1. Jeremy Smith to lead Knights revival
Is there a better recruit for 2013 than Newcastle’s signing of former Shark, Dragon and Storm forward Jeremy Smith? NRL.com thinks not – and we feel his signature will propel Wayne Bennett’s Knights all the way to the Telstra Premiership Finals Series. A tough-as-teak back-rower, snatching Smith’s on-field resilience and winning ways is a big coup for the Novocastrians – he has featured in seven of the past eight finals series. Smith never shirks the tough stuff, and his reliability in defence and attack will prove a big boost for the Knights’ struggling pack – last season the team ran for just 1348.6 metres per match (11th in the NRL), conceding 1404.3 (14th in the NRL) in the process. Smith will not only plug the holes defensively, but his intelligent, well-timed and direct running will right Bennett’s ship, too.
2. Four to the fore in Round 4
Sydney plays host to four fantastic matches over four days in Round 4 – a super stretch that’ll allow league diehards to attend matches in Australia’s most populated city from Friday to Monday. From March 29 to April 1, Sydney hosts an epic sporting spectacular that starts with the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on Friday evening, followed by the southern Sydney local derby on Saturday that sees the Sharks tackle the Dragons at Sharks Stadium. On Sunday the Panthers and Titans meet at Centrebet, with Monday night rounding out the Sydney league marathon when the Roosters host the Eels at Allianz. That wonderful weekend doesn’t even include Thursday night’s blockbuster just an hour up the F3, with the Sea Eagles facing the Wests Tigers at Bluetongue Stadium. If the weather holds, it’s sure to smash the previous attendance record across one round in one city. Throw in a guaranteed 30,000-plus crowd at Suncorp Stadium for the Broncos-Storm clash and we predict Round 4 will smash the all-time NRL attendance record. (Oh, and it’s a similar ‘Sydney-saturation’ story in Round 7, too – just be sure to clear your schedule!)
3. New stars to write their own headlines
Another season, another bunch of fresh faces going places, right? Well, kinda… ’cause this year you will at least recognise some of the names of the latest bunch of young talent headed for stardom. Cast your eye across the Holden Cup under-20s line-ups and you’ll notice some familiar names – from Friend, Jennings, Garlick and Asotasi to (gasp) even Ofahengaue and Umaga! That’s right, there’s a bunch of under-20s talent that’s of the greatest stock – sons and brothers of some of rugby league’s best including Nathan Friend (Titans lock/second rower Zach Friend), Michael Jennings (Panthers centre George), Sean Garlick (Rabbitohs hooker Jackson) and Roy Asotasi (Sharks forward Winstone). Then there’s Jo Ofahengaue, nephew of former Wallaby great Willie, and Storm back-rower or centre Cade Umaga, son of legendary All Black Tana. If the young stars are anything like their famous relatives, they’re going to take the NRL by storm.
4. Moore of the same from Cowboys
North Queensland might have had their 2012 season snatched from them in the most unfortunate of circumstances – cast your mind back to that decision in their Semi-Final loss to the Sea Eagles – but don’t expect them to cry over spilt milk this year. In 2013 they’re ready for revenge – and new hooker Scott Moore will show the NRL why he’s the best man to take over from Aaron Payne in the Cowboys’ No.9 jersey. The former Huddersfield rake began his nine-year career in England aged just 16 and is the perfect foil to help Johnathan Thurston take his team all the way to the top. Three-Test representative and former Super League Hooker of the Year Moore is the man best suited to take over from the now-retired Payne – and he’ll form a key part of a stellar ‘spine’ that also features Matt Bowen and ‘JT’ that’ll prove one of the most destructive in the NRL.
5. Mick’s tricks to tame the Tigers
He’s a man whose journey last year saw him coaching at Bradford for free, but Mick Potter will strike pay dirt this season by guiding his new team the Wests Tigers deep into the finals. Potter’s six-year stint mentoring in Europe ended in 2012, and he was considering working the coal mines until long-serving Tim Sheens was punted and the Tigers came knocking. Now – after a trip that started in France, included two near things at St Helens and ended five months after he discovered Bradford had no money to pay the bills – ‘Harry’ and his renowned discipline and emphasis on team unity will work its magic on the Tigers. There’s no ‘I’ in Potter’s plan – but there’s plenty of success on his radar for 2013.
6. Blue sky ahead for Feleti Mateo
After seven consecutive series wins by the mighty Maroons, New South Wales has been edging ever closer to snapping that streak over the past two seasons and they’ll be looking for that X-factor to push them over the edge in 2013. Feleti Mateo could well be the man to provide it. The former Parramatta and now Warriors back-rower has well and truly served his NRL apprenticeship and his game-breaking ability could prove the difference between agony and ecstasy for the Blues. More importantly, after the often confusing eligibility rule caused a mix-up back in 2008 – essentially ruling Mateo out of the Origin running – he has since officially declared that he will make himself available for Australia, and therefore NSW, rather than Tonga at this year’s World Cup. Mateo has topped the Telstra Premiership for offloads in each of the past three seasons.
7. Akuila Uate to top tryscorers’ list
Ben Barba stole the limelight with his scintillating 2012 season but Barba’s absence for at least part of 2013 has opened the door for Newcastle flyer Akuila Uate to claim the tryscoring crown. The NRL’s equal top scorer in 2010 with 21, Uate has been right in the mix to finish top tryscorer in each of the past three seasons and although he fell just short in 2011 and 2012 we think this might well be his year. Certainly his stats are impressive, with 70 tries from 90 appearances, and if he continues with that strike rate this season he is on target to pass Adam MacDougall’s club record for most career tries (87).
8. Ricky Stuart to wield the axe
New Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart might have inherited a squad that landed the wooden spoon last season but he does have the luxury of a whopping 21 players coming off contract at the end of the year (including 12 that played NRL in 2012). That essentially means that a large chunk of the squad are on trial this season – and we expect Stuart to be brutal in wielding the axe as he starts to assemble his own squad over the next few years. The Eels have already been active in the player market with the signing of Canberra enforcer Josh Papalii and we can expect plenty more movement in the coming months – especially if Parramatta get off to a slow start. Among those yet to be re-signed for 2013 are Willie Tonga, Mitchell Allgood, Cheyse Blair, Matt Keating, Ben Roberts, Luke Kelly, Ryan Morgan, Jake Mullaney, Nathan Smith, Pat O’Hanlon, Jacob Loko and Taniela Lasalo.
9. Adam Reynolds to hit second-year syndrome for six
In 2013, last season’s Dally M Rookie of the Year faces the test that has reduced so many rising young stars to tears – the dreaded second-year syndrome. But fear not – we can’t see Reynolds crumpling under the weight of expectation in his second year in the NRL. The 22-year-old surprised everyone last year after coming in to replace high-profile departure Chris Sandow and guiding the Rabbitohs to the finals for just the second time in 23 years; however, it was his poise and confidence that was particularly impressive. Rather than producing flashes of outrageous brilliance, Reynolds is calm and mature beyond his years – the perfect combination for a young halfback trying to direct the superstars that surround him. He produced 17 try assists and scored 208 points in 2012 but we think his star will shine even brighter over the coming months.
10. Mid-season musical chairs
Players changing clubs mid-season has become increasingly common in recent years as new coaches settle on their preferred squads and previously regular first-graders are shunted off to the side. Who will find themselves on the outer in 2013? We’re not going to pre-empt exactly which players head elsewhere over the coming months but we have certainly identified some positional logjams around the NRL that will no doubt cause some headaches – none moreso than at Cronulla where Michael Gordon has slotted into Nathan Gardner’s No.1 jersey. Gardner’s stranglehold on the fullback spot was loosened last season when he missed much of the year through injury but he admitted that he was taken aback when the Sharks secured Gordon’s signature. Notably, Gordon had made no secret of the fact that he wanted to play fullback and fullback only while at Penrith so it was inevitable that either he or Gardner was going to be unhappy at some stage this season. It’s the same story in Brisbane, where the arrival of Scott Prince has given coach Anthony Griffin some selection headaches. Prince’s naming at five-eighth for the early rounds has pushed Corey Norman to fullback with Josh Hoffman moving to the wing. In turn, this could impact heavily on Hoffman’s prospects of representing New Zealand at the World Cup later in the year given he was set to be Kevin Locke’s primary challenger for the No.1 jersey. At Newcastle, both Tyrone Roberts and Ryan Stig face a tough time breaking into the top grade this season with Jarrod Mullen and Kurt Gidley the obvious starters; and in Canberra Sam Williams might have to bide his time once more with captain Terry Campese returning in the halves. Interesting times indeed!