League Freaks 2013 National Rugby League Season Preview

After an off season of hard work, 16 teams line up for a 6 month war that will see only one of them crowned as National Rugby League Premiers.

This off season has been one of the longest I can remember. With no international series played after the clubs season, we had to wait a month and a half longer than normal to get out first taste of Rugby League action in 2013. We read the reports coming out about how our teams off seasons were shaping up. Players changed teams, youngsters made progress and players across the competition kept their eyes on the prize as the summer months saw them endevour to improve on what they had achieved in 2012.

Right now, all 16 clubs are on an even footing. You and I might be willing to write teams off right from the start, but history has shown us to expect the unexpected when the NRL season kicks off.

A new era for the game comes with so many new questions…

Can the Storm become the first back-to-back since the Brisbane Broncos teams of the early 1990s? Will Parramatta start to fire under Rickey Stuart? Are the Bulldogs actually a better team than last season? Are the Roosters really a top contender? How many games will Sonny Bill Williams play? How many games will Ben Barba play? How many games will Cameron Smith play? Is this the Cronulla Sharks season?

We are about to find out the answers to all of out questions, and to kick the season off, this is my annual season preview.

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, welcome to the 2013 National Rugby League season.

Newcastle Knights

You know Wayne Bennett is worrying about his team heading into a season when he is calling for huge changes to the interpretation of the play the ball area. Bennett took over a not very good Knights side and manage to make them worse last season. He recruited a defensive specialist in Beau Scott and some off casts from other clubs and for some reason people think the Knights will get different results to last season. I don’t get it…

The Knights looked horrible last season. On top of that they were almost unwatchable. Most of their wins came from boring the opposition to death. When people are talking about the big season they think Willie Mason will have, you know your club is in for a very long season.

I think the Knights will get a few wins here and there, but I suspect this season will be almost identical to last season. They keep buying old has beens, and if things go bad for them they could be wooden spooners very easily.

St George/Illawarra Dragons

I don’t know what the Dragons expected out of the 2013 season but it looks like management put no effort what so ever into recruitment and basically have thrown coach Steve Price under a bus.

Price is on a hiding to nothing, with a lineup that has been allowed to decay since Wayne Bennett left the club and with team management openly looking to recruit the clubs next coach. Under those conditions this team is supposed to fire and make a mark on the NRL this season?

The Dragons forward pack has some balls. They will go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NRL. They won’t win every contest, but they will no stop trying, and I really admire that about them.

Jamie Soward as always will cop grief about how the team plays but once again he will be the only player in their lineup that can spark anything in attack. I think this will be his last season at the club and he will look to go elsewhere from 2014 onwards. At the right club he will be a huge asset.

This is going to be a long season for the Dragons. I think we will season Price sacked and Tim Sheens may find himself coaching the team before seasons end.

The Dragons will fight hard, but they just don’t have the firepower this season. They won’t make the finals.

North Queensland Cowboys

Will he or won’t he? That will be the question that will hang over the Cowboys all season. I hope Thurston stays with the Cowboys. I hope he retires with the club. I also think that how they start the season will have a big impact on his final decision.

The Cowboys have the two best forwards in Australia playing for them in Tamou and Scott. They have a great playmaker and a great fullback. They almost have all the pieces, and if they shoot out of the blocks at the start of the season and they look like they have finally got a contending team on their hands, I think Thurston will stay.

The Cowboys defense is my big concern. In attack they can put it together but defensively they have been so inconsistent in the past and it has really hurt them against the top teams in the competition. I have a feeling it will improve this year and the Cowboys will take another step up. I think they can be one of the true contenders this season if things go their way.

If Thurston chooses to leave, all bets are off. I think they could fall away pretty quickly. But with things going their way I think the Cowboys have a team capable of winning the Grand Final.

Melbourne Storm

You and I both know what the Melbourne Storm will bring to the table in 2013. While they lost a couple of decent contributors  Craig Bellamy always finds the right players to file any holes he has in his lineup, so I’m not worried about the losses.

The Storm have been my pick to win the Grand Final every single season going back about five years now. They are without doubt the best coached team in the competition and their attack is so precise, its hard for any team to stop them.

One thing I’ll be interested to see is how the Storm’s season plays out. Craig Bellamy in the past has pushed the “Go” button from the very first week and seen his team burn out by finals time. Since then he has allowed them to ease their way into the season and really got them peaking at the right time, a few weeks out from the finals.

I wouldn’t surprise me if we saw the Storm squad rotated heavily this season and while at times they will clearly look like the best team in the comp I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t finished top of the table at seasons end. They only have top finish in 4th place to be in with a shot of winning that second week of the finals off. If we get to a point where the Storm can finish in the top 4 no matter how results fall in the last season of the season, I think Bellamy will piss everyone off by resting players leading into the finals.

As we stand right now, every other team feels like they need to beat the Storm to win the Premiership. There’s a good reason for that….

South Sydney Rabbitohs

There was a moment there last season when the Bunnies caught lightening in a bottle. They really looked like a team that could win it all. Then, at the very worst moment, they lost Adam Reynolds and it ended their hopes.

They have a great coach in Michael Maguire, they have a very good pack of forward, a great halfback in Reynolds and in my opinion they have the best player in the world in Greg Inglis playing fullback for them. Throw in great depth and a bit of an x factor in that their success generates a lot of buzz…and I think the South Sydney Rabbitohs can win the Grand Final this season.

A lot rests on Reynolds ability to keep improving through his second season. I think he will be alright though playing behind such a good pack of forwards. They will lose a little with Dave Taylor, he did give them game breaking ability, but I think his loss will be off set with better defense and not having that “Will he turn up this week?” question that always hangs over Taylor.

The thing the Rabbitohs have that no opposition team can stop is Greg Inglis. He dominates games in attack and his defense at the back is sensational  He can make something out of nothing with his speed and acceleration, and when that doesn’t work, he can use power to blast his way through an opposition line. Oh and, he is one of the most skilled players in the game too, so there is always that!

has the Rabbitohs added more strike power in the centers (And they almost got Michael Jennings), I would have had them down as favorites to win the Grand Final. As it stands right now, they are one of the elite contenders.

Sydney Roosters

They added strike power in Jennings and they added a circus in Sonny Bill Williams, but its the addition of James Maloney that is easily the biggest addition to this side.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t rate Mitchell Pearce. In the games that matter, he is consistently terrible. With Maloney now there to carry the leadership in the halves, Pearce won’t have to guide this team around the park as much. That is a good thing.

I worry about Anthony Minichello at the back. As last season went on Minichello not only looked a little off the pace, but he started making game changing mistakes. That is something that may see him lose the fullback role some time this season. I also worry about the Roosters depth in the forwards. Sonny Bill Williams will be injured all the time, and that the club felt like that had to bring in Luke O’Donnell (Who is D.O.N.E.) shows the club themselves are worried about their forwards too.

JWH needs to have a big season. He has the potential to be one of the best forwards in the game, but he needs to get rid of the crap out of his game for that to happen. If he gets his head screwed on, he could have a huge season that see’s him being talked about alongside the likes of Tamou, Scott and Matulino.

I don’t see the Roosters as one of the top contenders, but they should have enough talent to be one of the better teams in the competition. It will be interesting to see how Trent Robinson has this side playing.

Canberra Raiders

The Raiders apparently spent the off season looking to gain ideas from every single sport played on the planet, and that worries me because for long stretches of the last few years, this is a team that looked like they had no idea how to play Rugby League, let alone anything else! Sure they finished last season well but they also looked like the worst team in the competition for big parts of the season as well.

The Raiders have a heap of talent but they have also invested in a couple of key players who they can no longer depend upon at all. Both Terry Campese and Josh Dugan take up a massive chunk of the clubs salary cap space and they rately every play together. Incredibly, the Raiders depth means they can cover both players about as well as any club could hope for.

At the end of the day the Raiders chances come down to coaching, and I don’t think David Furner is a good coach at all. I think he completely loses the faith of his players during the season and even accounting for all the coaching help the club has tried to bring in for him, Furner looks like a coach that has ran out of ideas and who needs to move on if this side is to go anywhere close to winning a premiership.

Wests Tigers

After a tough season in 2012 the Tigers had a big clear out that included getting rid of Tim Sheens as well as a number of solid performers from their lineup. They replaced this group with a failed Super League coach and no one decent players of any note!

I simply don’t understand how the Tigers think they are anywhere close to being a contender. This is a team that has been physically dominated by the rest of the competition for a number of seasons…and they just refuse to address that issue! Robbie Farah is a great player, and Benji Marshall is one of the best players of all time. They manage to drag this team kicking and screaming to wins, but they have to do it behind a forward pack that can not win them the game.

The NRL these days is an arms race. Every club sports a big, mobile pack of forwards that go to war in every game they play. The Tigers simply don’t have that. They have been left behind.

I think the Tigers are going to have a very tough season. You cant blame Farah or Marshall for how they go this season. They haven’t got much to work with and I don’t expect the coach to come up with anything new…just ask St Helens and Bradford Bulls fans what they thought of Potters coaching.

Gold Coast Titans

The Titans are basically a club surviving after a financial nuclear Holocaust.

Unable to pay for many decent junior players and needing to dump the salaries of players they locked in to ridiculous long term deals….this team looks like a badly run fantasty Rugby League side.

John Cartwright is an ok coach with no idea how to put a side together. Some will say that he isn’t in charge of putting this lineup together, but surely the club isn’t just signing players to these stupid long term deals without asking him. If they are he should quit!

The Titans have to reply on too many youngsters and too many under performing players in key positions to do anything this season. They will not make the finals. Hopefully they can pull things together with an eye on the future.

Parramatta Eels

The Eels have spent millions of dollars to put a broom through the front office and coaching staff, and that is great. However I look at the Eels lineup and I see zero improvement.

Chris Sandow is a very handy halfback to have guiding your side around the park but he hasn’t got a whole lot to work with. I think this season we will just see opposition teams looking to pressure Sandow once again because there is no one else running the show at Parramatta.

Jarryd Hayne will be asked to step up after being named as one of the clubs captains, but going on previous form you can expect to see him hampered by injury, playing terribly erratic football and at times looking completely disinterested. The Eels lost Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt last season, both of whom gave some sort of veteran leadership. The idea that this team will now be lead by Hayne and Renie Maitua just horrifies me!

Rickey Stuart will get their fitness up and should get their defense together a little, but I don’t see the Eels making too much improvement. Unless some of their juniors step up and make a difference, this is a very average looking Eels team.

Penrith Panthers

The Panthers have done everything they can to dump big salaries over the last 12 months and that should help them compete in the future. The loss of Luke Lewis wasn’t as big as some people will make it out to be. Quality forwards are a dime a dozen in the NRL and while Lewis is a top class player, I think the Panthers can cover for his loss pretty easily. The loss of Michael Jennings however is a big blow, and really robs the side of its only strike player.

That is the big problem the Panthers have. Who in their side will worry an opposition in attack? Lachlan Coote will have the odd game here and there and Sika Manu can be damaging. Josh Mansour is a strong ball running but really, I don’t think any opposition team will be losing sleep the night before they face the Panthers.

The club has pushed the line that this is a rebuilding season (After they had sold as many season tickets as possible anyway!) and I just don’t see much to look forward to out of this Panthers side. They should do some thing better than last years team, but in attack, they have nothing!

Canterbury Bulldogs

Coming off a brilliant season in 2012 and looking to take that last step up to recieve the premiership trophy, the Bulldogs have managed one major addition in Tony Williams while not losing anyone crucial to their run to the Grand Final last season. The issues Ben Barba is facing right now will be an issue at the season of the season, but I think the Dogs have more than enough talent to cover for the loss of Barba.

The Bulldogs forward pack is simply the best in the competition. They have everything covered. It is hard to imagine how teams will cope with this forward pack and then also have Tony Williams hitting holes out wide. I really think he will have a season that is beyond most peoples expectations.

The Bulldogs goal is to win the Grand Final and it is going to take a lot to stop them. They have improved that great pack, Josh Reynolds will be better for another years experience, Barba’s absence will just show how good their depth is and even if he doesn’t return this season I think the Bulldogs are without doubt a semi finalist at least.

Manly Sea Eagles

Last season Geoff Toovey stepped into the role as head coach and took Des Haslers team to some great heights. With a year as the head coach now under his belt, the results of this team now lie solely on Toovey’s shoulders. I have a feeling the Sea Eagles are going to take a step backwards this season. A few of their key players are starting to get on in years and I just don’t see any improvement in the side.

While the clubs management canalizes itself the football team has normally been able to get on with things and get the job done. You can’t do that forever though and I think this is the season all the disruptions will effect what we see on the field.

Dale Cherry-Evans and Keiran Foran need to step up huge this season and really take control of this team. It won’t be good enough for them to just work off their forwards. They need to make things happen.

I just think pressure will eventually hurt the Sea Eagles. Pressure from all angles. They should still make the finals and they will still be able to beat some of the top teams, but they Sea Eagles won’t be the team they used to be.

Brisbane Broncos

Not many people realize this, but I think its pretty clear the Brisbane Broncos are in a stage of transition. The club knows it has a number of issues to sort out, but they are lucky enough to have enough talent to at least provide fans with a competitive team, if not one of the elite teams in the National Rugby League.

Everyone knows the Broncos have issues around the halves. Signing Scott Prince was a sign of desperation and one I don’t think will do anything to help the side at all. There is another major problem I think the Broncos have created for themselves though…

Over the last few years the Broncos have brought through a lot of very good young players. They simply have too many players in their squad though that you would describe as utility players rather than specialists in any one position. So many of their players can play roles all over the field, and that is really handy for any team to have. It is why they can hit a certain level of consistency  because they cover injuries so well. In some games this allows the club to overwhelm an opposition, but when the whips are cracking at the end of the year these jack of all trades players cant cut it with the specialists other teams put out on the field.

I think the Broncos are a top six team, and they will be hard for everyone to face this season. I just don’t see them as a true title threat though.

New Zealand Warriors

How depressing! After the terrible season they had last year under a coach that was totally out of his depth, they sign up a club destroying force in Matthew Elliott and he steps in and goes right to his old book of tricks.

The Warriors have already got his old trainer mate in Carl Jennings at the club. They have already reached out to sign old players and friends of Elliott’s. Forget that the club draws from the best junior base in the world, that won’t come into things under Elliott rule. When this is all over, the club will need rebuilt, just as the Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers both did.

Forget it. The Warriors have no chance this season. They have a lot of talent, and Warriors fans know I love the team and I love watching some of the players in the side. However, there will be no success under Matthew Elliott. None. His record speaks for itself.

The best case scenario is that the Warriors look terrible early on, things go from bad to worse, and that Elliott is given his marching orders before seasons end. If that is how things play out, Warriors fans should rejoice. That is the only shot the club has of not being destroyed over the next few season.

League Freaks 2013 NRL Ladder Prediction
1. Canterbury Bulldogs
2. South Sydney Rabbitohs
3. Cronulla Sharks
4. Melbourne Storm
5. North Queensland Cowboys
6. Brisbane Broncos
7. Sydney Roosters
8. Manly Sea Eagles
9. Canberra Raiders
10. Newcastle Knights
11. New Zealand Warriors
12. St George/Illawarra Dragons
13. Gold Coast
14. Penrith Panthers
15. Wests Tigers
16. Parramatta Eels

The Haves Vs The Have Nots
I think there is a massive gulf between the top 8 teams in the competition and the bottom 8. It all comes down to two reasons.

The first is that the top teams are simply better run clubs overall. Its not just about what a team has done over the last 12 months, its about a prolonged commitment to being successful. They recruit the best juniors, they use their salary cap space better, they attract the best coached, and it all shows on the field.

The second thing is that the sudden rise in the salary cap has seen a few players migrate towards contenders. This is something we haven’t seen in the past. teams got just enough breathing space under their caps to reach a little higher for a star recruit here and there. Tony Williams to the Bulldogs, Michael Jennings to the Roosters, Luke Lewis to the Sharks…players that in any other season might have to have looked to a lower table club for a big pay day were able to get a sizable pay day from a contender.

Styles Make Fights
It is hard to rank where the top sides stand against each other because in my opinion their strengths and weaknesses all work differently against each other.

For instance, I think the Storm could beat the Bulldogs again in the Grand Final, but I think if they have to face a grinding side like the Sharks, then they will run into problems. I think the Bulldogs would beat the Sharks, but then you have the Cowboys who I think would beat the Rabbitohs. Meanwhile I think the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs will have all out wars this season….it is going to be incredible.

It is a very open competition in that sense and it should make for some epic encounters this season as well as some head scratching results.

The Dally M Winner Is…
I can’t go past Greg Inglis. Another season playing at fullback and I think he will be playing in more of the big games this season with South Sydney going better. One player I have a bit of a feeling about though is Tony Williams. I think he will play in more games this year and on the back of the Bulldogs huge forward pack and running off some very skillful backs, I think Williams will be unstoppable this season.

The 2013 Grand Finalists Are…
The Melbourne Storm vs The South Sydney Rabbitohs

I think the Storm will peak at the right time. With all the experience they have in their side, it would take a epic performance by someone to stop the Storm from reaching the Grand Final.

As for South Sydney, I look at all the other contenders they would have to make the Grand Final and I like how they match up against them. They have some proven big game performers in their side and when it comes to the contests against the elite sides like the Cowboys, Sharks and Bulldogs, I think the Rabbitohs can beat all of them.

The 2013 Grand Final Winners Are…
The Melbourne Storm. You can no go past their ability, their coaching and their experience. The Rabbitohs do have the ability to beat them, but I just couldn’t bet against the Storm. I think their season will be a bit all over the place at times but when the whips are cracking they will be set for their run and nobody will stop them.

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