A Century of Rugby League: The 2008 NRL Preview

Filed in Other by on December 8, 2010

Every now and then, things can get a little weird.

And so it was last Saturday evening at The Porterhouse, where a chain of events resulted in a strange discussion on Canadian Football and your humble author being labeled a “celebrity asshole.” What had started out as a few quiet recovery beers had escalated into something totally unexpected.

Sometime during my first beer, a blonde Irish girl stumbled over and requested an autograph. I laughed and told her no and that she would be wise to read some Yeats and get some class. She insisted that I scribble my name on a piece of paper and whilst doing so, an act of pure convenience, I asked her who she thought I was. “You know who you are” was the response, that beautiful Irish lilt seemingly having departed six pints back. Well, indeed. And whilst I write a well-read column and occasionally mix in high circles, there are no delusions of celebrity in these parts. An artist, perhaps. But not celebrity.

All returned to normality until a number of hours later, a middle-aged Canadian woman comes up to me and begs my forgiveness for interrupting my conversation. She explains that she has only been in Australia for three days and that she saw me sign an autograph for a girl a number of hours ago and that she did not have the courage to come and meet me but went back to her hotel and was convinced by her husband to return and could I explain who I was and perhaps sign something for her. A little annoyed and extremely perplexed by the events of the evening, I told her I was not famous and nor would I sign anything for her. It was about then that I was called a celebrity asshole, with this Canadian woman insisting I was famous because I had signed an autograph earlier. My friend Peta then chimed in and noted that I was a sportswriter and would be happy to sign anything for her, almost falling off her seat in laughter. All of a sudden I was talking Saskatchewan Rough Riders and Doug Flutie and three downs and big endzones. And signing autographs for a woman who was terribly excited about her brush with “celebrity”.

It was a weird evening and I thought it best to leave forthwith where I, or whoever I was believed to be, was somewhat less recognisable. And so I did, wandering away to contemplate what had just happened and to get a grip on things.

This, Dear Reader, is how things are. In the world of rugby league, at any rate:

16th: Newcastle Knights

The genocide is complete and those that Brian Smith deemed incapable have been expunged. No more Adam Woolnough and no more Clint Newton and no more Kirk Reynoldson. And, of course, there is no more Andrew Johns, the legend now a remnant of history. They have been replaced by players that can be considered only equals at best. Ben Cross. Chris Houston. Danny Wicks. That is hardly the personnel change fans were expecting after the pain of seeing the team torn apart last season. It is doubtful things will go much better for this once-proud club in 2008. The backline has very little spark outside of Kurt Gidley and the use of Chris Bailey at number six will do nothing to fix this. Jarrod Mullen has shown a great deal of potential but he needs to add some consistency to his game. Up front, stars Buderus and Simpson are running on old legs and it is doubtful either will halt the decline. Around them are a pack of lumbering journeymen (and if anyone loves a lumbering player, it is Brian Smith) with only Cory Paterson and Zeb Taia appearing to have any real future. The Knights will offer very little this season.

15th: Wests Tigers

It still defies belief that the Tigers won the premiership only three seasons ago. It was a total oddity of history akin to Mark Latham rising to lead the ALP. The Tigers have only two things going for them this season. Robbie Farah, one of the most dynamic hookers in the NRL and Tim Sheens, a man who ranks among the great rugby league philosophers and mentors of the last quarter-century. Without those two, the Tigers look no better than useless. The forward pack is mediocre at best, the halves have spent more time in surgery than on the football team and the outside backs look short on pace and skill. Chris Lawrence is the obvious exception on the last point and has the ability to go a long way in this league. Farah will win the odd game for the Wests Tigers and the Tigers will go on a little winning run at some point (there is no bigger momentum team in the NRL) but for the most part, they will struggle to make an impact against classier outfits.

14th: Gold Coast Titans

As was the case in 2007, the major problem for the Titans will be depth or the lack thereof. That and the general absence of star power required to excel in the NRL. The Titans forward pack is more than capable. Luke Bailey is one of the finest front rowers in the game, Anthony Laffranchi should break into Origin this year and Ashley Harrison should return to his old form after a year of being shuffled around and underappreciated at the Roosters. With the likes of Mark Minichiello, Brad Meyers and Nathan Friend to support them, the Titans forward pack is solid enough. The problems, however, are in the backline. Scott Prince had a good 2007 but will need to be even better in 2008 with Mat Rogers switching to five-eighth and virtually nothing out wide. Preston Campbell is a liability these days and there is not much class in the three-quarter line, making the Titans defensively vulnerable wide of the ruck. Any injuries will only further compound this significant weakness. It is doubtful the Titans will cause too much trouble for the good teams this season.

13th: St. George-Illawarra Dragons

Once were warriors. Those days, however, are long gone and the rot has truly set in at Oki Jubilee. And Win Stadium. And ANZ Stadium. The Dragons are now a team lacking in identity, lacking in spirit and lacking in class. To top it all off, Nathan Brown is in charge and his record says more about his inability to coach at the top level than any words I can throw together. Ben Creagh is a wonderfully hard-working and talented backrower, Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier are one of the best centre pairings in the NRL and Dean Young is a gifted thinker with a great work-ethic. And then there is a forward pack without much heart, led by Jason Ryles, and seemingly a smorgasbord of hookers, none of whom should be playing first grade. Jamie Soward is a capable halfback but he could struggle behind a pack going backwards. The only positive for Dragons fans in 2008 will be the brutal execution of Nathan Brown and the prospect of a fresh start in 2009.

12th: Penrith Panthers

The Penrith Panthers humiliated themselves in 2007, bringing shame and disbelief to Western Sydney. They were appalling defensively at times last year, leaking points and falling off tackles like it was the fashionable thing to do. To the credit of Matthew Elliott and Peter Mulholland, they have sought to rectify this by bringing in Petero Civoniceva and to a lesser extent Adam Woolnough and sending Joel Clinton as far away from Penrith Park as they could. With Trent Waterhouse, Rhys Wesser and Luke Rooney returning from injury and the exciting Jarrod Sammut now established as a first-grade starter, the Panthers seemingly have to improve. Like most of the cellar dwellers though, depth is the major problem at the Panthers and if the likes of Tim Grant and Matthew Bell become top-grade staples, Penrith will be on the wrong side of the scoreboard more often than not. Frank Pritchard must step up this year and it is imperative that Michael Jennings takes his game to the next level after a stellar debut season if Penrith are to have any impact on the NRL in 2008. It is difficult to see Penrith making the finals this season but with Petero now at the foot of the mountains, they should be able to pass that wooden spoon and the humiliation associated with it to another team.

11th: Sydney Roosters

Most rugby league journalists will be squirming with embarrassment come September when their predictions of Rooster success will be long dead, their reputations forever stained by allegations of stupidity, simple-mindedness and bandwagon hopping. For all the huff and the puff about times changing at Bondi, they still have an aging forward pack filled with players who showed no respect to their jersey last season, merely adding a selfish troublemaker in Mason and a prop who has not played to his best for two seasons. Fitzgibbon is still an asset but Anthony Tupou was pathetic last season, Nate Myles was worse and Danny Nutley is surely done. They have also lost Craig Wing and while James Aubusson looks to have talent, you cannot replace Craig Wing. In the halves, the Roosters look reasonably strong but Mitchell Pearce will have to avoid the dreaded second-year syndrome while Braith Anasta will need to perform as he did last year and not how he did in 2005 and 2006. The Roosters back five look fairly weak with only Sam Perrett and Anthony Minichiello creating any interest and the latter will have to prove himself after missing nearly two seasons with injuries. Brad Fittler and the Roosters front office will learn some valuable lessons about teamwork and paying overs for washed up stars this season.

10th: Cronulla Sharks

There is little more enjoyable than making that September phone call to a Cronulla fan and recalling verbatim their March predictions that this will be the year and the pain ends now. They are usually too despondent to talk but hearing the whimpering and murmurs and the self-loathing cries are more than satisfying. Once again, the Sharks fans have set their hopes high and once again, disappointment will be forthcoming. The Sharks, without doubt, have a wonderful backrow in Bird, Gallen and Reece Williams and prop Luke Douglas will push for representative honours this season. And that is about it. Brett Kimmorley is washed-up and should retire before he does his legacy anymore harm. Brett Seymour should still be playing park footy. Ben Ross is appallingly soft. Ben Pomeroy has a pair of the worst hands in the NRL. Lance Thompson will be retired by Origin I. Luke Covell is the Ears Ronny of wingers. Brett Kearney is a dynamic player but will more than likely spend more time injured than playing. That is a bleak script for Sharks fans and the ending will be tragedy for them and high comedy for the rest of us. Of course, this has been the ending for forty years so we should all be used to how a Sharks season will play out by now.

9th: New Zealand Warriors

The Warriors had high expectations for the centenary season after a good showing in 2007 but the loss of exciting fullback Wade Mackinnon will be too big an obstacle for the Warriors to overcome. Mackinnon was the spark that took the Warriors to the next level and without him, all will not be as swell in Auckland. The forward pack remains imposing with Steven Price and Sam Rapira up front and the hardworking Michael Luck and Logan Swann in the backrow. The backline, though, looks relatively lifeless. Michael Witt is unlikely to have the year he did in 2007 and Grant Rovelli is not a first grade halfback. Brent Tate is a good buy and will add some starch to the three-quarter line and Jerome Ropati has ability but the strike power of the team is a real issue. Expect the Warriors to be fighting it out for the final few spots in the eight but a premiership is beyond them this time around.

8th: Canberra Raiders

In these staid and predictable times of century twenty-one, pre-season predictions of doom and misery for the Canberra Raiders is a now annual ritual for many in the uninformed rugby league media. Once more the Raiders have been underestimated and once more they will embarrass their detractors. While the team has only one superstar, they are sound enough across the park to beat bad teams and good teams lacking focus. It is the plucky Raiders that have been there most seasons this decade and the same Raiders that have not missed back-to-back finals series since the early Hawke years. The key to the Raiders hopes no doubt rest on the young shoulders of star halfback Todd Carney. Big money is being thrown about for the young star and he is deserving of every penny. He will be an Origin staple for the next decade. Willie Zillman also has the potential to emerge as an elite fullback with his amazing speed and wonderful football instincts. With a hard-working forward pack led by Alan Tongue and one of the most feared home ground advantages in the competition, the Raiders will win their share of games and are more than capable of making the playoffs.

7th: Brisbane Broncos

Never have the Brisbane Broncos looked as vulnerable and fragile. Wayne Bennett is leaving, the forward pack is not nearly as commanding and depth, for the first time since their formation, is a major issue. No team has suffered more from personnel changes and the fitness of lynchpin Darren Lockyer is a major concern. Having said all that, the Broncos are still the Broncos and Wayne Bennett is still in charge and missing the finals is not an option at Red Hill. Lockyer is still the best number six in the game, Karmichael Hunt has an unbelievable skill set that compliments his total commitment perfectly and Justin Hodges is still the most threatening outside back in the NRL. Ben Hannant is a quality power running front-rower and the team has some more than useful back-rowers in Stagg, Eastwood and Parker. Replacing Petero with Joel Clinton is, however, a major downgrade and the hooking tandem is a worry as neither Ennis or Marsh threaten as much as Shaun Berrigan. If the Broncos can avoid injuries to their key players, they will be there or thereabouts. They do not, however, look strong enough on paper to go all the way. Week two of the finals is probably their limit.

6th: North Queensland Cowboys

The Cowboys are once again a two-man band and with the front-man out for at least a month, all does not look bright in Townsville. Johnathan Thurston is among the top three players in rugby league with the ability to win a game on his own. He is a constant threat with the ball as he can pass, kick and run as well as anybody in the game. His defence is also reasonably sound for such a small player. The main concern in Northern Queensland, though, is Thurston being out for the first month and how long it will take him to get back to his best. If it takes a further month, the Cowboys could be too far off the pace to be any real threat. The responsibility for getting through March and April will fall on Matt Bowen. He can break any game open with his speed and silky skills and will have to if North Queensland is to go close to the premiership. Around those two is a handy team. The Cowboys are menacing up front with Cashmere, Tronc and Webb and have a solid backrow led by Luke O’Donnell. The three-quarter line is defensively sound and the addition of Travis Burns in the halves is a significant upgrade. The in-fighting that has reportedly led to Graham Murray being fired will have an impact on their performance and it is doubtful it will be positive. The Cowboys should be in the eight but there are too many question marks hanging over them to suggest they can win the premiership.

5th: South Sydney Rabbitohs

The following words are tough to write and have been completely unknown to your league-loving author in his twenty plus seasons in the game. South Sydney will do well and will be on the verge of a top-four position. Wow. And I am in no way swayed by any deep like for the arrogantly self-labeled “Pride of the League”. Souths made the finals for the first time since 1989 last season and can actually win a final this time around. They turn out nearly identical to last season with the significant addition of Craig Wing to the line-up. The only loss of any real impact is Peter Cusack and there seems to be some ample replacements for him. Jason Taylor did a tremendous job to make Souths a defensive presence in the NRL last season and they should be as resolute and desperate again. Luke Stuart will get more game-time, David Kidwell returns from injury and Michael Greenfield looks solid enough. Craig Wing will also be a major asset in defense but that will be a bonus because his impact will be with the ball. Wing will add some potency to the Bunnies attack and can get quality ball to exciting players like Fetuli Talanoa, Nathan Merritt and Nigel Vagana. The on-going development of hooker Isaac Luke will also prove a key component of Souths success. Luke was amazing last season and with the ability to gain momentum around the ruck, Luke will be a key player for Souths. The Bunnies are probably a star or two short of a premiership but they have a hardened side with plenty of talent and should be pushing for a top-four spot.

4th: Parramatta Eels

The Eels are a tough team to get a handle on this season. They have one of the best coaches in the game, an outstanding quintet of outside backs, a classy front-row and an exciting back-row that contains a nice mix of ballplayers and workhorses. They also have a questionable halves combination, not an ounce of depth anywhere outside the back-row, a once-overweight hooker who will be forced to play significantly more game-time and a whole raft of off-field issues revolving around alcohol that the club must deal with. With their strongest side on the field, the Eels can beat anybody in the NRL. Nathan Cayless and Fuifui Moimoi lay a solid platform for a sizzling backline that contains Inu, Hayne, Grothe and Burt. Try scoring opportunities also arise in the centre of the park where backing up Feleti Mateo is a must as he always has his arms free. The problem for Parramatta is that they are not always going to have their strongest team available and as is seen with the Eels week one line-up, there can be holes that cannot be filled. Parramatta fans had better hope that their players stay fit and out of trouble as two or three injuries to key players will make Parramatta a most beatable proposition. Regardless, the Eels have the class and attacking potency to be a top four side and could make it to the Grand Final. And then the choke will begin…

3rd: Manly Sea Eagles

The Eagles of old are certainly back with quality across the park and enough depth to cover injuries in most positions. Brett Stewart is electric at fullback and will take his game to another level this season, making him the premier custodian in the NRL. The Eagles have three top-class centres in Steven Bell, Steve Matai and David Vaealiki, all of whom intimidate defensively and are extremely difficult to tackle. Jamie Lyon is not really a pivot but he is certainly capable enough at five-eighth while Matt Orford still rates among the top half of halfbacks in the competition. Manly’s forward pack is also without obvious weakness. Des Hasler has great depth at prop whilst also having a backrow that sits behind only Cronulla and Parramatta in terms of class. The loss of hooker Michael Monaghan will hurt the Eagles but Matt Ballin looks a real star of the future with the work ethic and instincts to develop into the next Robbie Farah. With the fortress known as Brookvale Oval serving as their home ground, the Eagles will not lose more than two at home and will win plenty on the road. They will almost certainly finish in the top four and have the roster to atone for last year’s Grand Final embarrassment.

2nd: Melbourne Storm

The Melbourne Storm ran away with the competition in 2007 and will be there when the whips are belting flesh and the crowd is roaring with guttural passion. The Cronk-Inglis halves combination is as good as any in the league, Billy Slater sizzles at fullback, Cameron Smith has claims to the title of best player in the game, Johnson and Hoffman are representative back-rowers while there are some big boppers up front. Few teams can match that class and that is before the likes of Israel Folau or Steve Turner are mentioned. Add the genius of Craig Bellamy, the modern day coaching guru, and you have a formula for success. This could be the last year the Storm are at the top with much of the team likely to leave in 2009, so all will be steeled for a big season. Expect another Grand Final appearance with very few regular season losses to boot.

1st: Canterbury Bulldogs

Dear reader, there is no need to play the disbelief card. We all knew this was coming, for good or ill. Your favourite rugby league writer does not try to hide behind the veil of objectivity. The Bulldogs are my team and always will be and every season is a fresh start with the potential for glory and beauty and success and the greatest commodity of all, promise. The beginning of each season for every rugby league fan, in the words of Paul Kirkwood, “makes you dizzy, like you have been drinking Jack and Coke all morning.” We all have the buzz and the buzz can make you somewhat optimistic. And hell, I am chock full of the belief that 2008 will be The Year of the Bulldog. The cleanout is nearly complete and the rot has been sent to the dump known as the Sydney Roosters. Mason and O’Meley were never worth the cheques they were getting and in the case of Mason, no club can succeed with that kind of troublemaker in the ranks. The Dogs have not replaced them with stars but with promising youngsters like Danny Williams and Justin Tsoulous. If these guys step up and the likes of Armit, Hickey and Te Maari compliment Sonny Bill and Andrew Ryan, the Dogs forward pack will be just as imposing. The addition of Michael Sullivan will give the Bulldogs more incisiveness around the ruck, allowing the Dogs to play more momentum football. The backline is also keen enough with Luke Patten the star and most committed player in blue and white. The halves need to step up this season and should get an opportunity to stand tall now Brent Sherwin has gone to Castleford, who I’m sure are enjoying his services at present. The Bulldogs are in for a big season and premiership glory is certainly not beyond the realms of hope. There would be no better way to celebrate the centenary of the game than to have the most storied and loved team in the competition holding up the premiership trophy.

And that is how it is.

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