2017 Season Results:
Head-to-Head Tipping: 66%
Line Betting: 55%
(NOTE: If this is your first visit to the site, be sure to click here for an explanation of what we’re all about. Then, be sure to sign up at the bottom of the page to get betting tips sent straight to your inbox!)
A quick note on the early round stats: The nature of our VOA-based NRL statistics is that they naturally require a league average as a starting point, thus the smaller the sample size, the less accurate these stats will be. However, to satisfy our readers, we’ll publish the stats and associated projections from Round 1 (despite a persistent letter-writing campaign, I’m yet to find any major footy tipping outlets who are willing to start their competitions from Round 10…). In order to do this, we’re forced to use the 2017 database as the foundation for the stats, and as the weeks pass these will be combined with the new season’s numbers and weighted progressively less each week until the numbers used are entirely from 2018. We can’t guarantee that this method is necessarily going to be effective (although we tried it last year and it was surprisingly successful, the level of player turnover this off-season is unprecedented, and likely to greatly affect the outcomes), but it’s the only way we can think of to present the data in the early rounds without it being totally skewed by an insufficient sample size. In short, for at least the first month it is best to consider our stats as purely for entertainment purposes. They may prove accurate (we’ll review them later in the season), but the method remains firmly in the testing phase.
NRL Round 1 Tips and Previews
Dragons v Broncos
There’s good news and there’s bad news.
First, the good news: footy’s back.
Now, the bad news: our tips are based entirely off an algorithm dependent on statistics, and being Round 1, we don’t have any current numbers to go on. And to make matters worse, we have to kickoff with this brutally difficult to pick match-up.
But we have to give it a crack anyway. Part of the reason why this match is so hard to read is the impression that both teams left us with last year. For the Broncos, their last outing was a 30-0 humbling at the hands of the Storm in the preliminary final, though the memory that sits in our mind is the unbelievably embarrassing 52-34 loss to the Eels in Round 25, which preceded their meek surrender in the finals. As for the Dragons, they finished the season worse. Actually, scratch that. Much worse.
After trouncing almost everyone unfortunate enough to get in the their way through the first seven rounds, the Dragons would win just 6 of their last 17 matches in 2017, on their way to missing the finals altogether (and their final outing involved conceding 26 points to the worst attacking side in the league, Canterbury).
So, with those nagging images in our minds, we have to look ahead to Round 1, and wonder what both sides might serve up. The flip side to how poorly both sides finished 2017 is how well they both started: the Broncos opened the season winning 8 of their first 11 matches; while the Dragons won 6 of their first 7. That seems reason enough to believe that both Bennett and McGregor are at least a decent chance to have their sides ready to go right out of the gate. And if both sides play to the best of their abilities, who’s better?
That’s where it gets tricky. The Broncos’ backline still has plenty of points in it, and speed to burn. Their spine looks better with the return of Darius Boyd and Andrew McCullough from injury, but you can’t expect McCullough to be in top form coming off a long layoff, and the jury remains out on the halves combination of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima (though their upside is undeniable). However, when you get to the forwards, the Broncos start to look a little bit… boring? We’re seeing familiar faces from a year ago, and in their defense, they were among the most underrated packs in the league a season ago (they actually ranked 3rd in RMVOA). However, they’ve lost Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese’Ese, and the returning cast is another year older.
The Dragons, meanwhile, are almost a polar opposite. Their outside backs are solid defensive players but perhaps the least exciting attacking group in the competition, while their forwards are arguably the league’s best (and after how well they performed last year, it shouldn’t be much of an argument). Their halves should be better with Ben Hunt replacing Josh McCrone; and Matt Dufty – like Nikorima – carries enormous potential, but also some degree of uncertainty.
Which brings us to picking a winner. If we assume that the two backlines almost cancel each other out, then we have to separate the two teams elsewhere, and that just might be field position. The Dragons are likely to outgain their opposition, as well as win the possession count (they averaged fewer errors and fewer penalties conceded per game than Brisbane a year ago). If they’re camped down the Broncos’ end, their defense will hopefully be protected from the Broncos’ outside backs, while giving Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop opportunities to lay on a few tries of their own.
We say it with absolutely no conviction whatsoever, but we’re taking St George.
Our tip: Dragons
Knights v Sea Eagles
Look, we get it. People are excited about the dawn of a new era of Newcastle Knights football (we are too!). But the Knights entering this match equal favourites with the Sea Eagles just feels at least a little bit premature.
Let’s look at what the Knights were already doing well. They actually ended last season as one of the in-form attacking sides in the competition, putting decent totals on good defensive sides like Canberra (28) and Cronulla (18), and putting 29 on Top 4 charlatans Parramatta. Now, they’ve gained at least one above average NRL half, in Mitchell Pearce (and possibly two, if Connor Watson works out), and added a potential star fullback in Kalyn Ponga. So, their attack has high hopes to potentially be very good. However, they’re playing Manly – a side whose offense already is very good. While the Knights finished the season a bit hot, the Sea Eagles attacking game was one of the league’s best from start to finish, ranking 3rd in Offense VOA. So, while the Knights offense is likely to be strong, Manly’s is likely to be better. And attack is just about the only thing the Knights have demonstrated they can actually do well.
Their defense, while not the league’s worst, remains incredibly shoddy, and they’ve now added Tautau Moga to their edge defense (for those of you not familiar with Moga’s body of work, he was personally responsible for conceding the 7th most line breaks in the entire league a season ago, with 22). Manly’s offense can cut anyone to ribbons, and the Knights will need to have improved remarkably to even entertain the idea of keeping Manly to less than 20 points.
And then we get to the forwards, where the Knights really got ugly last year. Yes, they’ve recruited heavily, but their new engine room remains uninspiring (to put it politely), and is running into a Sea Eagles pack who allowed the 2nd least Run Metres Conceded VOA last year. Nothing about this looks like a good matchup for Newcastle.
Which makes us wonder if the optimism surrounding the Knights this week is built more on what people hope will happen (because after all, who doesn’t hate Manly), than what people actually think will happen. Because as much as we all expect the Knights to improve this year, we surely have to see it first.
Our tip: Sea Eagles
Cowboys v Sharks
The Cowboys must be absolutely dying to get Johnathan Thurston back in their line-up, after his absence possibly cost them a serious shot at winning the whole darn thing a season ago. This week he finally returns, along with star forward Matt Scott, in front of their parochial home fans. It all kind of feels a little bit inevitable.
The Cowboys’ backline looks noticeably weaker without the injured Lachlan Coote and Kane Linnett (the injury to Coote in particular is sure to affect the Cowboys’ structures), but their forward pack is to die for. Between Scott, Jordan Mclean, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and Jason Taumalolo (and let’s not forget Coen Hess coming off the bench), the Cowboys can definitely make a case for possessing the best pack in the competition. Add the class of Thurston and Michael Morgan on top, and it’s obvious why they’re favourites here.
The more difficult task is trying to make a case for the Sharks to be competitive. The Sharks have been good for a few years now, but they’re so old, and began showing signs of slowing down a year ago. In their starting forward pack, Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Matt Prior are all on the wrong side of 30, which will likely make their bench even more important, and on paper, it looks a little bit uninspired.
The Sharks are likely to be on the back foot, spending most of the game working it out of their own end, which makes points hard to come by at the best of times. Now, with a new halves combination in Matt Moylan and Chad Townsend, it’s even harder to envision how they’ll score, since we have no idea how well they’ll operate.
The Sharks are nothing if not competitors, and for that reason it’s hard to ever imagine them getting flogged. But rationally, it’s hard to muster an argument for them getting close to the Cowboys, either.
Our tip: Cowboys
Tigers v Roosters
Question: What were the Tigers best at a year ago?
Answer: That’s a trick question. The Tigers weren’t good at anything, and it’s for that reason that Ivan Cleary has torn the whole thing down and started again.
We get our first chance to see the new-look Tigers on Saturday afternoon against the (also new-look, for that matter) Roosters. And running our eyes over the team list…it doesn’t look good. (That’s putting it mildly; if this were an American competition, you’d be certain that the Tigers are tanking for a high draft pick.) James Tedesco has been replaced at fullback by Tui Lolohea (who by all reports isn’t fat any more, so that’s nice – last year he looked like he’d swallowed a watermelon), his five-eighth spot has been filled by Josh Reynolds (who has come over from the worst offense in the NRL), Luke Brooks is still there (really, that’s the guy they chose to keep?), and Aaron Woods has been replaced with Russell Packer and Ben Matulino (we actually quite like that move). And those are the good players.
Around them, the rest of the team looks just as ordinary as it did a year ago. David Nofoaluma has been dropped for Corey Thompson (presumably because of the former’s horrendously poor defense), and Pita Godinet has been added at hooker, but for the most part, the surrounding players are the same ones that failed a year ago. This is a rebuild that is very much a work in progress, and feels a lot like Year 2 of the Knights’ process.
On the other hand, the Roosters come into this match as raging hot favourites for both the premiership, and this particular game. Like the Tigers, the Roosters also have a few changes in key positions. However, they look a little more impressive: the aging Michael Gordon has been moved on to the Titans, and replaced with Blues superstar Tedesco; while former halfback Mitchell Pearce has been replaced by multi-Origin winner Cooper Cronk. And let’s also not forget that the Roosters were already arguably the second best side in football to begin with.
It’s Round 1, so the Tigers at least have hope. But with the opening six rounds seeing them face the Roosters, Broncos, Eels, Sea Eagles and the Storm (twice!), that hope isn’t likely to last very long. It mightn’t even last until the end of Saturday afternoon.
Our tip: Roosters
Rabbitohs v Warriors
Here at The Obstruction Rule, we could be accused of being brutally harsh about the Warriors and their coach Stephen Kearney from time-to-time. But in our defense, let us say this: we actually have a huge soft spot for the Warriors, and genuinely hope they do well. Our issue with what they’re doing is that they’ve assembled one of the most stacked rosters in the competition, and yet somehow manage to fail over and over and over and over and… you get the idea.
And responsibility for that should fall on the shoulders of Stephen Kearney (and, it follows, on Warriors management, for appointing Kearney in the first place). We never particularly liked the Warriors’ ‘buy-back-the-farm’ recruitment policy of signing almost exclusively Kiwi players (if diversity is considered a strength in every other endeavour, why would rugby league be any different?), but they truly topped it off with the appointment of Kearney – a coach who was recruited despite a career 23.8% winning percentage from his time at Parramatta. And what happened? Unsurprisingly, in his first year at the Warriors, they won just 7 of 24 games. This would be disappointing anywhere, but with a team boasting as many as 10 current or former Kiwi Test players (and four more internationals from other nations), it’s just not anywhere near good enough.
Which puts Kearney and the Warriors at a crossroad. Looking at their roster – which is somehow even more stacked this year, with the additions of Peta Hiku, Blake Green, Adam Blair and Tohu Harris – they remain firmly within a premiership window, and rightly or wrongly, they’ve pinned their hopes on Kearney to guide them there. We’re not saying he can’t (in the immortal words of Kermit the Frog, “just because you haven’t found your talent yet, doesn’t mean you don’t have one), but he needs to start winning, and he needs to start this week. It’s time for Kearney to stand up to the doubters and prove once and for all exactly what sort of coach he is.
There aren’t any easy matches in the NRL, but if you had to choose, the Rabbitohs are probably one of the ‘less difficult’ options you could hope for. They struggled badly last year, and responded by moving on coach Michael Maguire, and adding Dane Gagai to a backline that lacked much strike power a year ago. Gagai, paired in the centres with the returning Greg Inglis, helps make the Rabbitohs look distinctly more dangerous. Their major problem last year though, was the collapse of their once-dominant forward pack, who for whatever reason were unable to get over the top of pretty much anyone (they finished 5th last in RMVOA with -1.22%). Under Maguire, the Rabbitohs lacked any other way of beating teams, and so the team (and coach) went down with the ship (to be clear, the forward pack is the ship, in this particular metaphor). The pack may be better in 2018 (though we’re not terribly optimistic), or new coach Anthony Seibold might completely remodel their attacking structures (much more likely), but either way, there’s a lot of question marks surrounding the Rabbits.
And yet, we’re picking them. Not because they look better on paper (they don’t). Not because they’re at home (they’re not, they’re in Perth). But because we’ve had our hearts broken so many times before, that we just don’t know if we can fall for the Warriors again.
Our tip: Rabbitohs
Bulldogs v Storm
Trying to analyse the Bulldogs is near impossible, given that they’re almost unrecognisable from a year ago. In addition to the obvious switcheroo of bringing in Aaron Woods for James Graham, the Bulldogs’ spine has almost completely rebuilt, with Moses Mbye, Matt Frawley, Keiran Foran and Michael Lichaa making up the 2018 model. How the re-shuffle works out remains to be seen, but at this stage at least, it seems unfair to compare them to the side that finished last in Offense VOA last season. The combinations are totally different, and their structures have likely all been changed by new coach Dean Pay, who arrives from the exciting Raiders system. We really don’t know what to expect from the new-look Bulldogs, but if nothing else, we’re reasonably confident that the Bulldogs should be significantly less boring.
That said, they’ll probably still lose here. Partly because their squad looks generally a bit unspectacular on paper, but mainly because they’re playing the Storm, who long-time readers will recognise as the best team in the competition. Yes, we’ve actually been tipping the Cowboys as the team to beat this year; but we have the Storm a close second, after having them ranked number 1 for the past two seasons in a row. Long story short: the Storm are probably still going to be very good.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are without hope. Let’s cast our minds back to Round 1 2017, and the Bulldogs actually gave the Storm a decent run that evening, eventually going down just 12-6, an impressive effort in hindsight, given how poorly the Bulldogs’ season would ultimately unfold, and how dominant the Storm would go on to be. Torrential rain surely helped, but the Storm aren’t typically fast starters in general; though they typically win first-up (they typically win most weeks), they haven’t won in Round 1 by more than 8 points since 2013 (an uninspiring 20-10 victory over the Dragons). Add the losses of Cooper Cronk (to the Roosters) and Billy Slater (to a shoulder injury), and it’s not completely absurd to think that they might get their pants pulled down here. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that they will, but we wouldn’t be surprised if this match turned out to be a little more competitive than most people are expecting.
Our tip: Storm
Panthers v Eels
Don’t be surprised if the match of the round winds up being played on Sunday afternoon at the newly renamed Panthers Stadium (as an aside, how good is that name? If only more teams would #reclaimthename). Last year, the Panthers and Eels produced close to identical numbers, and got close to identical results (the Eels finished slightly higher, 4th v 6th; while the Panthers did something the Eels haven’t done in almost a decade – win a game in September).
Both sides look reasonably similar to their 2017 models. The Eels have the notable addition of Jarryd Hayne (perhaps you’ve heard of him?), while the Panthers have gained confirmed winner James Maloney in an off-season swap for Matt Moylan. How both sides are affected by their big signings presents an intriguing storyline for the match, though it’s one that’s difficult to estimate.
At his best, Hayne is a genuine superstar, though outside of a handful of glimpses during his debut season on the Gold Coast, Hayne’s best has hardly been sighted. Additionally, Hayne’s best has typically been seen at fullback; a position he won’t be playing this weekend (and presumably, this year). Instead, he’ll be in the centres – where he famously butchered several scoring opportunities during last year’s State of Origin. Indeed, we hope that the Eels’ wingers Josh Hoffman and Kirisome Auva’a pack a woolly sweater and a thick scarf, as with Hayne and serial non-passer Michael Jennings inside them, they’re both at serious risk of catching a cold.
As for James Maloney, he theoretically provides the perfect complement to the steady hand of Nathan Cleary (probably moreso than Moylan), though it remains to be seen how long it will take for the pair to gel. Maloney definitely has the weaponry to be successful on the Panthers’ left edge (fantasy players, expect a big year from Isiaah Yeo), and we hope for both Penrith and New South Wales’ sake that the Panthers’ halves combination fires; but these things rarely happen overnight.
In the meantime, the Panthers might have to rely on grinding away field position to get on top of teams, something that isn’t easily done against the Eels. Last year, the Eels ranked an impressive 3rd in RMCVOA, frequently standing up to more widely respected packs, including keeping the Broncos to just 1070m in Round 25, and keeping the Dragons to 1066m in Round 2. However the Panthers’ pack is no joke either, and after disappointing through the first half of the season, they came home with a wet sail, outgaining their opponents in 8 of their last 11 matches (including the aforementioned Broncos and Dragons).
So as you can see, it’s incredibly difficult to separate this pair, and with two decent packs of forwards colliding in front of a likely full house at Panthers, everything about this looks like a bottler. We’re taking Penrith, but it’s incredibly close.
Our tip: Panthers
Titans v Raiders
Finally, the opening round will finish with the new-look Titans hosting the Raiders.
The Titans squad doesn’t look terrible, but it’d be fair to say that they definitely don’t look like world-beaters. New coach Garth Brennan has taken a leaf out of the Sharks’ book and built his team around a handful of Penrith discards (in fairness, it’s a formula that Cronulla rode to a premiership). As critical as we’ve previously been of Bryce Cartwright (he tackles like a wet flannel, but the flannel would probably do a better job of reading a second-man play), he’s actually perfectly cast here as a lock forward (it’s a mystery why mastercoach Anthony Griffin allowed him to be abused on the edges as long as he did). He’s a genuine attacking weapon with the ball in his hands, and hiding him in the middle of the field on defense should protect him from being exploited.
Outside Cartwright, the other new faces are perhaps a bit less interesting: Leilani Latu is a quality impact forward who’ll be expected to start; Mitch Rein is a capable NRL hooker, but in order to use him there, the Titans would have to rest or re-shuffle Origin rake Nathan Peats; and Michael Gordon is one of the most exciting fullbacks of 2010.
We expect the Raiders to win here, but we also hope to learn a lot about them regardless. Previously, when the Raiders have been missing Josh Hodgson they’ve looked a shadow of themselves (controversial thought: if Josh Hodgson doesn’t hurt his ankle in Game 1 of the 2016 NRL finals, the Sharks don’t win the competition). However, at least on this occasion they’ve had an entire off-season to prepare for life without him, and coach Ricky Stuart has dropped a few surprises in going about it, naming Sam Williams at five-eighth, with Blake Austin coming off the bench. We quietly love this move. Austin isn’t a genuine half by any stretch – he plays five-eighth primarily as a big, strong ball-runner, very much in the Scott Hill mould. This works when the Raiders have their main playmaker at hooker, but in the absence of Hodgson, Canberra would have looked light on for genuine ball-players with Austin starting at 6. Coming off the bench, they can inject his running game as required, while providing the team with an extra playmaking option in Williams.
On paper it all makes sense, but replacing a player of Hodgson’s status is rarely easy. We expect Canberra to win, but will be watching closely to see how their re-tooled offense functions, and particularly how they fare against the Titans’ typically soft defense. If they struggle to score points here, it’s not a good sign for the year ahead.
Our tip: Raiders