The 2009 NRL Preview

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Rugby league is back. We are at T minus three days and counting. We are officially on the clock. Round one teams have been announced. The game is engulfed in its latest scandal. The tension is palpable, the excitement overwhelming. We need no further introduction. Below, the good oil, all you need to know about what lies ahead between now and September.

16th: Penrith Panthers

He who has no heart, has no heels

The Panthers are expecting to improve on an awful twelfth placed finish in 2008- a season that was racked with internal dissension and a total of four premiership points over the last two months of the season- by cleaning house and signing Shane Elford and Gavin Cooper. Penrith will be relying on a young team to cut it in the NRL and we all saw how that worked out at Canterbury last season. The Panthers, with skipper Petero Civoniceva and Trent Waterhouse the exceptions, have an ordinary pack with not an ounce of depth. Jarrod Sammut is likely to turn into a decent halfback but will do nothing this year with a younger and less experienced number six in Wade Graham. Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon both have a touch of class but the remainder of the back five will be filled with NSW Cup quality players. It is going to be a long year at the foot of the mountains with the Panthers a good thing for the spoon and Matthew Elliott a tremendous bet to be the first coach fired in 2009. It is doubtful a coach has regretted a decision to change jobs as much as Elliott surely does, whose stock in Canberra was a fair bit higher than it is now.

15th: Wests Tigers

You cannot hunt with a tied dog

The Tigers have a few things going for them. Tim Sheens is a fine coach though his record at club level has been a little contentious over the last decade with the exception of 2005. Robbie Farah is an outstanding hooker who is probably the second best in the game after Cameron Smith. Chris Heighington was one of the best players in the competition in 2008 and should progress to an Origin jersey this season. And that is about it. Benji Marshall is an injury ravaged distraction who rarely puts in. The loss of Brett Hodgson takes away the little bit of defensive character the backline had. Chris Lawrence failed to develop into the outside back we all expected in 2008 and he won’t progress with the halves combination he plays outside. The front row rotation is ordinary at best. They have no depth in any position. The Tigers are not capable of making the eight this year with their roster and a wooden spoon will be right in the offing if Farah or Heighington go down.

14th: Parramatta Eels

The door of laziness is the boundary of misery

Despite the annual rumblings from Parramatta Stadium that the upcoming season will see the Eels turn the corner, there is little evidence to suggest that Parramatta will improve on their embarrassing 2008 performance that saw the highly touted team finish eleventh on the back of some cattish performances that were a humiliation to warhorses like Nathan Hindmarsh and Nathan Cayless. Daniel Anderson is being hailed as a saviour but Michael Hagan was a very good coach who couldn’t get most of the islander contingent to actually play hard or commit to the team. I doubt Anderson will change the culture. Hayne and Inu have plenty of ability but were joint winners of the 2008 Dog of the Year award. I doubt much will change this season. Aside from Hindmarsh and Cayless, Feleti Mateo is the only player Parramatta fans should get excited about. The forward pack lacks depth and is low on talent thresholds. Parramatta will only improve when Daniel Anderson has had time to sink his teeth in and clean house.

13th: Sydney Roosters

The old horse drops the load in the middle of the road

Old, selfish and predictable. They are the three words that describe the Roosters best in 2009. They were extremely lucky they got off to a flyer last season because they were dreadful in the back half of the season. With no big name purchases and little in the way of up-and-coming talent, the Roosters are going to struggle again this year with their barge-up-the-middle-then-kick-for-the-corner style of play. Their overweight forward pack may have been dominant in 1999 but in 2009 they are a liability. Mason will continue to be a distraction who will only involve himself in the game when there is a chance it will make the highlight reel. O’Meley has been in decline for a number of years. Myles is still overrated. Aubusson offers little in the all-important nine position. The Roosters are no better off out wide with a dubious centre pairing of Mitch Aubusson and Iosia Soliolia and an injury prone fullback in Anthony Minichiello. Only the halves of Anasta and Pearce offer much hope and Anasta has been shifted to lock, an experiment that will predictably be abandoned after about three matches [stop press: the plan didn’t even make it to round one]. I do enjoy seeing the Roosters fail and I expect I will enjoy plenty of 2009.

12th: North Queensland Cowboys

The wolf changes its hair, not its habits

Everyone’s “boom” team in 2009, the Cowboys will again rely too much on the Johnathan Thurston-Matt Bowen combination. While Thurston is an undoubted talent, he struggled last year when forced to carry the entire team behind a pack that struggled to go forward. While he gets Bowen back this season, I wouldn’t be keen to stake too much money that he will be able to lift them from the doldrums of last year. Plenty is being made of the Cowboys purchases but any true rugby league aficionado would prefer to have Ray Cashmere up front than Antonio Kaufusi or Manase Manukafoa. Willie Tonga may prove an astute purchase but the smart money won’t be on a player who hasn’t shown anything since 2004 and has since had a number of knee reconstructions turning a team around. And at any rate, centre was not a problem for North Queensland last year with Ben Harris one of their best. The only thing in North Queensland’s favour this year is the return of Neil Henry. Henry is one of the most astute tacticians in the game and should ensure the Cowboys can threaten with the ball. The worry, however, remains the Cowboys defence. Henry’s Raiders were never regarded as sound defensive units so it would appear unlikely that he will be able to fix one of the worst defences in the NRL.

11th: Cronulla Sharks

If a child does not cry, his mother will not breast-feed him

The most overrated team in the competition. Every so-called expert wants to ramble on about how well the Sharks have done in bringing in Tupou, Maitua, Barrett and Corey Hughes. None of them seem particularly good fits at Cronulla. The Sharks already had a strong backrow with Paul Gallen and Reece Williams, even accounting for the departure of Greg Bird. Bringing in two players renowned for running wide and avoiding defence is going to leave the Sharks vulnerable up the middle while forcing the talented Williams to either centre or the bench. Barrett was struggling before he left the NRL and you don’t tend to see halves at his age improving. His attack is also going to be somewhat stymied by Cronulla’s slow outside backs and Ricky Stuart’s negative tactics. And Corey Hughes is a significant downgrade on Isaac De Gois. Much of Cronulla’s attack was generated by the smart and fast dummy-half work of De Gois. Hughes doesn’t offer that. Somehow Ricky Stuart has managed to blunt the dullest of attacks even further. The Sharks won a lot of close games last season after losing plenty the year before. The law of averages will certainly send them hurtling down the table in 2009. The Sharks are the lay of the decade. The long and sobering tragedy shall continue.

10th: Newcastle Knights

The more worked the steel, the more beautiful it becomes

I like the direction the Knights are heading in. I doubted Brian Smith but he expelled the rot and now has a young team with plenty of potential. Kurt Gidley is an outstanding player who throughout the course of a match effectively plays fullback, hooker and halfback and is a genuine match-winner on his day. Jarrod Mullen will be better for last year and should further develop his already quality game with improvements to his on-field leadership and short kicking game. Zeb Taia is on the up and could improve into a Feleti Mateo like player with greater responsibility. Steve Simpson and Ben Cross add some starch up front. Junior Sau and Akuila Uate are both very good prospects out wide. And Isaac De Gois was an astute purchase who will make the retirement of Danny Buderus as painless as possible. I just feel they are a year away at present. The lack of a quality halfback is a major concern with neither Luke Walsh nor Scott Dureau grabbing the position preseason. The lack of depth in the forward pack is also a worry. An injury to Cross or Simpson will see a Dan Tolar or a Mark Tafua come in and there is not enough quality about the Knights pack to allow for that. Expect Newcastle to be there or thereabouts but at this stage they seem to have a few areas that will need improvement if they are to play finals football for the first time since 2006.

9th: Gold Coast Titans

Mind the goats so that you will drink their milk

The Titans are a tough team to get a handle on this season. They have a very good starting line-up that will worry plenty of teams. Combined with a classy coach, that should see the Titans right around the mark this year. Scott Prince has been outstanding at the Gold Coast when fit. Anthony Laffranchi is the best backrower in the game, a hardworking defender who is always a threat with the ball. Mark Minichiello is cut from the same cloth. A healthy Luke Bailey rates among the premier props in the game. Nathan Friend is a better-than-decent rake. And new recruit William Zillman adds some much needed spark to the Titans backline. Depth, however, remains a big issue with the Titans. The team has an overreliance on Scott Prince with the team devoid of attacking options when he is missing. Zillman has played little football over the last two years and an injury to him will see a bland backrower-cum-centre like Luke O’Dwyer or Josh Graham take his position. Luke Bailey is another player who has struggled to stay fit over the last two years. And it remains to be seen how Nathan Friend will perform after becoming disillusioned by the club’s attempts to lure Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah. I fancy the Titans will claim some big scalps this year but may be a little short in back-ups to make the eight.

8th: South Sydney Rabbitohs

Can you live with the heart of a rabbit?

Predicting Souths to make the eight is liable to leave me with egg splattered over my bespectacled face just like last year when they were just horrible after I tipped them to finish fifth. The way Souths deal with adversity, it could happen all over again. And if it does, I can promise that I will never select them to play finals football again. Souths, on paper, have a good team with some quality players in key positions. John Sutton is a brilliant ballplayer. Isaac Luke adds zip out of dummy-half. Craig Wing has a wonderful all-round game. And Rhys Wesser is a definite upgrade at fullback despite his advancing years. Combined with the astute purchases of Colin Best and Kane Cleal and solid players like Roy Asotasi and David Fa’alogo, Souths should make the eight. Two things will need to happen if Souths are to have a successful season this year, however. First, they must jump from the blocks well. They have three winnable matches in the first three rounds and they really need to win them all if they are to threaten this year. Souths react to adversity and failure poorly and a bad start will only see the team spiral into further failure. Secondly, Jason Taylor (who I still think is a fool of the highest order) must find a prominent role for Craig Wing. Taylor has decided, against all logic and common sense, to move Sutton to five-eighth leaving Craig Wing, seemingly, without a position. Playing such a great player off the bench would be foolish. He should be in the six jersey. At the very least, he should be the starting hooker with Isaac Luke coming off the bench and Wing shifting to the backrow when Luke enters the game. Wing, who already seems somewhat disillusioned, will be of no value if he is treated like a mug. If Souths are to make a finals run, Jason Taylor needs to start Craig Wing and play him eighty minutes in a useful role. If not, another season of misery and destitution awaits.

7th: St. George-Illawarra Dragons

A good farmer takes with force the bread from the earth

Only blind faith in the brilliance of Wayne Bennett has me selecting the Dragons to finish in the eight and even then it is touch and go. Every man and his dog wants to tell you how well the Dragons have bought in the off-season but I’m not sure an aging Luke Priddis, a pair of lazy thugs in Mick Weyman and Neville Costigan and a former Storm bench player in Jeremy Smith will add a lot to a team that looks distinctly short on talent and work ethic. Darius Boyd seems the only decent purchase and even he is no lock considering he had been in the league a number of years before his breakthrough season. I just have to believe, with Wayne Bennett’s outstanding record, that he will get the best out of a team that perennially underachieves. The Dragons do have a smattering of talent across the board. Justin Poore will thrive as the Dragons number one prop now the scourge known as Jason Ryles has been sent overseas. Ben Creagh is a top quality backrower. Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward have the tools to be an effective halves combination. Matt Cooper is a very good centre who should improve with more ball now Gasnier is playing pansy-ball somewhere in France. It may take Bennett a couple of years to get the Dragons firing and they certainly are oversubscribed in betting markets but it would seem folly to bet against a Wayne Bennett team making the eight. It has been nearly two decades since Wayne Bennett wasn’t coaching in September.

6th: Canberra Raiders

Every person is king in his own home

The Raiders, as annual tradition dictates, are again underrated by punters, bookies, journalists and commentators. They aren’t favoured for the spoon this year but they are well and truly in the market. And once again they will prove their detractors fools. If the Raiders can replicate their late-2008 form then they will be once more playing in September. There are no real reasons why the Raiders cannot return to their successful brand of enterprising rugby league. David Furner is a new coach but he was schooled under Neil Henry and will likely keep the Raiders playing the same structures. The Raiders have lost Zillman and Best from their backline but Zillman hardly played last season and Phil Graham is an adequate replacement for CBE. Throw in the Test experience of Joel Monaghan and Terry Campese and the excitement surrounding young Justin Carney and the Raiders backline should again set the league on fire. Up front, the Raiders have depth. They have some effective big-boppers in David Shillington and Troy Thompson, some game-breakers like Trevor Thurling and Bronson Harrison and some intelligent grinders like Alan Tongue and Glen Buttriss. With probably the biggest home ground advantage in the NRL and a genuine self-belief, the Raiders will once again surprise the ignorant majority.

5th: Brisbane Broncos

The mountains shake but do not fall

Brisbane have lost a lot of talent. They have lost their best prop in Ben Hannant. They lost their starting hooker in Michael Ennis. They lost their hardest working backrowers in David Stagg and Tonie Carroll. Throw in the loss of Darius Boyd and Denan Kemp, who scored 32 tries between them last year, and the Broncos have been hit by a mass exodus. And that is before the loss of Wayne Bennett, Brisbane’s coach since day one, has been accounted for. Some of those gaps have been filled. Aaron Gorrell is no Mick Ennis but he is a good hooker who will help Brisbane. Israel Folau is obviously a huge purchase and will soak up many of the Kemp/Boyd tries. The replacements of Hannant, Stagg and Carroll are a little concerning, however. Brisbane have not bought in another prop meaning they will rotate Nick Kenny (a reasonable trier), Joel Clinton (lazy) and Dave Taylor (lazier). Replacing Stagg and Carroll with Lagi Setu and Ben Te’o also seems a major downgrade, particularly in work ethic. While Brisbane still has an electric backline, they could be playing behind a forward pack that struggles to make any inroads into the opposition. They should again be playing finals football but I doubt they will improve on last year with a slide to 9th or 10th not beyond the realms of possibility. Darren Lockyer and Justin Hodges must play big portions of the season if they are to prove any threat to the top four teams.

4th: Manly Sea Eagles

The eagle lives on the mountain, the fly on the horse’s butt

Things seem to have gone slightly awry since the Eagles won the premiership and Beaver left town. The board room is currently involved in a civil war that could claim the coach, the CEO and even the media manager. Anthony Watmough is slapping around one of the club’s sponsors. And star fullback Brett Stewart, the face of the NRL’s advertising campaign, has been accused of drunken sexual assault. Nobody knows how all this will impact on Manly’s on-field performance but it seems doubtful it will be positive. Manly, with their quality line-up across the board, of course will reside near the top of the table for most of the season. Stewart is a try-scoring freak. Jamie Lyon’s move to the centres makes Manly’s three-quarter line so good that Tony Williams and Michael Bani most likely won’t get in. Orford was sublime in 2008 and Chris Bailey looks a promising five-eighth. And the forward pack looks as strong as last season with the addition of Shane Rodney the perfect man to fill the Menzies/Williamson role. Manly have a well-balanced team capable of shutting opponents down and piling on points when necessary. More importantly, the team has few stars ensuring they will not be looted during Origin season. Manly are going to win plenty of games this year. I just feel the distractions they have encountered thus far may cost them a grand final berth.

3rd: New Zealand Warriors

With a spade of gold and a hoe of silver even the mountains rock and sway

The Warriors have purchased better than any other team with the exception of Canterbury, improving their team dramatically. With the expected improvement of a number of players including Nathan Fien and Ian Henderson and the full-time return of Wade Mackinnon, the Warriors are going to be a real force. The return of Stacey Jones will add some much needed composure to the Warriors attack. Denan Kemp is a try-scoring machine that adds some contrast to the Warriors backline. Jacob Lilyman and Joel Moon will both contribute as bit-part players. The reason the Warriors look so good is their talent and depth in the one, six, seven and nine jerseys. Mackinnon, Hohaia, Fien, Moon, Jones and Henderson are all very good players who can turn the course of a game. With the likes of Steve Price and Simon Mannering in the pack and Jerome Ropati, Manu Vatuvei and Brent Tate out wide, the Warriors look a well rounded team. Throw in the inspiration of Sonny Fai and the Warriors look like they are really going to improve on last year. If Mackinnon and Price stay healthy, the Warriors are legitimate title contenders.

2nd: Melbourne Storm

The truth prevails like oil over water

For some reason the pundits have sunk the boot into the Melbourne Storm this year. They have been written off as a cadre of bums and hacks incapable of reaching a fourth straight Grand Final. Don’t believe such rot. The core of the Storm teams who have reached three straight deciders remain and with Craig Bellamy running the show, they must be considered the most threatening team in the NRL. Their brutish style alone sets them apart from most teams and the graveyard that is Olympic Park gives them a further edge. There is no better one-six-seven-nine combination in the league than Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. Those four alone will take Melbourne to the top four. The likes of Dallas Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Jeff Lima and Anthony Quinn are just icing on the cake. The Storm have lost a number of players but Israel Folau and Michael Crocker are the only losses that will hurt. Folau will be replaced by Willie Isa and he seems a likely type while Crocker’s value was hard to quantify so it is tough to figure how much his loss will cost the Storm. It certainly doesn’t seem that Melbourne have suffered a great net loss, however, and a fourth grand final seems to be in the offing with a fair rub of the green. Their new found underdog status will only push them even harder. Expect them to be around on that first Sunday night in October.

1st: Canterbury Bulldogs

He who builds with sweat defends with blood

As history and personal feeling must dictate, the Bulldogs are once again tipped to win it all. Those regular readers of Making The Nut may dismiss this as the rants of a died in the wool Bulldog and to some extent they are right. But there is no doubting what a fine job Kevin Moore, Todd Greenberg and Peter Mulholland have done at rebuilding a club that was raped, spat on and left in the gutter to die last year. The 2009 version of the Bulldogs are a top class mix of youth and experience with one thing uniting the team across the board: work ethic. The Dogs have recruited workers. Ben Hannant is an old-school prop who loves to carry the ball up hard and often. David Stagg will tackle all day and is just the kind of player Canterbury required. Michael Ennis is a sharp hustler at dummy-half who will finally add some burst to the Bulldogs ball movement. Brett Kimmorley is an excellent leader who will finally give the Bulldogs some direction. Throw in Josh Morris, Michael Hodgson, Bryson Goodwin, the returning Luke Patten and the emergence of Jamal Idris and the Bulldogs look like legitimate title contenders for the first time in a few years. The troublemakers and muckrakers and selfish scum are gone, replaced by team players with team goals. Depth in the forward pack is the only real concern. All fears relating to Kevin Moore have been alleviated by the fact he has dropped Matt Utai to the NSW Cup. He could be the next Chris Anderson, fingers crossed. The prices on offer for the Bulldogs to win the lot and make the top four are ridiculous overs. Load up and watch the Dogs make a real run at the title. 2008 is now long dead. Long live the new Bulldogs, a throwback to the days when there was pride in the jumper and winning was the only option.

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