NRL RESTART PART 1: OUR PREDICTIONS FOR EACH CLUB’S PREMIERSHIP CHANCES

NRL season 2020

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The NRL’s bullish approach to getting back on the paddock ASAP is just a week away from paying enormous dividends. While other codes have taken a cautious approach to resuming competition amid the coronavirus crisis, the NRL will get the jump on its rivals by restarting on 28 May – a target date that seemed fanciful only a month ago.

The NRL 2020 season has been trimmed back to 20 rounds, with the results from rounds 1 and 2 to stand (after plenty of conjecture). The NRL Grand Final is set down for 25 October.

The 16 clubs are powering through what is effectively a second pre-season – and although they have played just two matches, the NRL premiership picture has changed considerably since the competition went on hiatus in March.

Let’s reassess how each team is shaping up ahead of the NRL’s resumption, starting with the first eight teams: Broncos, Raiders, Bulldogs, Sharks, Titans, Sea Eagles, Storm and Knights.

BRISBANE BRONCOS

The Broncos are far from the complete product Anthony Seibold is trying mould, but impressive wins over the Cowboys and Rabbitohs have provided the club with an excellent foundation for the remainder of 2020.

David Fifita, Payne Haas and Kotoni Staggs headline a impressive array of young talent that is only getting better. The early signs from halfback recruit Brodie Croft are encouraging – not least for what the ex-Storm playmaker’s arrival has done for marquee man Anthony Milford’s game.

Negotiating the first few rounds after the restart without the injured Fifita and suspended Tevita Pangai Jr could be the making or breaking of the Broncos’ campaign, particularly with the heavyweight Eels and Roosters on their docket in NRL rounds 3 and 4. But the imminent return of senior forwards Alex Glenn and Matt Lodge is a timely boost.

The Broncos’ temperament may be exposed in the big end-of-season matches, but they are nevertheless solid value in a truncated season. Mark them down as definite top 8 finishers.

CANBERRA RAIDERS

The beaten 2019 Grand Finalists breezed past the Titans and the Warriors in the opening two rounds of the 2020 NRL premiership, barely getting out of second gear. But the heat will turn up on the Raiders – third in NRL odds for the premiership – immediately after the resumption, with huge match-ups against the Storm and Knights.

Brilliant Brit John Bateman is back from injury to bolster arguably the NRL’s most dynamic pack; his combination with off-season recruit and former Wigan teammate George Williams – superb in the halves so far alongside the equally outstanding Jack Wighton – should add another dimension to the Green Machine’s arsenal. Jordan Rapana’s surprise return from Japanese rugby is another positive result of the shutdown.

In the past decade, only one team has won a Grand Final 12 months after losing a decider. That’s a millstone the Raiders have to carry throughout the season, but there’s no question they are ideally placed to go one better this year.

CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

The 2020 NRL season started horrendously for the Bulldogs, with winger Jayden Okunbor and gun back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera stood down (and subsequently sacked) in the wake of an off-field scandal. The team showed plenty of backbone in a gripping season opener, going down 8–2 to highly fancied Parramatta, but they were disappointing in a 24–16 loss to North Queensland in round 2.

Scoring points has long been a bugbear for the gritty blue-and-whites – and there’s been little indication that improvement in that department is forthcoming. It’s too much to expect returning half Kieran Foran to turn things around on his own, while an injury to Joe Stimson has further depleted their thin engine-room stocks.

A long shot for the premiership, Canterbury should gain a few wins (thanks to their defence) to upset NRL tips as the season wears on – be wary of their short price for the wooden spoon. But the Bulldogs won’t make the finals.

CRONULLA SHARKS

Cronulla are the most difficult team in the NRL to get a read on – and narrow losses to big guns Souths and Melbourne before the shutdown did little to un-muddy the waters.

Although brimming with game-breakers, Sharks have – to an extent – fallen into the same trap that plagued the Warriors for so many years: living or dying on the form of the enigmatic Shaun Johnson. But if Matt Moylan can ease their frustrations at fullback, and the likes of Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita and Aaron Woods can stay on the paddock, the Sharks can be a dark horse threat. The break has allowed an injury-hit group to freshen up.

This squad still boasts their trademark resolute streak, as well as a clutch of some of the best youngsters in the game and good depth. The Sharks have blown out in premiership betting, and a 0–2 start is less than ideal in a shortened competition, but their value to make the top 8 is difficult value to ignore.

GOLD COAST TITANS

First-year NRL coach Justin Holbrook faces a monumental task in lifting Gold Coast out of the premiership cellar. Ugly losses to Canberra (24–6) and Parramatta (46–6) were as bad as anything the Titans dished up in 2019.

The biggest story surrounding the club during the shutdown was the anti-vax stance of Bryce Cartwright and Brian Kelly, but after a highly publicised saga the pair will be allowed to play – although many would contend the team is better off without erratic, tackle-shy ball-player Cartwright.

There’s no shortage of talent in their ranks, but the Titans desperately lack that necessary combination of consistency and class – although tireless forward Jai Arrow is a rare exception. Livewire AJ Brimson’s indefinite absence due to injury is also a bitter setback. The hapless Titans are on the last line of premiership betting and are the favourites to collect a second straight wooden spoon, with the Warriors and the Bulldogs shaping as their only realistic rivals for the dreaded award. A long winter and spring awaits Holbrook and co.

MANLY SEA EAGLES

Manly was disappointing when losing to Melbourne at home in round 1, but an upset of Sydney Roosters before the season’s suspension confirmed the Sea Eagles are a team to be taken seriously in 2020.

Backed at reasonable odds to win their ninth premiership, the Sea Eagles’ blue-chip group – DCE, the Trbojevic brothers, and front-row pair Taupau and Fonua-Blake – are surrounded by excellent role players, while coach Des Hasler has restored the side’s hard edge. This is a team that is more than the sum of its parts.

Overall depth and dummy-half strength are valid reasons to doubt Manly’s credentials, while their NRL round 3 clash with the backs-to-the-wall Bulldogs is a must-win. But the Sea Eagles are up to their beaks in this title race and are worth considering as a top 4 chance.

MELBOURNE STORM

The NRL’s benchmark for a decade and a half is showing no signs of sliding. Clinical wins over Manly and Cronulla saw Melbourne head into the shutdown 2–0, making it difficult to back against them collecting a fourth minor premiership in five seasons. The Storm are poised at the top of the table in the reworked 20-round NRL season.

Provided Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster, Ryan Papenhuyzen, Jesse Bromwich and Dale Finucane stay healthy, master coach Craig Bellamy will keep the Melbourne machine well-oiled and rolling.

The Storm have been backed into favouritism in the NRL Grand Final winner market. Whether they have another gear to go to in the finals remains to be seen, but the Storm should yet again be there when the whips are cracking in October.

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Injuries are conspiring to blunt optimism around the star-studded Knights’ bid to make good on their potential and rise to contender status under new coach Adam O’Brien.

Convincing wins over the Warriors (20–0) and Tigers (42–24) to start the season have been tempered by a campaign-ending ACL injury to hooker recruit Jayden Brailey and a shoulder problem that will keep back-rower Mitch Barnett out until July.

The superstar triumvirate of Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and David Klemmer must lead Newcastle through the choppy waters ahead. Banking a win in a tough fortnight against Penrith and Canberra after the NRL’s resumption would be a significant boost for their title chances.

The bottom line is the Knights are still unproven and faded out badly down the stretch in 2018 and 2019. With personnel setbacks clouding their progress, the dollars on the Novocastrians missing the top 8 may prove worthwhile value.

Join us later this week to run the rule over the Warriors, Cowboys, Eels, Panthers, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Tigers.

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