|Two of these clubs will miss the Top 8. Who will it be?|
Brisbane Broncos – Prediction: 6th
Arguably a make-or-break year for Wayne Bennett despite being the Godfather of the Red Hill franchise. Bad results early on will result in a tonne of media pressure for a club hell-bent on success. But in all honesty, with the experts writing them off, Bennett will be in his element. When I look at this Broncos squad, I think they’re in for a tough year. But you just cannot write off the Supercoach and his influence. I think they’ll adopt a real us-against-the-world mentality this year, and if they’re to do any good, they’ll need too.
They need a big year from their outside backs; like, James Roberts becomes the season’s leading try-scorer, makes the NSW Blues, and finishes the year with a spot in the World Cup squad. It’s time he repays some of the faith Bennett’s put in him. I wouldn’t expect Benji Marshall to feature much in the top-grade, it reminds me of when Scott Prince went back there for one last season. He was in and out of the NRL team all season.
Their obvious strength is in their forward pack, which is how they’ll win their games, but how the year for Ben Hunt unfolds will be intriguing. Already he has been labelled the most under-pressure player in the game by none other than the Eighth Immortal.
Too good of a coach to write off, look for some new faces to filter into the NRL side and inject some youth, energy and excitement into the side.
Canberra Raiders – Prediction: 5th
The Green Machine must have a good start to the year without injured skipper Jarrod Croker. They are a side that can play with momentum and could be able to make a late charge for the finals, but the first six weeks without him could potentially decided where they finish.
They’ve built well over the past two seasons under Ricky Stuart and now need to take the next step to push for a premiership. Hopefully they don’t read into the experts’ predictions who have them making the big dance in October.
They’ve lost big Paul Vaughn to the Dragons but have picked up wrecking-ball Dave Taylor who returns from a stint in the south of France. Much will depend on the way the players Stuart seemed to bring the best out of in 2016 play, like BJ Leilua, Jordan Rapana and Junior Paulo.
If things go well for the Raiders, they’ll go really-well. But if they can’t find the same team spirit and form as 2016, then they might find themselves on holidays in September.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – Prediction: 11th
One of the most under-fire clubs this season despite making the finals for the last five consecutive seasons under Des Hasler. They are a club that demands success, and after making two Grand Finals during those five years - as well as becoming one of the best run clubs in the game - they are desperate for a premiership at board level.
Last year they were predicted to have a rough year, but after four rounds they’d won every game and were sitting on top of the table. But then their season seemed to just meander along. We saw glimpses of Moses Mbye’s ability, but their attacking style with forwards acting as play-makers appeared to have run its race.
Des Hasler, however, is too smart, too cunning and too much of a Rugby League scientist not to conjure up a new way of playing, so I’m expecting some fresh or altered approaches. They still harbor one of the biggest and most fearsome packs in the game and if they can put last season behind them, they could surprise.
Something drastic has to change at Belmore for me though, and I can’t see them making the eight this time round. But with Hasler in charge, it’s so hard to write them off.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – Prediction: 9th
The 2016 NRL Premiers will head into the season with a cloud of doubt hanging over them after the loss of linchpin hooker Michael Ennis and fullback Ben Barba. Almost $1.5 million dollars ripped out of their salary cap is going to leave a monumental hole, and with no real replacement in the hooker position it’s easy to suggest a slide down the ladder for the Sharks.
With some of their Grand Final players missing, they went down to an under-strength Wigan in the World Club Challenge and if history is anything to go by, they will likely struggle in the early rounds after the long trip to England. Recent Premiers in the Cowboys, Souths, and the Roosters tended to do fairly well the year after by making the finals, but it will be a big task for Cronulla.
There’s some red-hot contenders this season and whether the Sharks have the depth to cover for their losses is the main talking point. What they do have, is some talented juniors continuing to filter through their system, and Jayden Brailey is at the top of that list. If Flanagan can manage to make some tweaks to help players like Brailey adapt to the side, they could make the finals.