The 2010 NRL Season Preview

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

Sometimes the excitement is impossible to contain. Melbourne Cup Day, Christmas Morning, Grand Final Day and the start of the rugby league season.

Annually I am overcome with giddiness as the NRL season approaches. The days of late February and early March seem to be timeless, dragging on like a Baptist wedding without alcohol as I flick through trial match reports and injury updates and season guides, calling league associates at strange hours asking obscure questions and demanding long term predictions. Kick-off can’t arrive quickly enough.

That excitement reached its zenith last Friday. The day before I had eaten lunch with Fisky, known in these parts as Mr. Rugby, and Kendall, an old time league lover and Bulldogs comrade. Both know as much about rugby league as anybody else I know. Footy discussions at this time of year with those knowledgeable enough to challenge you are remarkably satisfying, particularly when you spend most of your time in Melbourne and matters rugby league tend to be as foreign as potato scallops. Fisk and I chatted about recruitment managers sleeping with player’s mums, the horrible form of Terry Campese in the trial matches, the obvious superiority of John Lang as a coach compared to Jason Taylor and the pros and cons of Lote Tuqiri’s return to the Wests Tigers over a chorizo fettuccine. When that was finished it was then off to the Courthouse where we talked to Tim Moltzen, Jarrod Croker and Blake Ferguson while knocking back schooners.

Then last Friday I was wandering the streets of Stanmore when I saw a Newcastle Knights sticker on the back of a parked ute covered in dust. The next car had a stuffed Tigers today in the back window. The car afterwards had a Bulldogs flag adorned with the new Bulldogs mascot. I then got to the newsagency and had a ten minute conversation about the upcoming season while buying the latest copy of Rugby League Review. League season was here and all the faithful were frothing at the gills.

And now, without further ado, the 2010 NRL Season Preview:

16th: Newcastle Knights

Nixon chief-of-star H.R Haldeman said of the Nixon tapes that fuelled the Watergate investigation: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube”. That will be the story at Newcastle this year. The wide reaching criminal investigation that took down Danny Wicks just prior to Christmas last night claimed a much bigger victim in Origin hopeful and club leader Chris Houston. Club executives are now in damage control with sponsors threatening to not stick firm and fans threatening to abandon the team. And this won’t be the end of it. Police have publicly stated that there are hundreds of hours of wire taps to listen to and that the investigation is far from over. Who knows how many more Knights will go down? And with few players available to replace Wicks, Houston and any other casualties, a club in disarray over allegations of a drug culture, the distraction of a police investigation, a rookie coach, key injuries early in the season, a lack of strike power and the possibility of significant fan disillusionment, 2010 does not bode well for the Knights. I wonder how many of those board members who bought in Brian Smith to rebuild the club are still directors? They should all resign in shame as Wicks and Houston were two acolytes of Smith. The primary problem for Newcastle, aside from the cold stare of a police investigation, is a lack of depth. Rick Stone, who did little wrong in his few games of top grade experience last season, is lacking in playmakers and top quality forwards. Mullen and Gidley will both be key to the backs but who knows how long Gidley could be sidelined for while his move to the six jersey is not one that will end well as his return abilities will be lost with the new “downtown” rules making Stone’s decision even more strange. Up front, Zeb Taia is the only real attacking threat with the likes of Steve Simpson, Matt Hilder and Ben Cross all serviceable. Simpson and Cross, however, are injury prone. The only player bought in was Evarn Tuimavave. With an epic fail recorded for recruitment and distractions aplenty, the Knights that were heading up in 2009 will hit the floor with a massive thud in 2010 winning their first wooden spoon since 2005. As an aside, this is the one and only thing Jason Taylor and I agree on.

15th: Cronulla Sharks

Last year, when every expert was tipping the Sharks to finish top four, I called the Sharks “the most overrated team in the competition” and “the lay of the decade” as I tipped them to run 11th. Yet even I gave Ricky Stuart too much credit with the Sharks finishing 15th. This year nobody is giving the Sharks a hope meaning the experts have it just about right for the most inept club in the competition. Stuart, taking little blame for the failings of 2009 (just as he failed to take any of the blame for the Roosters collapse in 2005 and their subsequent embarrassment in 2006, the Sharks dreadful performance in 2007 and Australia’s World Cup defeat in 2008), dumped half his squad, replacing them with a collection of fringe first-graders and no-names including ex-Manly cat Adam Cuthbertson, Raiders flop Stuart Flanagan, loathed (by the Tigers faithful) ex-Tiger John Morris and a host of Eels rejects. The Sharks only decent purchase was Paul Aiton, a sharp hooker with a high work ethic who will probably get only 40 minutes a game as Stuart persists with the long-dead two hooker approach. As I edit this it has just been announced that Aiton will start from the bench in the opening round: nice play Ricky. The Sharks, who ranked last in points scored, tries scored, line breaks and errors should again struggle in attack with the likely centre pairing of Ben Pomeroy and Dean Collis the slowest in the NRL, winger Luke Covell the slowest player in the NRL and Trent Barrett the slowest mover of the ball in the NRL. Ricky Stuart has an outdated and simple attacking game plan that doesn’t work but he will be too pig headed to change it. It is hard to believe that Ricky Stuart has a worse flaw as a coach than recruitment but he does and it is his lack of ability to coach attacking football. In the last five seasons Stuart’s teams have finished 16th, 16th, 13th, 5th and 11th in tries scored and 16th, 16th, 11th, 14th and 12th in line breaks. He is a maniacal in-grate conspiracy subscriber who has no understanding of attacking rugby league. Luke Douglas, Paul Gallen, Kade Snowden and Blake Ferguson are bright spots for the Sharks and will probably be the players that stop the Sharks getting the wooden spoon but it won’t be for want of trying on behalf of Ricky Stuart.

14th: North Queensland Cowboys

Signing Willie Mason is symptomatic of all the deeply engrained problems at the Cowboys. The club is willing to sign a renowned cancer when every other club is willing to pass on him because he is a divisive character who is lazy on the field, a bad influence off it and trouble everywhere he goes. Last year the Cowboys let go hard working prop Ray Cashmere go and paid big money for a crew of lazy forwards with size headed by Antonio Kaufusi. They finished 12th. This year they let go of hard working prop Shane Tronc and paid big money for a big lazy forward. The similarities are striking. Aside from Thurston, the club is lacking class across the field. Willie Tonga may have been recalled to the Origin team last year but he has been washed up since 2005. Carl Webb plays about as hard as he boxes and is on the outer with Neil Henry at any rate. Luke O’Donnell is a cheap grub who has somehow fooled those in the game that he has any talent at all. More misery for the Cowboys is forecast for 2010. They won’t help themselves so they get what they deserve.


13th: Sydney Roosters

The great myth that surrounds Brian Smith is that he has the ability to turn a team around from wooden spooners to semi-finalists within the space of a season. It is simply not true. Of the five clubs he has coached, he has failed to make the finals in his first season at four of them. Only at Parramatta, where the Eels went from 13th under Ron Hilditch in 1996 to 3rd in 1997 in Smith’s first season in charge has Smith managed to immediately take a team to the playoffs. On a side note, one issue that isn’t a myth with Smith is his failures in September. 541 games on and he is still waiting for that elusive first premiership. Plenty of the experts want to tip the Roosters to make the eight this year and every single one of them is a fool. Even Roy Masters, unquestionably the best league writer in this country, predicted an Easter like resurrection of the Roosters in 2010. He, like the rest of them, will be proved wrong. On face value, the Roosters recruitment was sound. They bought in Todd Carney, a gifted playmaker. They picked up Jason Ryles, a loathsome character with plenty of flaws but still the best prop forward the Roosters have seen in many years. And they recruited boom Kiwi backrower Jared Warera-Hargraves, a player ludicrously described by Daily Telegraph hack Phil Rothfield as the 22nd best player in the game but a forward of enormous potential nevertheless. Delve a little deeper though and the Roosters are not much better off than last year. They have lost their heart and soul in Craig Fitzgibbon, one of the few retired greats who could call the Roosters home. Brian Smith has shifted Todd Carney to fullback, a move that could prove disastrous defensively and one that is sure to create a situation of too many ballplayers when Pearce and Anasta are both fit. Carney, at any rate, is a risk considering his history on the drink. Most concerning of all, however, is the Roosters lack of size and experience in their pack. The team has virtually no backrow talent with Warera-Hargraves, who is out until at least round five, their top player. Mitch Aubusson and Tom Symonds will likely get plenty of backrow time this year. The Roosters pack is going to get smashed this season so it doesn’t matter how many ball-players you have because it is hard to create with no go forward. The smart money will be on the Tri-Colours once again humiliating themselves while Brian Smith treats his players like children, Todd Carney makes a nuisance of himself and Jason Ryles continues to play the Marshmallow Man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

12th: New Zealand Warriors

The Warriors seem to be a consensus selection for the bottom four and for the most part it is tough to go against the grain here. The team certainly isn’t steeped in the tradition of defying history with only five winning seasons since coming into the league in 1995, three of which came in the Daniel Anderson Era. All available evidence suggests Ivan Cleary is no Daniel Anderson, particularly after the clusterfuck that was their 2009 campaign where they finished 14th with only seven wins of which only two came in Australia. The saving grace for Warriors fans is that five does not go into four and the Warriors are the best of the Eddie the Eagle Tier. The Warriors certainly have a few things going for them. Steve Price remains a wonderful prop forward who still ranks among the game’s elite bookends. Russell Packer is his heir apparent and should be used far more effectively in 2010. Micheal Luck is just the type of workhorse the Warriors need and have always needed. Wade McKinnon, Jerome Ropati, Brent Tate and Lance Hohaia have all shown quality form at times over the last three seasons and if that form can be recaptured they can all threaten. Kevin Locke is one of the best young prospects in the game. There is an argument that the Warriors awful 2009 came about because of the Sonny Fai tragedy so if they return to where they should have been last year they would be a fringe eight side. I don’t fully subscribe to that line of thought though. The Warriors were too quick to throw in the towel last season when they had the memory of Fai to play for. They are still lacking markedly in the halves department with Brett Seymour only a band-aid solution for a problem requiring complicated surgery. Most of the team rarely plays to its potential. Ivan Cleary has sacked popular skipper Steven Price and in the process has divided the team. When unsure the rule with the Warriors should always lean towards failure. Attempts to bring back Sonny Bill Williams to the NRL only further enhance the air of desperation surrounding the Warriors in 2009. They will come away with the odd upset but they will lose more games than they win.

11th: Penrith Panthers

Matt Elliott’s obsession with slow outside backs is bordering on the absurd. First he plays Mark O’Halloran. Then he brings in Shane Elford. And now Adrian Purtell has been poached from the Raiders in yet another Matt Elliott coup. Purtell heads a list of recruits that includes Nigel Plum, Daine Laurie, David Simmons, Kevin Kingston and Travis Burns. Only Burns should be of much use. Laurie is a nut-job with the work ethic of a rugby winger. Plum hits hard but is unlikely to get a lot of game time with Waterhouse, Lewis and Pritchard in the backrow. Simmons is a cat and a real runner for softest player in the game. Kingston is a fringe first grader at best unless your name is Cliff Bingham and you at one time rated him a better prospect than Greg Bird. The Panthers have some promising youngsters with Michael Jennings a star and Lachlan Coote a courageous type but the team lacks the class to challenge for a finals position. When they had an opportunity last year they lost 35-0 in the game that would have put them into September. They haven’t made the finals since 2004 and that run will continue in 2010. Petero, Jennings, Lewis and Waterhouse are all good but without the role players they don’t have the depth, consistency or class to tangle with the big dogs. The spine of Coote, Burns, Walsh and Kingston is the worst in the NRL with the possible exception of Cronulla. The team is too top heavy with little available among the middle tier of players where titles are won and lost.

10th: Canberra Raiders

A successful Canberra season would give me plenty of joy but having watched them get thumped in a trial by the Bulldogs while examining their injury list heading into the season then I am loathe to shoot too high on the Raiders. They have a few players I just love. Josh Dugan is on the verge of superstardom and could be the Raiders next Australian representative. The new downtown rule will suit him more than most and he is a legitimate contender for the Dally M Medal with the $67 on offer a pretty handy bet if you are that way inclined. “The Cannonball” Josh Miller is one of the most underrated players in the game. Alan Tongue is, well, Alan Tongue, gentleman and factory worker, leader and toiler. Along with a raft of backrow talent in Thurling, Harrison and Picker, a leaner David Shillington up front and some exciting outside backs led by Daniel Vidot, Canberra will win plenty of games. They may be just a year or two off a finals run though. David Furner has plenty to prove in his second season as his attempts to change the Raiders attacking style in 2009 was graded as an epic fail. Canberra continues to lose on the road. They ranked in the bottom third of the league in both attack and defence last year, statistics that are very un-Raiders like. The halfback battle between Herbert and McCrone will continue to destabilise the team unless Furner sticks with just one (and that one should be McCrone, a better compliment to Terry Campese). Injuries to key outside backs Joel Monaghan and Justin Carney will severely impinge the Raiders ability to get off to a quick start. The form of Terry Campese, now he has Furner as coach and a long term contract in his back pocket, is anything but assured. The team is very young. There are too many question marks to confidently bet Canberra. They can make the finals and they rarely are down for a long time, having last missed the finals in consecutive years in 1986. I’m just not convinced that Campese can run a team on his own and that the Raiders can put to bed their road demons. I hope I am wrong. The Raiders on their day are a sight for sore eyes. They just need to mature to be a top end team. That maturity will hopefully arrive early this year.

9th: Brisbane Broncos

Cal Ripken eventually didn’t suit up. Edwin Moses eventually lost. Joe DiMaggio finally had a game without a hit. The legendary Dragons teams of the fifties and sixties lost chasing a twelfth straight title. And the Brisbane Broncos run of finals campaigns that dates back to 1992 will come to an end this year. Brisbane have too much to overcome this year. The loss of Karmichael Hunt to AFL and Justin Hodges to the hospital have hurt the Brisbane backline but it is up front that the Broncos will be found out. Long gone are names like Webcke, Civoniceva, Tallis, Carroll, Stagg and Thorn. Remaining are champion warhorse Corey Parker, Origin player Sam Thaiday and not much else. Nick Kenny is a warrior, Josh McGuire has a future, Ben Te’o and Lagi Setu have been embarrassments in Brisbane, Ashton Sims is a Powderpuff Girl and Andrew McCullough doesn’t look the star many are predicting. Brisbane leaked plenty of points last season and the same looks to be the case in 2010. The Brisbane pack will not get on top of too many opposition forwards and the backs are as weak at one-on-one defence as any backline in the competition. Even Israel Folau is, for the most part, a defensive liability. Darren Lockyer is also slipping, which has to be a huge worry to Ivan Henjak. Brisbane undoubtedly have the top farm system in the NRL and the team will almost certainly unearth at least a couple of future stars this season but for the first time in two decades it probably won’t be enough. The move of Folau to right centre should see him back to his 2008 form but the possible shift of Ben Te’o to centre won’t work at all while the lack of big name forward recruits just has Brisbane looking like pushovers. On another note, the position of CEO Bruno Cullen must surely be under threat with his rise to power culminating in Wayne Bennett leaving and the recruitment and retention making a dramatic turn south. Joel Clinton. Ashton Sims. Lagi Setu. Ben Te’o. Aaron Gorell. These have been the biggest recruits in his time at the team and the aura that once surrounded the Broncos team went with Wayne Bennett, a man who should never have been forced out.

8th: Manly Sea Eagles

Des Hasler is a fool. That is my top criticism of Manly heading into 2010. The players play for him but tactically he is challenged and without Matt Orford to steer the ship the Eagles are unlikely to threaten for the title. Not that Orford was much chop: he just had the experience to guide the team around the paddock while at the time covering up Hasler’s tactical failings. This year those responsibilities will fall to young Kieran Foran, veteran of nine first grade appearances, and Jamie Lyon, outstanding centre but gigantic flop at five-eighth. Tries will not be easily found in 2010 for Manly and that will be compounded if Brett Stewart is found guilty of the sexual assault charges he is now facing. Manly have plenty of talent in the three-quarter line but without a quality ball playing half they are about as valuable as good intentions in a strip club. There are also some pretty big questions over the Eagles forward pack. They are not nearly as dominant or fearsome as many of the pundits would have you believe. Anthony Watmough, when he is switched on, is a devastating ball runner and one of the best attacking forwards in the game. Glenn Stewart takes up a fairly heavy defensive workload and he can hit the fringes in style as he did in 2008. The other starting backrower should be Shane Rodney, who should play 80 minutes where he will make 40 tackles and hit the ball up 10 times. Hasler gives him junk time though and this year after signing aging preacher Joe Galuvao and moving Chris Bailey to a permanent backrow slot, there is every chance Hasler will be dumb enough not to play Rodney at all. It is up front where concern is greatest though. Josh Perry; lazy and dumb. Brent Kite; lazy and soft. Jason King; slow and soft. Only George Rose has any claims to being worthy of a compliment. Manly should sneak into the eight but they won’t be going far. They got bent over and ravished by the Storm in the first week of the finals last year. There best case scenario is the same early September rogering from a team that will be more talented and better coached.

7th: South Sydney Rabbitohs

Chris Anderson, one of the sharpest rugby league minds to ever sit in the coaching box, said that all he needed was a decent halfback and two top class props to win a premiership. Now, admittedly, he was Chris Anderson and he could probably walk on water but nevertheless he understood the fundamental key to winning a premiership that even a mere mortal could understand. Souths have followed a similar blueprint in 2010 though they have gone for five top class props and a useless halfback. Much has been made of the Bunnies purchase of Sam Burgess, Dave Taylor and Ben Ross and while all will make the Souths pack bigger and tougher, there is no doubt that Souths biggest recruit this year and probably their biggest recruit since Roy Asotasi was new coach John Lang. Lang, who has claimed a premiership with Penrith and is regarded by Cronulla fans as their greatest coach, has a 55.9% winning record and he has had nine winning seasons in fourteen coached. That makes him the best coach since Ron Willey came to the club in 1983 and the only coach hired by the Bunnies to have a winning rate of 50% at his previous club since Jack Gibson in 1978 with the one exception of Steve Martin in 1998, who did not see out the season. So with the Jason Taylor Era now officially dead, and only about three years too late, Souths have a chance of playing finals football. I am loathe to be embarrassed by my Souths finals prediction for the third consecutive season, particularly with Chris Sandow as their one and only halfback, but the Bunnies will get one last chance due to my faith in John Lang and the purchase of Sam Burgess. Lang will also get the most underrated prop in the game in Luke Stuart, one of the great tragedies of the last decade, to further improve his game to the point that selectors should almost be forced to select him for New South Wales. Lang should get the Souths outside backs more involved by getting Sandow to play a more structured game while the Bunnies pack will win the arm wrestle in most games. Nobody in their right mind could back Souths to win the premiership but for the first time in my life I am very confident Souths will play finals footy. They have had the team to do it the last two seasons. Now they have a better team and a coach capable of guiding them there. Souths may not have a good halfback and two top class props but they do have a forward pack to be feared and a very intelligent coach.

6th: Wests Tigers

Everyone seems very high on the Tigers this year. I’m not entirely sure why. I have the Tigers playing finals for the first time since their premiership victory in 2005 but that is more via default than anything else. The Tigers certainly have some talent. Robbie Farah is creative and hard working and tough and one of the top rakes in the game. The backrow combination of Chris Heighington, Gareth Ellis and Liam Fulton may at some point this year make 900 tackles and 400 hitups in a game such is their work ethic. Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford are a promising centre tandem though I’m not sure they are game breakers in the Jennings/Inglis/Folau/Hodges mould. Tim Moltzen has plenty of ability with the ball in his hands and he has the speed and poise to become a gun return man. There is plenty counting against them though. Benji Marshall had a fine 2009 but that was the first season he has gone through injury free and having just signed a long term deal I doubt Marshall will be at his best. The Tigers are again lacking size and class up front with Keith Galloway their best prop. Lote Tuqiri is a dirty whore who likely won’t bother scoring a try unless he gets paid a monkey for each touchdown with his return more likely to end in tears than triumph for the Tigers faithful. Taniela Tuiaki has had complications arising from surgery to a broken leg and may not be seen for much of the season. Tim Sheens, for all the respect and admiration he has earned in the game, has made only one finals series since the Super League War erupted. I have been through at least four watches in that time. The Tigers should improve by enough to sneak into the finals but they can’t win it with their current team. They may be ready in 2011 but this year they look a little short and a little vulnerable. Fun fact: 1964 was the last time a rugby league team with the mascot matching the Chinese Zodiac animal of that year has won the premiership when St. George were victorious in the year of the Dragon. Fun fact note: The fun fact seemed much more interesting before I have subsequently read it twice over the last week in the mainstream newspapers.

5th: Parramatta Eels

People are easily fooled. Twelve good weeks and a few big name buys and all of a sudden Parramatta are premiership favourites. Bollocks. The Eels were sitting 14th with only eight weeks of the regular season to go last year before building some momentum and then getting a charmed run through the finals before being soundly walloped by Melbourne in the decider. This Parramatta team clearly don’t handle pressure well. Not that they have at any stage over the last twenty years as false dawn after false dawn has come and gone, leaving the Eels faithful to curse the gods. For the majority of last season Parramatta were an embarrassment to themselves, their jersey and their fans. Then Jarryd Hayne pulled his finger out, Fuifui started running hard and Daniel Mortimer was given a run and the Eels got hot at the right time and then rolled a fading Saints, a done Titans and an injury hampered Dogs before losing when it mattered. The Eels have been lauded for their recruitment and retention after signing Tahu, Poore and Shackleton and re-signing Hayne and Mortimer but I’m not sure the Eels are that much better off from the middling 2009 team that was well in the running for the spoon for a long time. Poore is a big name prop who did not seem to handle the role of top prop at all well last year. Tahu is back from rugby and with that kind of engrained laziness he is unlikely to be that effective. Shackleton is a fringe first grader at best. Hayne will go back to being a dog now he has signed a big deal. If Daniel Anderson wasn’t their coach then I would have them falling further. Parramatta are not as good as the majority of experts will tell you and they will not be playing in the Grand Final this year and they are not worthy of their short quote with the books The Hayne Train is going to derail at any moment so any pundit worth his weekly cheque will disembark forthwith in an orderly fashion at the next station. Even me and your girlfriend know there’s only so much one guy can steal before the hammer comes crashing down. Another year of disappointment beckons for the blue and gold…

4th: St. George-Illawarra Dragons

The Dragons are like that no-smoking light on planes. That no-smoking light sits there next to the seatbelt light, constantly ablaze while the seatbelt sign comes and goes. Deep down there is always the hope that the no-smoking light will go off and the stewardesses will pass around cigarettes and we will all be able to light up and puff away on Dunhill’s while chatting casually with the pretty girl who works at a San Francisco bookstore and is backpacking around the world across the aisle. That light is never going off though. It is a beacon of false hope just like the Dragons are. Every year the Dragons are considered premiership hopefuls and every year they fall short. I have lost track how many times over the last decade they have started in the top four of betting and they have not played in a single decider. Things may eventually change with Wayne Bennett in charge but it could take a while. Bennett certainly got things rolling in 2009, guiding the Dragons to the minor premiership in his first season with the club. The Dragons fell apart at the business end of the season though, eliminated from the finals in straight sets. Exciting five-eighth Jamie Soward copped the blame for the Dragons choke but that criticism is entirely unfair as it was the Dragons pack who let the team down, missing 47 tackles against the Eels before the pack made only 1260 metres against Brisbane, their 3rd lowest total of the year. The Dragons will again rely on Soward and his enormous boot, sharp creativity, dangerous running game and accurate passing will see the Dragons finish the regular season at the top of the ladder. Soward will win the Dally M this season and could well take the Dragons to a Grand Final. I just don’t have the bottle to bet the Dragons to ever play in a decider. Darius Boyd is in for a bumper year with an increased playmaking role. Ben Creagh will continue to improve as an attacking threat on the fringes. The Dragons may be lacking a little punch up front though and the centre pairing of Scott and Cooper is sturdy defensively but offers very little with the ball in hand. I see the Dragons finishing near the top of the ladder this year but waiting for them to win the premiership may be as long as waiting for that no-smoking light on the plane to flick off. The Dragons may have tons of twist but I think they may be fresh out of shout.

3rd: Gold Coast Titans

Aside from Roy Masters, who has the Titans running 12th because of their deep style of attack and seemingly a fundamental dislike of John Cartwright’s coaching, most experts seem to have the Titans running somewhere in the finals but nowhere near the Grand Final. The general consensus may be undervaluing the Titans though. The Titans probably have the best recruitment class of 2010, at least at the pointy end, bringing in Greg Bird and Joseph Tomane. Bird is a top class player who will slot in at six providing the Titans team with extra grunt in defence and a nice running ball player who is a perfect compliment to the Titans backrow of Laffranchi, Minichiello and Harrison. Tomane strengthens an already exciting Titans three-quarter line that already includes flyers Kevin Gordon and David Mead. The Titans have a quality hooker in Nathan Friend, a top class halfback in Scott Prince, a fine coach in John Cartwright and a decent prop rotation that includes Luke Bailey and Brad Meyers. Aside from some question marks over their forward depth and an obvious weakness at fullback, the Titans are stacked across the park. They have improved every year since joining the comp and their star should continue to rise this year. Barring an enormous injury toll or the unexpected imprisonment of John Cartwright on money laundering charges then the Titans will go very close to a Grand Final berth.

2nd: Melbourne Storm

The Melbourne Storm are the sporting definition of professionalism and should be regarded as the best run sporting team in the country over the last decade. The Storm have made the last four Grand Finals and have claimed two premierships over that period. Year after year Craig Bellamy has lost players due to the salary cap constraints always bought on by premiership success but due to sharp recruitment and a maintenance of key players the Storm continually live up to the high expectations laid upon them. This year the Storm lost tackling machine Dallas Johnson but found the ideal replacement in tireless Parramatta worker Todd Lowrie, who was misused to the point of criminality at the Eels. Gone too are three-quarters Will Chambers, Steve Turner and Joseph Tomane. None have been critical to the Storm and they were all released and replaced by Dane Nielsen, Luke MacDougall, Chase Stanley and a plethora of young up-and-comers pushing for a top grade spot. The core of Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk remain, ably assisted by the likes of Brett Finch, Ryan Hoffman, Aidan Tolman and Jeff Lima. Craig Bellamy is a genius and the structures in place almost ensure the Storm that they will advance to preliminary final weekend at the very least. Their new home ground should give them an added advantage as more fans turn out to follow the Storm while Origin will not be as bad on the Storm as it has been in recent years. It would take a game man to bet against Melbourne playing in their fifth straight Grand Final and I certainly won’t be getting cute and writing them off for pretenders like the Eels and Tigers. Expect massive years from Todd Lowrie and Aidan Tolman while Kevin Proctor will cement a position as an enforcer for Melbourne.

1st: Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs returned to the Canterbury of the Chris Anderson era in 2009 as Kevin Moore and Todd Greenberg dumped the troublemakers at the tip and rebuilt the team around club stalwarts Andrew Ryan and Luke Patten and an array of well considered recruits including Ben Hannant, Brett Kimmorley, Michael Ennis, David Stagg and Bryson Goodwin. The result was moving from the wooden spoon in 2008 to a Luke Patten injury away from a Grand Final berth. The Bulldogs were thrilling with the ball in hand and brutal in defence, ranking 2nd in points scored and 3rd in points allowed. That was all on the back of an offseason with a new coach and new players adapting to new structures and new plans. This offseason will have been spent consolidating and improving with the majority of new recruits bench players and back-ups. The most significant change is Steve Turner in for Hazem El Masri which is a significant upgrade considering the level El Masri was playing at over his last few seasons. The loss of Greg Eastwood hurts somewhat but it won’t impact on the Bulldogs premiership hopes. Only an unfortunate run of injuries will stop the Bulldogs from claiming both the minor premiership and the premiership. The Bulldogs are tough, well balanced, smart, speedy, committed, deep and ready. 2010 is their year. Kevin Moore knows last year was a better start to his rebuild than expected. He also knows that 2010 is the year the rewards are reaped. The Bulldogs should be premiership favourites and will establish themselves as same within the opening month. Only Melbourne will be in their league this year.

Punters looking for a bet should take the Bulldogs at $8.00 (Luxbet) and the Gold Coast at $13.0 (Pinnacle) to win it all with the $7.50 (Centrebet) about the Melbourne Storm also a play. The best lay in premiership betting is Parramatta with traders also going against the Tigers a smart play. Other smart bets are the Titans to finish top four at $2.75, Melbourne to finish top four at $2.60, a small play on the Raiders to make the eight at $3.0 and a solid go at the Cowboys to run last at $11.0.

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