NRL Pre-Season Part 2
by Ed Burton
It is that time of year again. Time for the NRL Season to begin!
The world’s longest pre-season, and most elaborate All-Star games are finished, as the teams each play 8 games to see who will make it to the finals. The time trials have finished and the Broncos have grabbed Pole position for the competition proper, but who is going to win it all and who will just be making up the numbers?
Well that will depend on a few things, including their position on the starting grid, the difficulty of their run to the finals, fatigue and the all-important injuries. Of course you can’t predict injuries, and that is what makes long form gambling a thing, but the rest we can look at and try to get a gauge on where this season is heading.
Of the contenders, Souths have the toughest run with games against, Brisbane, North Queensland, the Dragons and the Roosters all still to come.* Given that the Bunnies are already in 6th and having a below average year, they are in danger of missing the top 8 altogether if they don't find a bit of form. The Broncos and Storm both have middling schedules with a mix of tough and easier match ups, but it is at the other end of the spectrum that give us some insight into what the makeup of the top 4 might be. Both the Roosters and the Cowboys have the easiest runs with only a couple of matches against quality opposition for the both of them. This could come in handy for some of their Origin representatives if they need to get some rest before the finals.
As mentioned above, the clubs will be looking to have their stars well rested heading into September as the fatigue of a long year begins to hurt them. After losing their first 3 games, the Cowboys have been on a tear through the competition, but the question is - how much has that taken out of them? The next few weeks, on the back of an Origin campaign for their most important player, will see the Cowboys play Manly, Parramatta, Canberra and Cronulla. Will they find an opportunity to give some of their stars some rest in there? The Dragons look like they may have already burned out after winning 8 of 9 matches earlier this year, and perhaps some rest might revitalise them. Souths have battled a never ending string of injuries and they will need to be fresh to have a run at the title, but their schedule won’t give them any leeway there. Fatigue is effecting everyone in one way or another, and how it is dealt with will play a part in the success of some teams
The Starting Grid Contenders
Brisbane – They are starting from a great spot, and I have no proper reason not to trust them. Yet here I am, not trusting them. They should cruise through the next few weeks, but they finish the season with a run of Dragons, Roosters, Bunnies and Storm. If you roll that into the finals it means that at a minimum the Broncos need to beat at least 7 good teams in a maximum of 8 weeks. They still should be in a position to play for a spot in the Grand Final, but I am just not sure that they can get there.
North Queensland – After I complained about the way that they start every season, they have been on a mission to prove me wrong** and what a run they have had. The only match they lost was a game against the Sharks which they led by 18 points and switched off. Given the draw, it looks as though they may finally put themselves in a position to have a second chance in September if they stumble. It also means that they will have to put up or shut up about the refereeing knocking them out of contention each season. They are my tip to take the premiership this year, and for the sake of Rugby League I hope they can do it, because they are by far the neutral’s favourite (of the contenders this season) and the game could do with another feel good story!
Easts – After a poor start to the season, they have sneakily managed to find themselves in a great grid position, with a soft run into September. It is hard to call one of the bookies favourites a dark horse, but that is exactly what I am doing. I think they may just have played this perfectly and timed their run to give them a shot at playing in the decider. Their experience may even see them have enough to take it all.
South Sydney – What a mess of a season the Rabbitohs have had so far. Looked likely to go back to back after winning every trophy on earth between October and March and rolling through the first couple of weeks, but then their season fell off a cliff when James Graham attacked Adam Reynolds’ leg like it was the last piece of chicken in the apocalypse. There is still a long way to go for the Bunnies. They have a very tough draw, but they will back themselves to win those games. They need to get Inglis back into his rhythm and firing on all cylinders, but they have the talent and the experience in the side to turn the year around and make a real run for the title. If they can find the motivation and get on any sort of roll, the Bunnies should make the final 4 and give it a red hot go at taking back to back premierships, but if they don’t show up for even one week, they can probably kiss their year goodbye.
Melbourne – Many had them picked to have a drop off this year, but leading into Origin they were looking as competitive as ever. Of course we all know what happened next. One by one their players started dropping. Big names too. Slater is gone for the season, and they lose not only his great play but also the sneaky dirty play that he gets away with on a regular basis, and it all adds up to a lesser Storm outfit. Yet they are still expected to be in the mix at the pointy end of the season - which may say more about the rest of the competition than the Storm themselves. I can see the Storm pushing aside the loss of the Slater and making a good show of themselves. They are a 50/50 chance of being in the final 4 to play for a spot in the Grand Final, but they won’t have enough to go any further than that.
St George-Illawarra – The Dragons are a funny team. They started the year looking awful, and then started winning. Everyone kept waiting for their luck to run out, and they just kept winning. So of course, right when everyone was ready to concede that the Dragons might be a genuine side, they went on a losing streak. Their whole season hinges on which Dragons team comes out for the rest of the year. I also don’t trust that Mary McGregor has what it takes as coach against the big boys when the going gets tough, and I think that might be enough to see an early exit from the finals.
New Zealand – Ask them to come back and see me when they’ve beaten their second top 8 team.
Assuming the Warriors hold on to a top 8 spot (which is far from guaranteed) that leaves one more team to make up the numbers.
The season starts now.
*Spare a thought for the poor Tigers, who are already struggling and play Brisbane, The Roosters and Melbourne in the next 3 weeks.
**What do you mean they didn’t read the article and have no idea who I am? That’s not what I told myself!