WHEN South Sydney are going well, rugby league is going well, or so the saying goes. If that is true, the NRL season should be a belter. Herald rugby league reporter BRETT KEEBLE reckons 2013 is the Year of the Bunnies.
Souths tick all the boxes. They have a massive, mobile pack; size and speed in their backline; proven performers Adam Reynolds, Issac Luke and Greg Inglis in the key ball-handling positions of halfback, hooker and fullback; and in Michael Maguire a coach capable of making all the right calls. The Rabbitohs would have gained invaluable experience by reaching the top four last year and getting within one game of the grand final. This year they can go all the way.
The Cows were rolling at the right end of last season and were a couple of dusty calls away from playing in a grand final qualifier against the Storm in Melbourne. Playing behind Australian props Matt Scott and James Tamou, and surrounded by a solid supporting cast, Johnathan Thurston will never get a better chance to win a premiership as ‘‘the man’’. They have made only minor changes to their roster and have all the ingredients to be there on the last night.
You can’t kill the Storm with a stick. Every year, you wonder what might happen if Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk or Billy Slater suffered a serious injury, and every year, they don’t. And every year, coach Craig Bellamy gets the best out of his next crop of discards and desperates and they end up winning the comp or going close. History suggests they won’t win again, because it has been 20 years since premiers have repeated, but they will be in the mix.
This was going to say the Sharks are title contenders, having added Penrith’s Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon and Tigers Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan to a seasoned squad. That was until late yesterday when news services went into meltdown amid speculation Sharks players could be stood down after being interviewed by ASADA. Betting has been suspended on the Sharks-Titans game, and Cronulla directors met last night to discuss developments. Hold all tickets.
The old ‘‘gotta lose one before you win one’’ theory has been a myth in recent years. The past three grand final runners-up have finished 14th (Warriors 2012), 11th (Roosters 2011) and 12th (Eels 2010) the following year. Can’t imagine Canterbury will tumble that far, but losing Dally M Medallist Ben Barba indefinitely wasn’t a great start. Coach Des Hasler earned his siege mentality masters degree at Manly and will keep the Dogs snapping at the heels of the top four.
The air was heavy with expectation among Knights players and fans this time last year, but Wayne Bennett didn’t share their enthusiasm. What’s different now? The coach is confident his players finally understand what he expects of them, and he likes what he has seen at training and trials. The presence of Jeremy Smith, Beau Scott and David Fa’alogo alongside Willie Mason and Kade Snowden should ensure the Knights match muscle and mongrel with most.
Trent Robinson has a star-studded side at his disposal in his first year as an NRL head coach. He worked wonders at Catalans after learning the trade under Brian Smith at the Roosters and Knights. If he can handle the hype surrounding Sonny Bill Williams, harness the talents of Michael Jennings, and establish a combination between NSW half Mitchell Pearce and Warriors recruit James Maloney, the Roosters could give the premiership an almighty shake.
8. SEA EAGLES
At full strength, Manly are title contenders, but they may not have the depth to plug the holes when their stars are injured or on representative duty. Glenn Stewart will miss the first half of the season and they had to shed some handy back-up players to squeeze Brett Stewart into the cap. Tony ‘‘T-Rex’’ Williams has gone to the Dogs, but they have added Richie Fa’aoso (Storm), Justin Horo (Eels) and Tom Symonds (Roosters). Are they still durable enough to go the distance?
The Broncos have welcomed back prodigal sons Scott Prince and David Stagg from the Titans and Bulldogs respectively, hoping their experience assists the development of some of their exciting young stars. After looking the goods for the first two-thirds of last season, the Broncos lost their way to win just two of their last 10, bowing out in week one of the finals. They now look like a good side but not a great side and can no longer be considered automatic finalists.
The Green Machine are harder to pick than a broken nose. Coach David Furner was apparently headed for the unemployment office midway through last year when they kept losing at home, but they clicked to win their last five games then extended that streak into week two of the finals. The Raiders have made minimal changes and will be desperately hoping playmaker Terry Campese and fullback Josh Dugan enjoy injury-free years. Should be there or thereabouts.
The Dragons appear to be headed for a transition year after losing heart and soul Ben Hornby and Dean Young to retirement at the end of 2012. They will need mercurial playmaker Jamie Soward to be close to his best every week, and new captain Ben Creagh and fellow forwards Michael Weyman, Dan Hunt and Trent Merrin to lead from the front, if they are to challenge for the eight. Coach Steve Price will feel the heat from fans if he can’t keep the Dragons firing.
The Tigers were the biggest under-achievers of 2012. Talented enough to challenge for the title, they missed the finals and long-serving coach Tim Sheens lost his job. Mick Potter has been appointed to oversee a redevelopment program around stars Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah. But it will take more than the arrival of Braith Anasta from the Roosters and Eddy Pettybourne (Rabbitohs) to replace pack leaders Gareth Ellis (Hull) and Chris Heighington (Sharks).
Finished last season on an eight-game losing streak, including four straight defeats on home soil. New coach Matt Elliott appears to have his hands full trying to re-establish the 2011 grand finalists as a premiership force. They have lost playmaker James Maloney to the Roosters and forwards Lewis Brown to the Panthers and Micheal Luck to retirement. When the Warriors are on, they are skilful enough to dismantle any side. But on their bad days, they can be awful.
Ricky Stuart chucked in his NSW Origin gig to take on rebuilding the 2012 wooden-spooners. Long-serving Eels Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt retired at the end of last season, and Manly’s Darcy Lussick is the only recruit of any note, so Stuart will need his nucleus of Jarryd Hayne, Chris Sandow, Reni Maitua and Tim Mannah to provide leadership on a weekly basis. The Eels should improve, but not enough to feature in the finals.
Coach Ivan Cleary and GM Phil Gould are building for the future, but it looks like that plan is based around some short-term pain for any potential long-term gain. Well-paid elite players Luke Lewis (Sharks), Michael Gordon (Sharks) and Michael Jennings (Roosters) have moved on and have been replaced by less expensive journeymen and fringe first-graders chasing opportunities. It could take more than a year to establish combinations and chemistry.
Have lost foundation captain and spiritual leader Scott Prince to arch rivals Brisbane, and will rely on young halves Aidan Sezer, Albert Kelly and possibly Beau Henry to lead them around. Sezer (18), Kelly (14) and Henry (10) have played just 42 NRL games between them, compared to Prince’s 278. David Taylor (Rabbitohs) will bulk up the pack, and they have speed to burn out wide, but it is difficult to envisage the Titans being a consistent force for the entire season.