NRL pre-season power rankings
As the feet get itchy and the fingers get twitchy in anticipation of next Thursday's NRL season-opener, we look at a hypothetical table in search for a hypothetical pre-season winner.
Here's how we rank the 16 NRL clubs based purely on their pre-season results.
1. North Queensland Cowboys
Beat Broncos 32-8, beat Titans 28-12, won the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines.
The Cowboys have come away as the hottest team in the competition after the summer. Not even the loss of starting fullback Lachlan Coote for most of the year could dampen a pre-season that included a Nines trophy and two big wins over Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Rookie coach Paul Green must be ecstatic with their defence – they held the Warriors to nil in the Nines semi-final and conceded just 20 points in their other two trials. Michael Morgan's 60-minute audition for the vacant fullback position looks set to earn him the lead role while Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo have been terrorising edge defenders with their powerful runs and sharp footwork at the line. Having taken a couple of years to progress to the top grade, winger Kyle Feldt was named breakout player of the Auckland Nines courtesy of some spectacular try-scoring acrobatics and is on track to become a permanent member of the Cowboys' starting side.
Lost to Wigan 46-22, beat Broncos 48-4, reached the Auckland Nines semi-finals.
Their reserve grade side were taught a lesson against a visiting Wigan team, but that was before Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins brought Hollywood to Auckland, starring in the Nines where fatigue got the better of them on the second day. Johnson and his mates proved they can also play 13-a-side by thumping the Broncos. FYI, the only time they left New Zealand during the pre-season was for the season launch.
3. South Sydney Rabbitohs
Beat Dragons 38-20, beat Bulldogs 28-20, reached the Nines quarter-finals.
Another team hit hard by a serious injury to a key player – this time to rising five-eighth Luke Keary, who tore his pectoral in the Nines. More bad news came in the form of Sam Burgess's announcement he's leaving for England in November, but at least the side nabbed strong wins over Canterbury-Bankstown in the Back to Belmore clash and the Dragons in the Charity Shield.
4. Sydney Roosters
Beat Wigan 36-14, lost to Panthers 52-4 (as NSW Cup side Newtown), beat Knights 32-4, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
You can disregard Newtown's 52-4 loss to Penrith, but that's where Roger Tuivasa-Sheck began skywalking again. The defending premiers did flex their muscles in a trial against Newcastle, and put their foot down again in their World Club Challenge victory over Wigan. More importantly for coach Trent Robinson though they also came through unscathed. Deserved premiership favourites.
5. Newcastle Knights
Beat First Nations Goannas 52-12, lost to Roosters 32-4, beat Raiders 34-14, reached the Nines quarter-finals.
We all winced in unity when Jarrod Mullen clutched his hamstring in the Nines. He's out for four months. The returning Clint Newton is also set for a long stint on the sidelines with a bicep injury. Wayne Bennett's experiment of using Darius Boyd in the No.6 for their final trial game worked a treat – they smashed Canberra 34-14 with comeback kid Kurt Gidley enjoying a cameo. Their other win came against the First Nations Goannas team during the Indigenous Festival of Rugby League in Newcastle.
6. Wests Tigers
Lost to Eels 60-14, beat Panthers 32-8, beat Sharks 28-22, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
Played their second-graders against Parramatta's first-graders in Alice Springs but were killed off early in the group of death at the Nines. Showed a lot of improvement against the Panthers and Sharks though. Their main problem remains with the merciless footballing gods. You won't see Dene Halatau (ankle, trial) and Curtis Sironen (foot, Nines) for a long time.
7. Cronulla Sharks
Lost to Tigers 28-22, beat Manly 24-12, reached Nines semi-finals.
They'll be without their head coach for a while (pending an appeal), but they still secured a good win against Manly, backed it up with a semi-final finish in the Nines and then lost a close one to the Tigers. Injuries are mounting: Jeff Robson (facial fractures), Luke Lewis (shoulder) and Anthony Tupou (knee) haven't left the Shire, while Todd Carney (hamstring) and Beau Ryan (neck) are in doubt for Round 1.
8. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Lost to Rabbitohs 28-20, beat the Storm 20-10, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
Most of the Bulldogs' pre-season was about looking for a fullback but what they found instead was a playmaker by way of youngster Moses Mbye, who starred in the Nines and in a win against the Storm. The Back to Belmore loss to South Sydney was mostly about getting minutes under the belt for most of the squad, and they sent a school of kids to the Nines. Sam Perrett looks likely to start the year at fullback, but Josh Reynolds (shoulder) and Reni Maitua (groin) haven't played a game yet.
Lost to Wests Tigers 32-8, beat Wentworthville 52-10, beat Newtown 52-4, reached Nines quarter-finals.
It's difficult to judge the Panthers' pre-season, given their two wins came against below-strength teams and their single loss came when they were undermanned themselves. A quarter-final finish in the Auckland Nines came at a price – back-ups George Jennings, Eto Nabuli and Wes Naiqama all came away with medium-term injuries.
10. Manly Sea Eagles
Beat Eels 28-24, lost to Sharks 24-12, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
Manly's late comeback to beat the Eels was hectic. There was a real scare though when winger Jorge Taufua (shoulder) went down but he'll be back for Round 3. They could've been without both their wingers after David Williams (knee) got hurt in the Nines but he's likely for Round 1. Prop Jason King should be right too, but he hasn't played any football since early last year.
11. Parramatta Eels
Beat Tigers 60-14, lost to Manly 28-24, reached Nines quarter-finals.
Put the sword through a Tigers' NSW Cup side in the Alice and were impressive enough to make the quarter-finals in the Nines, but lost concentration against Manly. Interestingly, new coach Brad Arthur has already pencilled Luke Kelly to start the year in Chris Sandow's old halfback jumper. There are positives signs though.
12. Gold Coast Titans
Lost to Cowboys 28-12, beat Warriors 36-18, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
An encouraging first-up win over a youthful Warriors side was tempered by a disappointing showing at the Auckland Nines and then a 28-12 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys. Five-eighth Aidan Sezer missed both the Warriors game and the Nines and Ryan James remains in doubt for Round 1 with a shoulder injury suffered in the opening trial game. Amid an injury crisis in the hooking ranks rookie Paul Carter proved a revelation but he is himself in a moon boot currently having had injections for an ankle injury. Despite the niggling injuries, there has been some good news, with co-captain Nate Myles expected to be fit for Round 1 following groin surgery and Albert Kelly's issues with veins in his foot seemingly resolved. At the club's season launch on Thursday night, coach John Cartwright described this group as the most united he has seen in his time at the club.
13. Canberra Raiders
Lost to Knights 34-14, beat Storm 20-12, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
Did enough to defeat a 'Big Three'-less Storm side but a poor first half against Newcastle gave new coach Ricky Stuart plenty to think about. The good news is that Terry Campese survived his first pre-season since he had hair, although prop David Shillington (ribs) will be a scratch for the first fortnight of the season.
14. Brisbane Broncos
Lost to Warriors 48-4, lost to Cowboys 32-8, reached the Auckland Nines final.
Many nervous types in Brisbane are familiarising themselves with where the panic button is currently located but those inside Broncos HQ insist trial form means nothing. And they'd want to hope that is true. A 32-8 loss to the Cowboys and 48-4 hammering at the hands of the Warriors took the gloss off a Nines showing where a near full-strength Broncos squad made the final. The search for a halves partner for Ben Hunt continues following a serious knee injury to Jordan Kahu and the question remains as to how long it will take Ben Barba to recapture anything like his form of 2012. The emotional return of Jharal Yow Yeh was a rare bright spot but somehow in the next seven days Brisbane needs to find a much better attitude in defence.
15. St George Illawarra Dragons
Beat Mudgee/Illawarra Cutters 60-12, lost to Souths 38-20, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
Don't be fooled by their point-scoring blitz against a combined Mudgee/Illawarra outfit, especially after their meek showing in the Nines and in the Charity Shield against the Rabbitohs. When captain Ben Creagh is seeking more effort from his team at this stage of the season, it doesn't look positive for the year ahead. News that Josh Dugan (knee) is out for a month doesn't help things.
16. Melbourne Storm
Lost to Easts Tigers 16-12, lost to Bulldogs 20-10, lost to Raiders 20-12, bowed out of the Nines group stage.
No one really cares that they're this low since they were without their Big Three for the entire pre-season. But three losses is three losses, so heaven help them if Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk or Cameron Smith get hurt during the season. Losing Matt Duffie (ACL) to another season-ending injury sucks, while Justin O'Neill (knee) and Ryan Hinchcliffe (ankle) mightn't be ready for the season either.