NRL RESTART PART 2: OUR PREDICTIONS FOR EACH CLUB’S PREMIERSHIP CHANCES

NRL 2020: Season Restart Part 2

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The NRL 2020 season is back on 28 May – and rugby league–starved fans and punters can’t wait. The season will go for 20 rounds, with the results from rounds 1 and 2 to stand; the Grand Final has been set for 28 October.

After running the rule over the first eight clubs, let’s see how the Warriors, Cowboys, Eels, Panthers, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Tigers are shaping up ahead of the resumption.

NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

As the face of the NRL’s desperate bid to continue as the coronavirus situation worsened, everyone’s second-favourite team, the Warriors, have given up more than any other club to be at the starting blocks for round 3.

But sacrifices and sentiment won’t necessarily translate to results on the paddock. Rated a red-hot chance to collect their maiden wooden spoon during the pre-season, the Warriors’ convincing losses to the Knights (20–0) and Raiders (20–6) in the opening two rounds were deeply concerning – with the woeful state of their attack are particular worry. Their NRL odds reflect this, and at the time of writing, the Warriors were on the third-last line of NRL premiership betting.

Coach Stephen Kearney’s immediate headache, however, is a shocking injury crisis that has claimed four key middle forwards, centre/half Adam Keighran and utility Taane Milne for extended periods. Loan-player relief is still a possibility, but that won’t be enough for a team that has little going for it – other than the herculean commitment of brilliant fullback and captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – to snare a fairytale top 8 finish.

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

The opening fortnight of the NRL 2020 premiership was a mixed bag for the Cowboys, who lost to the Broncos at the grand opening of their new stadium before scrapping their way to a win over the Bulldogs in Sydney.

Captain and halfback Michael Morgan’s absence for the next month with a shoulder injury is a jarring setback, but one of the best packs in the competition and the X-factor of Valentine Holmes at fullback should keep the Cowboys in the mix.

Games in Townsville against the Titans and Sharks following the restart present the Cowboys – whose NRL odds look a little short as a premiership chance, but decent value to finish in the top 8 – with a gilt-edged opportunity to keep up with the pacesetters. 

PARRAMATTA EELS

Parramatta’s biggest obstacle to breaking the club’s 34-year premiership drought is handling the weight of expectation. Being backed into short odds for the NRL 2020 title reflects the enthusiasm pundits and punters have for the exciting young Eels’ prospects. They head into the restart 2–0 after early wins over the lightweight Bulldogs and Titans.

Personnel-wise, the Eels are placed very well. Lock Nathan Brown (suspension) and potentially hooker Reed Mahoney (injury) are short-term absentees in a squad that’s otherwise at full health. Few sides can match their firepower and ability to pile on quick points.

A solid NRL bet to finish in the top 4, given they play the three clubs ahead of them in the premiership market only once, the well-balanced but flighty Eels’ litmus test will come in the finals cauldron as they attempt to avoid a repeat of last year’s 32–0 week two exit. Can Mitchell Moses make the permanent transition from enigma to marquee man?

PENRITH PANTHERS

Written off at the start of 2020, the mountain men gave the doubters a few things to ponder during the NRL’s two-month shutdown. Ivan Cleary’s charges upset two-time premiers the Roosters in round 1 at home, and held off the Dragons in a high-scorer on the road in round two.

The likes of game-breaker Stephen Crichton have rolled off the Penrith production line to support burgeoning stars Viliame Kikau, Jarome Luai and Brian To’o, while hooker Api Koroisau’s return to the club has added a new dimension to a team that finished 10th in 2019. Another key recruit, back-rower/centre Kurt Capewell, is ready to make his first appearance for the club after missing the opening fortnight with injury.

Linchpin Nathan Cleary’s ill-advised TikTokkery may cost the Panthers as he watches their next two games from the sidelines, but the Panthers have shortened odds in the premiership market and are an enticing roughy for the top 4.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

Coach Paul McGregor and several high-profile and highly paid St George Illawarra stars entered 2020 under a heap of pressure to perform after last year’s miserable 15th-place finish. That didn’t exactly ease after the Dragons lost their opening two games to the Tigers and Panthers.

The Saints’ backline selections are in shambles, their million-dollar halves are underperforming and it’s hard to see where a revival will originate from.

On the plus side, captain Cameron McInnes is back from injury and their pack is still chock-full of rep stars, but the Dragons’ premiership price paints an accurate picture. Betting that the club will make the top 8 is best avoided.

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

South Sydney kicked off 2020 with a patchy 22–8 win over Cronulla and a loss to Brisbane by the same scoreline, with the struggles of apparently unfit megastar Latrell Mitchell at fullback the main takeaway.

But the shutdown period has been a PR disaster capable of derailing the club’s campaign. Mitchell was busted flouting distancing rules and has barely been out of the news since, strike centre James Roberts has had another stint in rebab and faces a 14-day isolation before rejoining the squad, and five-eighth Cody Walker has become embroiled in an off-field incident this week that could see him miss games.

The Rabbitohs have blown out to $15 in NRL Grand Final winner betting, while some punters may be tempted to get on the embattled side to miss the Top 8 at a juicy $2.40.

The 2018 and 2019 preliminary finalists still boast a roster the envy of most, courtesy of Cameron Murray, Damien Cook, Adam Reynolds and co, but the loss of retired forward-pack leaders Sam Burgess and John Sutton will have an impact as the season wears on. Wily coach Wayne Bennett may need to pull a rabbit or two out of his well-worn hat to redirect his team’s season.

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

The Roosters are on the back foot in their quest for the first premiership three-peat since the early 1980s thanks to losses to the Panthers and Sea Eagles prior to the season’s suspension. The 2018 and 2019 champs’ task in making up ground has been made tougher by being drawn to play contenders the Storm, Raiders, Rabbitohs and Broncos twice in the remaining 18 rounds.

Veteran centre Josh Morris’s arrival is a major plus and the Roosters are virtually at full strength. But halfback puppeteer Cooper Cronk’s retirement is already being keenly felt; it’s up to the likes of Luke Keary, Jake Friend and James Tedesco to step up and guide young number 7 Kyle Flanagan through a gruelling initiation period.

On the second line of NRL Grand Final winner betting, the Tricolours can’t be written off – but it will take something extra special to retain the trophy. The pressure valve will be cranked unbearably tight if the Roosters are unable to account for archrivals the Rabbitohs in NRL round 3 or in-form Broncos in NRL round 4.

WESTS TIGERS

The Tigers have agonisingly finished ninth in three of the past four seasons and are currently waiting out the longest finals drought in the NRL, last reaching the top eight in 2011. The joint venture is at tempting NRL odds to make the top 8 but it’s hard not to pigeonhole them in that ninth-to-11th region.

A 24–14 win over the Dragons and a 42–24 loss to the Knights in the opening two rounds would barely have achieved a pass mark from tough taskmaster Michael Maguire.

There’s no questioning the Tigers’ pluck, and they possess a good mix of experience and youthful exuberance, but the club still looks too light in the engine room to compete with quality teams on a consistent basis. The early signs are that the gamble on signing Joey Leilua will be a bust.

Steer clear of the Benji Marshall–led Tigers as a NRL premiership tips chance – there’s little hope of a 2005-style charge to glory.

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