Dragons will miss the finals: Brandy
They have been ravaged by controversy, watched-on as their coaching staff walked out and then lost the World Club Challenge.
But I am still tipping Manly to do what many think is near impossible by going back-to back in this year’s Telstra Premiership.
I am fully aware just how difficult that will be. Brisbane was the last club to achieve it way back in 1997 and 1998.
But Manly has a powerful, experienced and professional roster.
They have lost a few players (Shane Rodney, Will Hopoate and Michael Robertson) but the Sea Eagles have plenty of depth and tons of confidence. I can’t help admire their halves combination of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran and the Stewart brothers... well they just ooze class.
Big Tony Williams is back and I actually think he will be a better player this season than in 2011.
Against the Warriors this Sunday in Auckland, Manly will field 14 players from last year’s grand final winning squad.
Now that I have nominated my premiers, here's how I predict the 16 teams will finish this season:
1) Sea Eagles
6) Wests Tigers
Some may be surprised that I have North Queensland running second but I think they have finally solved their greatest dilemma – finding someone to partner Johnathan Thurston at the scrum base.
He hasn’t been chosen this week but I think ex-Tiger Robert Lui will be the long term Cowboys halfback. I also like the look of North Queensland’s forward pack with Matt Scott, the worlds best prop, leading the way.
A lot of pundits have Wests Tigers winning the premiership and, while I acknowledge they will be highly competitive all season, I can only see them finishing sixth unless some pretty big questions are answered in the positive.
The fact that they have an untried fullback in James Tedesco and a player they were willing to part company with now at halfback was enough to create some doubt. Also can young props Aaron Woods and Matt Groat carry the load in the front row?
The Tigers have fallen late in the season for a few years now and the pressure will again be squarely on them in 2012 given they’re the bookmakers favourites. Let see how they handle that tag.
I know some people will think I only put Penrith in the top eight because they are my former club. But they would be wrong.
I know all clubs have trained well during the off-season but the turnaround at Penrith in attitude, after a disastrous 2011, has been quite remarkable. The Panthers have so much attacking power through Michael Gordon, Lachlan Coote, Luke Lewis and Luke Walsh. Ivan Cleary is a class coach too.
They will be there come September.
But one side I couldn’t find a place for in the finals was St George Illawarra. I have them running 10th.
I cannot help but think they will suffer from a Wayne Bennett hangover this season. A few of their senior players are a year older as well. Their defense will be stout – but do they have the points in them to topple the top sides? Darius Boyd will be a huge loss.
As for the wooden spoon, the Titans get my vote.
Gold Coast have bought particularly well in Jamal Idris, Nate Myles, Luke Douglas and Beau Champion but it won’t quite be enough.
Scott Prince is coming off arguably his worst season so he will be under some pressure this season.
But what a competition it will be.
During my 40 years in rugby league, I genuinely cannot recall fans being so pumped and excited about a footy season. There is so much anticipation about the coming year – and it is easy to see why.
It is just so damn even!
Every time I went to jot down my top eight I changed my mind. Each club I omitted had solid claims to be included. But eventually push came to shove and I somehow culled 16 into eight.
What a first-up round we face too.
Wayne Bennett up against his old club St George Illawarra, grand final combatants Manly and New Zealand clashing again at Eden Park and Grand Final coaches Ivan Cleary and Des Hasler confronting each other, this time at different clubs.
Then there is Chris Sandow appearing for Parramatta and Sam Burgess returning for the Rabbitohs.
The Sharks have enjoyed a most impressive recruitment drive. They will shock a lot of teams.
What will young James Tedesco produce at Wests Tigers? His debut in Sunday’s match at Leichhardt Oval will be amongst the most thrilling highlights of his life.
Rugby league has always had impeccable timing – and we need that again this year.
With the television broadcast rights now officially open for discussion, the game needs to be at its brilliant best this year.
We need strong footy to attract strong ratings. We need TV executives to see – yet again – exactly what a stunning product rugby league can be.
For all its off-field dramas and internal feuds, rugby league always delivers.
And I have no doubt 2012 will kick off in spectacular fashion over the next few days.
I love cricket – but thank God the footy is back!