower on the ladder. Their play of powering through the middle and having forwards as ball players has grown old and it showed as teams predicted their attack with ease and shut down many movements before they started. For the first time in a long time, Des Hasler finds himself under plenty of pressure to lift his squad and reinvent their attack. Many were left wondering if his time at the Bulldogs had expired and it was an unusual set of circumstances they saw him remain at the helm. This year, expect all eyes to be on how this squad performs and it will only take a couple of losses for the noise to return around Hasler’s future. He is a quality coach but unless his team is performing, he will need to find another job. There is still plenty of potential within this team and the task ahead appears to be finding the right balance to ensure that this proud club is back to their best.
Strength: Forwards – They have been the focal point for this club for a number of years now. The hype around this area is that many of these players have transformed their bodies, trimming down in order to improve their fitness and output on the field. If this mixture is right, they will receive more minutes out of their top players and they’ll be at their explosive best. Let’s hope the halves and outside backs use the platform the forwards create to their advantage.
Weakness: Attack – Of the Top 8 teams last year, the Bulldogs scored the least amount of points, averaging just 21.1 per game. Their attack became stale and the lack of creativity was evident. This is a coaching issue as much as it is a player one and both parties must take responsibility if they are to finish in contention this year.
Key to their success: Reinventing their attack and finding points.
Verdict: Alarm bells are ringing at the Bulldogs and unless they can reinvent their attack, they appear set for a long season. Moses Mbye isn’t living up to his hype in 2016 and while playing behind a beaten pack each week didn’t help, he lacked a creative spark with Josh Reynolds to give the Bulldogs a chance to build pressure on their opponents. The fact that they have reduced the “size” of their pack while also increasing fitness will benefit them but the light appear to be dimming on a team that was once very powerful.
Prediction: Miss the Top 8.
2016 Finish: 3rd – PREMIERS (W: 17 L: 6 D: 1 Diff: 176)
Gains: Manaia Cherrington (Wests Tigers), Tony Williams (Bulldogs), Jeremy Latimore (Panthers), Daniel Mortimer (Titans)
Losses: David Fifita (released), Mitch Brown (Leigh), Josh Cleeland (Bulldogs), Michael Ennis (retirement), Connor Tracey (Rabbitohs), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Castleford Tigers), Ben Barba (released), Jacob Gagan (Knights), Matt McIlwrick (Wests Tigers), Junior Roqica (London)
Coach: Shane Flanagan
The Sharks broke their Premiership drought in 2016, coming from behind to beat the Storm 14-12 in the Grand Final. It was a dramatic year for the Sharks and it was suitable that the decider went the same way. They proved many people wrong along their journey, which included a club record 15-game winning streak in the middle stages of the season. After that was broken, they looked troubled but managed to regain their form and power towards the title. Now that the weight has been lifted off their shoulders, it is time for them to set a regular standard. Nevertheless, their season has already been plagued with controversy, with Ben Barba sacked from the club during the off-season for repeated drug offences. That won’t hamper the Sharks 2017 aspirations, with a host of outside-back talent to fill the hole left by their star. Now that the Sharks have won their first premiership, many of their older players may struggle for motivation. With no team having gone back-to-back since the NRL was formed, the challenge perhaps lies here for them. Either way, they are the team to beat and if they play with the same tenacity that they did in 2016, they will again be a genuine threat for the title.
Strength: Experience – It worked for them in the big moments in 2016 and this season should be no different. They have quality in equal measure also, so for the moment, this is a major strength moving forward. To maintain the same intensity may be challenging on aging legs but with one of the “older” teams in league, it should work in their favor again.
Weakness: The taste of success – No team has been able to achieve back-to-back Premierships in the competition since the inception of the NRL. The hunger appears to drain out of teams and they lack the same killer instinct. Furthermore, they have fatigue to battle after a trip to the UK for the WCC.
Key to their success: Keeping everyone fit and firing.
Verdict: The Sharks have enough power across the park to maintain their performance from last season. Fatigue will be an issue for them throughout the year but it is very rare that you see a team dramatically decline within a year of winning the Premiership unless major changes have occurred. Expect them to still be rugged in defence; it is a key feature of their play and one that the Sharks establish wins from. They will struggle at times in attack, especially without Michael Ennis at hooker but that was always expected to happen. It’s time for someone else to step in a fill that void. There are plenty of talented youngsters at this club to keep them going too.
Prediction: Top 4 or just outside.
Gold Coast Titans
2016 Finish: 8th (W: 11 L: 12 D: 1 Diff: +11)
Gains: Dan Sarginson (Wigan), Jarrod Wallace (Broncos), Kevin Proctor (Storm), Paterika Vaivai (free agent), Tyler Cornish (Roosters)
Losses: Nathan Friend (retirement), David Hala (released), Nene Macdonald (Dragons), David Mead (Broncos), Cameron Cullen (Sea Eagles), Luke Douglas (St Helens), Josh Hoffman (Eels), Greg Bird (Catalans), Jed Cartwright (Panthers), Daniel Mortimer (Sharks), Brian Kelly (Sea Eagles), Matt Srama (retirement)
Coach: Neil Henry
The Titans were the surprise improvers in 2016, making the Finals in their first year with Neil Henry at the helm. Henry had the ability to grab the best out of his players and motivate them in any circumstance. Hopes for the Titans were low due to their struggles to recruit a “big-name” player and questions over the depth of their squad. Still, that mattered little and this team worried about 80 minutes of football each week above all else. At times, they appeared capable of pushing into the Top 4, although simple errors and injuries at important times limited their effectiveness. Now with expectations not as low, many wonder if the Titans can improve on their previous season and become a regular force. While their efforts were improved, they still lost more games than they won and averaged fewer linebreaks and total metres than the competition average. The hope that they can again exceed expectations is there, although they will need all players on deck and injury free. If that happens, the potential is there with new faces like Kevin Proctor, bringing a winning attitude and experience from a previous club.
Strength: Playmakers – After DCE bailed on his deal with the Titans, they were left searching for answers. Now they appear to have an abundance of quality playmakers that will fight out for two positions. The competitiveness within their team gives them plenty of options and keep the players pushing themselves to another level; as well as the added benefit of Hayne to slot in when required.
Weakness: Depth – Yes, they have it in the halves but the Titans are razor thin in other areas. They have shed a few players as well so they are hoping that a few players coming through can rise for them. It didn’t affect them last year but if a few injuries strike, they could be scrambling to salvage their season.
Key to their success: Creating a home ground advantage.
Verdict: The Titans surprised many last year finishing so high up the ladder and in reality, if they were to do the same, it would be no less surprising. They have a decent enough squad that is complimented with some quality playmakers and Jarryd Hayne, although teams will now be wary of what they offer. The Titans need to seriously improve their consistency in order to compete with the better teams in this competition and it starts with performing at home. They will be in contention for the Top 8 but may just fall short if they do not improve on last year.
Prediction: Fighting it out for the 8, but may come up short.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
2016 Finish: 13th (W: 8 L: 16 Diff: -109)
Gains: Frank Winterstein (rugby union), Shaun Lane (Warriors), Blake Green (Storm), Cameron Cullen (Titans), Akuila Uate (Knights), Curtis Sironen (Wests Tigers), Lloyd Perrett (Bulldogs), Jackson Hastings (Roosters), Brian Kelly (Titans), Jonathan Wright (Warriors)
Losses: Jamie Lyon (retirement), Tim Moltzen (retirement), Tom Symonds (Huddersfield), Siosia Vave (Eels), Liam Knight (Roosters), Nathan Green (released), Blake Leary (Blackhawks), Issac John (Mounties), Jayden Hodges (released), Rhys Armstrong (released), Fabian Goodall (rugby union), Halaufa Lavaka (released), Tony Satini (Panthers), Dylan Kelly (released), Hugh Pratt (released), Nicho Hynes (released), Darcy Cox (released), Josh Starling (Knights), Jamie Buhrer (Knights), Brayden Williame (Catalans), Matt Parcell (Leeds Rhinos), Feleti Mateo (Salford), Luke Burgess (Catalans)
Coach: Trent Barrett
The Sea Eagles missed the Finals for the second consecutive year, which was also Trent Barrett’s first year as coach at his new club. They were certainly in a stage of rebuilding the club and it was evident in the opening rounds of the competition that it would take longer than intended. Their record was terrible and winning just 4 matches since Round 9 didn’t help their cause; neither did being below the competition average on tries, run metres, average runs and offloads. The dynamic of this team needs an overhaul and plenty of pressure is falling on the rookie, Barrett. He also has the tough task of shifting the pressure away from Daly Cherry-Evans, who will need to steer their team for the first time without the experience of Jamie Lyon to call upon. There is plenty of promise too, with the Sea Eagles unearthing the Trbojevic brothers, two of the most exciting and dynamic players to feature in the competition last year. They played beyond their age, although Barrett will not want their young shoulders to carry too much of the Sea Eagles burden. In unfamiliar territory, the Sea Eagles will have another tough task ahead.
Strength: No expectation – There is a major change happening at the Sea Eagles and they are rediscovering their identity. Unfortunately for them, it has meant a dip in form and now with more key players leaving their team, expectation on them to perform has decline dramatically. This may cause many sides to take them lightly and be surprised with a loss or two.
Weakness: Regrouping – Last year when things went wrong, the Sea Eagles struggled to regroup and get their season back on track. Injuries hampered their cause, although it appeared as though coach Barrett lack of experience was working against them. Perhaps a preseason together will offset this but alarm bells will sound if similar play emerges.
Key to their success: DCE and the Trbojevic brothers firing together.
Verdict: The Sea Eagles would have to dramatically improve if they were to turn around their fortunes. They appear to have a few strong players that will dominate their team but apart from that, they are left with several holes across their roster. It will mean that they are more competitive than 2016, but ultimately, this will be another testing year for coach Trent Barrett. The only hope of turning their chances around would be rediscovering their home, Brookvale Oval, as a fortress.
Prediction: Miss the Finals.
2016 Finish: 1st – Lost Grand Final to the Sharks (W: 19 L: 5 Diff: +261)
Gains: Josh Addo-Carr (Wests Tigers), Brandon Smith (Cowboys), Vincent Leuluai (Roosters), Jahrome Hughes (Cowboys), Ryley Jacks (Sunshine Coast Falcons)
Losses: Marika Koroibete (rugby union), Josh Kerr (Dragons), Ryan Morgan (St Helens), Blake Green (Sea Eagles), Matt White, Francis Tualau (Bulldogs), Ben Hampton (Cowboys), Richard Kennar (Bulldogs), Kevin Proctor (Titans)
Coach: Craig Bellamy
Quality in performance has become a normality at the Storm and you are surprised when you encounter anything but this in their efforts. 2016 was yet another success, although falling agonizingly short of the Premiership will undoubtedly motivate them this season. Their consistent effort was rewarded with the Minor Premiership but that will only serve as a reminder of what could’ve been for this team. They always ooze class and were well lead by their stars. Improving from the previous season was the contribution from their forwards, who became a feature of their play each week. Bellamy has the ability to get the best out of his team regardless of who is taking the field and the fact that they never experienced consecutive losses in 2015 is a testament to the motivation within the club. They have a winning culture and that will again put them in a strong position moving into 2017 and beyond.
Strength: Club ethos – What you see is what you get with Melbourne and regardless of a players previous record, they are able to get the best out of them. It is a testament to how well this club is run that they’re able to do it week in, week out.
Weakness: Depth – If the Storm suffer a few injuries to key players, it could be a long season for them. Then again, they have a great program which ensures their success, so it may not be as dire as first thought.
Key to their success: Winning as many games as possible without the “Big 3”.
Verdict: The Storm have a great set up that breeds success within their squad. Expect the same again from them in 2017, featuring at the business end of the season. The only thing that could stop them would be a horror injury toll to key players for an extended period of time but even then, you wouldn’t rule them out completely. If everything comes together for them, you can expect that they will feature deep into their Finals campaign.
Prediction: Top 4 and going deep into the Finals.
2016 Finish: 16th – Wooden Spoon (W:1 L: 22 D: 1 Diff: -495)
Gains: Jamie Buhrer (Sea Eagles), Rory Kostjasyn (Cowboys), Ken Sio (Hull KR), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles), Jacob Gagan (Sharks), Joe Wardle (Huddersfield Giants)
Losses: Jeremy Smith (retirement), James McManus (retirement), Kade Snowden (retirement), Robbie Rochow (Rabbitohs), Akuila Uate (Sea Eagles), Jake Mamo (Huddersfield Giants)
Coach: Nathan Brown
It was consecutive wooden spoons for the Knights in 2016, although this one was far more embarrassing than 2015. They recorded just the solitary win from their season and conceded a massive 800 points. Newcastle isn’t a happy place for rugby league at the moment and this team is in a rebuilding phase that appears to continue the pain for yet another season. There were a few minor highlights and the emergence of a few unknown players will provide some hope that they can turn around their fortunes. Coach Nathan Brown has been vocal in his opinion that it will take time, almost suggesting that if this season is another failure that his job be spared. He has inherited a host of problems from a previous regime that failed to also deliver success. The tough times appear as though they will remain at Newcastle unless there is yet another dramatic overhaul.
Strength: Unpredictability – Many people are tipping the Knights to run last again and while it may be a possibility, teams could be caught out taking them lightly. That works into their favor as they could surprise a few teams, especially at home.
Weakness: Strength of the squad – There are still problems in Newcastle and Brown has his work cut out for him. He has some tough decisions ahead of him and he will need all his experience to deliver success to this side.
Key to their success: Nathan Brown and the impact he has.
Verdict: Despite the trial form of the Knights suggesting otherwise, they are destined to finish in the bottom half of the ladder. It is expected that they will improve upon last season, mainly because the only way for them is up and they will surprise a few teams with their play. As for making the Finals though, the class that the Knights have, appears to be well below that of the rest of the competition. This season will be a great guide as to how they will go beyond 2017.
Prediction: Bottom half of the ladder, but not the spoon.
New Zealand Warriors
2016 Finish: 10th (W: 10 L: 14 Diff: -88)
Gains: Kieran Foran (Eels)
Losses: Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Bulldogs), Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Shaun Lane (Sea Eagles), Jonathan Wright (Sea Eagles), Henare Wells (Burleigh)
Coach: Stephen Kerney
Another season, another Warriors campaign that promised so much and failed to deliver. Hopes were high after the impressive recruiting but it appeared as though their underperforming attitude still remained. Winning just 4 of their opening 11 matches meant it was always going to be difficult for the Warriors to resurrect their season and injuries only further hampered their cause. Their final standing suggests it was close but in reality, they were 3-points away from the Titans in 8th and never really threatened with as they lost their last 4 matches. This meant that Andrew McFadden was finally sacked and Stephen Kerney hired to turn this club into the force they are capable of. His record isn’t a great one though, failing with the Eels but erhaps the culture shift towards New Zealand will suit him and the players in his team; after all, he has enjoyed plenty of positives with the Kiwis at an international level. Hopefully he can redirect this team where they need to go but a lot of work has to be done between now and then.
Strength: Unpredictability – It appears as though not even the Warriors players know how they will perform leading up to matches. When they are brilliant, they are hard to stop and very difficult for teams to plan against them when they are firing.
Weakness: Consistency – It has (and could always will be) the Warriors Achilles heal. It is very rare that they can put multiple wins together but if they can overcome this and travel well, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
Key to their success: Surprise, surprise…consistency!!!
Verdict: Predicting the Warriors credentials is a nightmare, nevertheless if they are picked on potential, they will feature at the business end of the season. They’re a talented outfit that can produce amazing displays of attack but it is a matter of consistently playing to this level and producing such efforts. The Warriors will finish very high up the ladder if they’re consistent but in equal measure, they can be very poor and miss the Finals altogether.
Prediction: Flip a coin! If they’re on, Top 8!
North Queensland Cowboys
2016 Finish: 4th – Eliminated Week 3 of the Finals by the Sharks (W: 15 L: 9 Diff: +229)
Gains: Carlin Anderson (Broncos), Ben Hampton (Storm)
Losses: Brandon Smith (Storm), James Tamou (Panthers), Jahrome Hughes (Storm), Rory Kostjasyn (Knights), Tautau Moga (Broncos), Ben Hannant (retirement)
Coach: Paul Green
Finally, the Cowboys were able to deliver a premiership to their fans; and it was in the most dramatic of circumstances. They were one team that lifted to another level in the Finals and while they rode passages of individual brilliances from some of their stars, they were outstanding at supporting one another and playing as a team. Their success started on the back of an 11-game winning streak that begun after they were winless for the opening 3-rounds of the competition. JT was their fearless leader, capping off one of the best seasons of his career by kicking the winning field goal in the GF. The difference in 2015 was that he had a core group of players around him that were taking pressure off him; namely Michael Morgan and Jake Granville. They retain majority of their squad and will rely on the same players to be the first team to go back-to-back since the NRL came together as a combined competition. This is no easy task and each week teams will be out to get them but Paul Green will have his team primed and ready; hopefully fatigue doesn’t get in their way after a busy start to the season.
Strength: Quality – No matter where you look across the park, the Cowboys have players that are at the top of their game. If they’re not representative players, they are close enough to be mentioned to feature in the future. This makes them hard to play against, especially when they’re at home.
Weakness: Travelling – When they won the competition in 2015, the Cowboys dramatically improved their away record. Last year they slipped back to a 33% winning record on the road and if it wasn’t for their tremendous home record, they could’ve finished lower on the ladder.
Key to their success: Travelling better and managing the fitness of their stars.
Verdict: The Cowboys are favorites for the competition and rightly so given the amount of talent they possess. No longer is JT the sole producer of creativity for their team and you can be assured that several others are rising to the task. Sure, he is their leader on the field but the reduced amount of pressure on him has brought about his best form. Expect that trend to continue into 2017 and have them featuring heavily at the end of the season.
Prediction: Top 4.
2016 Finish: 14th (W: 13 L: 11 Diff: -26)
Gains: Jamal Fogerty (Burleigh Bears), Siosia Vave (Sea Eagles), Nathan Brown (Rabbitohs), George Jennings (Panthers), Josh Hoffman (Titans), Suaia Matagi (Panthers), Frank Pritchard (Hull FC), Kirisome Auva’a (unattached), Will Smith (Panthers)
Losses: Tyrell Fuimaono (Rabbitohs), Michael Gordon (Roosters), Kieren Moss (Bradford), Anthony Watmough (retirement), Kieran Foran (Warriors), Luke Kelly (Rabbitohs), Danny Wicks (retirement), Vai Toutai (released), Mitch Cornish (Roosters)
Coach: Brad Arthur
The Eels horror season finally came to an end after it was marred by poor player behavior, the lack of Hayne and most notably, the salary cap drama. When the points were finally taken off, they plummeted down the ladder, yet were still an outside chance of making the Finals. Their play throughout the year didn’t accurately reflect their standing on the ladder and they played some very exciting football. The fact that they lost so many matches can be put down to the playing group switching off towards the end after a long season. It is a new season now for the Eels and with that, a new chance to emulate their form and push hard for a spot in the Top 8. The quality is definitely there and despite losing a few more players, the Eels have the making of a squad that will be able to work well under coach Brad Arthur. It was a testament to him that he was able to keep his players motivated for so much of 2016 and they are expected to have revenge on their minds in 2017.
Strength: Mental toughness – The Eels grew as a playing group last year thanks to the hardship that they endured together. This will serve them better moving forward and they will back themselves in tough situations. It is a matter of using this to their advantage and having confidence in matches to build pressure an execute accordingly, rather than allowing their opponents to control their play.
Weakness: Halves – Following the release of Foran, the Eels have a gap in their halves to support Corey Norman. A few players stepped up last year but if Norman was to suffer an injury, pressure would be applied to the rest of their squad.
Key to their success: Putting their troubles behind them.
Verdict: The Eels have the potential to do very well this season but their form at the beginning of last year needs to hold true. They had revenge on their mind throughout 2016 but once that faded, so too did their performance. If they can emulate those efforts, they are destined for the Finals. It would take a big effort for that to happen, as there are a few holes in their team that need filling. Expect a bold showing in defence from them, hoping that they can bully teams out of a contest and rely upon minimal attacking pressure.
Prediction: Fighting it out for the Top 8 and may just make it.
2016 Finish: 6th – Eliminated by the Raiders in Week 2 of the Finals (W: 14 L: 10 Diff: +100)
Gains: James Tamou (Cowboys), Tim Browne (Bulldogs), Michael Oldfield (Rabbitohs), Darren Nicholls (Redcliffe Dolphins), Mitch Rein (Dragons), Jed Cartwright (Titans)
Losses: Ben Garcia (Catalans), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), George Jennings (Eels), Zak Hardaker (Castelford), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Suaia Matagi (Eels), Andrew Heffernan (Hull KR), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Robert Jennings (Rabbitohs), Will Smith (Eels)
Coach: Anthony Griffin
A young Panthers team surprised many last year with their rise up the competition ladder. They were dynamic and had a lot of depth to cover for injuries that were suffered to key players. Their season could’ve been better if it were not for simple mistakes that were brought about by a lack of experience. Thankfully, they have recruited well and their squad is another year older and wiser to rely upon in pressure situations. Hopes are high in Penrith that 2017 will deliver a positive one. Prior to that, they need to clean their play up; last season they ranked in the top 3 for both errors and missed tackles, yet were still able to make the Finals. The style that Anthony Griffin brings to this team will likely fix these issues, yet many opponents now know what the Panthers offer and will be ready to counteract their numerous attacking weapons.
Strength: Flair – They were equal 4th in tries scored last year and the Panthers had a knack of being able to score from anywhere on the field. There are dangers everywhere, from the forwards producing an offload, to the backs finishing off an attacking movement or leaping for a kick.
Weakness: Defence – The Panthers committed the second most missed tackles out of any team in the competition in 2016. Scoring points wasn’t an issue for them so more often than not, it didn’t matter how many their opponent scored. This type of play can become exhausting and when it counts in the Finals, will work against them.
Key to their success: Improving their defence.
Verdict: Prospects are high at Penrith and rightly so. They’re a more experienced team that played strongly at times during last year. It’s expected that the young Panthers players would have learnt a lot from their efforts in 2016 and be ready to take it to another level. Despite being young, they appear to have the right level of experience to get them though. If they can fix the mistakes that hampered them at crucial times last year, there is no limit to what this team can achieve. If you’re a Panthers fan, you have every right to be excited about this coming season.
Prediction: Top 4.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
2016 Finish: 12th (W: 9 L: 15 Diff: -76)
Gains: Tyrell Fuimaono (Eels), Robbie Rochow (Knights), Connor Tracey (Sharks), Robbie Farah (Wests Tigers), Luke Kelly (Eels), Anthony Cherrington (Redcliffe Dolphins), Robert Jennings (Panthers), Brett Greinke (Broncos)
Losses: Joe Burgess (Wigan), Luke Keary (Roosters), Paul Carter (Roosters), Kirisome Auva’a (released), Cameron McInnes (Dragons), Nathan Brown (Eels), Michael Oldfield (Panthers)
Coach: Michael Maguire
The Rabbitohs form dipped dramatically last year leading to questions being raised about the future of coach, Michael Maguire, at the club. He has delivered success at the club only a few years ago but a host of other issues hampered the credentials of the Rabbitohs. They have shed some players in key positions and now look to turnaround their form with a new playing group. The most notable inclusion is Robbie Farah, who still has a few good seasons to offer if his head is in the right space. Buying older players towards the end of their careers isn’t a recipe for success but it worked for the Sharks last year with Michael Ennis and the Rabbitohs will be hoping that Farah can emulate the same feat. It will be an uphill battle as their forwards still lack power through the middle but they are a team that will make their opponents work for a win, as well as two special players that can influence the outcome of a match with their single contribution.
Strength: Key players – Farah, Burgess, GI and Reynolds; the Rabbitohs have a strong core group of players to build a team around. Thankfully, these players are in key positions that organise and structure their play in attack and lead with their actions in defence. The juggling act will be filling this void when the players are absent and well as have them working together to get the best out of one another and lift those around them.
Weakness: Gaining metres – The Rabbitohs averaged 8.9m per run in 2016, the third lowest in the competition. This limited their effectiveness moving across the advantage line, as well as reducing the pressure built on their opponents. The inclusion of Farah is expected to change this but he will still need a lot of support from the big men, who last year, lost a lot of their power in the middle.
Key to their success: Having their stars on the field.
Verdict: The Rabbitohs season can go either way and it many depends on their stars and whether or not they are a key part of their 2017 campaign. If they can keep them fit, their chances look good of finishing high on the ladder. For the Rabbitohs to go further, they would need the rest of the squad to offer support to these players each week. If the formula works for the Rabbitohs, expect a bold showing in each match. Of course, things will not progress perfectly so the troubles that lie ahead may make it difficult for them but they will certainly have a chance of making the Top 8 in the closing rounds of the competition.
Prediction: Fighting for the Top 8 and may just make it.
St George-Illawarra Dragons
2016 Finish: 11th (W: 10 L: 14 Diff: -197)
Gains: Josh Kerr (Storm), Nene Macdonald (Titans), Cameron McInnes (Rabbitohs), Shaun Nona (Illawarra Cutters), Paul Vaughan (Raiders)
Losses: Mike Cooper (Warrington), Sebastine Ikahihifo (Huddersfield), Ben Creagh (retirement), Benji Marshall (Broncos), Dylan Farrell (retirement), Tom Carr (Bulldogs), Mitch Rein (Panthers), Dunamis Lui (Raiders), Adam Quinlan (Hull KR)
Coach: Paul McGregor
The Dragons missed the Finals last season and struggled to score points in every match they played. They are one of the more mundane teams to watch in the competition as coach Paul McGregor struggles to spark his team in attack. This was a problem for them as their defence wasn’t hold points like they once were able to do. It ws surprising to see McGregor still at the helm this season but the clubs hands are tied at the moment, to a point where they cannot afford to hire a new coach. The start of the season always offers promise of a new squad lifting the standard but the Dragons look as though 2017 could be yet another difficult one for them. Pressure is really on at the Dragons and this could be a final stint for a number of players and for fans sake, some board members as well.
Strength: Discipline – For all of the Dragons issues last year, they still managed to play a style that was measured. They finished on average in missed tackles and errors, meaning that at times, it was difficult for teams to pull away from the Dragons. That is the brand in which they play and will be a dominant feature of their efforts in 2017. It is just a matter of turning this into points…
Weakness: Attack – Last year, the Dragons scored the second lowest points in the competition and only scored 6 tries more than the Knights, a team that won the wooden spoon. All too often, pressure fell on the shoulders of Widdop and when it wasn’t working for him, they were lost for answers. Others need to step up, including Josh Dugan, to supply various options in attack.
Key to their success: Reinventing their attack to generate points.
Verdict: Unfortunately for Dragons fans, season 2017 is shaping up as another long and arduous campaign. They lack a creative spark in attack, with no clear playmaker to lead them around. In the past, the pressure has fallen on the shoulders of Widdop and it will be the same again this season. He cannot carry this team on his own each week and teams know how to shut him down. The forwards will be strong at times, yet without them adequately supported elsewhere, it will mean little in surely, the last season of McGregor at the helm of this club.
Prediction: Bottom 4.
2016 Finish: 15th (W: 6 L: 18 Diff: -133)
Gains: Michael Gordon (Eels), Luke Keary (Rabbitohs), Liam Knight (Sea Eagles), Zane Tetevano (Wyong Roos), Paul Carter (Rabbitohs), Mitch Cornish (Eels), Brendan Santi (Blackhawks)
Losses: Vincent Leuluai (Storm), Sam Moa (Catalans), Tyler Cornish (Titans), Jackson Hastings (Sea Eagles)
Coach: Trent Robinson
The Roosters had a horror season in 2016 for more than one reason. Their campaign was hampered even before it begun as Mitchell Pearce had an incident off the field and from that point onwards, not much went right for them. The Roosters only won 6 competition matches and with injuries consistent throughout the year, they quickly gave up hope and looked towards 2017 for success. Fact is, they were the biggest underachievers in 2016 and will surprise many with how they bounce back. The Roosters are a quality team and if they can keep their key players on the park this year, they will be a very strong outfit. Several inclusions to their team has boosted their potential, while several youngsters that battled through last season are better for the experience. They have started off strongly by winning the Auckland 9’s but that will count for little once the competition begins.
Strength: Depth – If you take a look at their strongest team, the Roosters have a host of stars on the field with plenty of experience. Their forward pack alone is perhaps one of the best young packs in the competition, while they are strongly lead by Jake Friend. Chances are that the platform which is set in the middle of the field will be the catalyst for their outside backs, most of which are fast and capable of finishing an attacking movement.
Weakness: Injuries – It hampered an already poor season in 2016 and it threatens to impact upon them again if they cannot keep all players on the field. Sure, depth is a strength of theirs but it was the positions that the players were missing from and their quality that hurt them the most.
Key to their success: Brutal, relentless play from their young forwards.
Verdict: The Roosters have all the makings of a Premiership contender. They grossly underachieved in 2016 and will be out to exact revenge. Barely anything went their way last year and now that all players are back on deck, as well as some suitable signings, things are appearing very positive for them. As mentioned above, their forwards are quality and their outside backs have class. The task of bringing this together will fall on the shoulders of the spine and while there are doubts there, you cannot overlook their potential to improve this team when it counts. The value is there if you want to take them early as well, nevertheless, their potential is there for all to see.
Prediction: Contender and the best value to take out the competition!
2016 Finish: 9th (W: 11 L: 13 Diff: -108)
Gains: Jamal Idris (free agent), Matt McIlwrick (Sharks)
Losses: Josh Addo-Carr (Storm), Jack Buchanan (Widnes), Josh Drinkwater (released), Asipeli Fine (Bulldogs), Lamar Liolevave (Bulldogs), Billy McConnachie (released), Jesse Parahi (Rugby Sevens), Manaia Cherrington (Sharks), Dene Halatau (retirement), Robbie Farah (Rabbitohs), Curtis Sironen (Sea Eagles), Chance Peni (rugby union)
Coach: Jason Taylor
The Tigers experienced a host of off-field issues in 2016 that threatened to derail the clubs campaign. The talk around the exclusion of Robbie Farah was nauseating towards the end of the season but it appeared that coach, Jason Taylor, had a plan that he was working to. The fact that the Tigers finished as high as 9th on the competition ladder was pleasing to say the least. Taylor now has his wish and he can rebuild the club without Farah, which if you believe him, was causing a major divide within the club. The strength of the youngsters is promising, although there are now questions being raised about their future and where they will sign. This will only cause further pain for the club and its fans, with many hoping the pressure to perform for a bigger contract will bring out their best for in 2017. Pressure is also on Taylor to get the most out of his team and many have suggested immediate results are expected. If he can get the balance right and keep his players fit, hopes would be high that the Tigers can improve on last year and feature in the Finals.
Strength: Talented youngsters – Their weapons on the field are young and dangerous when they have the ball in hand. The task for Taylor as coach is to balance this out evenly so that he is getting the best out of them and causing headaches for his opponents. Thankfully, they’re in key positions and while they are still establishing themselves, they will need the support of the entire squad throughout the match to get them through.
Weakness: Contract talk – As mentioned above, the Tigers are under pressure to keep all of their young stars and if one falls out of favor, this could lead to a drop in form. It was also hard not to list the lack of quality at hooker, something the Tigers will have a difficult time covering in order to support their forwards throughout 80 minutes and in turn, providing a strong platform for their young halves.
Key to their success: Their spine, one of the best in the competition (we may say this in hindsight!).
Verdict: Now that the Tigers have their rosters sorted, for at least 2017 anyway, we should see their young stars rise to the challenge. Teams are wary of what they offer but given their inexperience, they are still learning their craft and will only benefit from their tough season last year. With all their drama, they still played some fantastic football at stages and will more than likely improve from that. Contract issues may plague their season, as well as injuries, regardless, if they can overcome these issues they will feature in the Finals.
Prediction: Scrape into the Top 8.