Friday, July 19

The NRL juggernauts that will not live up to expectations, and the powerhouses that will defy them

The season is all but upon us and the 18th Man dives into the four NRL juggernauts that will not live up to expectations in 2024, and the two that will continue to defy them.

The Broncos – Falling

They won’t be top 2, let alone the top four. I know I’m probably the only one calling it, mainly because most Aussie pundits have crawled so so far up their own arses trying to kiss the rings of Payne Haas and Reece Walsh, they’re completely blinded by mitigating factors that contributed to the Broncos success last season, which aren’t in their favour in 2024; travel and talent.

Last season, the Broncos travelled less in the first 15 rounds than any other season in the club’s history. They also had the least injuries of any other club. Coincidence? And while they still host magic round at Suncorp in Round 11 as an away game (which is ridiculous, completely RIDICULOUS – how other NRL clubs aren’t screaming foul from the rooftops about this is beyond me. I can’t get my head around it), they will still travel more than all of last year combined in the first 10 rounds. If you don’t think this will impact the Broncos, then just sit back and watch. Travel generates fatigue, distraction from routine and a lack of concentration – which collectively contributes to injuries. Having almost no injured players through the first 15 rounds in 2023 allowed them to build combinations and cohesion. Yet if they lose their first game against the Roosters in Vegas, they have to come home and play the Bunnies, Panthers (away), Cowboys and Storm (away). If they win most of these without suffering any relevant injuries, I’ll be fairly impressed. Especially when you take into account the other reason they are disadvantaged from last season…

They’ve lost a bunch of talent, experience and leadership. The Broncos have lost arguably the best centre of 2023, two State of Origin forwards and a quality bench impact player. And they’ve replaced them with, Fletcher Baker. Ummmm…  The Broncos may have more experience from playing a Grand Final last year, but the remaining players have a lot of work to do if they’re going to fill the void in lost talent. I’m picking they won’t, particularly if a few injuries accumulate to the likes of Haas, Carrigan, or Reynolds. Top 8? For sure. Top 2?  I won’t be putting any money on them. 

Cronulla Sharks – Falling off a cliff

Far out, they have a sweet, sweet draw. And that appears the only reason they might make the 8. But they won’t. The problem the Sharks have is that they’re not playing last year’s ladder. Teams above and below them have recruited well and strengthened their roster and depth. Have you seen the Dolphins squad? Holy shit. The Sharks haven’t recruited anyone – at all. They’ve lost the leadership and experience of Wade Graham, yet Craig Fitzgibbon believes he can get the remaining talent to win the comp. I respectfully disagree. He’s been working with this squad for 3 years and if anything, they’ve regressed. Based on how they played against the Dogs in the pre-season, if anything happens to Nico Hynes, the Sharks are gone burgers and possibly bottom four! They won’t score enough points without him. And they don’t have the depth to sustain injuries. The Dolphins, Titans, Bulldogs, and Manly will be hugely improved sides who have all recruited well. The Roosters and Bunnies will be better. I anticipate the Sharks are about to get a rude awakening and expect that around late July, early August, Sharks fans will start talking up AFB as their saviour for next season. But he will come too late for 2024. 

The Eels – Going nowhere

There’s the rock solid world class halves pairing of Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown. And then there’s…. …. Well… No just kidding, because they’ve got um… I mean there’s… Well… Yeah…  No one that really strikes fear into the heart of the opposition. So unless Brad Arthur is able to pull off an Andrew Webster and bring out the best in a bunch of half decent players he’s been working with for the last 3 seasons or more, then I struggle to see how the Eels are going to recapture the magic of 2022. They also leaked the second most points of any team in the top 12 in 2023. Brad Arthur and Todd Payten will be the coaches under the most pressure this season. Fair to say though that last year was a total write-off for the Eels. Injuries and off-field dramas combined to create on-field inconsistency. Yet based on what we know now, it’s hard to see the Eels in the top 8 this season, let alone 9th. The Dolphins will finish higher than the Eels. If the Raiders can smash them in a pre-season game, then… yeah. Speaking of the Raiders… 

Raiders – Falling

It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Of the top 12 teams in 2023, they leaked the most points and were the only side to make the top 8 with a negative points diff. They’ve lost a gaping hole in talent, leadership and experience in Jack Wighton. And they’ve replaced it with no one of any consequence. Ricky Stuart is banking on his development players filling the void. Based on the first pre-season game, it could be a masterstroke strategy, because they looked fantastic putting the hapless Eels to the sword. But development players often take time to get used to the rigours of the NRL. So unless Ricky has a game plan that will allow them to excel, then you almost have to wonder if the Raiders are now in a rebuilding phase – though they’d never say that out loud because it would impact their ability to retain and recruit talent. But when a club stalwart like Wighton leaves them for far less money, you know they’re in trouble. And yet they still have some great talent in Tapine, Hudson Young, Corey Horsburgh and Matt Timoko, and the aging bull, Papali’i. But they also have arguably one of the weakest spines in the comp. Dani Levi or Zac Woodford could be the key to unlocking them if either of them can stay fit long enough to string together some games and build form. If they don’t do that, I don’t see the Raiders doing a lot this season. They’ll push teams for 60 minutes then fall away, or they’ll get too many points scored against them to be able to pull off one of their trademark comebacks. 

Melbourne Storm – Hanging in there

Do you know who the most important team member of the Melbourne Storm is? It’s no one on the field. It’s their coach. I’m only mentioning the Storm here because every year like clockwork, people write off the Storm because they’ve lost so much talent. And every year, Craig Bellamy continues to defy expectations and proves why he’s one of the greatest NRL coaches of all time. While they haven’t lost talent in the off-season, without a decent second row, I find it hard to see the Storm improving on 2023. But they’ll make the 8 and if Paps stays fit, anything is possible because his ability to read games is unparalleled by any other fullback. Having sat in the coach’s box for a season will have also provided Paps insights no other player could gain. And their spine is arguably the best in the NRL and big Nelson, if played in the right position, can cause any team major headaches. The Storm will be there though – Bellamy is too good. I’m forecasting a repeat of 2011, where Shaun Johnson’s magic lifts the Warriors to beat the Storm in a prelim and make the grand final. 

NZ Warriors – Defying expectations

Despite finishing in the top 4 in 2023, with a team expected to come close to earning a wooden spoon…. Despite developing and riding a tidal wave of momentum that saw the Warriors eclipse all expectations in a historically defining season… Despite having recruited well to strengthen their side, the Warriors are still being written off by many Aussie pundits, who see last year’s surge by the Warriors as nothing more than an enigma, a one-hit-wonder. Many don’t even have them in their top 8. 

What. The. Actual. Fuck. 

I cannot wait, just cannot wait, to listen to the backpedalling that is about to emanate from the microphones and keyboards of these ignorant twits. And I can almost pinpoint the moment when the sands will begin to shift, in Round 2. Why Round 2? The Warriors should put away the Sharks in Round 1 in front of a sold-out Go Media Stadium. But in Round 2, they cross the Tasman to face the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park, who they haven’t beaten in seven years. Yeah, you read that right, 7 long years since they tasted success. Beating the Storm will be seen as a turning point for the Warriors, who last year, despite finishing 4th, were unable to beat either of the Storm, Broncos, Bunnies, Panthers, or Roosters. The NRL season is a marathon, and there will still be many fans who will take a cautious ‘wait and see’ approach. You can’t blame them given how inconsistent the club has been historically from season to season, let alone game to game. But should the Warriors dismantle the Storm at AAMI Park in Round 2, you can expect to see the sands shift and people begin to realise that last season was no fluke. The Warriors will defy and may very well exceed expectations again. And wouldn’t that be something? Up the Wahs!

Top 4 – Warriors, Roosters, Panthers, Knights

Rest of the Top 8 – choose from Storm, Titans, Manly, Bunnies, Broncos, Dolphins.