What has gone wrong up in Cowboy territory?

By Jack Brady

Coach Neil Henry called it a “pretty ugly performance all round” and co-captain Matthew Scott noted “a reserve grade side would’ve beating us”.

Many words come to mind after watching the Cowboys kick off the 2012 National Rugby League campaign: pitiful, error-riddled, hopeless even wooden spoon specials.

Their game against last year’s wooden spooners the Gold Coast ended in an 18-0 capitulation, but it should’ve been much worse.

The stats don’t lie, by full-time the Cowboys had committed 26 errors and finished with the worst ever ball control stats since it was first recorded it in 2008- 43 per cent.

The question now is: why did this happen?

Last season, North Queensland only lost six games before Round 20 and were one of the competition’s successful clubs while playing at home (75 per cent) at Dairy Farmers Stadium.

Fast-forward to last weekend’s game in Townsville and the Cowboys couldn’t even put a single point on the board against the Titans.

Where did they go so wrong?

The Cowboys signed Kane Linnett and Robert Lui this year and only lost one regular in Willie Tonga to the Eels.

They had no excuses to play that poorly and in retrospect the Cowboys problems may have been caused by Australian and Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston.

Thurston is one of the best players in rugby league, a former Dally M winner and one of the Cowboys greatest ever.

Last weekend he played at five-eighth, not his preferred position of halfback.

Since joining the club in 2005, the Cowboys have won a third of their games he hasn’t played. Thurston is the Cowboys.

Yet last weekend, with the usual expectations heaped on his shoulders, he faltered in an unfamiliar position and ended the game with several costly errors.

It was a very ‘un-Thurston’ like performance for a usual clinical club legend: he missed thee tackles and made an unforeseeable five errors. It hurt his team and the Cowboys paid the price for it

2012 National Rugby League Season Preview

By Brady Foray Writers

Summer is trickling down to its final days and the cricket is slowly becoming irrelevant once again. The 2012 Rugby League season is almost upon us, in what could be one of the most intriguing seasons ever.

How will the Broncos fare without future immortal and 355-game veteran Darren Lockyer? How will the ‘Des Hasler effect’ impact the Canterbury Bulldogs and 2011 premiers Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles? Will Todd Carney stay off the drink? And will super coach Wayne Bennett become the first ever coach to win a premiership at three separate clubs?

The most important question though is, which team will step up to the plate and take out this year’s 2012 National Rugby League premiership? This team-by-team analysis will take you through your teams’ chances and keys of success along with the players to watch out for in one of the most anticipated rugby league seasons to date.

All these questions will be answered as all 16 teams put it all on the line in hope to become the 2012 NRL premiers. There’s no doubting that this season will be one for the ages.

Brisbane Broncos

Signings: Luke Capewell (Titans), Petero Civoniceva (Broncos), Nick Slyney (Cowboys)

Departures: Darren Lockyer, Shane Tronc, Nick Kenny (All Retired) Shea Moylan (Melbourne), Justin Hunt (Rabbitohs)

Form: After failing to make the finals for the first time in 19 years in 2010, the Brisbane Broncos returned to form last season.  Winning seven of the first 10 and making it through the Origin period relatively unscathed, the Broncos finished third overall. After taking care of the Warriors in the qualifying final, they played the Dragons in the semis in what was arguably the best game of 2011. After copping a stray knee from teammate Gerard Beale, a field goal from the injured Lockyer in extra time pushed the Broncos into the preliminary final where they were beaten by eventual premiers Manly.

Key to Success: The Halves- the Broncos have got an international savvy backline and a phenomenal forward pack, yet this will mean nothing without halfback Peter Wallace and presumed five-eighth Corey Norman playing at their very best. This pair must strike up a combination quickly for the Broncos to be any kind of success.

Players to Watch: Under the tutelage of star signing and returning veteran Petero Civoniceva watch out for Josh McGuire to take his game to another level this season. When finally elevated to the starting line-up last year McGuire averaged 151 metres and 34 tackles. Keep an eye out for new skipper Sam Thaiday and 21-game rookie five-eighth Norman to ease the Broncos through the post-Lockyer era.

Erratic Eddy says: “Without head honcho Darren Lockyer around anymore the Broncos may take some time to gel with their new halves partnership. Peter Wallace is a class player and will shoulder a Lockyer-like role this year with moderate success. Look out for captain Thaiday to actually concentrate on his new role as captain in 2012 instead of running third man in all the time.”

Strongest Side: 1- Josh Hoffman 2- Gerard Beale 3- Jack Reed 4- Justin Hodges 5- Jharal Yow Yeh 6- Corey Norman, 7- Peter Wallace 8- Petero Civoniceva 9- Andrew McCullough 10- Ben Hannant 11- Sam Thaiday (C) 12-  Alex Glenn 13- Corey Parker INTERCHANGE: 14- Ben Hunt 15- Matt Gillett 16- Josh McGuire 17- Ben Te’o

Predicted Position: 7th

 

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Signings: James Graham (St Helens), Luke MacDougall (Unattached), James Gavet (Warriors)

Departures: Jamal Idris, Aidan Sezer (Titans), Michael Hodgson, Brad Morrin, Gary Warburton, Andrew Ryan (All Retired), Ben Roberts (Eels), Grant Millington (Castleford), Junior Tia Kilifi, Chris Armit (Panthers), Mickey Paea (Hull KR)

Form: 2011 was the year that could’ve been. The Bulldogs lost five games by fewer than eight points or less. If the wins came there way, it would’ve planted them firmly in the finals picture. After starting off the year on a three game winning streak, the Bulldogs slowly suffered multiple losses. Halfway through the year coach Kevin Moore quit his post and Michael Ennis was ruled out with a season-ending neck injury. Under the watchful eye of caretaker coach Jim Dymock, the Bulldogs won five of their last eight games to and only just missed out on the top eight, missing the finals in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92.

Key to Success: Des Hasler- The coach of the 2011 premiers Manly comes to the Bulldogs with high anticipation and expectation. It’s up to him to turn this team into viable finals competitors. Hasler will accept nothing less than for the Bulldogs to be premiership contenders, and his attitude should spur a relatively younger Bulldogs team into a genuine competitive outfit this season.

Players to Watch: Beware Australian public: James Graham is the latest Pom looking to ply his trade in the NRL.  Graham, a former ‘Man of Steel’ in the Super League at St Helens, will look to continue the trend set by Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess in becoming the next successful English-born player in Australia. Take special note of Ben Barba as well as he looks to prove his worth as a legitimate fullback under Hasler.

Erratic Eddy says: ““With his luxurious mane of blonde hair, the only way is up for the Doggies under Haslr.  James Graham, or Mr. Man of Steel as he’s known back in England, is an outstanding buy and will once again show that ‘some Poms do ‘ave ‘em’.”

Strongest Side: 1- Ben Barba 2- Steve Turner 3- Josh Morris 4- Tim Lafai 5- Bryson Goodwin 6- Kris Keating 7- Trent Hodkinson 8- James Graham 9- Michael Ennis (C) 10- Aiden Tolman 11- David Stagg 12- Frank Pritchard 13- Dene Halatau INTERCHANGE: 14- Josh Reynolds 15- Greg Eastwood 16- Sam Kasiano 17- Corey Payne

Predicted Position: 9th

 

North Queensland Cowboys

Signings: Robert Lui (West Tigers), Kane Linnett (Roosters), Luke Harlen (Northern Pride)

Departures: Willie Tonga (Eels), Leeson Ah Mau (Dragons), Will Tupou (Western Force), Shannon Gallant (Berkeley Vale), Michael Bani (Raiders), Isaak Ah Mau (Released), Clint Amos (Retired)

Form: The North Queensland Cowboys had one of their more successful seasons in 17 seasons in the top grade last year. Before Round 20 the Cowboys had only lost six games, planting themselves firmly in the top four for most of the season. A key to their successful season was the home record, winning an outstanding nine out of 12 games at Dairy Farmers Stadium. In the end the Cowboys lost four of the last five games and ended up at seventh, faced with sudden death football against eventual premiers Manly. After bravely leading 8-0 at halftime, the defensive flood gates opened and they were put to the sword by the Sea Eagles as they ran in 40 unanswered points.

Key to Success: Johnathan Thurston- The QLD and Australian halfback is the linchpin of the Cowboys. Since joining the club in 2005, the Cowboys have won a mere 10 games in the 30 he’s missed (33 per cent). A fit Thurston is a massive component to the Cowboys’ success in any game this season. In 19 games last year Thurston finished with 21 try assists (fourth in the league) and 25 line break assists (first). The form and fitness of Thurston hinges on whether North Queensland will be a force in the coming season.

Players to Watch: The Cowboys were severely depleted when Tariq Sims went down with a broken leg late last year.  They had lost one of the game’s biggest rising stars and come finals time missed him massively. If fit, Sims inclusion in the Cowboys side will only be a positive. He is also a potential bolter for the New South Wales State of Origin this season. Watch also for Robert Lui to shine in his natural habitat this year, returning to his Queensland comfort zone. He will only complement Thurston.

Erratic Eddy says: “Now Eddy doesn’t mean to offend but let’s hope Robert Lui concentrates on his footy this year and not on his alcohol and domestic violence habits. Tariq Sims will play for NSW this year too. You’ve heard it here first from Eddy.”

Strongest Side: 1- Matthew Bowen 2- Kalifa Faifai Loa 3- Brent Tate 4- Antonio Winterstein 5- Ashley Graham 6- Johnathan Thurston (C) 7- Robert Lui 8- Matthew Scott (C) 9- Aaron Payne 10- Glenn Hall 11- Tariq Sims 12- Gavin Cooper 13- Dallas Johnson INTERCHANGE: 14- James Segeyaro 15- Scott Bolton 16- James Tamou 17- Ashton Sims

Predicted Position: 4th

 

St George-Illawarra Dragons

Signings: Chase Stanley (Storm), Will Matthews (Titans), Daniel Vidot, Josh Miller (Raiders), Denan Kemp (Southern Districts RU), Leeson Ah Mau (Cowboys), Jeremy Latimore (Warriors), Atelea Vea (Storm)

Departures: Darius Boyd, Adam Cuthbertson, Alex McKinnon (Knights), Peni Tagive, Jack Bosden (Roosters), Mark Gasnier (Retired), Jon Green (Sharks), Daniel Penese (Eels), Michael Greenfield (Storm)

Form: The Dragons settled into 2011 like there wasn’t a pre-season after following on from their premiership-winning 2010 season. Come State of Origin time though, the Dragons began to taper. Eight of their own played Origin (Boyd, Creagh, Scott, Young, Merrin, Morris, Gasnier and Soward) throughout the year and they suffered a severe post-Origin hangover as a result. This hangover was typified through their Round 21 match against South Sydney where they blew a 20-0 lead to lose by 14. The Dragons finished fifth  overall before being eliminated in straight sets.

Key to Success: The Wayne Bennett Legacy- minus Gasnier and Boyd the Dragons have a very similar roster to previous years.  Now though, without Bennett the Dragons could be mistaken for a completely different team. Coach Steve Price must take into account Bennett’s game plan because the legacy Bennett left at the Dragons should not be abandoned. Without Bennett’s legacy, one that has been entrenched in the Dragons’ game plan over the past three years, the Dragons will struggle to make the top eight in 2012.

Players to Watch: The Dragons roster is filled with NSW and Australian players but in 2012 the Dragons are relying on big years from the Stanley brothers- Kyle and Chase – to fill the voids left by Darius Boyd and Mark Gasnier. Kyle is one of the games rising stars whilst Chase returns to the Dragons after an injury riddled two years at the Storm.

Erratic Eddy says: “With the Wayne Bennett- Darius Boyd bromance moving on to Newcastle in 2012, the Dragons will be stuck on Struggle Street this year. New coach Price will look to keep the Dragons game plans consistent with Bennett, but has already stuffed up by playing Soward on the right side. Look for that to change quickly.”

Strongest Side: 1- Kyle Stanley 2- Brett Morris 3- Chase Stanley 4- Matt Cooper 5- Jason Nightingale 6- Jamie Soward, 7- Ben Hornby (C) 8- Dan Hunt 9- Nathan Fien 10- Michael Weyman 11- Beau Scott 12- Ben Creagh 13- Dean Young INTERCHANGE: 14- Mitch Rein 15- Matthew Prior 16- Trent Merrin 17- Jeremy Latimore

Predicted Position: 11th

 

Parramatta Eels

Signings: Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs), Esikeli Tonga (Titans), Willie Tonga (Cowboys), Ben Roberts (Bulldogs), Taulima Tautai, Johnny Mannah (Sharks), Jake Mullaney (Wests Tigers), Daniel Penese (Dragons), Joseph Paulo (Panthers)

Departures: Carl Webb, Paul Whatuira, Chris Walker, Chris Hicks (All Retired), Jeff Robson (Sharks), Joel Reddy, Tom Humble (Wests Tigers), Daniel Mortimer (Roosters), Manase Manuokafoa (Bradford), Etu Uaisele (Eels)

Form: The Parramatta Eels had their fair share of heartbreaking losses last season. Four times last year Parramatta ended up in golden point extra time, losing three times and drawing against the Dragons. In nine other games they lost by six points or fewer. In the end it came down to the Titans and Eels for the wooden spoon in a final round showdown. Coming off a seven-game losing streak the Eels won 32-12, and ended the year at 14th.

Key to Success: Cohesion- Without it the Eels will go nowhere in 2012. Jarryd Hayne, Ben Roberts and Chris Sandow must strike up a combination quickly and play as a unit, not individually as they have become known for. Cohesion is an important factor in rugby league and with Sandow and Hayne you have two of the most individually gifted rugby league players in the NRL.

Players to Watch: The Parramatta Eels have recruited well for 2012 but none better than last year’s leading point scorer Chris Sandow. After his best season in the top grade to date, Sandow comes to Parramatta rich in confidence after his exciting tenure with South Sydney ended. Sandow may be what the doctor ordered at Parramatta this year after last year’s efforts: 195 points, 10 line breaks, 13 line break assists, 20 try assists, and kicking four 40/20s.

Erratic Eddy says: “Chris Sandow apparently met his ‘Alan Bond’ according to South Sydney CEO Shane Richardson after signing with the Eels for an alleged $550k a year. It’s nice to see the Eels have learnt their lesson and signed younger blokes this season too. Last season, four of their five recruits retired mid-season.”

Strongest Side: 1- Jarryd Hayne 2- Luke Burt 3- Ryan Morgan 4- Willie Tonga 5- Jordan Atkins 6- Ben Roberts 7- Chris Sandow 8- Tim Mannah 9- Casey McGuire 10- Fuifui Moimoi 11- Nathan Hindmarsh (C) 12- Ben Smith 13- Reni Maitua INTERCHANGE: 14- Matthew Keating 15- Shane Shackleton 16- Justin Poore 17- Justin Horo

Predicted Position: 15th

 

Newcastle Knights

Signings: Darius Boyd, Alex McKinnon, Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Kade Snowden (Sharks), Timana Tahu (Panthers), Robbie Rochow (Storm), Daine Laurie (Macquarie Scorpions), Danny Buderus (Leeds)

Departures: Adam MacDougall, Dan Tolar, Ben Rogers (All Retired), Isaac De Gois, Mark Taufua (Sharks), Shannon McDonnell (Hull KR), Keith Lulia (Bradford), Cameron Ciraldo (Panthers), Steve Southern (Wakefield), Antonio Kafusi (Harlequins), Josh Ailaomai (Roosters)

Form: Whether it was influenced by the Tinkler takeover, the mass departures of talent or the impending arrival of Wayne Bennett the Newcastle Knights 2011 campaign was inconsistent at best. On top of the world one week, down and out the next. The Knights started the season like a house on fire, skyrocketing to first place after disposing of the Panthers 42-8 in the first round. After beating the Cowboys the next week, the Knights suffered a three-consecutive losses which – the story of their up and down season. Wins and losses would come in blocks as the Knights ended up with 12 wins and 12 losses leaving them clinging to eighth before Melbourne abruptly ended their season in the qualifying final.

Key to Success: Wayne Bennett- Known around rugby league circles as the super coach, Wayne Bennett comes to Newcastle yearning for premiership. With a squad enriched in potential, the Newcastle Knights will reach new heights this season under the guidance of Bennett. What has been labelled as the “toughest pre-season ever” by Newcastle players, it is up to Bennett to make them realise their underlying potential and help Newcastle become a rugby league powerhouse again.

Players to Watch: Danny Buderus is after redemption. The former NSW and Australian captain left the Knights on bad terms with Brian Smith at the helm in 2008. The 34-year-old is back at Newcastle with a new lease on life after three seasons with the Leeds Rhinos. Look for Buderus to blossom and eye another premiership ring with the Knights as the first choice hooker under Bennett.

Erratic Eddy says: “Come one come all the Wayne Bennett- Darius Boyd bromance is rolling into town. After successful stints in Brisbane, Wollongong and Kogarah, the couple have now rolled into Newcastle. Together they have won two premierships together and over the next four years will look to add to that tally. Watch for Akuila Uate to excite again and score half of Newcastle’s tries this year.”

Strongest Side: 1- Darius Boyd 2- James McManus 3- Junior Sa’u 4- Wes Naiqama 5- Akuila Uate 6- Kurt Gidley (C) 7- Jarrod Mullen 8- Evarn Tuimavave 9- Danny Buderus 10- Kade Snowden 11- Zeb Taia 12- Chris Houston 13- Neville Costigan INTERCHANGE: 14- Matt Hilder 15- Joel Edwards 16- Richie Fa’aoso 17- Timana Tahu

Predicted Position: 6th

 

Penrith Panthers

Signings: Cameron Ciraldo (Newcastle), Clint Newton (Hull KR), Chris Armit, Junior Tia Kilifi (Bulldogs), Danny Galea (Raiders), Geoff Daniela (Tigers), Ryan Simpkins (Tweed Heads), Etu Uaisele (Panthers)

Departures: Timana Tahu (Knights), Trent Waterhouse (Warrington), Shane Elford, Frank Puletua (Both Retired), Matthew Bell (Wests Tigers), Petero Civoniceva (Broncos), Adrian Purtell (Bradford), Joseph Paulo (Eels)

Form: Copped a 42-8 belting from the Knights to start the season and struggled for consistency from there. The appointment of Phil Gould as General Manager had everyone fearing for their job. At the time of Gould’s appointment though the Panthers hit a rich patch of form, winning six of their next nine games. Even when Michael Gordon was ruled out with a season ending knee injury and coach Matt Elliot quit, the Panthers continued their winning ways. Gould was met with disdain thereafter when he signed Warriors coach Ivan Cleary despite players preferring caretaker coach Steve Georgallis instead. The Panthers managed another two wins across their last nine games to finish 12th.

Key to Success: Ivan Cleary- Departing Panthers captain Petero Civoniceva said in his final message to club members that the Panthers are a club, “[that] has not reached its full potential” – an opinion that cannot be denied. Cleary was brought to the club to fulfil this notion. Cleary has an outstanding finals record including a maiden grand final appearance as a coach last year. To encourage solidity in the playing group in proving, Cleary needs to make a quick impression and prove he is a suitable replacement for the sake of the club.

Players to Watch: Gordon spent much of the year on the sidelines last year after a season-ending knee injury. Expect to see the 101-game veteran fit and firing come Round 1 as he looks to reclaim his No. 1 jersey from Lachlan Coote. Watch for Tim Grant to become the new enforcer for the Panthers after the departures of Trent Waterhouse and Civoniceva.

Erratic Eddy says: “…and then there was Luke Lewis. The only remaining Panther (and now captain), from the clubs last premiership success in 2003. Once a winger, now an Australian back-rower, Lewis has proven to be Mr Fix-It for the Panthers over the last few years and deserves the captaincy more than anyone. On a less serious note, I’m tipping Travis Burns to get suspended only twice this year.”

Strongest Side: 1- Lachlan Coote 2- Michael Gordon 3- Michael Jennings 4- Brad Tighe 5- David Simmons 6- Travis Burns 7- Luke Walsh 8- Sam McKendry 9- Kevin Kingston 10- Tim Grant 11- Nathan Smith 12- Nigel Plum 13- Luke Lewis (C) INTERCHANGE: 14- Nafe Seluini 15- Clint Newton 16- Cameron Ciraldo 17- Chris Armit

Predicted Position: 12th

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Signings: Matt King (Warrington), Ryan Carr, Justin Hunt (Redcliffe)

Departures: Chris Sandow (Eels), Shannan McPherson (Salford), Beau Fallon (Gold Coast), Ben Ross (Cronulla), Luke Stuart, Rhys Wesser (Both Retired).

Form: South Sydney’s start to the season was poor, winning a mere four times in their first 12 games. If not for Eels-bound Chris Sandow and Nathan Merritt, consequently the competitions leading point scorer and try scorer respectively, the Rabbitohs would’ve faced the wooden spoon instead of a finals berth. The South Sydney resurgence began in Round 21 in a golden point thriller against the Roosters. They’d go on a four-game winning run from there and emerged as a premiership dark horse. But after losing to Brisbane in Round 25 it came down to a battle for eighth place against the Knights. They’d lose 40-24 to finish 10th and miss out on finals for their fourth-consecutive season.

 

Key to Success: The Halfback- Whoever new coach Michael McGuire picks as his halfback for round one (at this stage it’s looking to be Adam Reynolds) needs to gel quickly with the team. With Sandow’s departure, Reynolds must realise he is replacing one of the most influential Rabbitohs in recent memory and play accordingly.

Players to Watch: Sam Burgess’s 2011 season was cruelled by injury so it’s fair to say that the English international will be looking to make up for lost time this season. The newly instated co-captain of the club showed his intentions in the latest instalment during the Charity Shield.

Erratic Eddy says: Rabbitohs- “Five captains- really? I can’t be sure what Michael McGuire’s plan of attack is at all. I mean honesty, is it really necessarily to have a winger  as captain? The same old story for the Rabbitohs this year, sure they have the big names and the talent (on paper) but when it gets to crunch time they’ll miss out on the eight”

Strongest Side: 1- Nathan Merritt 2- Matt King (C) 3- Greg Inglis 4- Dylan Farrell 5- Chris McQueen 6- John Sutton (C), 7- Adam Reynolds 8- David Taylor 9- Issac Luke, 10- Roy Asotasi (C) 11- Eddy Pettybourne 12- Sam Burgess (C) 13- Michael Crocker (C) INTERCHANGE: 14- Nathan Peats 15- Ben Lowe 16- Luke Burgess 17- Scott Geddes

Predicted Position: 10th

 

Canberra Raiders

Signings: Shaun Berrigan (Warriors), Michael Bani (Cowboys)

Departures: Alan Tongue, Matt Orford (Both Retired), Daniel Vidot, Josh Miller (Dragons), Danny Galea (Panthers), David Milne, James Stuart (released), Nick Skinner (Sea Eagles)

Form: If it weren’t for injuries the Canberra Raiders could’ve continued the season as it started – a thumping victory over the Cronulla Sharks. Reality set in thereafter, Terry Campese wasn’t available and the Raiders broke an unwanted record of eight-straight losses. Several big names like Tom Learoyd-Lars, Dane Tilse, David Shillington and Josh Dugan ended up in the casualty ward throughout the year.  When it was Campese’s time to return, the Canberra faithful began to believe that just maybe the Raiders could make a late run to the finals. In his comeback game, Campese suffered a season ending abductor muscle injury after eight minutes. From there the Raiders won just another three games and only just avoided the wooden spoon.

Key to Success: Health- There’s no doubting the Canberra Raiders have a team jam-packed with talent. Whether it be from their successful Under 20’s team from 2008, with names like Dugan, Croker, Thompson and Fensom coming through the ranks. The problem last year was that most of these players, along with internationals Shillington, Learoyd-Lars and Campese struggled for fitness. With an injury-free team there could be no stopping the Green Machine come season’s start.

Players to Watch:  Eight minutes. That’s how long Terry Campese played last season. The newly instilled captain of the club is looking to make up for lost time and fire the Raiders back into finals calculation. Look for Shaun Fensom to continue his 2011 form last season also. Fensom will be the man to lessen the blow of Canberra legend Alan Tongue’s retirement. A renowned tackling machine, Fensom won the Mal Meninga medal for last season and there is no doubt he’ll be up for a repeat effort this season.

Erratic Eddy: “The dark horse. With a fully fit and firing Josh Dugan there’s no answer to where the Raiders could end up at season’s end. Even without war machine Alan Tongue , the Raiders still have an impressive mixture of talent to combat the loss of the fiery red head. Nonetheless I’m tipping newly instated captain Terry Campese to beat his game time from last year…”

Strongest Side: 1- Josh Dugan 2- Blake Ferguson 3- Jarrod Croker 4- Joel Thompson 5- Reece Robinson 6- Terry Campese (C) 7- Josh McCrone 8- Tom Learoyd-Lars  9- Shaun Berrigan 10- David Shillington 11- Bronson Harrison 12- Josh Papalii 13- Shaun Fensom INTERCHANGE: 14- Glen Butriss 15- Trevor Thurling 16- Brett White 17- Dane Tilse

Predicted Position: 8th

 

Sydney Roosters

Signings: Daniel Mortimer (Roosters), Peni Tagive, Jack Bosden (Dragons), Adam Henry (Warriors), Josh Ailaomai (Knights)

Departures: Jason Ryles (Storm), Mark Riddell, Daniel Conn (Both Retired), Nate Myles, Phil Graham (Titans), Kane Linnett (Cowboys), Todd Carney (Sharks), Anthony Watts (Widnes)

Form: Making the grand final in 2010, 2011 was an overall disappointing  year. At one point the Roosters had 15 senior players unavailable which lead to an unwanted blooding of youngsters. Names like Brad Takairangi, Lama Tasi, Boyd Cordner and Tinirau Arona were relatively unknown in rugby league circles before the start of last year. The Roosters looked specials for the wooden spoon, having won three of their first 10 games. The Roosters eventually blossomed and won six of their last nine games, laying a good foundation for the upcoming season.

Key to Success: Experienced bodies- With an influx of younger talent, it is important for the veterans of the side to stand up and help the squad’s rookies. Only four players are over the age of 25: club-captain Braith Anasta, Sam Perrett, Anthony Minichiello and Frank-Paul Nuuausala while another five were born in the 1990s. It is up to these older players like Mitchell Aubusson (age 24) and Martin Kennedy (23) and halfback Mitchell Pearce (22), a veteran of 108 games, to push the inexperienced members of the squad.

Players to Watch: After playing eight games apiece last year watch for newly promoted leaders Martin Kennedy and Mitchell Aubusson to shine in 2012. Kennedy was touted as the next big thing and a potential Queensland Origin bolter before injury intervened. Aubusson will be looking to hit the 100-game mark and push the Roosters towards an unlikely top eight berth.

Erratic Eddy says: “You know you’re in trouble when your biggest recruit is Parramatta Daniel Mortimer, who languished in reserve grade for most of last year. Now there’s high hopes for him to replace 2010 Dally M Medallist Todd Carney – who are the Roosters kidding?”

Strongest Side: 1- Anthony Minichiello 2- Sam Perrett 3- Shaun Kenny-Dowell 4- Mitchell Aubusson 5- Joseph Leilua 6- Braith Anasta (C) 7- Mitchell Pearce 8- Martin Kennedy 9- Jake Friend 10- Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 11- Brad Takairangi 12- Aiden Guerra 13- Frank-Paul Nuuausala INTERCHANGE: 14- Anthony Mitchell 15- Mose Masoe 16- Boyd Cordner 17- Lama Tasi

Prediction Position: 16th

 

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Signings: Ben Farrar (Catalans), Nick Skinner (Raiders)

Departures: William Hopoate (Mormon Mission/Eels), Michael Robertson, Shane Rodney (Harlequins), Terence Seu Seu (Cessnock), Matt Cross (Retired)

Form: The Sea Eagles were an outstanding and unstoppable force last year, the club only managing six losses along the way.  2011 was the year of the Sea Eagle plain and simple. Winning seven of their first ten games, the Sea Eagles made it through the Origin period with hardly a scratch. Everything seemed to be going Manly’s way: minimal injuries, undefeated at home and the outstanding form of rookie halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran. Not even the Battle of Brookvale would derail them despite eventual Clive Churchill Medallist Glenn Stewart, his brother Brett, rookie Darcy Lussick and Foran being suspended. They easily accounted for North Queensland, Brisbane and the Warriors on their way to the premiership.

Key to Success: 2011- If the Sea Eagles can repeat last year’s efforts then they will go very close to winning the competition again. Despite Des Hasler’s departure to the Bulldogs, the Sea Eagles playing squad has had minimal changes. If they stick to their guns, the Sea Eagles could go back-to-back.

Players to Watch: Second Year Syndrome is a media driven notion. When one player is branded with the syndrome it is believed that they have failed to live up to their hype from their rookie year. This may apply to 2011 Dally M Rookie of the Year Cherry-Evans. Cherry-Evans, in his first year in first grade football won a premiership and earned an Australian test jumper. If Cherry-Evans continues his job fluently for the Sea Eagles and they are winning, as expected, then don’t expect to see him chastised too often.

Erratic Eddy says: “The mighty Sea Eagles were good at their worst last season, that’s how great they were. Yet with Hasler gone and Geoff Toovey stepping in, the bigger question remains: Who’s going to be Manly’s new 14th man on the field, while doing their proper job of running the water? Surely Toovey can’t do everything!”

Strongest Side: 1- Brett Stewart 2- Ben Farrar 3- Jamie Lyon (C) 4- Steve Matai 5- David Williams 6- Kieran Foran 7- Daly Cherry-Evans 8- Brent Kite 9- Matt Ballin 10- Jason King 11- Anthony Watmough 12- Tony Williams  13- Glenn Stewart INTERCHANGE 14- Jamie Buhrer 15- Vic Mauro 16- Darcy Lussick 17- George Rose

Predicted Position: 2nd

 

Cronulla Sharks

Signings: Todd Carney (Roosters), Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita (Tigers), Jon Green (Dragons), Jeff Robson (Eels), Issac De Gois, Mark Taufua (Knights), Ben Ross (Rabbitohs)

Departures: Luke Douglas (Titans), Kade Snowden (Knights), Jonny Mannah, Taulima Tautai (Eels), Ryan Tongia, Paul Aiton, Tim Smith, Dean Collis (Wakefield), Siosaia Vave (Storm), Scott Porter, Broderick Wright (Released)

Form: The Sharks’ 2011 season started quite promising, winning their first two games against St George and Penrith, the teams who finished in the top two in the 2010. They quickly became the same old Sharks soon after. After Paul Gallen’s amazing appearances in State of Origin, the Sharks spurred themselves into a month-long winning run which saw them reach as high as 10th on the ladder. But they’d lose their remaining eight games to finish 13th

Key to Success: Carney – the Cronulla Sharks have handed Todd Carney a chance to prove he is beyond his demons and is ready and willing to extend his NRL career. In what could prove one of the most significant signings in the Sharks history it is up to Carney to show he was worth the risk.Carney could be the missing halfback link the Sharks have been searching for since Brett Kimmorley left the club in 2008.

Players to Watch: Former Wests Tigers duo Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs were filthy with their former club for cutting them last season. Neither wanted to leave their beloved Tigers and for Gibbs, it came a few weeks after re-signing with the club.  The duo have their eyes set on Cronulla’s season-opener against their former club.

Erratic Eddy says: “Hopefully Todd Carney won’t get back on the drink, do something stupid and be club-less once again.Regardless, they have minimal depth and losses will come with injuries.”

Strongest Side: 1- Nathan Gardner 2- Nathan Stapleton 3- Colin Best 4- Ben Pomeroy 5- John Williams 6- Todd Carney 7- Jeff Robson 8- Ben Ross 9- Issac De Gois 10- Bryce Gibbs 11- Anthony Tupou 12- Jeremy Smith 13- Paul Gallen (C) INTERCHANGE: 14- John Morris 15- Andrew Fifita 16- Jason Bukuya 17- Wade Graham

Predicted Position: 13th

 

Melbourne Storm

Signings: Ryan Hoffman (Wigan), Shea Moylen (Brisbane), Jason Ryles (Roosters), Siosaia Vave (Sharks), Michael Greenfield (Dragons), Will Chambers (Queensland Reds RU), Mitchell Garbutt (Wests Newcastle), Jack Afamasaga (France)

Departures: Chase Stanley, Atelea Vea (Dragons), Beau Champion (Titans), Adam Blair (West Tigers), Robbie Rochow (Knights), Troy Thompson (Retired), Adam Woolnough (Lakes United), Sione Kite (Released), Dane Chisholm (Tigers)

Form: The Storm started last season as a bit of an unknown mystery following their wretched 2010 season. With a team full of inexperienced rookies and journeymen, the Storm went about 2011 as if nothing had happened. Melbourne conceding the least points, tries and line breaks throughout the year. Melbourne only lost three games before their Round 25 match against the Sea Eagles- the now infamous Battle at Brookvale – that saw Adam Blair suspended for the rest of the season. They were a different team without Blair, and only just prevented the Knights beating them in the qualifying final. Earning a preliminary final berth in the process, they’d be eliminated by the Warriors in spectacular fashion.

Key to Success: The Big Three- Cronk, Slater and Smith, the NRL’s strongest spine, along with Gareth Widdop. If the big 3 remain on the paddock, there is no limit for what Melbourne can achieve. The trio is crucial for the Storm becoming a premiership force again.

Players to Watch: After a year in exile, Ryan Hoffman returns to the Melbourne Storm searching for redemption. After the salary cap scandal of 2010, Hoffman was forced to find a home elsewhere which he found at Wigan. Look for him to make up for lost time at the Storm this season as he looks to reclaim the two premierships he and the club were stripped of.

Erratic Eddy says: “The Storm struggled last year without enforcer Adam Blair after the Battle at Brookvale, and now he’s left the club completely. The Storm still have the potential to win with their Big Three but without enforcer Blair the club may struggle in stages this season. Hoffman, Procter, Lowrie and co. do not have the same presence as the Kiwi vice-captain.”

Strongest Side: 1- Billy Slater 2- Matthew Duffie 3- Dane Nielsen  4- Will Chambers 5- Anthony Quinn 6- Gareth Widdop 7- Cooper Cronk 8- Bryan Norrie 9- Cameron Smith (C) 10- Jesse Bromwich 11- Ryan Hoffman 12- Kevin Proctor 13- Ryan Hinchcliffe INTERCHANGE: 14- Rory Kostjasyn 15- Todd Lowrie 16- Sika Manu 17- Jaiman Lowe

Predicted Position: 5th

 

Gold Coast Titans

Signings: Jamal Idris, Aiden Sezer (Bulldogs), Luke Douglas (Sharks), Beau Champion (Storm), Nate Myles (Roosters), Beau Falloon (Rabbitohs), Phil Graham (Roosters)

Departures: Nathan Friend (Warriors), Anthony Laffranchi (Titans), Brad Meyers, Preston Campbell, Clinton Toopi, Mat Rogers (Retired), Esikeli Tonga (Eels), Joseph Tomane (ACT Brumbies), Will Matthews (Dragons), Luke Capewell (Broncos), Riley Brown (Cessnock), Shannon Walker (Rugby Union)

Form: After making the preliminary finals in 2010, expectations for the Gold Coast were very high come 2011. But everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Nathan Friend lasted four games, Kevin Gordon two and Brad Meyers retired after two games because of his chronic wrist injury, the club  falling out of contention before the halfway point of the season. They only managed six wins throughout the year and finished with the wooden spoon for the first time in their short history.

Key to Success: The fundamentals- Attacking, defending, scoring tries, even winning. You name it the Titans need to improve on this year. Gold Coast needs to go back to basics. With favourite sons and foundation players like Campbell, Laffranchi and Friend gone, the Titans need to start from scratch. With practically a whole new set of players coming into the squad it’s important coach John Cartwright builds towards better things.

Players to Watch: Two emerging stars of the game and the Gold Coast Titans, speedster Kevin Gordon and behemoth Ryan James, last season suffered season ending injuries, cruelling their chances of helping the Titans off the bottom of the table. James and Gordon were reportedly shattered by last year’s occurrences, both on and off the field, so expect them to launch themselves into this season.

Erratic Eddy says: “Ahh the Titans. Hopeless last year they were and now it seems they’ve tried to buy themselves out of trouble. The Titans will run near last again this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Scott Prince retire at the end of the year either, he doesn’t have the legs to carry this club any longer.”

Strongest Side: 1- William Zillman 2- Kevin Gordon 3- Beau Champion 4- Jamal Idris 5- David Mead 6- Jordan Rankin 7- Scott Prince (C) 8- Luke Bailey (C) 9- Matt Srama 10- Luke Douglas 11- Mark Minichiello 12- Greg Bird 13- Ashley Harrison INTERCHANGE: 14- Nate Myles 15- Bodene Thompson 16- Ryan James 17- Michael Henderson

Prediction Position: 14th

 

Wests Tigers

Signings: Adam Blair (Storm), Joel Reddy (Eels), Matthew Bell (Panthers), John Grant (Eastwood RU), Tom Humble (Eels), Dane Chisholm (Storm)

Departures: Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita (Sharks), Mark Flanagan (St Helens), Jason Cayless, Taniela Tuiaki, Todd Payten (Retired), Geoff Daniela (Panthers), Jason Schirnack (Mackay), Robert Lui (Cowboys), Wade McKinnon (Hull FC)

Form: The Tigers were left wondering what could’ve been last year. With only mere seconds to go in their semi final against the Warriors, Krisnan Inu swept up the ball and scored the winning try untouched, denying the Tigers another crack at a premiership. They were lucky to make it that far though. The Tigers’ first half of the year was inconsistent at best, struggling to make the top eight throughout the season. It wasn’t until Round 19 when the ball started rolling for them as they began a nine-game winning run at the back end of the year, before the arm of Inu finished their season in the semis.

Key to Success: Benji- When Marshall’s fit the Tigers can be anything. While it’s unfair to say the Tigers are a one man team, with its influx of talent, there’s a fair assumption Benji carries the team in all of its endeavours. He only missed one game last season,a loss to the Bulldogs who finished mid-table by season’s end.

Players to Watch: It’s rare to see a player win an Australian jumper before an Origin jumper but in Chris Lawrence’s case he did just that last season. A dislocated hip prevented him from making his Origin debut last year. Watch Adam Blair to play an enforcer role with the Tigers this season too. Expect fireworks in the season-opener where he’ll play his first club game since the infamous Battle of Brookvale last season.

Erratic Eddy says: “What they lack in front-rowers, they make up for with Adam Blair. The enforcer will make up for the inexperienced Aaron Woods and Matthew Groat. Expect Liam Fulton to be less funny without Bryce Gibbs, expect Gareth Ellis to fire in what will be his last season in the NRL and expect this team to finish with the minor premiership.”

Strongest Side: 1- Mitch Brown 2- Lote Tuqiri 3- Blake Ayshford 4- Chris Lawrence 5- Matthew Utai 6- Benji Marshall 7- Tim Moltzen 8- Keith Galloway 9- Robbie Farah (C) 10- Aaron Woods 11- Adam Blair 12- Gareth Ellis 13- Chris Heighington INTERCHANGE: 14- Beau Ryan 15- Liam Fulton 16- Matthew Groat 17- Matthew Bell

Predicted Position: 1st

 

NZ Warriors

Signings: Nathan Friend (Titans)

Departures: Lance Hohaia (St Helens), Aaron Heremaia (Hull FC), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Brett Seymour (Hull FC), Joel Moon (Salford), Shaun Berrigan (Raiders), Isaac John (Wakefield), Adam Henry (Roosters), James Gavet (Bulldogs)

Form: Running sixth in the regular season before making it to the grand final, the Warriors started the season as wooden spoon favourites after three losses. Eventually they fell into old habits but again reversed their fortunes to win seven of their last nine games. They narrowly remained in the competition after being belted by 30 points in the qualifying final against the Brisbane. But the Warriors hung tough and saw out the Wests Tigers and Melbourne in nail biters before losing to Manly in the grand final.

Key to Success: History – Three of the Warriors worst years came just over a season after their maiden 2002 grand final appearance (2004-06) which is an important point for new coach Brian McClennan to address. A worrying trend  is their away record and how they manage travelling out of New Zealand. It is important they continue their winning record on the road to ensure their success this season.

Players to Watch: Already signed to the Roosters for 2013 it will be interesting to watch how James Maloney plays this season. Will his eyes be on the prize for this season or will he be looking towards his future at the Roosters. Watch out for rookie centre Konrad Hurrell too, who scored 20 tries in 20 Under 20s games last year.

Erratic Eddy says: “A wise man once said, ‘you have to lose one, to win one’, and this very may well be the case for the Warriors this season. Pending Shaun Johnson avoids the dreaded second year syndrome and James Maloney isn’t too focused on sipping cappuccinos down at Bondi.”

Strongest Side: 1- Kevin Locke 2- Bill Tupou 3- Konrad Hurrell 4- Jerome Ropati 5- Manu Vatuvei 6- James Maloney 7- Shaun Johnson 8- Sam Rapira 9- Nathan Friend 10- Jacob Lillyman 11- Simon Mannering (C) 12- Elijah Taylor 13- Michael Luck INTERCHANGE: 14- Lewis Brown 15- Feleti Mateo 16- Ben Matulino 17- Russell Packer

Predicted Position: 3rd