We are now just a few weeks away from the start of the 2018 NRL season and excitement is mounting among fans across Australia.
Reigning premiers Melbourne Storm will be a force to be reckoned with, but they will miss key players Cooper Cronk, Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean, who all left the club after last season’s triumph. The Sydney Roosters will be massively boosted by the arrivals of Cronk and fellow superstar James Tedesco, while the North Queensland Cowboys, Parramatta Eels and Brisbane Broncos all look dangerous. Here are the leading contenders for glory this season:
The Roosters suffered a mauling in last year’s preliminary final, but they should be far stronger this time around after overhauling their squad. The arrivals of two of the biggest names in the game has left them sitting pretty, and Cronk and Tedesco can lead the club to success by forming a dynamic duo. Cronk’s presence will give the squad a huge presence as he will provide invaluable leadership and guidance. Luke Keary enjoyed a great first season in Sydney, while Jake Friend has been supremely consistent, and the Roosters are the team to beat. Anyone looking at the NRL betting will see that they are favourites to be named minor premiers and favourites to win the Grand Final. However, they will lose a few players during the State of Origin period and they do not have the greatest strength in depth, so that could hamper their chances of claiming the minor premiership.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys became just the second side to ever finish eighth in the ladder and go all the way to the Grand Final last year, but they lost out to the Storm in the big game. Coach Paul Green worked miracles to get the Cowboys that far last season amid a raft of injuries, and they could fare even better this time around as key players return. They have been a model of stability and continuity during Green’s tenure, and the lack of churn in the playing staff gives them a crucial advantage. Green has made tweaks when necessary – the signing of McLean from the Storm is a perfect example – but 11 of the players that will line up on the opening game against the Sharks were in the team three years ago. The return of Johnathan Thurston from injury will give the organisation a massive boost, as will re-signing Michael Morgan, whose game went to another level when Thurston was sidelined last year. The Cowboys will not be hit as badly during the State of Origin as they have in previous years and they look a good bet to be named minor premiers.
The defending champions have seen several key players leave in the wake of their thrashing of the Cowboys in last year’s Grand Final. The fabled Cooper-Slater-Smith triumvirate is now a thing of the past, while Harris and McLean will also be missed. But they have bolstered their squad with Ryan Hoffman, Sam Kasiano, Patrick Kaufusi, Sandor Earl, Billy Walters, Cooper Johns and Kayleb Milne. With coach Craig Bellamy, captain Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater in the ranks, you can never write them off, and they are $6.50 to top the ladder. But they may suffer a premiership hangover, particularly as most of their stars were then on World Cup duty. Brodie Croft will take time to grow into the number seven jersey, and the side should be decimated by the State of Origin, so it might be better to look elsewhere for a minor premier, but the Storm will be as dangerous as ever in the Finals.
The odds jump considerably before reaching the next four teams in the betting: the Brisbane Broncos are $12, the Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels are out at $13 and the Cronulla Sharks are $15 to win the minor premiership. For the Grand Final winner market, the Broncos and Eels are both $12, while the Panthers are $14, the Sharks are $15 and the Sydney Rabbitohs are $16. The Panthers will have to reverse years of underachievement if they are to deliver on widespread predictions of them finishing in the top four. They are genuine contenders thanks to the talents of Nathan Cleary and James Maloney, but question marks linger over Anthony Griffin.
The Broncos will benefit from the addition of the giant Payne Haas, who could be a Rookie of the Year contender, while Jack Bird has terrific potential. But Anthony Millford needs to deliver, and new leaders must emerge alongside the ageing Sam Thaiday in the forward pack. The Sharks suffered a premiership hangover last season as their campaign was riddled with inconsistency and disciplinary issues. However, they have the talent to beat anyone on their day, so they will be a force to be reckoned with if Shane Flanagan can reinvigorate the group. But perhaps the best of the bunch might be the Eels, where Bevan French is going from strength to strength. They have an aggressive pack and a talented backline and have been on an upward curve ever since Brad Arthur took the reins. They have the ruthlessness, aggression and ambition to improve upon last season’s shortcomings, and the Eels look like an interesting sleeper bet.
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and he has been covering the NRL for many years.