2017 mid-season predictions

Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, it is time we took stock of the first 14 rounds of the Telstra premiership and began forecasting what is to come at the back-end of 2017.

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From the end of last year, a number of teams have surprised us by rising to unprecedented heights on the competition ladder. Manly stand out in my mind as the surprise packets of 2017. They currently sit in sixth position on the competition ladder with seven wins and five losses to their name, and have knocked off some of the competition heavyweights along the way.

The Dragons have also exceeded many expectations. Some critics believed this year would go down as one of the worst in the clubs history; a season spent waiting for knight in shining armor, Ben Hunt to arrive and cure their attacking woes. It has been anything but. They sit third on eighteen points and, unless they experience a remarkable form slump, have all but sewn up a spot in the finals. It seems highly unlikely though, given the majority of their last 12 games are against sides currently residing outside the top eight.

Melbourne have done exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Craig Bellamy coached side built around professionalism and discipline. They’ve punished bottom eight sides and fought tooth and bone for victory against the likes of Cronulla, Brisbane and Manly. Which leads perfectly into my first prediction:

Melbourne to win the premiership: 

This is a rather tame prediction given their current position on the ladder and their outstanding track record in the finals, but it is difficult to see them being overrun two years in a row. In last year’s grand final, they were far from their best and many would argue that the Sharks were more hungry for victory given the premiership drought the club had suffered through and the turbulence they faced off the field just years earlier. It might sound like I’m talking in cliches here, but their heartbreaking loss to the Sharks would only add fire to the bellies of Melbourne’s ageing veterans. And that desire will take them all the way this year.

Melbourne were the second best team in the competition last year without Billy Slater, the world’s number one fullback. Now that he has returned, the big three have reunited and already they are showing signs of replicating the magic they created in the prime of their careers. Against the Gold Coast in the double-header weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Slater, Smith and Cronk ran riot up the middle of the ruck, creating three (if I recall correctly) identical tries to stun the Titans and put on a considerable early lead. Of course, the Gold Coast returned to win that game 38 points to 36, but the line breaks that led to those tries couldn’t have been executed by any other players in the game.

The outside backs of the Melbourne Storm are what excites me the most about watching this side play. When Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr are flying down the sideline, or taking a heat seeking missile from the boot of Cronk high above the opposition wingers, it is like watching the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL in action; they pull off unbelievable try-scoring plays that you’d pay a pretty penny to watch on repeat. They are unstoppable at their best and showed against the Dragons that they are capable of blowing the opposition off the park early and hanging on for victory through unbreakable defense.

Only injury can weather the Storm.

Gold Coast to finish in the top eight:

They did it last year, much to the surprise of many punters, and have the ability to do it again in 2017. They sit 11th currently, four wins outside the top eight, but will make a resurgence late in the season to force their way into the finals.

Ashley Taylor has been at his sensational best, while Nathan Peats and Jarrod Wallace are in career best form. Jarryd Hayne is also returning to his best, even if he isn’t a shadow of his 2009 self, and if he can put in more performances like he did in Origin One, than there is no doubt the Gold Coast will be in the mix come September.

Mark my words, the Gold Coast are not as far from a premiership as many think. If they can keep Elgey, Taylor, Peats, Wallace, Hurrel, Roberts and James on the books, than they are capable of pulling a Cronulla by winning a premiership with a mixture of youthful exuberance and experience when nobody expects them to. The Sharks sneaked up on the competition last year and the Gold Coast will go under the radar in a similar fashion in seasons’ to come.

Sharks to set up a Grand Final re-match with Melbourne, Roosters to go close:

Speaking of the Sharks, they are my tip to make the grand final once again this year. It is uncanny how similar this season has been to last for the reigning premiers. They were clearly suffering from a premiership hangover early in the season, but have risen from the ashes to sit in 2nd position at the halfway point of 2017.

Many expected them to struggle without Barba and Ennis, and in some games – such as their clash with the Bulldogs two weeks ago – they have missed their attacking flair and ability to create something out of nothing, but are starting to play off the back of Fifita and Gallen and are reaping the rewards.

Much like last year, Lewis and Graham – two of the most underrated players in the competition – and their bench forwards, are key to the Sharks title defence. Second phase football and a fractured defensive line are where most of their points will come from and will allow Holmes, Maloney and Bird to attack from where they are most dangerous – long range with broken play.

The Roosters will go close, no doubt. But the Sharks have just a little bit more in the way of class.

Wests Tigers to beat the Newcastle Knights to the wooden spoon:

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I made this one a few weeks ago, and since watching them on the weekend against the Dragons, and the Knights against the Storm, I am starting to reconsider my choice. But I will stand by it. Not only are the Tigers one of the most boring sides to watch when Tedesco is not in possession of the ball, I’m struggling to see where their points are coming from? Lolohea is a great addition, and Littlejohn a young player with plenty of ball-playing potential, but other than that, watching them attempt to cross the line is like watching a poorly made soap-opera – it’s clunky, monotonous and will eventually put you to sleep.

Their defence is just as flat, and I’ll be surprised if the Roosters don’t rack up another 40 points, more than half of which will be scored on the wing, like they did against the Eels not that long ago.

Mark Round 17, Tigers v Knights, down in your diary as the battle for the wooden spoon.

As a side note, the Tigers play the Roosters and Manly twice before the end of the season, and their only real shot against a genuine bottom eight team is in Round 26 against the Warriors. Other than that, they take on top eight teams as well as those on the fringe, such as the Panthers and Titans, who will come home with a wet sail in the lead up to the 2017 finals series.

Panthers to narrowly miss out on the top eight: 

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It has been a tough year for the premiership favorites. They struggled through loss after loss across the first ten rounds of the competition but have got their mojo back in recent weeks, stringing together a number of wins to put their finals hopes back on track.

Matt Moylan has been moved to five-eighth; one of the finest positional changes in NRL history. Anthony Griffin has been heavily criticised this season, and duly so, but moving Moylan to five-eighth is a bold decision born out of courage and a desire to change his sides’ fortunes.

I believe he has the potential to become the next Darren Lockyer; already there are great similarities between their running styles.

While Moylan’s positional change will no doubt aid in the Panthers’ run towards the finals, giving them what they were missing in attack at times during the opening rounds, the early season losses will likely see them miss out on a top eight spot by a very narrow margin.

I’ve compiled a list of the club’s remaining fixtures and given each game a result. Overall, the Panthers miss out on the eight by two points to the Titans, who will accrue a total of 30 points.

(Panthers v Raiders – W; Cowboys v Panthers – L; Rabbitohs v Panthers – W; Panthers v Manly (Split Rnd) – W; Warriors v Panthers – L; Panthers v Titans – L; Panthers v Bulldogs – W; Panthers v Tigers – W; Panthers v Cowboys – L; Raiders v Panthers – W; Panthers v Dragons – W; Manly v Panthers – L.)

All they need to do is pick up one extra game that I’ve labelled as a loss and they will be on an even keel with the Gold Coast, making for and against the deciding factor for who goes through and who misses out.

If you’re interested in hearing my reasoning for any of the above results, please leave a comment below. 

As always, I expect there to be a few more unexpected results to throw my predictions off kilter and make me reassess my decision making. However, for arguments sake, my competition ladder at the completion of Round 26 reads as follows:

  1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Sea Eagles, 4. Roosters, 5. Sharks, 6. Dragons, 7. Cowboys, 8. Titans

9. Panthers, 10. Eels, 11. Raiders, 12. Bulldogs, 13. Warriors, 14. Rabbitohs, 15. Knights, 16. Tigers.

Only Parramatta drop out of the top eight as it currently stands, the rest remain to battle it out in the finals.

As always, comments below.

Sell-out Cronulla crowd shows why the NRL must reconsider playing more games at suburban venues

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Shark Park in all its glory. Photo – Sharks Membership

It’s one of the oldest debates in rugby league – should more games be taken to suburban venues in place of those played at soulless big event stadiums like ANZ Stadium and Allianz?

Take one glance at the sell-out crowd at Cronulla’s SCG Stadium on Saturday night and there’s a strong case for doing so.

But before the NRL jumps the gun and changes all Wests Tigers’ home games in 2017 from ANZ to Leichhardt, there are a few things that must be cleared up.

Firstly, the crowd on Saturday night may have been inflated somewhat due to the half-time dancing spectacular put on as a marketing ploy by Cronulla officials to sell extra tickets.

Secondly, the Sharks are fresh off a premiership victory, meaning more fans may be inclined to visit the ground rather than opting to watch the game on television.

Lastly, the Bulldogs were visiting Shark Park for the first time since 2011 and generally have a large following wherever they travel, particularly within NSW.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen excellent suburban crowds push the case for more games to be scheduled at grounds with less seating and a more intimate atmosphere.

The pay off, however, is that these particular grounds very rarely offer the same facilities as large scale venues with public transport access, video replay screens that can be seen by a patron sitting in row Z and a surplus of public amenities.

Brookvale Oval is one of the last suburban venues used on a regular basis in the NRL but even it is stuck in the 1990’s as far as facilities go.

So we must find a middle ground.

This means playing local derbies, such as Cronulla against the Dragons, exclusively at suburban venues while the box-office clashes that have no local appeal and where tickets are in higher demand remain at the game’s bigger venues.

Games such as the Easter Monday clash between Parramatta and Wests, which currently takes place at ANZ stadium due to its popularity, is one exception given the availability of Leichhardt Oval and the atmosphere that can be created by supporters packed onto the Wayne Pearce hill.

Some fans would miss out on tickets but rugby league is fast becoming a sport designed for television, so leaving a few fans dismayed by being unable to attend in person is a risk the NRL must take to prevent itself from being left red in the face over empty grandstands.

It’s not a matter of shifting all home matches to suburban venues but rather allocating a few more games, which would otherwise leave a venue like Allianz half empty, to grounds with a more intimate atmosphere.

Games like the Roosters against the Dogs, which would generally attract a crowd of 15,000 at Allianz or ANZ, could instead be taken to Bellmore where it would almost certainly sell-out and create a more attractive and engaging spectacle for both fans at the ground and those watching on at home.

But the NRL have been slow to move on this debate and it is easy to see why when you consider that they receive a greater slice of the pie at corporate venues through food and drink sales.

Moving the Easter Monday game away from ANZ and into Leichardt would also mean the NRL sells just 20,000 tickets as opposed 50,000 plus, and for a game that operates on the revenue it generates, this approach makes little business sense. Particularly given their current financial situation.

But it is something that must be done to save us the pain of watching a game at Allianz where the players can hear a pin drop when the game hits a lull.

Not all NRL teams have the luxury of playing at suburban venues anyway and most grounds around the country have undergone redevelopment to allow for increased seating due to a rise in attendance figures. So it would take only a few minor tweaks to the fixtures list on the NRL’s behalf to set the wheels in motion and give suburban venues more games.

Cronulla Sharks v Brisbane Broncos Match Preview

Cronulla will be without star winger, turned fullback, Valentine Holmes when they begin their title defence in the season opener tonight.

The Broncos will also be without retirees Parker and Reed, while the spotlight will be put on Halfback Ben Hunt in his first showing since it was announced he would be travelling to St George at the end of this year to join up with the Dragons on a 1.2 million dollar contract.

This game has all the makings of being one of the closest in the opening round. Both sides have notable omissions and will be playing with new structures as well as adjusting to different game plans now that some of the incumbents have parted ways. The Sharks halves are the key to a home victory tonight while the forward pack has a large role to play in nullifying the speed the Broncos enjoy playing with when they are at their try scoring best.

Brisbane’s athletic outside backs pose the biggest threat to the Sharks’ defence and will be looking to exploit their new look right edge which will feature Raiders recruit Edrick Lee. Cronulla have also lost three of their most competent attacking weapons in Barba, Ennis and Holmes and will therefore be asking Maloney and Townsend in the halves to take the line on more often, increase the ruck speed and test the Broncos defenders when they begin to show signs of fatigue. Second phase play was the cornerstone of Cronulla’s attack last year, so look for Gallen and Fafita to play up the middle of the ground where their offloads will be more effective.

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Wade Graham will be a vital part of the Sharks premiership defence. Photo: Sharks.com.au

Many have tipped the Broncos to miss the eight this year, and this comes as no surprise when you consider that they will need to negotiate a difficult draw in the lead up to Origin. Games like these away from home against an undermanned side are must win if they are to squeeze into what will be a tightly contested top eight.

Their inexperienced bench, when opposed to Cronulla’s, would be the biggest concern for coach Wayne Bennet going forward. Pangai Junior, Ese’ese and Arrow have limited first grade experience and will come up against bigger and better opposition benches when they play the clubs predicted to finish above them this year.

Bennett has had plenty of depth on his benches in the sides he’s coached over his career and has therefore been able to control the game. You need only think back to some of his premiership winning sides throughout the nineties, right through to his success with the Dragons in 2010, to see the players he had at his disposal and the impact they had on tightly contested games.

This is a new era for Bennet and one I’m not sure he is equipped to deal with now that his priorities lie elsewhere. There is a World Cup coming up at the end of this year and I’m sure that the RFL would want Bennet on deck at least two months prior to ensure England are in the best shape going in. This could have major ramifications for the Broncos at the pointy end of the season.

Expect the scoreline to be tight in the season’s opening fixture and few points to be scored. Both sides will look to grind the other into the ground by playing off the back of their forwards, preventing an open contest by limiting the time their play makers and outside backs have in possession. We may not see the attacking brand of football that payed dividends for Cronulla last year, and now that Ennis is no longer serving the side at hooker, Jayden Brailey will be required to service the big men close to the line, taking some of the sting out of their attack. Will he be able to catch out opposition defenders with his limited first grade experience? It’s a tough initiation for the young rake and it will take time before he gets a feel for the physicality and pace of first grade.

Without Parker though, the Broncos have some concerns of their own that require addressing.

We’re in for an exciting first game to kick off the 2017 premiership.

 

Ennis, Barba departures leave gaping hole in Sharks title defence

The Cronulla Sharks will need to overcome the weight of history if they are to become the first side since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992-93 to win back-to-back premierships.

The defending champions open their account on Thursday night in the first game of the 2017 NRL season against the last club to complete the two-peat, but will be without two influential members of their premiership winning spine.

A drama filled off-season has seen Ben Barba travel to France to join up with Rugby club Toulon, while Hooker Michael Ennis called time on his career following a successful two year stint with Cronulla. Both are huge losses for the Sharks attack, which was heralded as the driving force behind last year’s success.

Winger Valentine Holmes, who was a try-scoring star on the wing for Cronulla in 2016, will now be required to fill the void left by Barba at fullback, but is unlikely to start in this Thursday’s clash with the Broncos due to injury. This means that either Jack Bird or Gerard Beale, who played mainly as an impact player off the bench last year, may be forced to start in the number one role until his return, forcing major reshuffling to the outside backs, which has the potential to unsettle the side.

The Sharks look a completely different outfit to last year and the loss of experienced players in important positions are what casts a shadow over their ability to repeat the dose. Their pack still boasts rep stars and hardened warriors like Gallen, Fifita, Graham and Lewis who were vital in giving attacking field position to the play makers and outside backs, while the halves combination of Maloney and Townsend were key to setting up try scoring opportunities. But Ennis’s presence around the ruck, his goal-line defence and his ability to play eighty minutes will be sorely missed by Cronulla this year. As will Barba, and the crucial meters he provided on the kick return, which was perhaps his biggest asset outside of his penchant for steering his wingers into gaps in the defensive line.

You cannot understate he’s worth in a Rugby League outfit. Particularly when it came to sparking something out of nothing. A quality we saw on display when he crossed the line from the back of the scrum to open the scoring in last year’s grand final. He also did it on countless occasions for the Bulldogs during his Dally M winning year in 2012. The NRL will dearly miss his exhilarating turn of pace and the competition will no doubt be poorer for his departure.

The men form the Shire face an uphill battle throughout 2017, particularly during the first five rounds of the year where they will be adjusting to new structures and life without key players. A slow start is to be expected as the likes of Jayden Brailey, the exciting youngster who will start at hooker in round one, Valantine Holmes and Raiders recruit Edrick Lee adjust to their new roles.

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Michael Ennis will be a big loss for the Sharks in 2017. Photo: ABC.

Much of the Sharks’ game in both attack and defence revolved around Ennis to a degree last year and without him it’s difficult to see too many scoring chances being created around the ruck. But we mustn’t undervalue Cronulla’s bench, which remains almost identical to the one that lined up against Melbourne in last year’s decider. Their injection into the contest changed the game and breathed life into Cronulla’s attack on many occasions last year.

Beale provided a lethal injection of pace on the fringes, while the side’s elder statesmen – Heighington, Tagatese and Bakuya – possessed similar power and size to the players they replaced and were able to exploit tired defenders at crucial junctions in the game.

Bench depth often determines how deep a side is able to go in a premiership season, and if the Sharks’ substitutes are as potent as they were last year, the reigning champions may find themselves finishing in the top eight once again. But their ageing warriors are operating on tired legs while the men they are replacing are entering the twilight of their careers. Whether they are able to cope with the physicality of opposition packs for the full eighty minutes will determine if they are capable of mixing it with the best the competition has to offer.

Cronulla also have a swathe of fringe first grade players at their disposal, highlighting the depth they have waiting in the wings. Fa’amanu Brown and Kurt Capewell have shown promising signs in their limited opportunities so far and, given they have been named in the 22 man squad to take on the Broncos this week, will be first choice options to slot straight into the side should injury or retirement strike at an inopportune time. The future is bright on this front.

Maloney is another player that flies under the radar in some circles and stands out in others. He is one of the cursed few who seems to perform better when playing alongside familiar faces than in a representative arena, and has shown this through his three grand final appearances with three different clubs. A remarkable achievement few footballers can lay claim to.

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Maloney will be a key player in this year’s quest for another premiership. Photo: EON Sports Radio.

Expect another big year from the NSW and Cronulla Five-Eighth, who will be required to marshal the troops in the absence of Ennis. He will also have the added responsibility of taking the line on more often this year, as will Townsend, given they cannot rely on their hooker to run the football in the same way Ennis did. How Maloney performs this season, like any play maker at any club, will determine Cronulla’s fate.

The pressure he and the entire Shraks side are under to continue last years unprecedented rise may prove too much for this club to handle given their lack of success. But it is a team filled with champion players who have experienced football at the highest level, making it very difficult to write them off at this early stage.

The porch light was turned off last year, so what does this current crew of Cronulla players have left to achieve?