(You can find Part One of our 2018 NRL Season Preview here)
NORTH QUEENSLAND: The Roosters may be the pre-season darlings thanks to a host of big-name recruits, but give us the Cowboys any day of the week. Yes, Sydney may be adding elite stars like Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco to an already impressive roster; but even they are outstripped for talent by the Cowboys’ additions of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott from injury, as well as Jordan Maclean from the Storm. Let’s take a moment and appreciate the fact that Paul Green somehow guided a badly depleted North Queensland squad to the Grand Final, and now consider the caliber of players they’re gaining. The 2017 Cowboys proved that there’s more than one way to win football games, counterbalancing a shortage of available talent with a ridiculous dominance of possession (the Cowboys lost the possession battle just 4 times all season). They achieved it in part through consistent discipline (they conceded double-digit penalties just once all year, equal 2nd in the league), but mostly through an effective attacking kicking game that forced the most drop outs in the league. And now they get Thurston back? Yep, we’ll take the Cowboys, thanks.
PARRAMATTA: Many were surprised by the Eels’ apparent improvement in performance on their way to the top 4; but if they surprised us, it was only in actually making the top 4 while serving up what was objectively mediocre football along the way. For that, the Eels can thank a blessedly soft draw, which allowed them to rack up 10 wins against bottom 8 sides, as well as having had the good fortune to get the Storm without their Origin stars (another win), and gaining Mitch Moses mid-season after he quit on the Tigers. In fact, the list of Top 8 sides the Eels beat after Round 9 (not including the Baby Storm) is as follows: the Broncos. That’s it. So, it should have come as no surprise when the Eels were promptly rolled out in the door in straight sets come the finals. As for this year, what should we expect? Probably a continued improvement, but by that we don’t mean making the jump from Top 4 to a Grand Final because, frankly, they weren’t Top 4 quality in the first place. Rather, I’d have them competing around the bottom of the 8, and hopefully if they make it this year, they’ll have actually earned it.
PENRITH: Penrith should make an interesting case study in the argument of continuity vs change, with the Panthers line-up virtually unaltered from a year ago, in a year of upheaval for almost every other team in the competition. While much has been written about the exodus of supposed “stars” from the foot of the mountains, the reality is that outside of Matt Moylan (who, frankly, has been replaced with a better player, in James Maloney), the players who’ve departed would all would have struggled to get a run in this Panthers side anyway. So what we’re left with is a side that looks remarkably similar to a year ago, though with an extra year’s experience under their belts. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it’s worth noting that the 2017 Panthers were – to put it politely – average. Almost exactly average in fact, finishing just 1.37% below average on Offense, and 3.58% better than average on Defense. They really couldn’t have been any more middle-of-the-road. So, if the Panthers are likely to have an advantage this season (beyond the natural hope that their young players have progressed further than other teams have improved with imports), it’s likely to come early in the bill, while other teams are still building their combinations. Conveniently, that happens to be the softest section of the Panthers’ draw, with Penrith facing just 5 matches against 2017 Top 8 teams prior to their first bye in Round 13. If the Panthers are to go well this year (and we quietly think that they will), they’d ideally like to be entrenched in the Top 8 (and ideally, the Top 4) at that point. If they’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard to make a case that it’ll get any easier from there.
SOUTHS: Like the Bulldogs above, the Rabbitohs are difficult to get a read on, due to the change in coach at Redfern. Under Michael Maguire, the Rabbitohs played a one-dimensional style of football that was built to run off the back of the forwards, which made it easy to find where to place the blame for their rapid fall from grace. After dominating the league as recently as three seasons ago, the 2017 Rabbitohs lacked any punch up the middle at all, collapsing to finish 5th last in Run Metres VOA. With their pack looking eerily similar to the engine room they rolled out a season ago, it would be easy to put a line through the Rabbitohs, however under new coach Anthony Seibold, we can’t assume that their gameplan will remain the same. And, if they can find a way to incorporate one of the league’s more intriguing backlines – which in 2018 will feature new recruits Dane Gagai and Richie Kennar, as well as the returning Greg Inglis – there’s at least reason for hope that the Rabbitohs could move in the right direction. It’s difficult at this point to place them higher than about 12th for the year, but there’s at least hope in the unknown.
ST GEORGE: The Dragons would sit among our biggest disappointments of 2017, largely thanks to their spectacular meltdown through the back half of last year. They came into the season with low expectations, only to blow everyone away with their surprisingly effective offense (they reached double digits for line breaks in 3 games last season, a feat only matched by the Melbourne Storm). The secret to that offense was the dominance of their forward pack (they finished the season ranked 1st for Run Metres VOA). The Dragons played very straight through the ruck, on the back of big gains and quick play-the-balls from their forwards, and found a lot of success. Unfortunately for them, their bigs were significantly less effective through the second half of the season, and as a result, the wheels fell off. After outgaining their opponents by 100 or more metres in all but four of their first 12 matches, they’d achieve this mark just 5 times in their last 12 (and lost the run metres battle altogether in 5 of them). So will they be better this year? It’s hard to say. The losses of Russell Packer and Joel Thompson will be huge for a team built on go-forward, though the additions of James Graham and the under-rated Jeremy Lattimore should go some way to alleviate them. The loss of Josh Dugan will sting a bit, but Ben Hunt should be an enormous improvement over Josh McCrone (though that really goes without saying). On the balance of it, they seem like they might be marginally better than 2017, but there’s a lot question marks hanging around this team.
SYDNEY: The Roosters are the bookies’ early favourites for 2018, and with good reason. Their almighty choke in the preliminary final aside, the Roosters were arguably the 2nd best side of 2017. They were well balanced, and equally effective on both sides of the ball (the Roosters were one of just 2 sides to finish in the Top 5 in both Offense and Defense VOA; the other was – you guessed it – the Melbourne Storm). And now, they’ve added two bona fide superstars to that squad, in the forms of Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco. Yet, we can’t help stopping ourselves short of crowning them our February premiers. The Roosters still have yet to resolve their long-term discipline issues, which once again left them ranking towards the bottom of the table in terms of both errors (they made the 3rd most) and penalties conceded (conceding the 6th most). As a result, they repeatedly found themselves on the wrong side of the possession count (they won the possession battle just 10 times all year, including the finals), and often lopsidedly so (they found themselves with just 45% of possession or fewer in an unbelievable 7 matches all year, a mark topped only by the last-placed Knights). If there’s an upside to the Roosters’ disciplinary issues it’s that they have somehow managed to keep winning in spite of these glaring flaws, although discipline remains a long-term problem showing no signs of improvement. Maybe Cooper Cronk will be a calming influence, maybe not. But anointing a team the next big thing based on the expected input of players who’ve yet to actually play together doesn’t seem wise. We expect they’ll be competing around the Top 4, but they’re not our favourites just yet.
WARRIORS: The Warriors reap what they sew, and having appointed the statistically worst coach in the NRL last year, they got what they deserved (13th spot on the ladder). Here’s a fun fact: no Stephen Kearney-coached side has ever won more matches in a season than the Warriors did in Andrew McFadden’s worst season in charge (9 wins). And let’s also not forget: the Warriors chose to sack McFadden for Kearney. So now, here they are. We could talk all day about the quality of players that New Zealand have brought in over the off-season, but what’s the point? The same was true last year, and Kearney somehow managed to guide that All-World roster into the bottom half of the ladder, so there’s little reason to think that he can’t do the same again. If there was any positive to 2017 for Kearney, it’s that he wasn’t the worst coach to guide a New Zealand rugby league team last year. But without David Kidwell around to draw the crabs, Kearney likely needs to get some wins on the board early, or his neck will surely be on the chopping block.
WESTS: The 2017 Tigers were bad, there’s no getting around it. They needed a change, and they got it, with the appointment of the likable Ivan Cleary as head coach. However, as highly as we rate him, it’s incredibly difficult to make a case that this squad will be anything but bottom-feeders in 2018. The Tigers’ edge defense last year was truly atrocious, allowing a Line Breaks Conceded VOA of +25.90%, the 2nd worst in the league (given that your objective is to not concede line breaks, a higher percentage here is bad). The worst offender in that regard was David Nofoaluma, who personally conceded a league worst 33 line breaks last year (to put that in perspective, that’s more than a third of the line breaks conceded by the entire Melbourne Storm team put together). Nofoaluma will be returning this year, as well as fellow defensive turnstiles Kevin Naiqama, Luke Brooks and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, all of whom finished in the bottom 50 in the league for conceding line breaks. So if their defense is likely to remain poor, what about their offense? Sadly, it doesn’t look much better on that side of the ball, either. They were already slightly below average, having ranked 9th in Offense VOA, and are now without James Tedesco and Mitch Moses. In their place, they’re likely to trot out Corey Thompson and Josh Reynolds; essentially the rugby league equivalent of trading your best players for a handful of magic beans. In short, don’t expect much out of the Tigers in 2018. And to be perfectly honest, we’re not holding our breath about 2019, either.