Saturday, February 24

2024 NRL Preview: The 18th Man.

18th Man assesses every NRL club’s key player and chances for the 2024 season.

Positional changes and incoming premiership-winning coaches will dominate the conversation for the opening rounds of the 2024 season. A happy new year will see the Panthers striving to make it 4 in a row, so we delve into who can stop them based on the evidence of last season, and the relevant recruitments clubs have made. A lot can happen between now and round one, but on the surface of things, it seems apparent that the only sides that stand between Penrith and a four-peat, are the Warriors, Roosters, Manly and … Nah, that’s about it. See below for each club’s key player, rising star and chances for 2024. Sorry Broncos fans, you may want to look away. 

Canberra Raiders 

Key Player: Danny Levi

No doubt about it, the Raiders have a tough-as-teak forward pack. Boasting names like Tapine, Papalii, Horsburgh, and Hudson Young, any club would be fairly happy to flex their lineup. The missing ingredient is someone to shape, and organise them around the ruck. Levi has shown glimpses of class that led to him briefly wearing the Kiwis jumper. The Raiders need him to rediscover that form without breaking his jaw. If Levi can get the Raiders’ forward pack rolling, then the likes of Timoko and Rapana won’t miss the presence of Wighton so much. And they could stick it to a lot of people that are already writing them off. Yet the Raiders did have the worst defence of the top 12 teams in 2023, and losing Wighton, along with no major signings for 2024, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that those issues can be resolved. Instead, Ricky Stuart is banking on emerging talent to fill the void. While it’s a different code, this worked for Wellington Phoenix coach, Giancarlo Italiano. But the NRL is a different beast – time will tell. There’s not many more things as entertaining in rugby league as watching Ricky Stuart losing his shit after a game. So get your popcorn ready folks, because despite facing a relatively reasonable draw, I suspect a few more temper-tantrum pressers are on the cards for Ricky this season. Look out for the rise of: Chevy Stewart (fullback)

Likely Finish: 10th – 15th

Brisbane Broncos

Key Player: Payne Haas 

The Broncos alpha sets the platform upfront to let the pretty boys work their magic. Having lost Flegler, Palasia, Farnsworth and Capewell, the Broncos have lost a mass of quality talent and leadership. More importantly, they haven’t exactly replaced it with anyone of genuine consequence, and like Ricky at the Raiders, Kevin Walters has elected to fill the gaps with emerging talent. This means they will be relying even more on Haas for the metres and the fatigue he generates in the opposition trying to take him down. Should Haas or Adam Reynolds pick up long-term injuries, particularly around September, the Broncos won’t be anywhere near the threat they pose with them in the team. And given player retention in the off-season hasn’t been ideal, it is hard to see them improving on 2023, let alone matching it. They also won’t have the sweet draw from 2023 which saw them face some of the least travel the club has ever experienced, only having to leave Queensland twice in the first 11 rounds. Having said that, Kevin Walters has done a sterling job to turn this club around from where they were 3 years ago, so you’d be a fool to underestimate them. But if the Broncos don’t put together some early wins, expect the pressure and talk out of Red Hill to centre around their lack of player retention. Look out for the rise of: Israel Leota (wing) and Deine Mariner (centre)

Likely Finish: 4th -8th

St George Illawarra Dragons

Key Player: Hahahaha, good one.  

Cast your eye over the Dragons lineup and it’s probably the least inspiring squad in the NRL, and at huge risk of giving the Tigers a run for their money as wooden spooners. Everybody wants to be a fullback, including Zac Lomax. I’m falling asleep at the thought of it and even Ben Hunt saw the writing on the wall. But Flano enforced Hunt’s stay (for now) and the only thing that is likely to convince Hunt to stay on any longer is the Dragons showing they have a chance of playing September football. However, the only new element capable of contributing toward that, is the new coach himself, Shane Flanagan. There’s always hope at the start of a season and positional changes for Lomax and Jack Bird (centre) will either fire or leave the Dragons with egg on their face and even lower on confidence. Should that happen, they could very well implode. Flanagan turned the Sharks around and took them to their maiden premiership, so he has the pedigree to achieve success for the Red V. But Flanagan is a different man to the one that spearheaded the Shark’s success. The doping scandal clearly had an impact because he’s looked like a used car salesman spruiking his wares to any club that’s had a potential vacancy. It’s been cringe to observe, and it will be very interesting to see whether the players respond to him, or look the other way. Look out for the rise of: Toby Couchman (prop)

Likely Finish: bottom 4

Sydney Roosters

Key Player: Brandon Smith and Sam Walker

There’s nothing more frightening than a bunch of confident cocks with something to prove. The chooks found their groove a little too late last season, once the assortment of combustible personalities had worked out their pecking order. Sam Walker’s demotion also sent a shockwave through the side, but his efforts to work his way back, coincided with their reversal in form and sneaking into the top 8. Assuming they are able to continue developing from where they left off, then they have the grit, tenacity and strike weapon with Dominic Young, to win the premiership. When Brandon Smith and Sam Walker are playing well, the Roosters were playing well, so it goes to show that they are likely the key to how dangerous they become in 2024 and whether or not this side of cocks can experience the climax their fans are hoping for. Spencer Leinu is another excellent signing to compliment the addition of Dom Young. Along with the likes of Manly and the Warriors, the Roosters will be the most likely to ruin the Panthers’ attempt at the mythical 4-peat. They are overdue a semi or GF given they’ve not made it past week two of the finals in the last four years. However, other than the trip to Vegas, they have a sweet draw and face some of the least travel of any club. Look out for the rise of: Naufahu Whyte (second row) and Suia Wong (second row)

Likely Finish: Top 4

Canterbury Bulldogs

Key Player: Viliame Kikau

You could take your pick of a few from this utility-laden outfit, but if Kikau consistently performs anywhere near to his ability, then the Bulldogs might stand a chance of beating more sides than not. Problem is, even at the Panthers, Kikau was prone to going missing in games. He’ll be surrounded by a bunch of players who are more utilities than specialists in their positions, but with versatility comes an appreciation for what the other players around you need, and it could unite this team of journeymen and turn out to be a masterstroke. But they lack x-factor in their forward pack, which is why Kikau becomes so important. While the Bulldogs have recruited good players from strong clubs and definitely have an improved roster compared to last season, they may take some time to gel. If Kikau can remain fit, you could expect the Dogs to make a late run for the playoffs but miss out on September footy. You could just as easily expect them to shit the bed and leave Ciraldo fighting for his career in 2025. Look out for the rise of Samuel Hughes (prop) and Jeral Skelton (centre)

Likely Finish: 9th – 14th

Cronulla Sharks

Key Player: Siosifa Talakai

It seems somewhat obvious that Nico Hynes is the key player, and I suppose if you take him out of the team, they are going to struggle. But they’ve also struggled with him in the side. The Sharks have made the top 8 in four of the last five seasons and lost all 5 finals games, despite finishing second on the ladder in 2022 and boasting the 2022 Daly M Player of the Year. Let’s face it, the Sharks are just crap against top 4 sides and can anyone remember the last time they beat one? But Hynes can’t do it all on his own, which is why I’m singling out Talakai as the player that could be the key to reversing their finals fortunes, should they get there. Like many players, Talakai’s form slumped after a contract upgrade. You could call it the ‘Bunty Afoa effect’, where having achieved financial security with a contract upgrade, an athlete loses the eye of the tiger.  But if Talakai can rediscover his form, the Sharks backline could carve up and create headaches for opponents. The Sharks have a good 17, but lack depth in their forward pack should injuries or concussions strike. They’ve lost huge experience in Wade Graham and haven’t recruited anyone new for 2024. If they can remain relatively injury-free, they’ll finish high on the table, particularly given they have a very light draw. But the psychological pressure of evading the tag of the NRL’s perennial chokers, might become too much. I wager the Sharks choke again unless some luck goes their way in September – or Talakai turns up to party. If he doesn’t, then expect Kayal Iro to swiftly take his place at centre. Look out for the rise of: Kade Dykes (five-eighth) and Kayal Iro (centre)

Likely Finish: 3rd – 7th

Dolphins 

Key Player: Herbie Farnsworth 

Once again, everybody wants to be a fullback. Herbie’s shift to fullback will either hit the jackpot, go belly-up, or take time that the Dolphins don’t have. It’s a big risk to play arguably the best centre of 2023 in an unfamiliar position and at a new club. But Wayne Bennett knows what he’s doing and the grizzly one will have seen enough to endorse it. Class rises and Herbie has bucket loads. The Dolphins have recruited extremely well, probably the best of any club outside of the Warriors and Roosters, and they still have money to burn should more opportunities arise. Injuries exposed their depth last season and they aren’t flush with it in 2024. But should they maintain some consistency in selections, they have a side that could push teams for the full 80 and the experience to close out the tight contests. Definitely knocking on the door to make the top 8, but they’ll need to make the most of their cushy start which sees them only playing at Suncorp or Kayo Stadium for the first 11 rounds. But after that, they have the unenviable privilege of travelling to Perth, Darwin, Auckland and Sydney for away games and play prior to all three Origin games without their rep stars. Look out for the rise of: Max Plath (utility)

Likely Finish: 7th – 10th

Gold Coast Titans

Key Player: Kieran Foran

To be fair, new coach Des Hasler is the key, but in terms of players, Foran has the experience and class to guide this team around the park. In the same vein as Shaun Johnson of 2023, if Foran plays 20 plus games and can build form, the Titans are a real chance at making the 8. Personal tragedy in losing his stepson over the off-season aside, Foran has had enough issues over the years that can come back and haunt him. However, having his old mentor and counsel back in his corner will no doubt be a huge benefit to his mindset and he will be surrounded by exciting players that he could elevate to a new level. The Warriors face them on Anzac Day and while the Wahs will back themselves, the last time they met on this auspicious occasion (on NZ soil no less), it was the Titans who prevailed. They won’t roll over for the Wah’s supporters and could spoil the party. I would suggest they have the potential to spoil a few parties this season and have the arsenal to make the 8, if they can find form as a cohesive team. Foran could be the key to them doing so. Look out for the rise of: Toni Francis (wing)

Likely Finish: 6th – 10th

Manly Sea Eagles

Key Player: Tom Trbjevic

Was Shane Flanagan the reason Manly showed flashes of brilliance last season, or Anthony Seibold? Or was it just when Tom was playing? This season will give us the answers. The addition of Luke Brooks will inevitably compliment Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbjevic, but when all is said and done, Manly’s chances of premiership glory come down to an in-form fullback with a name that no one can ever spell. He needs to be there at the business end of the season, and long enough to have contributed to Manly making the 8. That happens, and anything is possible. Often it takes a while for a halves combination to develop, but you get the sense that Brooks has been around long enough to know what is required of him and will thrive alongside Cherry-Evans. Having the pressure and responsibility taken off his shoulders will help, but you also get the feeling that because he’s become the default to blame for the Tigers fortunes, people may find it hard to change their habits and look to blame Brooks if things go pear-shape. But if things start going right, expect him to receive some praise. Regardless, it is Tom Trbjevic who holds the keys. It’s hard to see them going deep into finals without him. But anything is possible in the NRL. Look out for the rise of: Jamie Humphreys (hooker)

Likely Finish: 3rd – 7th

Newcastle Knights

Key Player: Kayln Ponga

There’s no doubt the Knights have a good side. And while Tom Jenkins will do a fine job filling in for Dominic Young, they won’t be the same team without him. A lot of their tries, and hard yards out of their in-zone, came from his power and strength. They boast the most bullshit decision ever for Daly M Player of the Year, in Kalyn Ponga (decided on by the incompetent meathead, Gordon Tallis). Something tells me that Round 4 against the Warriors in a packed Go Media Stadium, probably won’t be a fun experience for him. The faithful will likely stick it to him with some creative signs and the Warriors pack will aim up, and remind him who should have won. I’m looking forward to watching the continued rise of Leo Thompson and while I still struggle to see the Knights being a force in 2024, they’ll definitely be in the mix at the business end so long as Ponga remains fit. While everyone was focused on the rise of the Wahs last season, the Knights were also a surprise package, because they finished one spot above the Warriors in 2022 (14th), and one spot below them in 2023 (5th). But they will also feel the expectation to repeat and build on that success, and no one will feel that pressure more than Ponga, whose presence was the reason for their climb, whereas the Warriors had a few key players contributing to their success. Look out for the rise of: Jack Cogger (No. 6)

Likely Finish: 7th – 13th

Melbourne Storm

Key Player: Ryan Papynhauzen

It’s incredible how the fullbacks hold the car keys for so many teams. The NRL is blessed with talent in the No.1 jersey. The issue for most clubs, is their rock star fullbacks are injury prone and take up a chunk of the salary cap, which impacts the club’s ability to have strong back-ups or have star players in other key positions. For a team that had been depleted of the majority of its forward pack, the Storm punched above their weight in 2023. But aside from a star studded spine, solid back line and starting props, they are bereft of class in the second row and thin on the ground for quality coming off the bench. They lack depth. It could haunt them, but we say that every year, and every year they are in the finals. I’m going to be brave and suggest that any long term injury to Harry Grant will leave them wanting. His decision-making around the ruck is key to their success and if his presence goes missing for too many games, the Storm may risk not making the 8.  But Papynhauzen is always Johnny on the spot. He’s probably one of the best readers of the game and having spent a season in the coaches box with the likes of Craig Bellamy and Stephen Kearney, will have provided him with even more understanding of his role and what the team need. His leadership was ever-present in his few games returning from injury, and showed he hasn’t lost any class. Look out for the rise of: Sualauvi Faalogo (fullback) and Jack Howarth (second row).

Likely Finish:  4th – 9th

New Zealand Warriors

Key Player/s: Addin Fonua-Blake and Wade Egan

Like Payne Haas is to the Broncos, so AFB is to the Warriors. They’re a different side without his post-contact metres. Similar can be said for Wade Egan, whose organisation and footwork around the ruck has improved outa sight – to the point where compassions are being made to Cameron Smith. If Egan can evade the niggles and concussions that often plagued his 2023 season, the Warriors will benefit. Like Johnson, Egan is a fine wine that gets better with age and whose form improves the more he plays. Having notched up a 130 games, Egan knows what the NRL is about and has developed the confidence in knowing and understanding his role. AFB is the backbone of the teams metres and gets them field position that others simply can’t. While Egan had good backup in Lussick, or possibly Chanel Harris-Tevita, the same can’t be said for AFB, which is where the Warriors are vulnerable. But outside of prop, the Warriors are stacked with depth in all positions and with another pre-season under Daly M winning Coach, Andrew Webster, have to be seen as genuine contenders to stopping the Panthers from making it 4 in a row. Especially when they add the introduction of RTS at centre as another strike weapon, along with the leadership of Capewell. Of all the teams, it’s the Warriors that suggest the most improvement under Webster, combined with strong recruitment and retention. So long as they don’t limp into the finals like a wounded Warrior, and can hit September with form and no injuries to Johnson, AFB and Egan, then look out, because the Warriors could go all the way. Up the Wahs! Look out for the rise of: Ali Leiatua (centre) and Zyon Maiu’u (prop). 

Likely Finish:  Top 4

North Queensland Cowboys 

Key Player: Tom Dearden

You know the interesting thing about the Cowboys this season? Me neither. But this will be Todd Payten’s third year in charge, and of all the coaches in the NRL, I see him as someone that could begin facing pressure to retain his job, should the Cowboys not perform this season. Payten has a solid side, though not one that conjures fear into the hearts of their opposition. And most teams like the Warriors, have worked out how to limit Taumalolo’s usually intimidating presence. The halves pairing of Clifford and Dearden doesn’t completely inspire, though Chad Townsend on his last legs doesn’t offer the same appeal as the likes of Shaun Johnson, Cherry-Evans or Adam Reynolds. With a full season at the Cowboys under his belt, Tom Dearden is the player that needs to step up, take charge and lead the way. Look out for the rise of: Zac Laybutt (centre) and Robert Derby (wing).

Likely Finish: 7th – 13th

Paramatta Eels

Key Player/s: J’Maine Hopgood and Joey Lussick

It’s funny, I keep looking at the Eels team, and… outside of their halves… I just don’t see any players that excite me. Yet everyone keeps talking them up. Don’t get me completely wrong, I acknowledge they have solid players sprinkled across the paddock. Gutho is consistently strong, albeit a bit of a whinger. I sometimes wonder if he should just shut-up and lead by example because you ever notice how much he whinges at his teammates when things go wrong? I appreciate he’s a competitor, but that’s not effective leadership or an environment which players feel supported to excel – when the captain is grumbling at them on camera whenever anything goes wrong. Outside of beating Penrith a few times, but never when it counts, they didn’t have much to crow about in 2023. And not much has changed in their roster that makes me think anything will be different this season. To be fair, off-field dramas contributed to making their season a write-off, so Eels fans will have put a line through it and be hoping for huge improvement from the Brad Arthur coached outfit in 2024. But… I don’t share their optimism. I expect the Eels to take most top 8 sides to 70 minutes and then just fall away. The Eels, Raiders and Titans are most likely to win the league for most games lost by under 13 points. All of which is why I suggest their key player lies in someone relatively unknown. We already know what their class players can bring, but as we saw last season, that’s just not going to be enough. They need a few lesser known players in their side to step up. The person in the key position handling the ball the most and making the decisions around the ruck, is Joey Lussick. The Eels leaked the second most points in the top 12 teams with only the Raiders being higher. Meaning J’Maine Hopgood as their lock and cornerstone of their defence needs to shore up the middle. If he can, and Lussick finds a purple patch, then the Eels could once again surprise. But… they probably won’t. They also face arguably the toughest draw in the comp. Look out for the rise of: Wiremu Greig (prop) and Charlie Guymer (second row).

Likely Finish: 10th – 15th

Penrith Panthers

Key Player: Dylan Edwards

You saw what happened against the Eels when Edwards wasn’t there. The Panthers capitulated. They were defensively disorganised and creatively disoriented. While Luai’s injury during the game didn’t help, their timing was off and they just lacked cohesion. Penrith have generally been so far ahead of the pack, that a 4th premiership in a row doesn’t seem crazy in the slightest. And their only major losses are Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leinu – though at any other club, this would be seen as a massive blow. What will be interesting is seeing how Luai behaves now that he knows he’s leaving at the end of the season, particularly if Ivan Cleary decides at any point to give Brad Schneider some game time ahead of Luai. But you can understand why Luai’s made that decision – five years at the Tigers of earning $350k more per season than he was offered by the Panthers, is probably more alluring than winning yet another premiership. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he goes at the Tigers, because while he could prove me wrong, I don’t believe he’s consistently been the key player or main factor for the Panther’s success. In fact, it wasn’t until he left the field injured in the grand final that the Panther’s put the foot down and Cleary felt comfortable running the show. But can Luai do it without Cleary at a struggling club with all the pressure directed his way? I highly doubt it. Outside of Golden Boot winner James Fisher-Harris and his partners in crime, Moses Leota and Liam Martin, it’s Cleary and Edwards that run this team. And that’s where the club has directed their money. Penrith have arguably the toughest opening 5 rounds in the comp. A poor start rarely hurts them but if injuries are also accumulated, then they could end up slightly lower on the table than the previous few years. Look out for the rise of: Brad Schneider (halves).

Likely Finish: 3rd – 6th

South Sydney Rabbitohs 

Key Player: Latrell Mitchell 

Caleb Clarke’s favourite NRL team have an extremely strong starting 13. But that’s about where it ends. If the full 13 stayed relatively fit and uninjured for the full season, the Bunnies could consider themselves a genuine chance to win the comp. But as their last season fade out proved, the lack of quality cover and depth leaves them vulnerable. There’s no better example of this than Latrell Mitchell, who emulates the Bunnies fortunes. If he stays fit and find form, they win more games than they lose. If he doesn’t, they lose more than they win. It’s all a little obvious and predictable for the Rabbits. There’s no major changes to their side other than the addition of Jack Wighton who will provide a strong voice and leadership that may have been missing on their edge, and a good foil should Walker or Ilias miss a few games. But it all pretty much comes down to Mitchell. He seems like a player who gets bored easily and doesn’t deal well with pressure. If the coach can find a way to not blow their load in the first third of the season and aim to discover the form in the back end, then the Bunnies might stand more of a chance. But like the Eels, they also face a stiff draw. Can’t say I love their odds. But if Latrell is there, you’d be a mug to bet against them. Look out for the rise of: Tyrone Munro (wing).

Likely Finish:  8th – 14th

West Tigers

Key Player: Latu Fainu

If Latu lives up to expectations and comes into the NRL with Shaun Johnson or Reece Walsh effect, the Tigers could turn some heads. If he takes a few years to establish himself, then it could be a long grind for the cellar dwellers. They just don’t currently look like they have the halves to take them into a top 8, let alone get out of the bottom 4. But the NRL is a roller coaster. Outside of ardent Warriors fans, no one would have predicted a top 4 finish for them – not if you’d had to put your house on it. And while anything can happen in the NRL, if I was forced to put my house on the line and predict the 2024 wooden spooners, it would be the Tigers. They have an untested half, no genuinely strong recruits – although some show potential. But potential isn’t enough, it has to be proven and Benji Marshall will have his work cut out trying to bring out the best in this team. The difference between Andrew Webster and Benji Marshall is that Webster had done a 20-year coaching apprenticeship. Marshall has done a year at best. And while his many years of playing at an elite level will give him a lot of mana to stand him in good stead, being a man-manager is a different skill set and it won’t take long for all that mana to get flushed down the toilet if the Tigers go on a losing run without showing significant signs of improvement. Remarkably, the addition of Jerome Luai for 2025 has shortened the TAB’s odds for the Tigers making the top 8 in 2025, down to $1.78. Well, I wouldn’t touch those odds even if I were a billionaire who found a loose $20 bill in my pocket. Look out for the rise of: Samuela Fainu (second row).

Likely Finish – bottom 4

Other predictions: 

– Big improvers for 2024 – Roosters, Manly, Bulldogs

– Big sliders for 2024 – Raiders

– Wooden Spoon – Dragons, or Tigers for the 3peat

– Top 4 – Warriors, Roosters, Panthers, Sharks

– Top 4 Smokey – Manly

– Top 8 Smokey – Dolphins

– No head coach will be sacked during the season. However, end-of-season reviews could see a few heads on the chopping block or fighting for survival in 2025.

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