NRL TEAM BY TEAM PREVIEWThe NRL season kicks off this week and we have gone through each team to help you get a leg up running into Round 1. As you can imagine there has been plenty of chopping and changing for most teams and there are likely to be some new faces you didn’t know at your favourite club in 2017. Here we will endeavour to outline exactly all the key changes in personnel that could have a serious impact on the 2017 NRL Premiership. We will go through each team as they finished at the end of the 2016 season.
CRONULLA SHARKSLAST SEASON: Premiers KEY LOSSES: Michael Ennis (retired), Ben Barba (French rugby). BIG GAINS: Tony Williams (Bulldogs), Daniel Mortimer (Titans).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$8.00Sharkies fans can finally go into a season of football knowing they are the champions. Fresh off their success in 2016, coach Shane Flanagan would no doubt be keen to attempt what no team since the Broncos of the 90s have been able to do – go back-to-back. If that is to happen though then they will have to do it without two key pieces of their spine from last year. Popular hooker Michael Ennis went out a winner on Grand Final day and retired while Ben Barba’s sudden defection to French rugby in the off-season caught everyone by surprise. So with Barba out of play it opens the door for Valentine Holmes to take up the fullback role, however, he suffered an injury during the Auckland Nines and could miss a week or two of the season. Cronulla will also have a crowded schedule with a trip to England for the World Club Challenge to take on Wigan prior to the season commencing. Obviously when you’re the hunted, life in the NRL is going to be harder. Flanagan has signed former boom winger-turned-forward Tony Williams from the Bulldogs. If he can get the best out of ‘T-Rex’ then it will have proved to be a masterstroke. The other interesting piece to the Sharks puzzle is the addition of talented half Daniel Mortimer to the squad. Part of the premiership-winning team of the Roosters in 2014, he has also played in a Grand Final previous with Parramatta during their magic run in 2009.
MELBOURNE STORMLAST SEASON: Runners Up KEY LOSSES: Marika Koroibete (rugby), Blake Green (Manly Sea Eagles), Ryan Morgan (St Helens), Kevin Proctor (Gold Coast Titans). BIG GAINS: Josh Addo-Carr (Tigers), Brandon Smith (Cowboys), Vincent Leuluai (Roosters).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$8.00It will be interesting to see how Craig Bellamy’s men go with several key components of their premiership push from last season now gone. Ryan Morgan’s loss to England could prove to be a significant blow as could Blake Green’s departure to Brookvale. Bellamy’s success as coach of the Storm can be attributed to keeping his spine in tact for the majority of his career. Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have been a constant presence for the Storm for more than a decade and their champion qualities have rubbed off on whoever has played with them. Slater could make a return to the fullback spot this year which was ably filled by the exciting Cameron Munster in 2016. Smith and Slater will be back again although another year older. The one surprising departure was workhorse Kevin Proctor. Not every team can have just brilliance throughout the squad. You still need the workhorses, the guys that do all the bullocking work but don’t necessarily get the credit they deserve. Proctor is one of those guys and was a senior leader for the forward pack. His loss will definitely be missed. Bellamy has always had a knack of getting the best out of any player that heads south and if he can do that with Josh Addo-Carr, then the Storm will definitely be pushing for honours at the end of the season. Addo-Carr showed glimpses of brilliance with his time at the Wests Tigers last season and if he goes to another level under Bellamy, then opposition teams better look out!
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYSLAST SEASON: Preliminary Finalist KEY LOSSES: Brandon Smith (Storm), James Tamou (Panthers), Rory Kostjasyn (Knights), Tautau Moga (Broncos), Ben Hannant (retirement). BIG GAINS: Ben Hampton (Storm).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$9.00The Cowboys are an interesting case in 2017. Champions in 2015, they fell short of consecutive Grand Final appearances thanks to a mighty effort from Cronulla. The fact remains it was a long season for the Cowboys by having to play the World Club Challenge while several of their squad were on Origin duty as well. That left little in the tank come finals time and they performed that way. Like many teams, they haven’t been immune to losing key players with veteran Ben Hannant sure to be missed while Rory Kostjasyn and Brandon Smith will leave holes that need to be filled. Arguably their biggest loss was big forward James Tamou who is off to Penrith. Their forwards have been the foundation stone for the Cowboys success in recent years, paving the way for Johnathan Thurston to weave his magic and set his backline in motion. Thurston once again will be the key to their chances in 2017. The champion playmaker is another year older but hasn’t showed signs of slowing down. He was highly influential in the Indigenous All Stars win over the World All Stars in early February. His combination with hooker Michael Morgan will shape how Paul Green’s men will fare this season. And don’t forget boom youngster Kalyn Ponga, who is destined to head to Newcastle in 2018. If he gets any game time this season watch for him to set tongues wagging.
CANBERRA RAIDERSLAST SEASON: Preliminary Finalist KEY LOSSES: Sisa Waqa (rugby union), Zac Woolford (Bulldogs), Sam Williams (Wakefield), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Paul Vaughan (Dragons). BIG GAINS: None.
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$10.00It wasn’t surprising to see Ricky Stuart keep the chequebook close to his chest in the off-season. His Raiders were one of the standout teams last year and they went one game within a Grand Final appearance with a side relatively blessed with youthful experience. Having gone deep into the finals will have hardened several of their players including young halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer. They, along with Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua, Shannon Boyd and Englishman Josh Hodgson were standouts for Stuart and the Raiders last year and are likely to be better again this time around. When looking at their departures they haven’t lost any vital ingredients for success, however, those players such as Brenko Lee need to be replaced like-for-like otherwise things could be on a downward spiral. The interesting piece of the puzzle will be the acquisition of the highly talented Dave Taylor, who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations since making his debut. Definitely a top four contender in our books but it will depend on how Hodgson, now captain, handles skipper duties and the return of Jarrod Croker who will be missing the first five rounds due to a knee injury.
PENRITH PANTHERSLAST SEASON: Semi Finalist KEY LOSSES: George Jennings (Eels), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Robert Jennings (Rabbitohs). BIG GAINS: James Tamou (Cowboys), Tim Browne (Bulldogs), Mitch Rein (Dragons).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$8.00Everything that Penrith did towards the back end of last season suggested they would be all the better for the experience in 2017. With Jamie Soward losing his spot in the halves in the early part of the season, it enabled the Panthers to throw in untried rookie Nathan Cleary into a playmaking role. The move saw Penrith reap the benefits as Cleary didn’t take long to adjust to life in the NRL, leading his side into the second week of the finals in just his debut year. Another year older and wiser, plus with a full pre-season under his belt, Cleary is sure to show immense improvement from last year and that will spell big trouble for opposition teams. Cleary is just one of several youngsters in the Panthers squad who are a big chance of challenging for honours this season. Throw in names like Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak along with veterans Peter Wallace and Trent Merrin and you have the core for a top team. General Manager Phil Gould has also recruited well in the off-season by signing experienced rake Mitch Rein along with hulking forward James Tamou. While their roster is one of the most envied in the NRL they will have to do without the services of Josh Mansour who is likely to missing for at least the first three months as he is recovering from knee surgery.
BRISBANE BRONCOSLAST SEASON: Semi Finalist KEY LOSSES: Corey Parker (retirement), Jack Reed (retirement), Lachlan Maranta (rugby). BIG GAINS: Benji Marshall (Dragons), David Mead (Titans), Korbin Sims (Knights).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$12.00Brisbane will be at the crossroads this season. Wayne Bennett will be without two key pieces of his team from last season – Corey Parker and Jack Reed. Parker, in particular, will be extremely hard to replace because not only was he a leader but he was also their main goalkicker. While they lost a fair bit of experience with those two players they do pick some up from the Dragons in the shape of Benji Marshall. The former Golden Boot winner never really replicated the form early in his career when playing at the Dragons for the past two seasons, however, has been given what seems to be one final chance to show what he can do. His addition to the squad will provide the team with plenty of experience and creativity in the backline. Brisbane began 2016 in fine style and looked as though they were heading towards consecutive Grand Final appearances, however, after enduring a horror middle stretch they almost limped into the finals. Getting the better of the Titans in a shootout in Week One, Brisbane were beaten 26-20 by arch-rivals North Queensland in the semis. Is the 2017 version of the Broncos better than last seasons? We think not so there will have to be improvement from many parts of the squad if they hope to be major contenders for the title once again. Their hopes will largely rest with talented halves Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt.
CANTERBURY BANKSTOWN BULLDOGSLAST SEASON: Elimination Finalist (Week One) KEY LOSSES: Sam Perrett (retirement), Curtis Rona (rugby), Tim Browne (Panthers), Tony Williams (Sharks). BIG GAINS: Zac Woolford (Raiders), Brenko Lee (Raiders), Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Bulldogs).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$23.00As remarkable as it sounds Des Hasler will go into the season as the coach most under pressure to perform. Hasler has always been popular with the Belmore faithful since his arrival in 2012. He has guided the Dogs to the Grand Final on two occasions and although missing out both times, has shown that he is one of the best coaches of the modern era. Reputation can only take you so far and things quickly turned sour for Hasler and the Bulldogs last season. With unlimited resources at his disposal and one of the best rosters in the competition, Canterbury Bankstown failed to flatter in attack last season and played an ‘ugly’ brand of football. If this was getting results then no one probably would’ve cared, however, the Dogs limped into the finals and were dropped by the Panthers in Week One without much fight. There was no big recruitment drive in the off-season either which suggests that Hasler is backing his players to turn things around in 2017. He will have to deal with several departures also including wingers Curtis Rona and Sam Perrett while Tony Williams’ ill-fated time at Canterbury has come to an end. Halves pairing Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye will have to transform their games if they are to cause opposition defences trouble. They were often criticised for being too predictable in 2016. If the boys from Belmore are fair dinkum then they should make the finals again but only doing that won’t be enough to satisfy the fans.
GOLD COAST TITANSLAST SEASON: Elimination Finalist (Week One) KEY LOSSES: Nathan Friend (retired), David Mead (Broncos), Nene Macdonald (Dragons), Daniel Mortimer (Sharks). BIG GAINS: Kevin Proctor (Storm), Daniel Vidot (Salford).
CURRENT BEST ODDS:$26.00Coach Neil Henry once again lived up to his reputation by getting the Titans into the finals series in 2016. The highly respected coach guided the Titans into the post season for the first time since 2010. While very little was expected of the Titans, they surprised a few teams and then shocked the rugby league world when announcing the signing of Jarryd Hayne back from the NFL. Now that Hayne has a proper pre-season under his belt, he will become the X-factor that we know he can be on his day. When you throw in natural improvement from several of their players and the key acquisition of former Storm forward Kevin Proctor, 2017 looks to be a promising season for the boys from the glitter strip. Do they have enough in the tank to match and beat the better teams in the competition? Only time will tell but having a sneaky wager on them to make the Top 8 wouldn’t be the worst bet you’ll have all year.