THE start of a new year brings with it hope for all 16 NRL clubs but a premiership campaign can be quickly derailed by a major injury, off-field controversy or friction between a coach and his players.
If your team is to go deep in the NRL finals this year this is the one storyline that will bring their hopes – and yours – crashing back down to earth.
Brisbane Broncos – Milford doesn’t measure up
The Broncos lost the bidding war to keep Ben Hunt at Red Hill and instead spent their money on Sharks centre Jack Bird. That leaves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima as the only halves with NRL experience in the entire squad and requires Milford in particular to develop his game management skills. The pair won 10 of the 12 games where they were Wayne Bennett’s starting halves last season but continued success will depend on whether Milford can be ‘the man’.
Canberra Raiders – Halves can’t bring the team together
Canberra fans will feel as though their nightmare scenario came true when Josh Hodgson ruptured his ACL in the World Cup but his loss piles further pressure on an area many have claimed has been the Raiders’ Achilles heel in recent years. Despite boasting a talent-rich squad the Raiders have made the finals just once in the past five years and Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer are entering third season together as Ricky Stuart’s preferred halves. Both are off contract at the end of 2018 and a slow start combined with contract speculation could become a major distraction.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – Foran fails his physical
Kieran Foran has played just 26 NRL games since leaving the Sea Eagles at the end of the 2015 season but arrives at Belmore expected to be the focal point of Dean Pay’s new-look attack. Even as his class was evident in 17 games for the Warriors physically Foran looked restricted by his troublesome hamstring and there must be serious doubts he can be the player he was three years ago. If his body fails him again, so will the Bulldogs.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – Moylan the million-dollar flop
The acquisition of Matt Moylan from Penrith was in many ways a player swap for James Maloney but the former Panther comes to the Shire on a much larger pay packet and with far fewer credentials than his predecessor. Moylan has started only eight games at five-eighth in his five seasons in the NRL and how his free-spirited style gels with the structure of a Cronulla side laden with veteran forwards will be the making – or breaking – of the Sharks’ season.
Gold Coast Titans – Brennan doesn’t get the buy-in
Change has been a constant at the Titans in recent years and new coach Garth Brennan has brought in new faces, new coaches and new ways of doing things, ways that have proven very effective in the lower grades. He is hammering the importance of basic skills while encouraging use of the footy but like any adjustment it will likely take time to bed down. Due to the Commonwealth Games the Titans play just one game on the Gold Coast in the first seven rounds and if Brennan’s methods aren’t showing promise the natives might begin to get restless.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles – Cap drama clouds recruitment
It may have already cost them the chance to recruit Mitchell Pearce and find an adequate replacement for Blake Green but the last thing Manly fans need is for the current salary cap investigation to linger any longer than it has to. A “significant” financial penalty is hanging over the heads of the Northern Beaches club as 2018 kicks off and while they will be spared the loss of any competition points, a large fine could cause longer-term issues. Coach Trent Barrett may have to turn to either Jackson Hastings or Lachlan Croker as Daly Cherry-Evans’s partner in the halves in 2018 but if the fine is upward of $1 million it could also hurt their place in the market for recruitment for 2019.
Melbourne Storm – ‘The big three’ make 2018 season their last
With Cooper Cronk blending in up in Bondi the ‘big three’ at the Storm now consists of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and coach Craig Bellamy and all have big decisions to make in the coming months. The loss of Cronk will help to transition Brodie Croft into the top grade but it’s hard to imagine how a Melbourne Storm team would look without Smith, Slater and Bellamy 12 months later. The problem with greatness is that it is so hard to sustain and a mass walkout by the men who shaped a decade of dominance would place the Storm in a very vulnerable position.
Newcastle Knights – Ponga struggles to adjust to NRL
We have seen glimpses of his brilliance in the top grade – ironically Knights fans were witness to it as he tore their side to shreds in Round 8 last year – but the reality is that Kalyn Ponga is a very inexperienced NRL fullback. He’s played just six games at what is now considered one of the most physically demanding positions on the field and his slight frame will be subjected to plenty of poundings by opposition defences – once they get their hands on him. Newcastle fans have been waiting 12 months to see this extraordinary talent turn out for their club; it will be a disaster if it isn’t worth the wait.
North Queensland Cowboys – Taumalolo sidelined for extended period
The attention will all be on the returns of Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston from injury when Round 1 kicks off but if there is one player the Cowboys can’t afford to lose in 2018 it is Jason Taumalolo. Paul Green’s men showed great heart and belief to make the grand final without their co-captains but so much of their momentum to come home late in games was generated by the best running forward in the game the past two seasons. This is a time with genuine premiership favouritism claims; the thing that would hurt that the most is having to do it without Taumalolo.
Parramatta Eels – Hayne tears club culture apart
Jarryd Hayne’s return to Parramatta took a sordid twist before he even began training with his new teammates and the great fear for blue and gold army is that the former prodigal son will tear down all of what Brad Arthur has built in the past four years. Taking Hayne back is a risk – everyone knows it – and how he fits into Arthur’s vision culturally – let alone where he plays – will be the storyline that defines the Eels’ season.
Penrith Panthers – Maloney stunts Cleary’s growth
Nathan Cleary’s influence on the Panthers was most effective when Matt Moylan was absent late in the season but in signing James Maloney Penrith have brought in an even bigger personality to partner their star half. Maloney is a proven winner and points happen around him but coach Anthony Griffin will need to strike the right balance between seniority and giving Cleary ownership of running the side. Maloney’s responsibility won’t be just to play his best football but ensure that Cleary gets the chance to shine as well. If that doesn’t happen the Panthers could go backwards.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Seibold can’t find his No.9
New coach Anthony Seibold has declared he wants an 80-minute hooker in 2018, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be beset by the same problem that haunted Michael Maguire in 2017. Whether it was Robbie Farah or Damien Cook coming off the bench it was never apparent which was the better option, Farah’s experience and creativity around the ruck in stark contrast to the pure speed out of dummy-half of the lightning-fast Cook. Farah’s 10 try assists were behind only halves Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker yet when Cook was brought on and generated momentum through the middle calls grew for his elevation to the starting team. The last thing Souths can afford is for Seibold to chop and change his dummy-half searching for the right formula.
St George Illawarra Dragons – Widdop steps out of the limelight
When Benji Marshall arrived at the Dragons Gareth Widdop seemed to shrink back into his shell and their halves combination failed as a result; the same can’t happen with Ben Hunt. Hunt shapes as the half St George Illawarra have craved for a decade but the unknown is how his arrival will impact on Widdop’s influence. After an ordinary 2016 season Widdop re-established himself as one of the best five-eighths in the game in 2017 because he was the dominant half alongside the likes of Josh McCrone and Kurt Mann. It will be much more a shared responsibility next season but Dragons fans need Widdop to maintain that same aggressive approach in attack or face fading into the background.
Sydney Roosters – Cronk doesn’t fit in with Bondi boys
Cooper Cronk will improve the Roosters on the field, but how will one of the NRL’s most cerebral players fit in to a Roosters team ripped apart by his arrival? Mitchell Pearce was an extremely popular figure amongst the playing group and was effectively pushed out by the club’s pursuit of Cronk while Connor Watson and Aidan Guerra have also moved on. How will Cronk respond to the cheeky ways of Luke Keary? Will he head out for a couple of beers with Boyd, Jake and Jared or spend his nights exploring Sydney’s finest restaurants with his new bride? The Roosters thrive when they are a tightly-bound playing unit who spend time together off the field; Cronk’s idiosyncratic ways have the potential to disrupt that.
Warriors – Johnson fails to find his foil
The signing of Blake Green to partner Shaun Johnson in the Warriors halves makes sense on a lot of levels, but so too did the signing of Kieran Foran and they still finished 13th in 2017. It is virtually a Kiwi team inside and out of the halves pairing and the only reason for the team to underachieve again is if the two key playmakers can’t find a way to make it work. Warriors fans must begin every year with great expectations but if Johnson and Green aren’t compatible they will be let down once again.
Wests Tigers – Brooks doesn’t take ownership of the team
Beyond seeing James Tedesco win a premiership with the Roosters the last thing the Tigers fans want to see in 2018 is Luke Brooks down on confidence and struggling to assert himself on the game. The only one of the ‘big four’ to pledge his future to the Tigers, Brooks has been given two international front-rowers to lay a platform and a State of Origin five-eighth as a foil but the fortunes of Ivan Cleary’s men will very much depend on how Brooks performs. It seems a lifetime ago that he burst onto the scene with a man-of-the-match performance on debut at the SCG; the first of a new two-year deal needs to be a good one for the Tigers to move forward.