(You can find Part Two of our 2018 NRL Season Preview here)
BRISBANE: For some reason, we find the Broncos to be a difficult team to get excited about, and subjectively, we feel like a lot of their problems stem from roster construction. In 2017, they rotated around between multiple different halves; the best performing of which (Benji Marshall) was ultimately used as an interchange player, in a role he never seemed particularly well suited to. They appear to have settled on Kodi Nikorima in the 7, though it remains to be seen what they plan for Jack Bird when he eventually regains full health. Their forwards were surprisingly effective (finishing 3rd in Run Metres VOA), but feel a little bit light-on following the departures of Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese’Ese. And defensively, they had a down year for a Wayne Bennett-coached side (though still finished in the top half for Defense VOA [you can learn all about that here]). Interestingly, their worst offender for conceding line breaks, Tautau Moga, has since been moved on to Newcastle. It’d be hard not to forecast the Broncos as a top 8 side, but they feel like they’re at least a tier below the top teams in 2018.
CANBERRA: The good news for the Green Machine is that more than any other team in the competition, the Raiders are due for a positive regression based on last year’s statistical output (they scored the 4th most points and conceded the 8th least points, yet somehow missed the finals). Or, to put that in plain-speak, Canberra’s 2017 results didn’t accurately reflect how well they played, and if they produce similar numbers in 2018, they should comfortably land in the 8. The elephant in the room however, is the conspicuous absence of their star hooker Josh Hodgson for at least half the season. Without him, the likelihood of the Raiders producing similar numbers are slim, and they fall back into the group of teams who’ll be battling for a spot in the bottom of the eight.
CANTERBURY: The Bulldogs are among the most difficult teams in the league to project for this year, thanks to the combination of a change in coaching, as well as substantial change in their playing roster. The coaching change couldn’t be any more significant; under coach Des Hasler, the Bulldogs have finished last in Offense VOA in both of the last two seasons. In contrast, incoming coach Dean Pay arrives from the Raiders, a team known for their attacking flamboyance, who’ve finished no lower than 6th in Offense over the same period. On the other hand, Hasler-coached sides have consistently featured elite defenses; and even last year, while everything seemed to be going wrong, they still finished 3rd in that category. So, without having seen the Bulldogs actually play, it’s hard to know whether the regime change will ultimately be a net gain or net loss for the Bulldogs – perhaps they keep their elite defense and add a generous heaping of attacking spark; or perhaps they lose their defensive edge, while still being pedestrian on offense. On paper, it doesn’t look great for Canterbury, but I’m happy to give Pay the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
CRONULLA: It’s hard to criticise the Sharks recruitment; they desperately needed to get younger after fielding one of the oldest teams in the league over the past couple of years (they fielded 3 of the 5 oldest players in the league last year), something which appeared to catch up with the side over the back end of last season. They’ve cleaned house of as many as 4 over 30s from their forward pack, and brought in an influx of younger talent. For this, they’re to be commended. However, their transformation isn’t without question marks. Firstly, they’ve brought in two recent State of Origin fullbacks in Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan, but are reportedly planning on persisting with Valentine Holmes in the custodian role – a position in which he’s been at best serviceable (while in contrast, he’s easily among the best wingers in the league). As a result, Dugan and Moylan are likely to be shunted to centre and five-eighth respectively, positions which are either not commensurate with their wage (Dugan), or at which they’re as yet unproven (Moylan). Which leads us to their next question mark – a halves pairing of Moylan and Chad Townsend. While we love the Chad as much as the next independent rugby league website, it remains to be seen if he’s capable of being the dominant half while his new teammate finds his feet at five-eighth. When James Maloney missed Rounds 21 & 22 last year, the Sharks offense came to a grinding halt in his absence, with their Line Break VOA dropping to a disastrous -41.39% over those two matches, which would be poor enough to place them dead last if continued over the season. Granted, the Sharks have a very high ceiling thanks to their abundantly talented roster (and typically strong defense), but we fear their performances over the tail end of last season also forewarn of a potentially very low floor.
GOLD COAST: On one hand, we like what the Titans are doing with their recruitment. After several years with some of the most dismal attack in the NRL (last year, for example, they ranked 2nd last in Offense VOA), they’ve added a variety of attacking specialists among their new recruits – notably former Panthers second rower five eighth interchange player Bryce Cartwright, and Bulldogs centre Brenko Lee (among many others). On the other hand though, these guys are also among the game’s biggest defensive liabilities, and the Titans defense was actually worse in 2017 than their woeful offense (they ranked last in Defense VOA, and held their opponent to less than 20 points just 6 times all year). They’ve lost a host of players from last year’s squad (including the criminally under-rated Tyrone Roberts) and replaced them largely with Penrith discards. Personally, we highly regard new coach Garth Brennan, but my word will he have his work cut out for him with this squad.
MANLY: Manly were arguably the biggest surprise-packets of 2017, despite being bundled out in Week 1 of the playoffs by the Panthers. With Daly Cherry-Evans given free rein to run the side however he pleased, the Sea Eagles played a breezy, attacking brand of football that saw them score the 3rd most points in the league, and rank 3rd in Offense VOA (placing them ahead in both categories of more noted attacking sides like the Raiders and Roosters). Yet, the Sea Eagles have been largely forgotten in the lead-up to 2018. As to why, the answer can be summed up in one word: depth. Some may point to question marks over the five-eighth spot as a reason to doubt the Sea Eagles, but in reality, Blake Green contributed surprisingly little to Manly’s offensive output, creating just 11 try assists in 24 outings (compared to 24 and 21 respectively for Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic, for example). However, while the Sea Eagles top 17 can hang with almost any other team in the competition (as evidenced in impressive 2017 wins against the Roosters and Sharks), the absence of quality depth – particularly in the forwards – was glaring. During their impressive opening to the season, they missed forward Martin Taupau for three games; in those matches, they lost 2, including an embarrassing 38-18 meltdown against the Rabbitohs. Similarly, in the 9-game absence of Curtis Sironen later in the year, they’d lose 5 of those matches, including a remarkably similar meltdown against the Dragons. Unfortunately for Manly, due to the lingering salary cap drama hovering over the club, they’ve been as yet unable to build that depth; and therein lies the rub. If Manly can keep their forward pack largely intact (as they did for a decent chunk of last season), there’s no reason not to expect them to turn heads once again in 2018. If, however, they have a less fortunate run with injuries (or, heaven forbid, a 2017 Cowboys-type of injury epidemic) things could turn very ugly, very quickly.
MELBOURNE: It’s never sexy to tip the Storm to do well (they always do well), but let’s face it: if you knew absolutely nothing about rugby league and just tipped the Storm every week, you’d typically be off to a very good start. And this season isn’t likely to be any different. Sure, they’ve lost Cooper Cronk, but that’s no reason to think that the Storm machine is going to break. Remember, they played 2016 almost entirely without Billy Slater, and ran away to the minor premiership. Meanwhile, in 2017, a young bloke by the name of Brodie Croft emerged, and slotted into the Storm system seamlessly. Croft steered the ship in 4 matches last year, winning 2, with both losses coming in the absence of Smith and Slater as well (both of whom will hopefully be available for the bulk of 2018). The Storm were furlongs better than any other side in the league last year, so even if we allow for Melbourne coming back to the pack a bit (let’s say they regress by 10% on both sides of the ball), they should still be noticeably better than almost anyone else. They’re not my number 1 pick, but are certainly in the conversation.
NEWCASTLE: There appears to be a groundswell of opinion among the rugby league viewing public that the Knights are destined to dramatically improve in 2018, due to the influx of talent they’ve brought into the club over the off-season. And frankly, we don’t agree at all. Newcastle’s biggest issue in 2017 (and throughout their 3-year tenure at the bottom of the ladder) was their appallingly poor forward pack (the Knights were outgained in all but 2 matches in 2017). While they’ve brought in a variety of forwards, it’s difficult to argue that any will make a substantial difference to the Knights’ go-forward. Jacob Lillyman and Aidan Guerra are both ageing stars who were dumped from Origin last year on account of their disappointing form, while Chris Heighington is a 35-year-old bit-player who averaged less than 30 minutes per game a year ago. The player with the most potential is likely Herman Ese’Ese, but it’s doubtful he can single-handedly lift the Newcastle pack on his own. The players coming in with the most potential are Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson and Mitchell Pearce, but behind this forward pack, it’s hard to imagine any of them truly fulfilling that potential (remember, this isn’t the first time the Knights have brought in a current NSW halfback, and the last time they did, they won the spoon). All that said, we actually do think Newcastle are on the rise, but not because of the players who’ve just arrived. Rather, we think the Knights will improve because they already were improving. They finished last season no longer ranked last in either Offense or Defense VOA, the first time that’s happened since we introduced the stats in 2016. They have promising young stars like Mitch Barnett and Lachlan Fitzgibbon who’d likely already be household names if they played for another club, and if there’s one big bonus to adding a group of average NRL players to the club, it’s that they’ll take the place in the squad of a few below-NRL standard players they’ve been dragging along for the past few seasons. Don’t get too carried away, but yes, the Knights are getting (much) better.