Unlike previous years, the wait between the Grand Final and the beginning of the following season has included some exciting football. The RLWC and the Auckland 9’s have kept the thirst for quality rugby league fostering and fans are ready to see what lies ahead for 2014. As per usual, there have been some off-field incidents that have stolen some of the headlines and in an ironic twist; even the NRL referees have been unable to avoid trouble. Needless to say, this great game of rugby league thrives with on-field performances and the goal of featuring in the first week of October is driving every side. For each team, it has been hard work throughout the summer and they will be itching to get the season underway. Hopes are high and there appears to be so many intriguing and exciting storylines ahead. Don’t forget, there is also the representative season to worry about and there are plenty of players that will have their sights set on featuring during this period. This preview is going to take a look at each teams chances running into the season, the changes to their playing roster and what could lie ahead for them. So sit back and enjoy some quality rugby league!
Team: Brisbane Broncos
2013 Finish: 12th (24 Points W:10 D:1 L:13 Diff: -43)
Gains: Ben Barba (Bulldogs), Martin Kennedy (Roosters), Todd Lowrie (Warriors), Daniel Vidot (Dragons), Stewart Mills (Sharks), Marmin Barba (Titans), Jon Green (Sharks)
Losses: Scott Prince (retired), Peter Wallace (Panthers), Corey Norman (Eels), Luke Capewell (Panthers), Lama Tasi (Salford Red Devils), Delroy Berryman (Sea Eagles), Kurt Baptiste (Raiders), Scott Anderson (Wakefield), Dunamis Lui (Sea Eagles), Caleb Timu (Mormon mission), Nick Slyney (released)
There are various words that can be used to describe the Broncos 2013 season, none of which are positive. By the end of it, the players and fans were happy to put an end to the most disappointing year in the clubs history. Their campaign was not helped by the various injuries they suffered throughout, as well as speculation that their coach, Anthony Griffin, was on his last legs. The writing is on the wall for this team now and the Broncos board will not tolerate another lackluster season. Their time to get it right is limited. Working in their favor is the home ground advantage, on top of a very “kind” schedule. If they cannot deliver, there needs to be serious questions asked. Although, not all appears to be well as there are some rumblings around the stripping of Sam Thaiday of the captaincy and installment of Corey Parker. Watch this space!
Strength: They have, arguably, one of the best forward packs in the game and will only be boosted by a healthy squad. Andrew McCullough is essential to their success, but last season he was average at hooker and guilty of trying to do too much. I guess that was the result of the pressure placed on them from the halves. If they can set a strong platform in games, perhaps the halves will have greater freedom in their play.
Weakness: Again, there is uncertainty around their halves. A few failures and there will be several calls for replacements to be used. Unless they have an ace up their sleeve, it could be a limiting factor to their success.
Player to watch: Josh Hoffman
Verdict: Whether they like to admit it or not, the Broncos need to rebuild their team. It seems like it is going to be another difficult season for them, regardless of the talent they possess within their forwards.
Prediction: Miss the Top 8 & an “outside” chance of winning the spoon!
Team: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
2013 Finish: 6th (30 Points W:13 L:11 Diff: +66) – Eliminated by Newcastle in Week 1 of the Finals
Gains: Reni Maitua (Eels), Chase Stanley (Dragons), Pat O’Hanlon (Eels), Kayne Brennan (Dragons), Damien Cook (Dragons), Tyrone Phillips (Rabbitohs)
Losses: Ben Barba (Broncos), Dene Halatau (Tigers), Steve Turner (retired), Martin Taupau (Tigers), Danny Galea (Widnes Vikings), Kris Keating (Hull KR), Paul Carter (Titans), Leilani latu (Panthers), Jack Littlejohn (Sea Eagles), Joel Romelo (Easts Tigers)
Hopes were high for the Bulldogs heading into 2013 but they fell apart at the seams following the news around Ben Barba. As an organisation, they were adamant that it was not distracting, but their start to the season suggested otherwise. It must be said that they did have one of the toughest draws of any team in the competition. Now, they can put 2013 behind them and look to restart in 2014. No Barba, no worries, they can get on with their job and perhaps team harmony will benefit. With Hasler at the helm, anything is possible from this team.
Strength: Their monster forward pack is going to be a handful for any opponents. There were glimpses of what they were capable of in 2013, but they never consistently reached their potential. Hopefully they can stay injury-free and we can see just how talented this pack is.
Weakness: They Bulldogs are still searching for a general to lead them around the field. Josh Reynolds is dynamic at 5/8, but he is only one player and plays a role in the team that is hampered by an increasing workload. Trent Hodkinson will have first shot at it but there are plenty of questions around his performance and fitness.
Player to watch: Josh Jackson
Verdict: Sure, a monster forward pack is going to set up a great platform, but unless there is an accomplished playmaker there, they are going to struggle against the better teams in the competition. The Bulldogs will offer a lot, but they will fall short of worrying any of the teams above them on the table when it matters most.
Prediction: Bottom half of the 8
Team: Canberra Raiders
2013 Finish: 13th (24 Points W:10 L:14 Diff: -190)
Gains: Lagi Setu (Storm), Kyle O’Donnell (Panthers), Kurt Baptiste (Broncos)
Losses: Blake Ferguson (released), Joel Thompson (Dragons), Shaun Berrigan (retired), Sam Williams (Dragons), Sandor Earl (Banned), Joe Picker (Rabbitohs), Jonathon Reuben (Roosters), Hayden Crockett (Mackay Cutters), Dimitri Pelo (Burleigh Bears), Michael Picker (retired)
A lot of change has occurred at Canberra and majority of that has to do with the sacking of David Furner and acquisition of Ricky Stuart. Finally, one of their favorite sons has returned to reinstall some pride into their, once famous, jersey. At his disposal, Stuart will have a young side that is capable of producing anything on the right day. However, the inconsistency in their play has been their downfall and unless they fix this area, it could be another limiting factor. Stuart is a very intense coach that will be determined to turn things around and it will take every bit of his experience to work wonders with this squad.
Strength: A young squad that is full of potential. When you take a look at the Raiders team, they really should be a contender for the premiership. They have a very strong forward pack that is only complimented by their outside backs who are difficult to handle when they have room to move. Anthony Milford will excel in this area and having Terry Campese back on the field, will only enhance their attacking ability.
Weakness: Consistency has always been a problem for the Raiders. Stuart will have his work cut out trying to turn this around. He can begin with their struggles on the road and make them just as dangerous as when they’re playing at home.
Player to watch: Anthony Milford
Verdict: The acquisition of Stuart appears to be a good move in improving the flaws within this talented outfit. If they can find the right balance in form and play at a consistent level, they are going to trouble teams late in September. If you were a Raiders fan, you would be entitled to be excited about what lies ahead in 2014.
Prediction: Top 8, dare I say Top 4!
Team: Cronulla Sharks
2013 Finish: 5th (32 Points W:14 D:1 L:10 Diff: +8) – Eliminated in Week 2 of the Finals by the Sea Eagles
Gains: Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers), Matt Prior (Dragons), Eric Grothe Jnr (unattached), Daniel Holdsworth (Hull), Jacob Gagan (Sea Eagles), Tinirau Arona (Roosters)
Losses: Jason Bukuya (Warriors), Jon Green (retired), Tyrone Peachey (Panthers), Ben Ross (retired), Mark Taufua (retired), Chad Townsend (Warriors), Stewart Mills (Broncos), Ben Pomeroy (Catalans Dragons), Jon Green (Broncos), Matthew Wright (Cowboys)
It was amazing that the Sharks were able to keep things together despite everything that was going on around them. The ASADA investigation was an unfortunate distraction for them and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in 2014. They have suffered a blow, as coach Shane Flanagan, has been suspended for the season. Peter Sharp will coach the team, pending Flanagan’s appeal. Either way, their season looks to be limited with that taking place around them. One thing is for sure, the whole saga strengthened their squad and they were motivated by the situation. It remains to be seen, whether or not they can maintain that level of performance. 2014 is a vital one for the Sharks as the clubs future hangs in the balance.
Strength: Defence and the physicality they play with. Sides know that when they play the Sharks, they better be ready for a brutal contest. They have a very strong structure and are tough to break down in the middle of the field. This is complemented by the size of their team and they relish an “arm wrestle” of a match.
Weakness: Scoring points. They can hold teams to a low total with their defence but they also mount a large total. A lot of responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Todd Carney and this can lead to the pressure building on the dynamic playmakers shoulders. When he is out with injury, their chances also nose-dive.
Player to watch: Wade Graham
Verdict: It kills me to say it, but the success of the Sharks correlates with how well they respond and deal with the ASADA investigation. It isn’t going away and if they can put it behind them, they are going to be difficult to stop.
Prediction: All depends on ASADA, if they retain their team, bottom half of the 8.
Team: Gold Coast Titans
2013 Finish: 9th (26 points W:11 L:13 Points Diff: -18)
Gains: Maurice Blair (Storm), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Cowboys), Siuatonga Likiliki (Knights), Paul Carter (Bulldogs), Christian Hazard (Rabbitohs), Brad Tighe (Panthers)
Losses: Luke O’Dwyer (retired), Hymel Hunt (Storm), Marmin Barba (Broncos), Jordan Rankin (Hull), Mark O’Dare (Sea Eagles), Matthew Russell (Warrington), Jordan Rankin (Hull), Jamal Idris (Panthers)
The Titans have been promising a lot for some time now and have been unable to deliver. Again, 2013 was a season where they came up short and failed to make the Finals. Injuries did hamper their performance in key matches but they will be the first to admit that they were disappointed with how things ended. It is still no excuse and the quality within their side lends you to thinking that better performances are needed. Their coach, John Cartwright, seemingly has avoided the pressure of job security but one would think that if they were to suffer the same fate as previous years, he might have to look elsewhere for a job.
Strength: A monster forward pack and speed to burn, both of which will compliment one another. When they are fit, their forward pack is very strong and they will have the ability to set up a strong front, which should allow the backs extra room to move. If they don’t the speed on the edge will go to waste.
Weakness: Injuries. They have been their Achilles heal in recent season and if the early indications are anything to go by, it doesn’t appear to be changing. There are already reports that halfback, Albert Kelly, has had his fair share of problems. This will only mount on their stars during the representative matches. On top of this, their depth is going to be tested and it isn’t an area that you would favor them to be strong in.
Player to watch: Beau Falloon
Verdict: You can never be sure with a team like the Titans. They will probably start the season very well, but lose their way through the middle part as players become injured and are out due to representative duty. If they manage to avoid such issues, they are a strong chance to make the Top 8.
Prediction: Just miss the 8, but just scrape in if things go to plan.
Team: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
2013 Finish: 4th (35points W:15 D:1 L:8 Diff: +222) – Lost the Grand Final to the Roosters
Gains: Cheyse Blair (Eels), Josh Starling (Rabbitohs), Delroy Berryman (Broncos), Jayden Hodges (Cowboys), Tyson Andrews (Mackay Cutters), Dunamis Lui (Broncos), Jack Littlejohn (Bulldogs), Mark O’Dara (Titans), Manaia Ruldolph (Tigers)
Losses: Brent Kite (Panthers), George Rose (Storm), David Gower (Eels), Joe Galuvao (retired), Jacob Gagan (Sharks), Richie Fa’aoso (retired)
Just when you thought the Sea Eagles might have their work cut out for them, they went to another level and made the decider, where the Roosters beat them. That game was there for the taking but they were unable to put the finishing touches on their performance. A lot of their success comes down to the experience within their side and they have lost little as they move into 2014. Of course, players are aging and they are going to find it difficult to avoid injury. If that does occur, their depth is going to be tested, but you can never rule out this team and their coach Geoff Toovey.
Strength: It is no surprise to see their major strength as their halves. Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans are arguably two of the best players in the competition. This will work nicely into the hands of the Sea Eagles as they are the complete package when it comes to a halves pairing. They are the two players that you want with the ball in their hands when the game matters most.
Weakness: Injuries and an aging squad. With each year that passes by, the Sea Eagles key players age. Most of these players are in the forwards and without them on the park; pressure will build on the halves. Regardless of how good and effective they are, if their opponents are pressuring them, their effectiveness is going to be limited. Similarly to the Titans, if they can stay fit, this problem may become obsolete.
Player to watch: take your pick between DCE and Foran
Verdict: The Sea Eagles are going to be a tough side for their opponents to overcome each week. Even if they are missing a few players through injury, Toovey has a knack of getting the best out of the players that he has at his disposal. Their halves are going to be essential to their success and when it all boils down to it, they are going to be a better team than half of the other sides in the competition.
Prediction: Top 8 – perhaps in the lower end of it if injuries strike.
Team: Melbourne Storm
2013 Finish: 3rd (37 Points W:16 D:1 L:7 Diff: +216)
Gains: George Rose (Sea Eagles), Travis Robinson (Panthers), Cody Walker (Easts Tigers), Hymel Hunt (Titans), Felise Kaufusi (Cowboys), Cameron Munster (Central Queensland), Dayne Weston (Panthers), Ben Roberts (Eels), Joel Romelo (Bulldogs)
Losses: Gareth Widdop (Dragons), Maurice Blair (Titans), Jason Ryles (retired), Brett Finch (retired), Junior Sa’u (Salford Red Devils), Lagi Setu (Raiders), Jurusine Auva’a (Rabbitohs), Matt McGahan (rugby union)
As each season approaches, the Storm are constantly referred to as one of the teams that will be sitting at the right end of the competition. They have been a side that has continually been the benchmark for other teams to work from in the previous 5 seasons; and why wouldn’t they when they have 3 of the best players in the competition at their disposal? They make up 3/4 positions of the “spine” of the football team (the “spine” being the fullback, 5/8, halfback and hooker). The “Big 3” in Slater, Cronk and Smith are always vital to the success of the Storm but also having coach Craig Bellamy guiding the squad is invaluable. More important than ever though, will be the contribution of the players who do not attract the same headlines and what they add to their success.
Strength: The “Big 3”! Is there any more that needs to be said?
Weakness: The representative season. With 3 of the biggest names in the game in key positions, when they are out, the rest of the team is going to struggle. Their depth will be tested and if their recruiting is anything to go by, they are going to be found out in this area. Losing Widdop will cause further problems and it is now time for a youngster to put their hand up and take over the job.
Player to watch: Tohu Harris
Verdict: The Storm are always going to be a difficult team to beat. They have a very smart coach who knows how to get the best out of his players. Most of the time, they are going to be able to handle their opponents but the high-ranking sides will formulate a plan to beat them. Ultimately, how often their stars are on the field and how well they recover post-SOO period will determine just how far they prolong their season through September.
Prediction: Top 8 – around 3rd-6th
Team: Newcastle Knights
2013 Finish: 7th (29 Points W:12 D:1 L:11 Diff: +106) – Eliminated by the Roosters in the Grand Final Qualifier
Gains: Russell Packer (Warriors – registration refused), Clint Newton (Panthers), Michael Dobson (Hull Kingston Rovers)
Losses: Danny Buderus (retired), Neville Costigan (Hull Kingston Rovers), Kevin Naiqama (Panthers), Peter Mata’utia (Dragons), Siuatonga Likiliki (Titans), Will Smith (Panthers), Russell Packer (sacked)
For the past 2 years, the Knights have been promising so much and have failed to deliver. All of this is on the back of recruiting Wayne Bennett, yet it was at the end of last season that we began to see just what the Knights were capable of. Things appear to be heading in the right direction and just like he did at the Dragons, Bennett will be looking to win the Premiership during his third year at the club. They have not been active on the player market and that would suggest that Bennett has the players that he wants at his disposal. Now it is time for them to stand up, assert their dominance and bring home the title.
Strength: Timing. It may sound a little simple, but the time is right for Newcastle to make a strong push for the Premiership. They have a solid halves pairing (when Mullen is fit) that is complimented by the speed of the outside backs. The forwards will set this up and they will aim to outmuscle their opponents up front with their ball running and strong defence.
Weakness: Injuries. Already this season, the Knights are going to be impacted by injuries to key personnel. Their squad is an aging one and this will only compound issues if a few players go down. If this does occur, it will take something special from Bennett to avoid it impacting their season.
Player to watch: Tyrone Roberts
Verdict: There is a positive feeling around Newcastle and you get the sense that if everything goes to plan, they could be on the cusp of producing something special. They appear to have the right mix of players and they should have the measure of majority of teams in the competition. Given this, they should be in a strong position to strike at the end of the season and make a charge for the Premiership.
Prediction: Around 4th-7th
Team: New Zealand Warriors
2013 Finish: 11th (26 Points W:11 L:13 Diff: -59)
Gains: Sam Tomkins (Wigan), Jayson Bukuya (Sharks), Chad Townsend (Sharks)
Losses: Elijah Taylor (Panthers), Steve Rapira (Salford Red Devils), Russell Packer (Knights), Todd Lowrie (Broncos), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Roosters), Bill Tupou (Raiders), Pita Godinet (Wakefield)
Along with the Cowboys, the Warriors are one of the most volatile teams in the competition. They had a shocking start to 2013, but at the middle point of the season, something finally something clicked them into gear. It was from this point on that we saw some exciting, controlled and tough football from them. Though towards the end, they ran out of time and were left again wondering, what might have been. This year, expectation is higher based on the fact that they have so many exciting prospects. The acquisition of Sam Tomkins is a bonus to their play and coach Matthew Elliot is going to have an exciting time managing his talented side. A lot of people will suggest that he is out of his depth but coming in 2014, they will only be judged on their results.
Strength: Controlled unpredictability. The Warriors are an exciting side that can almost score a try from anywhere on the field. Yet this could sometimes be their downfall and this is where Elliot comes into the fold. That is one area of their play that improved in the second half of 2013 and with another preseason under his guidance, you would think that this is only going to improve.
Weakness: Travelling. It is never easy for a team to travel away from home but it appears to be a bigger struggle for the Warriors than most. This is understandable when you add together their travel time but they need to find a way around this problem. Whether or not it is staying on the road for back-to-back games or changing their training program, if they do not combat this, it will be detrimental to their title aspirations.
Player to watch: Shaun Johnson
Verdict: The Warriors are ready to make a charge for the title. They have a very strong pack of forwards that are complimented by the speed and skill of their backline. The sky is the limit for this team and they are going to need to play disciplined football to get where they want to go. If they can get it right, they are going to be very hard to stop!
Prediction: Top 8 – possible title contenders if they fire!
Team: North Queensland Cowboys
2013 Finish: 8th (28 Points W:12 L:12 Diff: +76) – Eliminated in Week 1 of the Finals by the Sharks
Gains: Lachlan Coote (Panthers), Cameron King (Dragons), Heron Murgha (Northern Pride), John Asiata (Roosters), Matthew Wright (Sharks)
Losses: Matt Bowen (Wigan), Dallas Johnson (retired), Ashley Graham (retired), Hayden Hodges (Sea Eagles), Felise Kaufusi (Storm), Chris Grevsmuhl (Rabbitohs), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Titans), Clint Greenshields (Limoux Grizzlies), Scott Moore (London Broncos), Wayne Ulugia (contract terminated)
It is frustrating and painful to be a Cowboys fan and much like the Warriors, their troubles have built up with their appalling away record. They had one of the more talented teams in the competition last year and only managed to scrape into 8th spot. Once there, it didn’t last long and similarly, they will carry high hopes into this year. Sure, they have lost some quality players, but nothing to suggest that they are going to struggle. Perhaps the biggest change for them at the end of last year was the acquisition of Paul Green as coach. Change was certainly needed and after a successful apprenticeship at the Roosters, Green was ready to make the next step. It is a new direction for the Cowboys and after taking out the inaugural NRL Auckland Nines, expectation is growing each day. They have one of the best players in the game in Jonathan Thurston leading this team around and if he can calibrate with Green, there is not telling just what this team is capable of.
Strength: JT and the forwards. Any rugby league fan knows that a playmaker is only as good as the forwards. That was no more apparent last season when JT really struggled to create anything as his forwards were beaten in the middle of the field. That was surprising enough, as they are arguably one of the best and biggest packs in the league. If they can gain control of the game over their opponents in this area, JT will be firing and it will be raining points for the Cowboys.
Weakness: Consistency and travel. It is tough for the Cowboys to play away from home and this has been their downfall so often. They appear to be a different team at home compared to on the road and Green will have his hands full trying to get this right. It can be tough for them and to some extent, you can sympathise with their situation. Then again, you only have to remember that the GF will be played down in Sydney and it is time that they overcame this issue.
Player to watch: Jason Taumalolo
Verdict: The addition of Green creates some uncertainty around the hopes of the Cowboys. They are a team that is more than capable and really should’ve accomplished more with this team. As for Green, he appears to have what it takes and the fresh focus should see him bring the best out of this talented unit.
Prediction: Top 4
Team: Parramatta Eels
2013 Finish: Last (14 Points W:5 L:19 Diff: -414)
Gains: Will Hopoate (Mormon Mission), Lee Mossop (Wigan), Nathan Peats (Rabbitohs), Corey Norman (Broncos), Justin Hunt (Rabbitohs), David Gower (Sea Eagles), Brenden Santi (Wests Tigers), Toby Evans (Panthers), Evander Cummins (Dragons), Liam Foran (Salford)
Losses: Ben Roberts (Storm), Reni Maitua (Bulldogs), Cheyse Blair (Sea Eagles), Jake Mullaney (Salford Red Devils), Pat O’Hanlon (Bulldogs), Matt Keating (Burleigh Bears), Taulima Tautai (Wakefield), Matt Ryan (Wakefield)
It has not been an enjoyable 4-year period for the Eels, where their best finish has been 12th. Another year and another wooden spoon for the hapless Eels. 2013 is a season that they will want to forget in a hurry and making things easier will be the departure of Ricky Stuart. This allowed them to recall former assistant coach, Brad Arthur, back from Manly. It is reported that he is a man that is well respected by the players and one that is capable of grabbing control of this bunch of footballers. Not only is their on-field actions under scrutiny, but so too are the rumblings and fighting among board members. They need to get that sorted as well because it is only serving as a distraction to the results that they will be judged on. After a merry-go-round of coaches, some of the blame has to be put on the shoulders of the players. If they have their man in Arthur as it is reported, then it is time they took responsibility for their actions.
Strength: A changing attitude. A change of coach generally means a shift in culture and this was certainly needed out at Parramatta. Unlike when Stephen Kearny took over, you can sense that several players have been put on notice and Arthur isn’t going to tolerate poor excuses. This should lift the moral and act as a catalyst for the club when moving forward.
Weakness: Quality of players. Unfortunately, this is a squad of players that are overpaid and underperforming. Arthur hasn’t had the luxury of picking which players he wants in his squad just yet, but he will have the benefit of several players coming to the club with a point to prove. He has to use this to his advantage and use those players to create a competitive environment for positions.
Player to watch: Will Hopoate
Verdict: Things appear to be changing out at Parramatta but it is going to be a year or two yet before the Eels drag themselves back into contention. They have their man in Brad Arthur at the helm, but he does not have the team that he wants. After the change in coaches over the last 3-4 years, you can never be sure just who recruited this squad. They will have their moments and it will be an improvement on 2013, but that will be as far as it goes for them in 2014.
Prediction: Pushing for the Top 8 but will come up short.
Team: Penrith Panthers
2013 Finish: 10th (26 points W:11 L:13 Diff: -37)
Gains: Peter Wallace (Broncos), Jamie Soward (London Broncos), Elijah Taylor (Warriors), Brent Kite (Sea Eagles), Kevin Naiqama (Knights), Tyrone Peachey (Sharks), Shaun Spence (Wests Tigers), Will Smith (Knights), Leilani Latu (Bulldogs), Wellington Albert (Lae Tigers, PNG), Jamal Idris (Titans)
Losses: Lachlan Coote (Cowboys), Luke Walsh (St Helens), Mose Masoe (St Helens), Clint Newton (Knights), Danny Galea (Widns Vikings), Travis Robinson (Storm), Blake Austin (Wests Tigers), Cameron Ciraldo (retired), Mosese Pangai (Raiders), Dayne Weston (Storm), Kyle O’Donnell (Raiders), Brad Tighe (Titans)
The Panthers went through a “rebuilding year” in 2013, yet it was hardly a disappointing one for them. After a slow start to the season, they troubled plenty of sides to finish 10th. Had a few games gone their way, it could’ve been a different story. They will draw confidence from that and now, things are looking up for the men at the foot of the mountains. Given the direction that they were heading, it was puzzling to see a few decisions they made in the offseason in terms of recruiting. Then again, perhaps they have a bigger picture in mind and the more experienced players will have a strong presence when mentoring the younger members of the squad.
Strength: Dynamic play. The Panthers have players in their squad that are able to produce something from nothing. This often comes when their opponents underestimate their attacking ability and they will look to use this to their advantage. Of course, they will need to be careful in their play and mistakes are only going to limit their effectiveness.
Weakness: The Halves. Sure, they are a big pack with plenty of potential, but something is still missing from their play. They are able to set a strong platform but most of the time, their outside backs do not get the ball that they so desperately need in attacking situations. If recent form is anything to go by, Wallace and Soward are not the answer the Panthers are looking for. If things do not go to plan early in the season, they will be looking to change this and may want to give a younger player an opportunity.
Player to watch: James Segeyaro
Verdict: The Panthers are a team that is on the way up. They will look to build on the positive movements they made in 2013 and they appear to be moving in the right direction. The only limiting factor that becomes apparent, is their recruiting of a few players that seem to be at the back-end of their careers. If they focus more on the youth at the club, they will be a difficult team for any opponent to beat.
Prediction: Bottom half of the 8.
Team: South Sydney Rabbitohs
2013 Finish: 2nd (40 points W:18 L:6 Diff: +204) – Eliminated in Grand Final qualifier by the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Gains: Joel Reddy (Wests Tigers), Joe Picker (Raiders), Chris Grevsmuhl (Cowboys), Kirisome Auva’a (Storm), Lote Tuqiri (Irish Rugby Union)
Losses: Nathan Peats (Eels), Roy Asotasi (Warrington Wolves), Matt King (retired), Michael Crocker (retired), Andrew Everingham (Japanese rugby), Justin Hunt (Eels), Dylan Farrell (Dragons), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles), Christian Hazard (Titans), Jeff Lima (Catalans Dragons), Mitchell Buckett (Wynnum Manly), Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs), Daniel Smith (Wakefield), Fetuli Talanoa (Hull)
Expectations were high in Redfern last season, however they were again unable to deliver as they were bundled out in the Grand Final Qualifier by the Sea Eagles. You get the sense that time is running out for this team too, especially with the recent news of Sam Burgess’ impending departure. They need to get things right, and fast! Unfortunately, they have had their preseason plans effected with the injury to Luke Keary and their depth is going to be tested. They will still be a quality outfit in this competition, although their biggest challenge will come at the business end of the season. They will also be motivated by the rise to success of their bitter opponents. Michael Maguire is a quality coach and perhaps we are going to see just how good he is this season and with this squad.
Strength: Their dynamic pack of forwards. Other teams in the competition will have size, but the Rabbitohs have the added ability of being able to break their opponents down in this area with their force. It some games last year, they were easily getting over the top of their opponents in the middle of the field. Credit does have to go to their hooker, Issac Luke, as he compliments his forward’s power perfectly. They will aim to win majority of the games in this area and create as much room as possible for Greg Inglis.
Weakness: Their halves. Things were looking promising before the 9’s but when Luke Keary went down, you could hear the collective gasps from coaching staff and Rabbitohs fans. It now means that they are going to have to resort to a “Plan B”, but with Adam Reynolds also struggling, it may now move to “Plan C”. Even if Reynolds was to be fit, he is a halfback that fails to take the ball to the line consistently and this one-dimensional play will make the Rabbitohs predictable.
Player to watch: Issac Luke
Verdict: The Rabbitohs are a strong side that will be able to beat majority of the teams in the NRL. The real test for them will come at the business end of the season and expectations will be high. They will need to produce something extra to sway opinion that they can go the distance, but for the time being, it will be Top 4 and deep into the Finals for them.
Prediction: Top 4, possible Grand Finalists.
Team: St George-Illawarra Dragons
2013 Finish: 14th (18 points W:7 L:17 Diff: -151)
Gains: Gareth Widdop (Storm), Sam Williams (Raiders), Joel Thompson (Raiders), Mike Cooper (Warrington Wolves), Dylan Farrell (Rabbitohs), Josh Allaomai (Roosters), Matt Groat (Wests Tigers), Peter Mata’utia (Knights), Michael Witt (London Broncos), Willie Mataka (Illawarra Cutters)
Losses: Jamie Soward (Panthers), Michael Weyman (Hull Kinston Rovers), Matt Cooper (retired), Nathan Fien (retired), Chase Stanley (Bulldogs), Cameron King (Cowboys), Matt Prior (Sharks), Kayne Brennan (Bulldogs), Jackson Hastings (Roosters), Daniel Vidot (Broncos), Damien Cook (Bulldogs), Evander Cummins (Eels)
Pressure is building on the Dragons after 2 sub-par seasons. They have failed to produce anything exciting and the man that will ultimately suffer the consequences in this instance will be their coach, Steve Price. He is arguably the coach with the highest amount of pressure on him and it will only take a disappointing start to the season for him to be sacked. Then again, they could avoid that if their team plays to their potential. They have recruited well and gained players that will be able to fix some of their cracks that appeared in previous seasons. They have a new halves pairing and it will be interesting to see how Gareth Widdop performs now that he is away from the “Big 3” at Melbourne. He is capable, but even the best players have be sucked down by a losing culture and poor play.
Strength: Players with a point to prove. The list is long and includes names like Dugan, Williams, Widdop and Farrell. Each player was either forced or chose to leave their club and now they will be out to form a new future for themselves. Each player is extremely talented and Price will have to use this to motivate his young side. You always have to be wary of a side that has a point to prove.
Weakness: Uncertainty around their coach. As stated above, Price is going to have a hard time of hanging onto his job. At the first sign of trouble, he will probably face the axe. You haven’t heard too much about how the culture of the club is going and perhaps the new players to the club will promote change in the place. Either way, Price is going to have a hard time of it and he will need a lot of positive result to hold onto his job.
Player to watch: Sam Williams
Verdict: It should be an improved season for the Dragons but ultimately, they will again fail to make major developments and push for the Top 8. They still have several problems in defence and the doubt about Price’s future will create an unstable environment. It will also take time for their new combinations to form and eventually, a lot of pressure will fall upon the shoulders of Josh Dugan and it could be too much for one player to carry.
Prediction: Pushing for the 8, but will miss out as the trouble around their coach builds.
Team: Sydney Roosters
2013 Finish: Premiers (40 points W:18 L:6 Diff: +315)
Gains: Remi Casty (Catalans Dragons), Jackson Hastings (Dragons), Jonathon Reuban (Raiders), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Warriors), Heath L’Estrange (Bradford), Curtis Naughton (Bradford), Kem Seru (Dragons)
Losses: Josh Ailaomai (Dragons), Martin Kennedy (Broncos), Adam Henry (Bradford Bulls), Henare Wells (Burleigh Bears), Jack Bosden (released), John Asiata (Cowboys), Tinirau Arona (Sharks), Michael Oldfield (Catalans Dragons), Luke O’Donnell (retired)
The Roosters head into season 2014 as defending Premiers and it was a thrilling turn-around to witness after they finished 13th in 2012. Better still, they have the best chance in a long time to go back-to-back. Majority of this revolves around the players that they have retained from 2013. They are a young squad that is improving with each game they play, with their recent victory in the RLWCC evidence of that. Trent Robinson is a young coach that also has a lot of potential remaining to showcase. Exciting times are certainly ahead for the Roosters.
Strength: Various, but you can start with an exciting and youthful squad. These players are hungry to achieve so much success and you can see that there is a positive mood at the Roosters. This season, they will be driven by being the first team since Brisbane in 1997 & 98 to go back-to-back. They have a strong set of players in all positions and they have several superstars that are complimented by potential superstars of the game.
Weakness: Interchange. This was the case last season as well and you can see that Robinson is working extremely hard to overcome this. They are certainly improving in this area but you can notice the difference in intensity when the starting players are replaced. Majority of this revolves around the forwards and it will be interesting to see if Robinson has a few ideas in order to overcome this.
Player to watch: Jake Friend
Verdict: There is no reason why the Roosters cannot go back-to-back in 2014. They have the right mix of youth and experience in their squad that has lost only a few players from last season. Keeping the same formula should make things easier for them and it will take something special from the rest of the teams in the competition to stop them in their tracks.
Prediction: Top 4 – very high chance that they will go back-to-back!
Team: West Tigers
2013 Finish: 15th (18 points W:7 L:17 Diff: -301)
Gains: Pat Richards (Wigan Warriors), Dene Halatau (Bulldogs), Cory Paterson (Hull KR), Martin Taupau (Bulldogs), Blake Austin (Panthers), Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls)
Losses: Beni Marshall (rugby union), Blake Ayshford (Sharks), Lote Tuqiri (rugby union), Joel Reddy (Rabbitohs), Eddy Pettybourne (Wigan Warriors), Matt Groat (Dragons), Jacob Miller (Hull), Brenden Santi (Eels), Shaun Spence (Panthers), Mosese Pangai (Raiders), Manaia Rudolph (Sea Eagles)
It was a very tough season for the Tigers in 2013 as they battled their way to 15th on the competition ladder. It was only for a few lucky wins that they were able to avoid the spoon. It was certainly a tough first season for their new coach, Mick Potter. Unfortunately, things appear as though they are only going to get tougher. Their recruiting has rested on younger players coming through their system and being able to produce at an NRL level. It remains to be scene whether or not they are capable of this and the uncertainty isn’t allowing them to set their sites too high.
Strength: Young and exciting players. The Tigers have pinned a lot of their hopes on the shoulders of a few youngsters and if their form in the lower grades is anything to go by, they have enormous potential. Of course, the pressure of the NRL can get to young players and Potter will have to balance this out evenly across the team. Also, bringing a young player through a losing environment could be harmful to their confidence and limit their development throughout the season.
Weakness: Injuries and depth. Previous seasons has seen the Tigers fall foul of the injury curse. When it hits, their depth is going to be tested and having a look through their squad, there isn’t a lot coming through. This will make things very difficult for the Tigers as a club and a few negative headlines will snowball into trouble for Potter.
Player to watch: Luke Brooks
Verdict: It is another tough season ahead for the Tigers. They are prone to injuries and do not have a lot of depth to work with. A lot of pressure is going to fall upon the shoulders of skipper Robbie Farrah and during the representative period, things are only going to become tougher. You can sense that there is a negative culture fostering at the club and Potter has a very difficult job ahead turning the hopes of this team around.
Prediction: Bottom 4 in the competition & wooden spoon favorites.