NRL SEASON PREVIEWThe NRL isn't far from a return and we have put together an early preview for the 2017 season. There will be plenty of questions to be asked but the main one will be whether or not the Cronulla Sharks can emulate their historic premiership win from last season. The Sharks will start 2017 with a few vital pieces from their title-winning side missing - Ben Barba and Michael Ennis. The latter, of course, retired after steering the club to their maiden premiership over Melbourne while Barba's off-field indiscretions have earned him a ban for almost half of the season. Two vital pieces of any team's spine is a big loss so coach Shane Flanagan would have been working on who could fill those spots. Their recruitment hasn't been bad in the off-season either but Flanagan's biggest challenge will be whether he can get the best out of T-Rex (Tony Williams) after luring him away from Belmore. It is no secret that Williams, who began his career as a devastating winger, didn't produce anywhere near the sort of form he showed at Parramatta or Manly when he went to the Bulldogs. Another interesting signing was former Eel and Titan, Daniel Mortimer. Looking at their roster it appears as though they are destined once again for the Top 8 and will be led for the final year by Paul Gallen before he retires. Beaten Grand Finalists Melbourne will be looking to go one better than they did last year but have had plenty of player turnover. Popular forward Kevin Proctor is gone as is tryscoring machine Marika Koroibete while Blake Green, who played five-eighth alongside Cooper Cronk, is also a departure. They will once again be led by Cronk along with skipper Cameron Smith and while the duo are another year older, if last year's form is anything to go by they'll give as good as they get this season. While Cameron Munster made the fullback role his own last season following another injury to Billy Slater, the latter will be ready to roll in 2017 so coach Craig Bellamy will have a headache as to what to do with the pair. Outside of last year's Grand Finalists, 2015 premiers North Queensland will have a few obstacles to overcome if they are going to be contenders again. Ben Hannant has retired, menacing forward James Tamou has gone to Penrith and the versatile Rory Kostjasyn has left for Newcastle. They haven't been that active in the recruitment side of things either so it appears as though a lot will depend on champion half Johnathan Thurston. One of the surprise packets of last year's competition was the Canberra Raiders and they are shaping as big contenders once again. Getting to within one game of a Grand Final appearance, the Ricky Stuart-coached side hasn't suffered from too many key departures so will more than likely field a settled 13. Only Brenko Lee and Paul Vaughan will be the regular first-graders missing from the squad. Over to Belmore and Des Hasler will have an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders. Blessed with a talented squad and given everything he's ever asked for in terms of resources and playing talent, Hasler's Bulldogs failed to fire in the second half of last season and subsequently limped out of the finals race. The Blue and White faithful won't accept that same scenario this time around so you should be looking for value if considering them in premiership betting. Another coach under pressure at a big club is Paul McGregor. Many will question how 'Mary' kept his job after the Dragons finished well outside the Top 8. Their biggest problem was scoring with only the lowly Knights having a worse attack than the Red V. McGregor has recruited well with the likes of Nene Macdonald, Cameron McInnes and Paul Vaughan all heading to the club. It's no surprise though that bookies have been pushing their chances of winning the title out after half Drew Hutchinson went down with a season-ending injury in training, with Gareth Widdop's halves partner still unknown. Penrith boasted one of the youngest rosters in the premiership last year but that didn't stop them from making it to the second week of the finals. The emergence of Nathan Cleary in the halves propelled them up the ladder to see them finish just a win outside the Top 4. With that experience under their belts and the addition of a few hard heads to the team they are definitely worth a ticket to go all-the-way.
OUTSIDERS LOOKING INWe have already touched on Stgeorge Illawarra but what about some of the other clubs that either scraped in to the finals or just missed out? The Gold Coast announced the biggest signing in their history late last season when they snared Jarrod Hayne back from the NFL, eventually sneaking into the finals and losing a shootout to the Broncos in Week One. With a full pre-season under Hayne’s belt you would anticipate that he will be far better to start 2017 while the signing of Kevin Proctor gives the Titans some much needed muscle up front. Speaking of muscle and the Warriors will once again be one of the biggest teams in the competition. Always a magnet for punters looking for a bit of value in premiership betting, New Zealand could once again be in for a genuine shot at the title thanks to one big off-season signing – Kieran Foran. The NRL still have to sign off on the deal but if Foran is steering them around the park then they are definitely Top 8 material at the very least.
WHERE IS THE VALUE?Of the teams that finished outside the top eight you have to think that Parramatta are worth a few lazy dollars. Prior to the salary cap scandal which engulfed the club in the first half of 2016, they were looking the goods for a spot in the Top 4. Although stripped of all their wins up until that point, the Eels kept fighting for the rest of the season and when you include the wins taken off them they had 13 for the season. Granted they will be without Kieran Foran but they welcome in a host of players, many of which have first-grade experience.
CELLAR DWELLERSNewcastle had one of the worst seasons of any club in the history of rugby league in 2016, registering just one win and drawing one other game while losing a whopping 22 others. Their seven points was one of the worst totals in recent memory but going off their recruitment drive in the off-season they shouldn’t struggle anywhere near as much this season. Nathan Brown will be without a stack of players who have retired including Jeremy Smith and Kade Snowden, while Jarrod Mullen leaves a hole in the halves having failed a doping test recently. While it is hard to see them snaring a Top 8 spot we are prepared to say they will be good for at least 3-4 wins for the season at an absolute minimum.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST?How weird is it going to be to see Robbie Farah line up for Souths rather than the club he has played for his entire life, Wests Tigers? The Roosters will benefit by having most of their first grade squad ready to start the season, which wasn’t the case last year (think back to Mitchell Pearce). Trent Barrett’s Manly saw a stack of players either released or retire but they have been active in the transfer market with one of their biggest signings being Jackson Hastings from the Roosters. Last, but not least, are the Tigers who as mentioned earlier will be without Robbie Farah for the first time in well over decade. While they have lost several players they will do boast one of the more interesting recruits of 2017 - former boom rookie, Jamal Idris. As you can see there is plenty already to look forward to with the start of the NRL season approaching and all the questions posed above, and more, will be answered in due course.