With round 1 mere days away it’s time for us here at the Sportress to take a quick glance at the sixteen clubs entering the comp this year, and how we think they will fare (at least in the opening rounds).
I’m not going to assign teams any end of season rankings, because as any NRL pundit knows that is a wholly futile endeavour. There are invariably always a few who perform better than expected, as much as there are top eight shoe-ins who disintegrate towards the end of the year.
The clubs are examined in no particular order, but we’re going to start with the one currently surfing the sports headlines.
Poor old Titans, they really couldn’t be in a worse place to start the season. No major sponsor. At least four players awaiting court appearances in regards to cocaine supply issues. Forced to relocate training facilities. Voluntary administration. I really hope someone has arranged a good therapist for Neil Henry, because he’s going to need one before this year is over. On the bright side the NRL has now taken control of the club, and will begin the task of sorting out the finances and all the other gremlins besieging the competitions youngest member. I know I said I wouldn’t talk ladder predictions, but the Titans are going to have to work over time to overcome this shocking start and possible spoon contention.
Last year’s premiers haven’t had a totally perfect off season, with two of their players managing to get themselves locked up stateside for being drunk and rude. Compounding the issue was the fact that it seems the NRL and Souths attempted to keep it all quiet, which is never a good look. Despite this the Bunnies have had a pretty successful off season, cleaning up the Auckland Nines comp and then going on to thump St Helens and become the World Club Challenge champs. 2015 sees a Souths squad sans Sam Burgess, and they’ll be missing a few other players at the start due to naughty suspensions. If they can replicate their big match physicality from last year the Bunnies should be tough contenders in 2015, and they’ll need to be if they plan on bagging consecutive premierships.
I looked at the draw for round 1 today, and Sportsbet had the Titans at $0.10 lower than the Tigers. You know it don’t look so good when the team that is embroiled in a cocaine scandal and has just voluntarily turned itself over to the league for administration has better odds than you do. Wests had a pretty ho-hum year in 2014, and like their round 1 opponents they’ll have to really hit the ground running if they’re to climb any higher up the ladder. They rolled the dice on letting Blake Austin go, and it may well prove to be a choice that could haunt them this year. The Tigers had the worst defence in 2014, leaking an average of 26.29ppg. If they want to make inroads they’re going to have plug the gaps.
The Bulldogs competed in the 2014 NRL grand final. Remember that? Probably not, as the game itself and the surrounding spectacle was some sort of bizarre publicity note to South Sydney. The Doggies spent only two rounds outside the top 8 in 2014, and were top of the ladder for 6 consecutive rounds. They tailed off slightly towards the end of the season before going on a crazy finals run from 7th place to end up runners up behind Souths. Finucane and Brown will be missed by Dogs supporters this year, but this pain is alleviated by the fact that the Morris brothers are once again on the same team, which should bolster the backline attack for the Dogs. Moses Mbye has potential (don’t all young halves!?) and it will be interesting to see how the Dogs fare without Ennis providing motivation and direction around the park.
One gets the feeling that the Sharks would be watching the Titans fiasco with a mixture of relief and empathy, as 2014 was definitely a season the Shire side would rather forget. The ASADA debacle plagued them nearly all year, and come round 24 their fate was sealed when the Raiders beat them at home. One of the positives about coming dead last is that the only way is up next season, unless you plan on being dreadfully woeful for a second year running. The Sharkies have made some decent signings for 2015, which is good because they lost a fair few players to retirement and face whizzing related problems. Barba and Fifita are probably now their two biggest names, with Barba needing to prove himself to his new teammates (and probably the rest of the league) whilst Fifita will have to reaffirm his commitment after that whole indecisive period. They probably won’t climb out of the bottom half of the ladder, but they should at least give a few other clubs some nasty scares along the way.
The Broncos just scraped into the finals series in 2014, only to find themselves quickly dispatched the first weekend by their Queensland siblings the Cowboys. The After Lockyer period has been pretty average for the Broncos, with the club being investigated for possible financial breaches at the end of last season. In fact Brisbane spent their 2014 season doing two things: making it to the finals and buying up nearly every available fullback on the market, to the extent where at one point their backline would have read #1, #1, #1, #1 & #1. They solved this buy getting rid of Ben Barba (the Dally M medallist they’d spent so much time and money pursuing) and by royally shafting Josh Hoffman to make room for Anthony Milford and Darius Boyd. The Broncos are one of those sides lucky enough to never be real spoon contenders (thank you Third Party Agreements), and are reasonable consistent at finishing inside the 8 or just short. Tinkering may be required in the backline, since everyone can’t all be trying to defuse the same bomb. Adam Blair is one of the biggest new names to join the side, and he’ll have to do a lot better than he did with the Tigers last year.
Manly have been one of the form teams of the NRL for the last decade. When they’re not winning premierships (shudder) they’re making serious inroads into the finals series, working off an uncompromising style of play and good talent across the park. Things may be somewhat different this year: veteran Glenn Stewart left to join Souths, Anthony Watmough made a deal with the Eels and Jamil Hopoate got himself jailed for a one year sentence. Add to that the increasing likelihood of Kieren Foran also becoming an Eel, and Daly Cherry-Evans a Titan, and you have a significantly different Manly side lining up to play. The Eagles have picked up veteran (read: old) enforcer Willie Mason from the Knights, and have resigned Jamie Lyon, who should play out his career at Brookvale. The younger Manly forwards will need to fill the gap in workload left by Jason King, Stewart and Watmough if Manly are to continue with their disciplined style of footy.
The team that everyone loves to hate, but also grudgingly respect, bowed out of last year’s finals race in rather unceremonious fashion. Having won the right to a home ground advantage first week of the finals the Storm disintegrated against the Bulldogs, going down 28-4. The Storm have had a relatively quiet off season, picking up Dale Finucane and Marika Koroibete whilst losing the likes of Waqa, Ryan Hoffman, O’Neill and Norrie. This shouldn’t really phase the Melbournians as their style of play is more defined by Bellamy’s coaching than anything else. If everything goes well then the same efficient, clockwork like side of football clinicians should appear and meticulously destroy their opponents. Bellamy will be keen to extract as much as he can from freshly resigned Cam Smith, as well as Slater and Cronk. The holy trinity of the Storm are now all 31 years of age, which means they have limited time to secure another premiership. Given that Bellamy can transform an average forward into an unselfish super loyal workhorse they should be competitive against in 2015.
The Knights have a definitely had a crazy ride the last few seasons. Rescued from financial troubles by sporting philanthropist coal miner Nathan Tinkler the good times lasted two years before Tinkler himself became insolvent. Wayne Bennett went back to Brisbane, taking Boyd and Travis Waddell with him. Timana Tahu retired, and the only big name signing heading into 2015 is Tariq Sims. Rick Stone returns as head coach, and is now tasked with rebuilding a side that never really reached great heights in the time it was under Bennett’s guidance. Mullen will most likely be a decent but not great halfback, whilst his foil Tyrone Roberts needs to stay healthy if the Knights are to avoid getting stuck in the mud. One bright ray of hope is the trio of the Mata’utia brothers: Chanel, Pat and Sione, all three of whom were in solid form towards the end of 2014. The Knights will most likely find themselves in the third quarter of the ladder for most of the season.
The Warriors are one of those midlevel teams that are consistently average: They’re never dead last in recent years, and managed to win themselves a spot in the decider against Manly in 2011. 2014 saw them give Matt Elliott the boot mid-season, and ultimately finish just outside the 8 under the guidance of Andrew Mcfadden. They shed an awful lot of players in the off season, but snagged veteran Ryan Hoffman from the Storm as well as resigning a slew of players including halfback Shaun Johnson. The Warriors have favoured a physical style of football in recent years, due mainly to the size of their squad right across the park, an approach which clearly worked well for the Bunnies last year. Often dubbed the form hot and cold team of the comp they’ll need to string together consistent wins to make the finals in 2015.
You kinda have to feel sorry for the Eels – they fell just short of the finals last year, not so much because of their round 26 loss to the Raiders but rather their shock loss to the Knights the previous game. As it turned out their early exit before September was the lesser of two blows, when star Jarryd Hayne announced he was leaving for the states to try his hand at the NFL. Given that Hayne was the driving force of their grand final charge in 2009 and their less impressive run last year it will be interesting to see how they transition to life without a fullback who also doubles as an excellent loose field playmaker. Reece Robinson will take over as fullback, while Anthony Watmough will be challenged to fill the gap left by Fuifui Moimoi, at least in terms of intensity.
Tim Mannah remains the captain under the direction of coach Brad Arthur. The Eels have strong neighbours in the Dogs and Panthers and they’ll have to fight hard to become a force in western Sydney.
The Panthers were the under-the-radar gems of 2014, hustling their way into the finals under the guidance of coach Ivan Cleary. The rebuild by Phil Gould seems to be paying dividends, with the Panthers making very few signings whilst releasing a tranche of players. Arguably the biggest loss is Tim Grant, who has joined the Bunnies, but a few other missing names are due to retirement rather than the cap being maxed out. This indicates that the Panthers have a reasonably strong core roster, and if everything goes smoothly 2015 should be reaffirmation of their endeavours last year. The Panthers made it all the way to the preliminary finals last year, only to be halted by a Bulldogs outfit on a hot streak. These two teams will undoubtedly be massive rivals in their area again this year, but who will fare better?
Let’s face it, if you had to settle for a Queensland team winning the comp it would be the Cowboys. We’ve all seen enough Broncos premierships for one lifetime, and the Titans really have other things to worry about right now. But despite their best efforts the Cowboys are repeatedly screwed by the football gods every time they make it into the finals. Whether it be the Hand of God or the seven tackle set the poor buggers just can’t catch a break. On the plus side they still have JT flanked by Rory Kostjasyn, which proved to be a formidable combination in 2014. Ben Hannant and Justin O’Neill arrive, balancing out the departure of Tariq and Ashton Sims. The Cowboys are a tough team, and the trip up north into endurance sapping climes has to be one of the least favourite road trips of any club. If they get on a roll and JT remains fit throughout the origin period you can bet on them most likely figuring in finals footy. Fingers crossed.
The Dragons highlight of 2014 was their win over the Raiders at Canberra Stadium, breaking a hoodoo which had been in place since the turn of the century. Given that they’d spent the last few years raiding the Raiders pantry for players this was probably going to happen sooner rather than later. 2015 doesn’t seem to be getting off to a great start: Trent Merrin is gauging prospects elsewhere, whilst the club now boasts zero Morris brothers. Dragons reject Jamie Soward shone at the Panthers last year, and the Dragons have struggled to find a suitable replacement in Benji Marshall. Fullback Josh Dugan is rebuilding himself into a non doofus.
The Roosters are preparing to field disgraced player Blake Ferguson in 2015. Fuck the Roosters.
2015 has to be better. Mitch Cornish is here. So is Blake Austin. Campo is gone, and with any luck McCrone will spend most of the year in NSW cup. The Raiders have gone shopping and bought forwards, a #6 and a #9. When Cornish is in control they have attacking depth and structure. Croker has been promoted to captain. Fensom will be back in the first rounds, if not round 1. Paul Vaughn. Papali. The juggernaut that is Shannon Boyd (Ed note: Not an actually juggernaut). Jack Wighton in the space that number 1 provides. 2015 simply has to be better than last year.