2014 NRL Season Preview

It’s on like Donkey Kong and it keeps getting better and better

THE CONTENDERS

South Sydney Rabbitohs

George Burgess - Photo by Naparazzi

George Burgess – Photo by Naparazzi

1971 was a long time ago but the wait is finally over…

Predicted Finish – 1st (Premiers)

Big question – Will the impending departure of Sam Burgess destabilise the team? I think in this day and age a key player leaving isn’t as destabilising as it once was. After all Souths will still have three Burgess brothers.

Young Gun – Dylan Walker. Had a solid debut year but will lift his game again and avoid the sophomore curse.

X-Factor – Greg Inglis. Souths are a fairly enigmatic team but Inglis is arguably the best X-Factor in the whole world let alone in this team. Michael Maguire adjusted his role nicely last year to maximise his abilities. This year should be no different.

The Big Leap – Adam Reynolds. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After a two year entree this year will be the main course. He has all the tools and this season he will use them at the most important times.

Mythical Creature  – The Kraken. Lurking just behind the Roosters in the favouritism stakes they will devour all others before the end. This team has too much class across the field, an effective coach, won’t be as affected by the representative season as other top teams (the value of international players) and have been on the cusp for two years now. This is their year.

Coach – Michael Maguire.

Starting Team – Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Beau Champion, Bryson Goodwin, Lote Tuqiri, Dylan Walker, Adam Reynolds, George Burgess, Issac Luke, Sam Burgess, Ben Te’o, Chris McQueen and John Sutton.

Interchange – (from) Ben Lowe, Joe Picker, David Tyrrell, Luke Burgess, Joel Reddy and Kyle Turner.

Squad – Apisai Koroisau, Alex Johnston, Kirisome Auva’a, Nathaniel Neale, Chris Grevsmuhl, Aaron Gray and Matt Hyland.

Injury List – Luke Keary (pectoral, mid-season), Jason Clark (ankle, round 2) and Thomas Burgess (foot, round 3).

Sydney Roosters

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves - Photo by Naparazzi

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – Photo by Naparazzi

There is a reason no-one has gone back to back since 1998 (yes, I count the Super League season).

Predicted Finish – 2nd (Semi-finalists)

Big question – Can SBW do it all again? SBW has been less injury prone in recent years. Part of this can be put down to his training regime, modified game (the shoulder charge ban has helped here) and his attitude but unfortunately football is a game of percentages and a season ending injury isn’t ever far away for the game’s elite players. I’m not wishing anything on him but the Roosters had a good run with injuries last year and I think they will be lucky to escape at least some injuries this season.

Young Gun – Dylan Napa. Had a solid debut season and I expect him to be bigger and stronger this year and the Roosters will be the beneficiaries.

X-Factor – SBW. He is more than a force of nature, he is a talisman who raises everyone around him and at the 60th minute mark no-one is better at lifting the tempo on the edge of the ruck and splitting them wide open.

The Big Leap – Jake Friend. Friend has been progressively improving each year since his debut in 2008. He was a fringe Origin player last year but I think this year he will be recognised for the elite player he is. Unfortunately, like Stuart MacGill he is a great player stuck behind an Immortal.

Mythical Creature – Medusa. They have weapons right across the park and should dominate again, however, I have a feeling they will be ‘the hunted’ this year and eventually this will take its toll. The Roosters had a better than average run with injuries in 2013 and will have to cope with a greater representative drain which is a natural flow on from premiership success.

Coach – Trent Robinson.

Starting Team – Anthony Minichiello, Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Boyd Cordner, Sonny Bill Williams and Frank-Paul Nuuausala.

Interchange – (from) Daniel Mortimer, Aidan Guerra, Mitchell Aubusson, Dylan Napa, Kane Evans and Kurt Kara.

Squad – Siosiua Taukeiaho, Saulala Houma, Remi Casty, Jack Siejka, Rhyse Martin, Heath L’Estrange, Tautau Moga, Paul Rokolati, Jonathon Reuben and Samisoni Langi.

Injury List – Isaac Liu (knee, indefinite).

Melbourne Storm

They will be the goods again this year but I can’t see anything different from last season.

Predicted Finish – 3rd (Preliminary Finalists)

Big question – Will the Big Three carry them all the way? I think they will be able to hold time at bay for another season or two but their era of excellence will eventually wane.

Young Gun – Tohu Harris. A virtual unknown this time last year Harris had a solid first season and will only grow stronger. Don’t underestimate the motivation his end of season slight may provide.

X-Factor – Billy Slater. Until there is a noticeable drop off in speed Billy Slater will always be a difference maker for the Storm.

The Big Leap – George Rose. Rose was a crowd favourite at Manly but expect Craig Bellamy to extract every bit of talent from the big man. I’m expecting big things from him this year and not just in respect of his weight.

Cerberus by Pearson Scott Foresman

Cerberus by Pearson Scott Foresman

Mythical Creature – Cerberus was the mythical guardian of the gates of hell and was a three headed hound. All roads to the premiership will again lead through the Storm and the big three. I think they will be a consistently great team all season long but I can’t see any reason why they would better last year’s performance. If anything there should be a slight regression.

Coach – Craig Bellamy

Starting Team – Billy Slater, Sisa Waqa, Will Chambers, Mahe Fonua, Young Tonumaipea, Ben Hampton, Ben Roberts, Jesse Bromwich, Cameron Smith, Bryan Norrie, Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman and Ryan Hinchcliffe.

Interchange – (from) Kenny Bromwich, Tohu Harris, Jordan McLean, George Rose, Mitch Garbutt, Slade Griffin and Joel Romelo.

Squad – Richie Kenna, Felise Kaufusi, Dayne Weston, Junior Moors, Kurt Mann, Matthew Lodge, Tim Glasby, Travis Robinson, Cody Walker and Hymel Hunt.

Injury List – Matt Duffie (ACL, season), Justin O’Neill (knee, round 6) and Cooper Cronk (shoulder, round 2).

Manly-Warringah Sea-Eagles

Michael Chee Kam - Photo by Naparazzi

Michael Chee Kam – Photo by Naparazzi

The team everyone loves to hate. Well they hate you too and will be around come the semi-finals once again.

Predicted Finish – 4th (Semi-finalists)

Big question – Will this team be the 2011 Sea Eagles or the 2012/13 Sea Eagles? With essentially the same core for the last three years will Manly be able to battle to the top again?

Young Gun – Michael Chee-Kam. Pinched from the Raiders system last season, injuries derailed 2013 with a further injury picked up in the NRL 9s as well. If he can put off the injury curse he could become a Brookie favourite.

X-Factor – DCE. I keep thinking the rest of the pack will catch up with him, however, he shows no signs of slowing down. He is a star and is biding his time until he is the first choice halfback for Queensland and Australia as well.

The Big Leap – Justin Horo. Big, fast and skilful. The kind of player that Parramatta would love to have. No wonder they are languishing at the back of the pack.

Mythical Creature – The Boogie Man. They never get the press but everyone is scared of them. Manly will again be there and thereabouts. I see this season playing out similarly to 2013 for the Sea Eagles but this time they will fall at the second last hurdle.

Coach – Geoff Toovey.

Starting Team – Brett Stewart, Cheyse Blair, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai, Peta Hiku, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Starling, Matt Ballin, Brenton Lawrence, Anthony Watmough, Justin Horo and Glenn Stewart.

Interchange – Jesse Sene-Lefao, James Hasson, Jamie Buhrer and  Dunamis Lui.

Squad – Clinton Gutherson, Jake Trbojevic, Ligi Sao and Michael Chee-Kam.

Injury List – Tom Symonds (back, indefinite), Jorge Taufua (shoulder, round 3), David Williams (knee, round 2) and Jason King (foot, round 2).

BREATHING DOWN THEIR NECK

North Queensland Cowboys

Renewed focus on defence will help all season long.

Predicted Finish – 5th (Grand Finalist)

Big question – Is anyone going to help JT? They have a new coach and a new system but questions abound regarding their spine. Ray Thompson, Anthony Mitchell or Cameron King at hooker? Robert Lui or Michael Morgan at halfback? Now that Matty Bowen has gone to England and Lachlan Coote is on the long term injury list will Michael Morgan, Zac Santo, Javid Bowen or Matthew Wright play fullback. Morgan, Lui and Thompson will get first crack in round 1. If the NQ spine can get some continuity about it then this will go a long way towards contending for the title.

Young Gun – Kyle Feldt. Big and rangy he has a knack for finding the try line which will translate well to first grade. Expect him to solidify his position on the wing.

X-Factor – JT. He is and will remain the heart and soul of this team. He is their inspirational leader and a once in a generation player but will he get another premiership ring to replace the one he gave to Steve Price in 1994. He certainly deserves it.

The Big Leap – Jason Taumalolo. Meteoric rise followed by a year or two of treading water, he is making all the right noises this year. I think this will be the year that he starts to exhibit some of that untapped potential on a more consistent basis.

Werewolf

Werewolf

Mythical Creature – Werewolf. Ordinary human beings by day they transform into an unstoppable force under the light of the full moon. Will they be the last man standing this season or will they be felled by a silver bullet at the last hurdle? One thing going in their favour so far is an increased focus on defence under Paul Green. Whether this translates to the regular season remains to be seen but if they can keep it going it will go a long way towards them competing for the trophy.

Coach – Paul Green.

Starting Team – Michael Morgan, Kyle Feldt, Brent Tate, Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein, Johnathan Thurston, Robert Lui, Matthew Scott, Ray Thompson, James Tamou, Gavin Cooper, Jason Taumalolo and Joel Riethmuller.

Interchange – (from) Rory Kostjasyn, Tariq Sims, Glenn Hall, Scott Bolton, Ashton Sims and Zac Santo.

Squad – Cameron King, Ethan Lowe, Ricky Thorby, Sam Hoare, Patrick Kaufusi, Javid Bowen, Anthony Mitchell, Curtis Rona, John Asiata and Matthew Wright.

Injury List – Lachlan Coote (ACL, season) and Hezron Murgha (knee, round 12).

New Zealand Warriors

Thomas Leuluai - Photo by Naparazzi

Thomas Leuluai – Photo by Naparazzi

These guys should be higher, but consistency will as always be the issue.

Predicted Finish – 6th (Preliminary Finalists)

Big question – Can Matthew Elliott extract the best from this team? Most pundits expected the Warriors to kick on after the 2011 Grand Final and score their maiden premiership but this hasn’t happened. The Warriors have been consistently inconsistent since their inclusion in the NRL. Will this year be any different?

Young Gun – Carlos Tuimavave. The former NYC star hasn’t really cracked a permanent position in first grade and his flexibility could place him anywhere along the back line, however, his preference is five-eight. Unfortunately, he is behind Thomas Leuluai and probably Feleti Mateo in that position. If he gets a regular run (he has been picked ahead of Konrad Hurrell in the centres this weekend) look for him to cement a permanent place in the side.

X-Factor – Shaun Johnson. Electric on his day he (like his team) suffered the same fate in both 2012 and 2013 in that when he was on so were the Warriors but when he went quiet most often so did his team. A confidence player who is adding to his bag of tricks every year, hopefully his performance in the World Cup (especially the semi-final against England) will carry through into the 2014 season. Should benefit from the attacking presence of Sam Tomkins.

The Big Leap – Sam Tomkins. Questions have abounded about Sam Tomkins at every level. He has answered them every time. I expect that like Adrian Morley, Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess he will show that players from the top shelf can punch their weight in the NRL.

Mythical Creature – The Sleeping Giant. Will they finally wake up and crush all before them or will they continue to slumber for another season. The endless production line of high quality talent will eventually lead to a premiership but is Mat Elliott the one to lead them there.

Coach – Matthew Elliott.

Starting Team – Sam Tomkins, Glen Fisiiahi , Dane Nielsen, Carlos Tuimavave, Manu Vatuvei, Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson, Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino, Jayson Bukuya, Simon Mannering and John Palavi.

Interchange – (from) Jacob Lillyman, Suaia Matagi, Sione Lousi, Feleti Mateo and Jerome Ropati.

Squad – Konrad Hurrell, Charlie Gubb, Tuimoala Lolohea, Dominique Peyroux, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Sam Lousi, Ngani Laumape, Ben Henry, Nathan Peteru, Siliva Havili, David Bhana, Albert Vete and Raymond Faitala-Mariner.

Injury List – Kevin Locke (knee, indefinite) and Thomas Leuluai (groin, indefinite).

Penrith Panthers

Steadily improving under the hand of Gus.

Predicted Finish – 7th (Knocked out in first round)

Big question – Will this rebuilding project continue to improve or will it stall? Stage one of the rebuilding process is complete which was clear the decks and change the culture of the team. They bottomed out and last year showed signs of improvement. This year they have added some valuable pieces and some depth including new halves Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward. I am tipping that their incremental improvement will continue. I think they are a year or two away from making real premiership noise but that was Gus’ plan all along.

Young Gun – Matt Moylan. Held back by the second tier salary cap restrictions last year (limited him to 13 games) he won’t have the same problem this year. Heading the queue now that Lachlan Coote is gone he should cement his status as first choice fullback for some time. With Dallin Watene-Zelezniak breathing down his neck don’t expect him to ease off the gas pedal any time soon.

X-Factor – Jamie Soward. Whenever I see a quote about the “much maligned” Jamie Soward I wonder why he is much maligned. His kicking is obviously a strength, he thrives in the right system, has a peerless running game and can facilitate offence with his passing game as well. He was the cornerstone of that 2010 Dragons premiership side. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t have an escape clause in his contract when Wayne Bennett left. I think he is ready to rumble again. He will be the centrepiece of this Panthers team and will have a number of weapons around him especially if Jamal Idris can really get going this year. I expect a change of scenery will help him as well. Ditto for Peter Wallace who was also a lightning rod for the post-Darren Lockyer Broncos criticism.

The Big Leap – Josh Mansour. Because of the relatively lean years Penrith have experienced Josh Mansour probably hasn’t got the recognition he would have otherwise gotten if he had played for one of the premiership contenders. For instance, think of the press that Daniel Tupou and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have gotten for the Roosters. As Penrith make more noise this year you should see commensurate recognition for Mansour’s strong running and effective finishing.

The Bunyip

The Bunyip

Mythical Creature – The Bunyip. Like this ancient aboriginal legend not much is known about its shape or how it looks but many will dread falling on the wrong side of Penrith.

Coach – Ivan Cleary.

Starting Team – Matt Moylan, Josh Mansour, Dean Whare, Jamal Idris, Dave Simmons, Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace, Brent Kite, Kevin Kingston, Tim Grant, Lewis Brown, Elijah Taylor and Adam Docker.

Interchange – (from) James Segeyaro, Nigel Plum, Tyrone Peachey, Sam Mckendry and Jeremy Latimore.

Squad – Will Smith, Ryan Simpkins, Matt Robinson, Tom Humble, Isaac John, Sam Anderson, Kevin Naiqama and Shaun Spence.

Injury List – James Roberts (broken ankle, round 7), Eto Nabuli (knee, round 4), Wes Naiqama (pectoral, indefinite), George Jennings (dislocated elbow, mid-season), Luke Capewell (turf toe, round 7), Sika Manu (shoulder, round 4) and Bryce Cartwright (wrist, round 3).

Gold Coast Titans

Gold Coast Titans - Photo by Naparazzi

Gold Coast Titans – Photo by Naparazzi

Finally back in the eight.

Predicted Finish – 8th (Knocked out in first round)

Big question – Can Aidan Sezer and Albert Kelly continue their steady improvement and return the Titans to the finals? Most teams depend on the spine for their attacking efficiency and the Titans are no different. At the start of last season huge questions hung over the Titans halves which were answered emphatically. Coaches across the NRL have now seen the combination and will plan accordingly. Can the Titans halves combination continue to develop and thwart said plans?

Young Gun – Christian Hazard. The Titans were able to prise this star half from Souths in the offseason and he will press for time in first grade before the season is done even though he is behind Albert Kelly and Aidan Sezer in the pecking order.

X-Factor – Albert Kelly. He is the fire to Sezer’s ice and they perfectly complement each other. Mercurial and enterprising he has a nose for the try line and like Shaun Johnson above average speed for a halfback.

The Big Leap – Ben Ridge. Included in the QAS Emerging Origin Squad in 2013 and improving year on year I think this will be the year where he really steps up and exhibits his value to this side.

Mythical Creature – The Sirens. Like the Sirens the Titans will lure many teams to their untimely deaths on the sandy beaches and treacherous rocks of the Gold Coast. Their young halves are especially enticing but they have been surrounded by some astute buys like Maurice Blair and Brad Tighe who will complement the already existing pieces.

Coach – John Cartwright.

Starting Team – Will Zillman, Kevin Gordon, Brad Tighe, Maurice Blair, David Mead, Aidan Sezer, Albert Kelly, Luke Douglas, Beau Falloon, Nate Myles, Greg Bird, Dave Taylor and Ashley Harrison.

Interchange – (from) Matt White, Luke Bailey, Mark Minichiello, Paul Carter, Ryan James, Brad Takairangi and Ben Ridge.

Squad – Siuatonga Likiliki, Steve Michaels, Tom Kingston, Mark Ioane, Matthew Beddow, Sam Irwin, Anthony Don, Beau Henry, Caleb Binge, Christian Hazard, Cody Nelson, Jahrome Hughes, Jamie Dowling and Kalifa Faifai Loa.

Injury List – Matt Srama (shoulder, round 4).

CLOSE BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Michael Ennis - Photo by Bidgee

Michael Ennis – Photo by Bidgee

They missed Ben Barba last year but they will miss him even more this year.

Predicted Finish – 9th

Big question – Can Tony Williams capture his best form again? Williams was a force of nature in the 2012 season for Manly, however, a combination of niggling injuries and adjusting to a new system and team culture seemed to derail him in 2013. Canterbury could really use his fringe running this year.

Young Gun – David Klemmer. He was another beset by injury in the 2013 season but look for him to translate some of that potential into off the bench impact.

X-Factor – Sam Kasiano. Old school brute force and size meets finesse and offloading capability. On his day he breaks a game open easily. On a bad day he is injured and that was the problem in 2013. The Dogs will go further if he can create havoc on the advantage line all season long.

The Big Leap – Josh Jackson. Put simply Josh Jackson is a glue guy in the mould of Alan Tongue or Dallas Johnson. Not heralded for the flashy play none-the-less he manages to find himself in open field by his above average hole running.

Mythical Creature – The Jabberwock. They should be fierce and they should be unbeatable but I think there are still too many questions here. One of the issues missed with all of the criticism of Ben Barba last year was the injuries that derailed the forward pack all season long. Star players like Ben Barba and Josh Reynolds need something to play off and the Doggies pack lacked the consistent venom it displayed all season long in 2012. If the pack can get back to the form of 2012 then 2014 will be a much better year for the Dogs. Unfortunately, I think they will just miss the eight.

Coach – Des Hasler.

Starting Team – Sam Perrett, Mitch Brown, Josh Morris, Chase Stanley, Corey Thompson, Josh Reynolds, Trent Hodkinson, Aiden Tolman, Michael Ennis, James Graham, Frank Pritchard, Tony Williams and Dale Finucane.

Interchange – (from) Josh Jackson, Pat O’Hanlon, Tim Browne, David Klemmer and Moses Mbye.

Squad – Harlan Alaalatoa, Lachlan Burr, John Talioe Sila and Reni Maitua.

Injury List – Tim Lafai (broken hand, round 2), Damien Cook (broken hand, round 5), Drury Low (broken hand, round 4), David Minute (shoulder, round 2), Krisnan Inu (broken jaw, round 6), Greg Eastwood (foot, round 3) and Sam Kasiano (foot, round 4).

Newcastle Knights

Should make the final eight, just because of Wayne Bennett but couldn’t find a place for them.

Predicted Finish – 10th

Big question – Who will hold the fort with Jarrod Mullen injured? The Knights were looking fairly settled in the spine with Darius Boyd, Tyrone Roberts, Kurt Gidley and Jarrod Mullen. In fact most of the injury question marks were over Kurt Gidley. Travis Waddell, Michael Dobson and Adam Clydsdale shape as the replacement options (Michael Dobson got first crack this week) with  a greater onus for play making options to shift to Tyrone Roberts in particular.

Young Gun – Adam Clydsdale. Star of the Knights NYC sides in years gone by and with opportunities likely to present themselves in the halves this year look to Clydsdale to have an impact for the Knights.

X-Factor – This could have gone to a number of players but Tyrone Roberts will be the spark in attack that this team needs especially with Jarrod Mullen injured for a large portion of the season. Skilful and improving each season expect him to fire for Newcastle week in week out.

The Big Leap – Korbin Sims. The youngest of the Sims brothers Korbin started to break into first grade last year and was named Rookie of the Year for the Knights. He should continue his meteoric rise and be a key player for the Knights this year.

Banshee

The Banshee

Mythical Creature – The Banshee is an Irish spirit usually seen as an omen of death or a messenger from the underworld. It is known for its eerie shriek. Will the Knights eerie shriek translate to a sense of dread for other teams? I think the Knights are too unsettled in the halves to really emulate their success from last year. They will be solid all year long but just won’t have enough in the end to do the job.

Coach – Wayne Bennett.

Starting Team – Darius Boyd, James McManus, Dane Gagai, Joey Leilua, Akuila Uate, Michael Dobson, Tyrone Roberts, Kade Snowden, Kurt Gidley, Willie Mason, Beau Scott, Robbie Rochow and Jeremy Smith.

Interchange – (from) Travis Waddell, Chris Houston, Alex McKinnon, Adam Cuthbertson and David Fa’alogo.

Squad – Korbin Sims, Matt Hilder, Tyler Randell, Chanel Mata’utia, Chad Redman, Pat Mata’utia, Timana Tahu, Adam Clydsdale, Paterika Vaivai, Toka Likiliki and Josh Mantellato.

Injury List – Jarrod Mullen (hamstring, round 10), Zane Tetevano (broken hand, round 3) and Clint Newton (bicep, season).

Brisbane Broncos

Andrew McCullough - Photo by Naparazzi

Andrew McCullough – Photo by Naparazzi

Falling further from grace.

Predicted Finish – 11th

Big question – When will Brisbane replace Darren Lockyer? Brisbane for so many years a destination of choice has missed out on a number of marquee players in recent times. Ben Barba and Anthony Milford are the recent exception to this rule, however, who is going to steer the Broncos around the park in 2014. Corey Norman, Peter Wallace and Scott Prince are gone. Jordan Kahu is injured. Will Ben Hunt be the answer?

Young Gun – Kodi Nikorima. Slated as the replacement in the halves after his early season audition in the NRL9s, Anthony Griffin ended up moving Josh Hoffman instead. A standout performer for the Broncos NYC team could he eventually fill Lockyer’s big shoes?

X-Factor – Ben Barba. For a number of well documented reasons (which I won’t cover here) Barba lost some of his 2012 lustre last season. With a change of scenery and hopefully not hampered by the injuries which slowed him down in 2013 Barba could bring Suncorp to life again.

The Big Leap – Martin Kennedy. On the cusp of Origin selection in seasons past but left out for one reason or another (injury included) he should provide enough yardage and impact to get over the line this year.

Mythical Creature – The headless horseman. The embarrassment of riches in the back row starkly contrasts the lack of options in the halves and question marks abound over this once proud team. I can’t see them making the eight. Will need to start well otherwise speculation will swirl over Anthony Griffin’s position. Brisbane isn’t used to disappointment for extended periods of time.

Coach – Anthony Griffin.

Starting Team – Ben Barba, Daniel Vidot, Jack Reed, Dale Copley, Lachlan Maranta, Josh Hoffman, Ben Hunt, Josh McGuire, Andrew McCullough, Corey Parker, Alex Glenn, Sam Thaiday and Matt Gillett.

Interchange – (from) Ben Hannant, Martin Kennedy, Todd Lowrie, Jarrod Wallace and David Hala.

Squad – Kodi Nikorima, Jharal Yow Yeh, Mitchell Dodds, Ajuma Adams, Francis Molo, Jake Granville, Cameron Cullen, Jordan Drew, Jo Ofahengaue, Duncan Paia’Aua, Ashley Taylor, Marmin Barba, Jon Green, Stewart Mills and Zach Strasser.

Injury List – Justin Hodges (Achilles, round 6), David Stagg (knee, round 4), Jordan Kahu (knee, round 4) and Corey Oates (knee, indefinite).

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Paul Gallen - Photo by Naparazzi

Paul Gallen – Photo by Naparazzi

Drug investigation cloud will haunt them all season long.

Predicted Finish – 12th

Big question – Will ASADA derail their season? I think the Sharks would finish higher if the cloud of ASADA wasn’t hanging over this team. Unfortunately, all signs point to the impact of suspensions being a possibility at some stage this season. If these don’t materialise then this ranking is too low for the Sharks.

Young Gun – Michael Lichaa. He is a dynamic hooker in the mould of Isaac Luke. If he can stay injury free this year he may just become the long term answer for the Sharks at dummy-half.

X-Factor – Andrew Fifita. Fifita was arguably the best prop in the competition in 2013. He was certainly the most improved. His aggressive style in both attack and defence are a perfect fit for this team and how far the Sharks go will largely rest on his shoulders.

The Big Leap – Sam Tagataese. A fringe first grade player while at the Melbourne Storm and the Gold Coast Titans, Tagataese has played more regularly since his move to the Sharks in 2011. I think this might be his year especially with the departure of Jayson Bukuya and the injuries to Luke Lewis and Anthony Tupou.

Mythical Creature – The Mothman is a legendary creature allegedly sighted prior to a catastrophic bridge collapse in West Virginia, USA. Hopefully for Sharks fans the Mothman will be associated with the destruction of other sides and not their own season.

Coach – Peter Sharp.

Starting Team – Michael Gordon, Sosaia Feki, Blake Ayshford, Jonathan Wright, Beau Ryan, Todd Carney, Daniel Holdsworth, Andrew Fifita, John Morris, Bryce Gibbs, Matt Prior, Wade Graham and Paul Gallen.

Interchange – (from) Isaac De Gois, Sam Tagataese, Tupou Sopaga, Siosaia Vave and Tinirau Arona.

Squad – Tim Robinson, Sione Masima, Michael Lichaa, Chris Heighington, Scott Sorenson, Reece Davidson, Michael Morris, Eric Grothe Jnr, Ricky Leutele, Nathan Stapleton, Nathan Gardner, Penani Manumalealii, David Fifita, Jacob Gagan, Junior Roqica, Fa’amanu Brown and Valentine Holmes.

Injury List – Luke Lewis (shoulder, round 5), Anthony Tupou (knee, round 12) and Jeff Robson (facial fractures, indefinite).

IF WAYNE BENNETT WAS TO SHOW SOME INTEREST THESE TEAMS WOULD LISTEN

St George-Illawarra Dragons

Should do better but won’t.

Predicted Finish – 13th

Big question – How long will Steve Price last? St George is a historically successful club and long absences from the final series never sits well with the rank and file. Similar to the period of time that Nathan Brown presided over the team Steve Price’s tenure has been subject to constant rumour and innuendo. The Dragons will have to start the year competitively if those rumours are to be held at bay.

Young Gun – Charly Runciman. A ready made replacement in the centres for Mat Cooper, Runciman will put pressure on the current centre pairing of Farrell and Beale for game time before the year is out.

X-Factor – Gareth Widdop. Josh Dugan is obviously the spark in attack that the Dragons needed last year, however, Widdop is the X-Factor required to unlock his full potential. Without the comfort zone of the big three Widdop will be under pressure to resurrect the moribund attack that the Dragons rolled out last year. His success or otherwise will largely dictate whether the Dragons can progress in seasons 2014.

The Big Leap – Tyson Frizell. A big improver in season 2013 Frizell will benefit from his recent stint with the Welsh National side during the World Cup. I expect him to make the leap this year from steady improver to impact first grader.

Dragons - Photo by Grantscharoff

Dragons – Photo by Grantscharoff

Mythical Creature – What else could St George be but a Dragon. Unfortunately more often than not the Dragon will be of the slain variety. Never the less they have enough talent that on their day they will breathe fire.

Coach – Steve Price.

Starting Team – Adam Quinlan, Brett Morris, Dylan Farrell, Gerard Beale, Jason Nightingale, Gareth Widdop, Michael Witt, Jack de Belin, Mitch Rein, Dan Hunt, Leeson Ah Mau, Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin.

Interchange – (from) Bronson Harrison, Kyle Stanley, Joel Thompson, Tyson Frizell and Mike Cooper.

Squad – Nathan Green, Will Matthews, Yaw Kiti Glymin, Charly Runciman, Craig Garvey, Jack Bird, Peter Mata’utia, Matthew Groat, Sam Williams, Josh Ailaomai and Willie Mataka.

Injury List – Josh Dugan (Knee, round 5) and Jack Stockwell (hamstring, round 3).

Parramatta Eels

Ken Sio

Ken Sio

Slightly better but still a long way to go.

Predicted Finish – 14th

Big question – Will Parramatta remain a basket case? Seven coaches in eight years. Brad Arthur is back for his second stint after acting as a caretaker coach for part of the 2012 season. Expectations as always are high both on coaches of the Eels but also on their star players and the shadows of past greats like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Ray Price seem to get larger and larger as the years go by. I think the Parramatta faithful will be satisfied with progressive improvement and a plan for returning to the top but it will be too much to expect this team to make the finals this year.

Young Gun – Brenden Santi. This former Australian Schoolboy starred for Italy in the World Cup and will be a great chance of emerging in the backrow after the retirement of Nathan Hindmarsh. There are opportunities right across the team for anyone who puts their hand up and I expect Santi to do so for the Eels.

X-Factor – Will Hopoate. Back from his two year hiatus from the game a little lighter but just as fast I think it goes without saying that Hopoate will contribute some of the spark that the Eels are missing. For so long the Hayne Plane has had to do it alone with little in the way of support but both players should benefit from the presence of the other this season.

The Big Leap – Joseph Paulo. Suffers from a lack of a defined position and was relied upon heavily for attacking spark last year. This year I think he will build on his stellar World Cup form for the USA and nail down a spot in the back row for the Eels.

Mythical Creature – Zombies. Generally harmless, however, if enough of them turn up to play they could create havoc.

Coach – Brad Arthur.

Starting Team – Jarryd Hayne, Semi Radradra, Will Hopoate, Willie Tonga, Vai Toutai, Corey Norman, Luke Kelly, Tim Mannah, Nathan Peats, Fuifui Moimoi, Ben Smith, Manu Ma’u and Kenny Edwards.

Interchange – (from) Joseph Paulo, Peni Terepo, Darcy Lussick, Kelepi Tanginoa, David Gower and Mitch Allgood.

Squad – Justin Hunt, Ryan Morgan, Chris Sandow, Ken Sio, Junior Paulo, Pauli Pauli, Api Pewhairangi, Lorenzo Ma’afu, Brenden Santi and Bureta Faraimo.

Injury List – Jacob Loko (knee, indefinite) and Lee Mossop (shoulder, round 12).

Canberra Raiders

Tom Learoyd-Lahrs - Photo by Naparazzi

Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – Photo by Naparazzi

A lot will depend on injuries.

Predicted Finish – 15th

Big question – Can Terry Campese get through the season unscathed? Terry Campese has been the star player for the Raiders for many seasons now. Unfortunately, his history with injuries is well known. Generally if he can stay on the field the Raiders do well.

Young Gun – Mitch Cornish. Although he hasn’t featured in the first team named by Ricky Stuart he is the heir apparent to Campese in the halves. Sam Williams has moved to the Dragons and Josh McCrone has moved to the hooking role. The stage is set for this precocious talent to have an impact in first grade.

X-Factor – Anthony Milford. The off season was filled with speculation that Anthony Milford wouldn’t play for the Raiders this season and I’m sure his preference would have been to play north of the border in 2014, however, he is in the green jersey this season and if Campese can stay on the field Milford will have a spectacular season to build on his solid 2012.

The Big Leap – Jack Wighton. Injury briefly halted his meteoric rise to the top but this year shapes as one of opportunity for the physically gifted Wighton. I expect him to receive mentions when the representative teams are being selected this year and his improvement at club level will be noticeable.

Mythical Creature – The Phoenix. Could their season rise from the ashes?

Coach – Ricky Stuart.

Starting Team – Anthony Milford, Reece Robinson, Jarrod Croker, Matt Allwood, Edrick Lee, Jack Wighton, Terry Campese, Dane Tilse, Glen Buttriss, Brett White, Josh Papalii, Joel Edwards and Shaun Fensom.

Interchange – (from) Josh McCrone, Jarrad Kennedy, Paul Vaughan, Shannon Boyd and Mark Nicholls.

Squad – Lagi Setu, Sam Mataora, Sami Sauiluma, Mosese Pangai, Matt McIlwrick, Kurk Baptiste, Brenko Lee, Jack Ahearn, Mitchell Cornish, Jeremy Hawkins, Jeff Lynch, Mitchell Cronin, Jake Foster, Bill Tupou, Kyle O’Donnell and Jordan Rapana.

Injury List – Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (ankle, round 3) and David Shillington (ribs, round 2).

Wests Tigers

Still picking up the pieces after Benji (and after Tim Sheens for that matter).

Predicted Finish – 16th

Big question – Will there be any improvement in the Tigers this year? Last season was pretty much the Tim Sheens and Benji Marshall show. Board in fighting and a lack of unity in the back office seemed to spill out onto the field. The Tigers leaked half of their team to the Sharks in seasons past and have also unearthed some bright stars of the future but have been slowly declining since the heady days of 2005. In reality the premiership of 2005 was the result of one of the most torrid runs of form seen in the competition rather than continued excellence over the whole season. Have the Tigers bottomed out last season or is there further room to fall? Only time will tell.

Young Gun – Luke Brooks. Largely touted as a star of the future he broke onto the scene last season. His emergence has softened the blow of Benji’s defection to Rugby Union. He should continue to develop this season.

X-Factor – Robbie Farah. Now that Benji has gone a significant amount of pressure to facilitate the attack of the Tigers will fall on Farah. Teams will be better able to focus on shutting him down. I believe he still has a lot to give but whether he will get enough support at the Tigers remains to be seen.

The Big Leap – Tim Simona. Emerging from nowhere last season Simona became a devastating weapon on the end of the Tigers backline. With the departure of Blake Ayshford, Simona should make the centre position his own. He was selected for the NZ World Cup squad but had to withdraw because of required shoulder surgery, however, he will be in the haka come the Anzac Day test.

Loch Ness Monster - Photo by Ad Meskens

Loch Ness Monster – Photo by Ad Meskens

Mythical Creature – Loch Ness Monster – Premiership hopes won’t be found this year or maybe next year.

Coach – Michael Potter.

Starting Team – James Tedesco, Marika Koroibete, Keith Lulia, Chris Lawrence, Pat Richards, Braith Anasta, Luke Brooks, Aaron Woods, Robbie Farah, Martin Taupau, Liam Fulton, Bodene Thompson and Adam Blair.

Interchange – Cory Paterson, Ava Seumanufagai, Sauaso Sue and James Gavet.

Squad – Taqele Naiyaravoro, Mitchell Moses, Blake Austin, Kurtis Rowe, Kyle Lovett, Andrew Vela, Ben Murdoch-Masila, David Nofauluma, Jack Buchanan, Nathan Brown and Joel Luani.

Injury List – Keith Galloway (toe, round 2), Curtis Sironen (foot, round 12), Dene Halatau (ankle, round 12), Tim Simona (shoulder, round 2) and Tim Moltzen (knee, indefinite).

Final Series

Week 1

Souths vs Manly – Winner – Souths

Roosters vs Storm – Winner – Storm

Cowboys vs Titans – Winner – Cowboys

Warriors vs Panthers – Winner – Warriors

Semi-finals

Cowboys vs Manly – Winner – Cowboys

Warriors vs Roosters – Winner – Warriors

Preliminary Finals

Souths vs Warriors – Winner – Souths

Storm vs Cowboys – Winner – Cowboys

Grand Final

Souths vs Cowboys – Winner – Souths

Tips for Round 1

Home teams first

Rabbitohs v Roosters – Rabbitohs (going against the odds this round, picking a home upset)

Bulldogs v Broncos – Bulldogs (don’t think the Broncos will have enough away from Suncorp)

Panthers v Knights – Panthers (if in doubt go for the home side)

Sea Eagles v Storm – Sea Eagles (unbeatable at Brookie)

Cowboys v Raiders – Cowboys (too many weapons across the park)

Dragons v Tigers – Dragons (Dragons will miss Dugan but the Tigers will miss Benji more)

Eels v Warriors – Warriors (very nervous about this one as the Warriors don’t travel well)

Sharks v Titans – Sharks (Titans travel better these days but not that much better)

Question for you

Putting aside your tribal allegiances, who do you think will win the whole box and dice?

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode on Thursday, 13 March 2014 titled ‘Advanced Metrics – Australia needs to catch up already’.

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5 thoughts on “2014 NRL Season Preview

  1. Pingback: NRL Season Review | The Game of Sport

  2. Pingback: 2015 NRL Season Preview Part 1 | The Game of Sport

  3. Pingback: 2015 NRL Season Preview Part 2 | The Game of Sport

  4. Pingback: 2015 NRL Season Preview Part 3 | The Game of Sport

  5. Pingback: 2015 NRL Season Preview Part 4 | The Game of Sport

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