In our last NRL.com Roundtable we looked at the teams most likely to make a move up the Telstra Premiership ladder in 2017. This week we examine the reverse – which top teams from 2016 could be facing a slide next season?
The closeness of the NRL competition means a club's fortunes can change quickly in the space of a single season. Last season the Raiders jumped from a bottom-eight finish to second on the ladder, while the Roosters finished 15th after winning the minor premiership in each of the three previous seasons.
Which top teams are at risk of taking a similar plunge in 2017?
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): Five of the top eight teams in 2016 also made the finals in 2015 – the Storm, Sharks, Cowboys, Broncos and Bulldogs. Four of those were also finalists in 2014 (when the Sharks finished last) and four of them were also in the top eight in 2013 (when the Broncos missed the finals). They've been the most consistent teams in the NRL in recent years, but all could find themselves under pressure to do it again in 2017 after losing some key players.
Let's start with the Bulldogs, who were the league leaders a month into the 2016 season but finished in seventh spot. How do you rate their chances in 2017?
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): It's difficult to see a lot of upside compared to last year. Aside from hopefully having a fit Brett Morris from day one, the reasons they struggled last year are still around: a lack of a senior controlling halfback and hooker, and a playmaking fullback, being the notable ones.
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): On paper they are a decent football side. One that should be competitive in most matches. Depth-wise, there isn't a lot of playmaking options over the course of a long season if injury strikes. They've lost Sam Perrett and Tony Williams, but not gained a lot as of yet. They'll be heavily scrutinised early in the season. I think they'll be in and around the top eight – but their fans and board have expressed a desire to be much higher than that.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): Yep, their ability to score points will be a concern, as will their depth. They lost a few experienced heads at the end of 2016. Their right edge looks like it will be Kerrod Holland and Richard Kennar/Brenko Lee compared to the Perrett/Rona combo from last season.
Adrian McMurray (Producer): Graham, Klemmer, Tolman, Jackson, Eastwood and Kasiano make for an imposing pack, but as CK suggested, fullback remains a concern. The pressure will certainly be on Reynolds, Mbye and Lichaa to deliver as well.
MG: Their forward pack will keep them competitive most weeks, but I can't see them keeping pace with the competition heavyweights. I've got them JUST missing the eight
CK: I don't think I can tip them to make the eight. I tipped them to miss finals in 2016 as well and they scraped in but I think a few other teams around that 6th-12th area will be better and the Dogs, aside from their perennially great forward pack which will be a force again, don't look too threatening heading into 2017.
DB: On the positive side, they should get more than 10 games out of Brett Morris this year, and Moses Mbye now has a full season at halfback under his belt.
AB: I think they should make the eight, but look short of a premiership force.
DB: Speaking of premiership forces, the Cowboys and Broncos have formed a sensational rivalry and were considered at times last season to be the strongest teams in the league, yet both missed the grand final. They've since lost key rep players in James Tamou and Corey Parker respectively. How do you rate their chances?
MG: The entire Broncos spine is off contract at the end of 2017.
I repeat, the ENTIRE spine.
AB: Also lost Parker and Reed who have been great servants for a long time.
MG: Whether or not that has any effect on them remains to be seen, but I'm sure the star quartet would prefer to sort out their futures ASAP.
AM: The Cowboys will certainly be up there again, but I do wonder how they'll fair up front without Tamou and Hannant. Suddenly their front-row stocks are looking a little slim. Matt Scott can't do everything himself.
AB: Not with that attitude. Scott is a beast, but certainly will need more help in 2017.
CK: Losing Tamou and Ben Hannant at the same time is a big blow for the Cowboys. However there is still plenty of quality in that pack with Scott, Taumalolo, Lowe, Cooper, Hess etc and their full premiership-winning spine is still intact. And clearly it would be folly to write off any team boasting one Johnathan Thurston in the halves. Surely they make the eight again and I reckon are a good chance of top four or thereabouts. How Thurston's ageing body holds up will be a key factor.
AB: And if they can find the ability to win on the road again, which became an issue again last season. But at their best – clearly a top-four side.
MG: I still rank them as the two best teams from Queensland, and on that basis alone, they should comfortably make the eight.
AB: That's quite the ledge you've gone out on there.
MG: Alright – Broncos fifth and Cowboys sixth.
AM: As for the Broncos, there's plenty of young talent making their way through. You'd be silly to write them off, so a top-eight finish looks likely at the very least.
AB: They are a top-eight team, but their premiership window might have been slammed shut by the Cowboys and Mr Feldt.
CK: If we're being honest Parker was a long way short of being the force he used to be in his final season. I think they can cover his loss with so many young back rowers (Arrow, Pangai, Su'A etc) coming up through the ranks. Top eight for sure. Both teams should land around third-sixth.
DB: Turning to the new champs now: are the Sharks the team to end the NRL premiers curse and go back-to-back, after losing Michael Ennis to retirement?
AB: Ennis is a massive loss – as is Barba. They'll be ultra competitive. But can't see them ending the streak of defending premiers falling by the wayside
AM: I wouldn't think so. No Ennis, no Barba. Their pack isn't getting any younger. Bird, Holmes and Graham will form the core of the side for many years to come, but I can't see them going back-to-back.
CK: If anyone is on the slide it's the Sharks. Ennis is a massive loss. Gallen and Lewis and Heighington are a year older. They'll also have a premiership hangover to deal with and we've seen in recent years even when premiership teams like the Roosters and Cowboys have kept basically their whole grand final rosters intact it's very, very tough to back it up. With Barba out for at least half the year (if he returns at all) there's half their spine gone already.
MG: People are making too much of Ennis's departure. Don't get me wrong, he's a great player and an even better bloke, but in Jayden Brailey they have a future Immortal. OK maybe I won't go that far, but the kid is very, very good. I know they also have Manaia Cherrington and Daniel Mortimer on the books, but the Dally M NYC Player of the Year is one to watch in 2017.
AB: There is potential and then there is hardened 'wily' veteran who embodied everything about the Sharks' charge towards their maiden premiership. We know how vital that role is and those players won't be able to replicate what Ennis brought to the table.
CK: Obviously Val Holmes is an elite player but how he adapts to the all-round role of NRL fullback remains to be seen and could take a while to settle in. They've still got some great players and James Maloney teams are always competitive but it's hard to see them finishing better than about fifth.
MG: Down by four, exhausted, and with 10 minutes to go, will they still have the hunger to tough it out like they did last season now that they've won that elusive premiership?
AB: They'll be in the top eight, but could finish anywhere from second to seventh...
MG: They'll be hard to beat at fortress Southern Cross Group Stadium, so I've still got them in my top four.
CK: Bold 2017 prediction. Sharks can't make top four. You read it here first.
AB: Doesn't make it right ;)
CK: It'll be right by September.
DB: Finally, to Melbourne, who may start the new season as favourites despite losing a couple of key players in Blake Green and Kevin Proctor. Though they should also get Billy Slater back. Do you consider them the frontrunners?
MG: In a word, yes.
AB: Martin has already predicted them premiers...
DB: Well, yes, we don't really need Martin to weigh in on this one…
CK: I tried tipping the Melbourne downhill slide a couple of years ago and failed badly. I've stopped doing that now. With Smith, Cronk and Bellamy together along with a star-studded pack they should be top four again.
AM: Of all the teams we've discussed, I feel like they will be impacted the least. Green and Proctor are big outs, but every year they're written off, and every year they prove the doubters wrong. They'll be in the top four again for sure.
MG: The Storm have always won the grand final the year after tasting defeat in a decider (2006 and 2008).
AB: I think Blake Green is a big loss. He added another option and took a heap of pressure off Cronk. His running game added a new dimension for them.
DB: Cameron Munster looms as a pretty handy replacement for Green at 6, assuming Slater returns at fullback.
AB: Sure. But that will take some time. Lock them in as a top four.
CK: Yep. They've more than got the options to replace Green. He was great in 2016 but I feel like a lot of that was the system and team he was in. Proctor is also a big out but Melbourne have never had trouble turning 'OK' forwards into outstanding forwards. With the Bromwiches and Harris and big Nelson etc all there the pack will do the job no problem. Top four certs barring a major injury to Smith or Cronk, but given they're both indestructible robot warriors from the future that seems unlikely.
AB: So was Slater at one point...
MG: They'll be back.
AM: Hypothetically, say Slater doesn't make it back. Munster stays at fullback. Is one of the kids ready to step in at No.6?
CK: They'll be fine. Curtis Scott and Brodie Croft are ready to step up to first grade. Failing that they'll pluck someone we haven't heard of yet from somewhere who'll do the job.
MG: Plenty of depth. Brodie Croft, Jake Turpin, etc.
AB: The big thing from this roundtable: teams look good when they have their top 17, but if injury hits a key playmaker it can change in a hurry.
DB: One of the reasons the competition can be so unpredictable – see the Roosters' massive slide with some big names on the sidelines last year.
CK: Take out the senior playmaker for the season from any NRL club and you can almost write off their hopes for that year. The competition is too close to carry an injury of that magnitude unless you have a situation like the emergence of Nathan Cleary last year (and if he wasn't around Soward wouldn't have been released when he was anyway).
AB: Not many clubs could lose a Slater for the year and still not only make the grand final but be eight minutes away from winning the whole thing.
CK: True. Not many clubs would have a Cameron Munster sitting there ready to slot in at fullback either though.
DB: That'll just about do us guys, looking forward to seeing your ladder predictions before the new season kicks off. Cheers fellas.