With stumps still falling and cuisine still claiming scalps in the sub-continent, it feels very much as though we're smack bang in the middle of summer, cricket's reserved season. But like the burly beast it is, the TV ratings-chasing gladiator of the eastern states, rugby league is ready to go, encroaching on the last few weeks of warmer weather and, getting a fortnight early jump on the other big game in town: AFL.
Partly creditable for the sneak-up of the season's start this weekend is that it's been, relatively speaking, a fairly uneventful offseason for rugby league. Aside from Ben Barba's drug suspension desertion, a single player betting scandal and a reigniting of the debate over the NRL's handling of concussions, the game's governing officials have kept a fairly tight lid on the sort of controversy that normally side-tracks the game's season build-up.
Leaving the drama then for where it belongs: the roster shuffles, with many big names hanging up their boots and just as many others returning from injury, there's plenty of sides looking to restructures as the solution for last season's woes. Yet, amongst all the trades and comebacks, few look eligible to knock off last season's top tier contenders, making this arguably the most straightforward, predictable season in recent memory.
But with targets on their backs, the leaders of last year, as history suggests, are unlikely to have it all their own way and will be fanning off more than a few wildcards come finals footy time. On the day of the season's opening game, we take a closer look at the teams to beat, the could-be contenders and those least likely to have any notable impact on the 2017 NRL season.
Who Will Win It
The 2016 fairytale champions, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, aim to become the first side in two decades to go back-to-back. A tough stat to turn, especially considering they'll be short of plenty of points via their biggest personnel loss from last season, hooker Mick Ennis, with his big boots still set for filling, with rising junior Jayden Brailey and newly signed, former-Tiger Manaia Cherrington, both competing for the vacant slot. Aforementioned Barba is the Sharks' other big name exit, but with him leaving so does (some) of the headache for coach Shane Flanagan in keeping all seven of his other bidding fullbacks pleased while they're forced to wait on the wings, centres, benches and reserve grade roster.
Cronulla's grand final victims, the best team across the 26 rounds of 2016, Melbourne Storm, will be undoubtedly back in the mix this year. Sure, there's a few losses — Blake Green, Marika Koroibete, Kevin Proctor — but there's also one big addition: Billy Slater, who, after almost two years on the sideline is set for his grandstand career finale. The unpredictable, game-changing flair of the veteran fullback was arguably the one absence in their near-successful 2016 campaign and, combined with their disciplined structure and previously-displayed ability to wrestle their way to victory, it's highly unlikely they'll be absent from the mix come September.
Not much has changed in the national capital, and for good reason, with the green machine holding on to their position as the under-the-Raider favourites for a top four finish once more. Last year's brilliant run from the Canberra Raiders, ending just one spot off the minor premiers pendant and then just one game short of the grand final, was held together by consistent best-on-ground performances from hooker Josh Hodgson who provided a constant attacking threat, taking much of that stress off halves Sezer and Austin. His final's injury proved punishing for the vikings, but back fit and flanked by one of the best go-forward packs in the game — plus point-scoring pair, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana — gives Canberra a legitimate stake in going one big step further in 2017.
The success of the North Queensland Cowboys has often solely been attributed as resting on the shoulders of one: Jonathan Thurston. Sure, the future immortal and best player on any paddock anywhere, turns more games to the Townsville's team favour that any other, but credit is due to the solid supporting cast — Morgan, Granville, Coote and, of course, Dally M co-winner Jason Taumalolo — that got them so close last year, only pipped one game short by a season standout performance from eventual premieres, the Sharks. Their biggest loss for 2017 is NSW rep Tamou, but the northerners have never struggled sourcing a fresh crop of forwards from their stocked ranks, so expect that to have little effect.
While building once more off the back of a near-impenetrable defensive structure, Brisbane will be slightly weakened this go ‘round by the absence of retiring captain Corey Parker. Halfback Ben Hunt's season is set to go either way as well, with his premature signing to St. George for season 2018, potentially leading to an attitude of either one-foot-out-the-door or the aim of ending on the highest note. Regardless, the discipline enforced by supercoach Wayne Bennett puts them very much in the mix once more, such is his midas touch that some are even giving some consideration to the wildcard acquisition of veteran Benji Marshall as the longshot fairy tale story of the season.
Cue up your broken records: New Zealand Warriors remain one of the best on-paper teams in the comp.
Sure, it's become a bit of pre-season prediction joke to claim, but is there just enough small changes for the cross-Tasman underachievers to finally find their spark? Alongside new coach, Stephen Kearney, there's the appointment of a new captain — 23-year-old superstar fullback, Roger Tuivasa-Scheck — who failed to make the big impact expected when joining the Warrior ranks in 2016 after a season-ending injury in round 7. RTS will be ready for his redeeming run, competing for that spotlight story with the side's only notable new signing: Kieran Foran.
The former Parramatta player won't be eligible until round 3 at the earliest — pending psychological approval from the NRL — but if healthy he'll be turned to as the obvious guiding playmaker alongside free-running halfback maverick, Shaun Johnson, making up maybe the strongest spine in the comp. Time will tell if the ying/yang partnership with gel, as well as if the team can benefit — as they always should — from immunity to the State of Origin schedule roster shuffle.
Similarly on search of redemption: the Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters. Both Sydney sides struggled in 2016, plagued by off-field drama of salary cap penalties (and that 12 point deduction) and the unruly behaviour of their superstar, respectively. Look for that guy, shamed halfback, Mitch Pearce, to lead the tricolours' young squad, undoubtedly on a confidence high after taking out the pre-season Auckland Nines competition. In the Eels camp it's their brick wall defense where they'll win games, with the side's main go-forward — and attacking kicking duties — resting solely on halfback, Corey Norman. Try-scoring machine, Bevan French, will be tested in his new position at fullback, but his ability to turn a game of its head could prove Parra's most lethal attacking asset.
Injuries aside, inexperience was arguably the achilles heel of the Penrith Panthers' still-strong 2016 run, fixed somewhat with the purchase of James Tamou to fill out their already impressive forward pack. Cleary Junior, Moylan and Peachey can all win matches for the men from the foot-of-the-mountains, but doing it regularly — and, most significantly, in the bigger games — might continue to be a bridge too far.
Similarly, the Canterbury Bulldogs, Gold Coast Titans and Wests Tigers are likely to star as little more than disruptors and/or fringe top eight finishers this season, with few major shuffles from any of the three teams giving them an advantage over those that have overhauled. While both the Bulldogs and Titans played finals football in 2016, the Goldie boys aren't likely to get as much mileage from their main 2016 weapon: the act of underestimation. While the Dogs, clearly capable of grit, and grinding out a win on any given Sunday at any given park, will only get close if they turn around the consistent lacking performances of their often incompatible halves, Reynolds and Mbye. The only positive to pull from the pre-season of the Tigers is the break-up of the long-endured unhappy marriage between Coach Taylor and Captain Farah, with not enough else changing for the Campbelltown-Balmain hybrid — same inexperienced halves combination, same hit-and-miss flair — to suggest they'll find they'll be a guaranteed top eight team.
Who Almost Certainly Won't
Apologies to those of red/white and silvertail persuasion, as it looks like fans of both St. George-Illawarra and Manly won't be enjoying their league too much this year. The Dragons have done little to address their poor 2016 showing, choosing to blood juniors over big name signings, in the hope of uncovering a golden ticket solution for last season's dismally dull attack (they scored only 58 tries all year, second only to the Knights). This, coupled with far too few strong contenders in key positions to handle inevitable injuries, will likely mean it'll be another tough slog for the Red V.
Similarly, Manly, despite a big turnover of players, have far too many holes across their line, with the extra pressure placed on new captain Daly Cherry-Evans for all-and-every attacking option likely to be too heavy of a burden for the small-shouldered playmaker. The exit of long-time leader Jamie Lyon won't help the northern beaches boys' chances, neither will any loss of their fortress-like advantage from the recent decision to rename Brookvale Oval to Lottoland.
Throw also into this cellar dweller collective, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who despite plenty of pre-season positivity (or blind hope?), look set to repeat their woeful 2016 run. Halfback Adam Reynolds has already been ruled out for the first month of footy with appendicitis and, given last season's heads-down attitude once the chips were low, it's doubtful the Bunnies have the necessary ticker to win when they shouldn't, a requirement of any legitimate contender. 2017 recruit, veteran hooker, Robbie Farah, could be the remedy for fixing the club's culture, but then again, his reputation as a longtime disruptive force at the Tigers suggests otherwise.
Finally, at this stage, it's fair to say the Newcastle Knights should probably just keep that wooden spoon in the cutlery drawer for the time being. Hell, given last season's dismal form and few major personnel changes in the offseason, the Redcliffe Dolphins look more likely at taking out the NRL pendant. Sorry, novocastrian loyalists, looks like another long one lies ahead.
Topics: Rugby League