Star Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson.

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Roundtable: NRL's most unpredictable team?

The NRL Telstra Premiership is a notoriously unpredictable competition – which is one reason why it's so good to watch. Any team can beat any other on their day, and most footy fans can go into a new season with the genuine belief that their team can play finals footy or even take out the premiership. 

Last season, the Warriors, Sea Eagles and Roosters started the season rated by the bookmakers as a better chance of winning the grand final than eventual premiers the Cronulla Sharks, and yet all three clubs missed the finals altogether. The Gold Coast Titans were the favourites to finish last and instead finished inside the top eight. The Raiders started the season ranked 12th in premiership betting but finished second on the ladder.

So today we're having our say not on where each team will finish in 2017, but on which teams are the most predictable heading into the new season.

Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): Let's kick this off with a simple question. What's the most unpredictable team going into the 2017 season?

Tony Webeck (Chief Queensland Correspondent): For mine it's the Wests Tigers. If those young cubs catch fire they could be the surprise packets of 2017. Or they might not.

Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): Is it wildly obvious to suggest the Warriors? Or are we thinking Foran might steady them out a bit?

Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): Half of us will have the Warriors in our top four. The other half will have them finishing ninth.

TW: Can't we just all agree that the Warriors are predictably unpredictable? Not sure where that places them in terms of this chat however...

It's a massive year for Stephen Kearney. One of the nicest guys in coaching needs to show some tough love.

DB: They're almost more unpredictable this year, only because of the talent they now have at the club (if Foran plays). But they still need to work on some basic team-wide issues like defence and ball control. Maybe Kearney can fix those problems.

CK: We all expected big things last year with Luke and RTS coming in. Obviously Roger was injured fairly early but even before that, those stars adopted the Warriors' inconsistency rather than adding premiership-winner type discipline. There's every chance that happens again if Kearney can't find out and fix what's causing that ill discipline.

MG: Any side with a spine like theirs and a forward pack of that size should be playing finals. I think the gameplan should be as simple as possible. Vatuvei and RTS to make them early metres. Two big carries by props, and then let Luke and Johnson run riot against a retreating defence.

TW: They could do worse than copy the blueprint that got Michael Maguire and South Sydney a premiership. Their entire gameplan was built around forward momentum and Issac Luke. The points simply flow after that.

CK: Yeah... but they don't have a posse of Burgesses or Greg Inglis. Or Michael Maguire for that matter. 

TW: But the methodology is sound. Big blokes run hard, Issac plays forward and everyone else steams onto the ball as the defence retreats.

CK: But it's not like no one else has tried. And Shaun Johnson is a very different type of player to Adam Reynolds. And they just don't have that same battering-ram style pack Souths did in '14.

 

 
MG: Speaking of the Rabbitohs, how do we think they'll go in 2017? Surely they'll improve on their 12th-place finish.

TW: If Inglis, Farah, Reynolds and Sam Burgess all have good years and play most games I've got my Rabbitohs in the top eight. If one or two spend time on the sidelines they might have September off again.

DB: On paper at least there are too many stars in that side to not be playing finals football.

MG: I can't get a read on them yet. They are one of the few teams I haven't been able to place in my ladder predictor.

CK: I've probably got Souths just missing the eight at this point but as Tony says if the key men aim up they're every chance of September footy. Either way I think they'll be steady rather than unpredictable once we get into the grind of the season, even if we can't predict right now where on the ladder that will be.

TW: Yeah, you'll know what you're going to get by about Round 6. Farah's influence is key to their season.

DB: Tony, you mentioned the Tigers earlier – a team that finished ninth last year, just one win outside of a finals berth despite having a points differential of -108. And now they've lost the NSW hooker, but have a few stars in the making in their ranks. They overachieved while some bigger clubs under-achieved last year. Are we ruling out another finals challenge from them this year?

CK: The Tigers for me are the other real wildcards. For as long as I can remember watching them and even back to the Magpies days, Wests have been a team that beats who they shouldn't, and loses to who they should beat. It was very much a trend last and the year before also. When you've got enigmatic talents like Brooks, Moses and Tedesco behind a forward pack that probably lacks the solidity of top teams but can match it with anyone on their day, that's probably going to happen. 

MG: There's something about the Tigers that has me thinking they'll finish 7th. I like what I'm hearing in the club's Unfiltered series, and it just seems as though the playing group are determined to end the club's five-year finals hiatus.

TW: I'm not ruling them out, but it's all about confidence. They started well last season and the rugby league world fell over itself in excitement. With Farah gone there will be stability, Jason Taylor gets his way unencumbered and one of the hottest backlines in the comp gets to unleash from almost anywhere on the park. As for the forward pack, it looks a little light on up front but I have a very high opinion of Elijah Taylor and what he brought when he arrived mid-season from the Panthers.

MG: I think Jacob Liddle is in for a huge year, and his flair coupled with Ballin's experience could provide the two-pronged hooking option they need to make the eight.

 

 
DB: Speaking of mid-table teams from last season, did the Gold Coast Titans overachieve in 2016 or are they the real deal with a returning Kane Elgey and a fully fit Jarryd Hayne in their ranks?

MG: I slightly lean to the former, but that's not to say they won't surprise again in 2017. Elgey is a key IN, Proctor is a fantastic signing, and Hayne will undoubtedly be better than what he was at the end of last season.

CK: I can only really see upside for the Titans. A full pre-season into Peats and Hayne, and the "IN" column looks heavier on quality than the "OUT" column despite a couple of key losses like Bird and Mead. I've got them in my eight at the moment. 

TW: There's no question there should be improvement and another finals berth but it will hinge largely on Hayne's influence. Martin's right: Proctor will prove to be a crucial pick-up but there's no doubt if they miss the finals it will be a failed campaign.

CK: Like the Bunnies though, and getting back to the topic of this chat, I don't see Titans being overly unpredictable next year despite shocking many in 2016. I reckon they'll be fairly steady once we get into it also.

TW: It's the teams who have great discrepancies from one week to the next that cause tipsters such as myself the biggest conniptions. 

CK: If we're talking unpredictable, and moving on from Tigers and Warriors – the Dogs were a team none of us could get a read on for literally the entire season last year and I can't see much changing there. They key players are mostly the same, the big pack will ensure they're always competitive, but if Mbye and Reynolds and Lichaa are the playmakers again then I think we'll see more of the same. Dogs were very tough to tip last year and I think will be again.

I'd put Sharks in that bracket for 2017. No Ennis or Barba in particular plus the premiership hangover and I reckon they'll be losing a lot of games people won't tip them to. 

TW: Agree with Chris on the Sharks. I've got them in the bottom half of the eight and I know plenty of people who don't even think they'll finish that high!

I'm interested to see how Canberra fare also. They should be a top four side but I have question marks whether 'Leipana' can reproduce the magic they displayed in 2016 and whether Austin and Sezer have the quality of other halves combinations. It wouldn't surprise me if the Green Machine have a few weeks where they're a bit off colour.

 

 
DB: I reckon the Raiders won't be quite as good as most are expecting this year. They're super solid across the park but are capable of struggling against any team when things go wrong (see their battles with the Knights last year). They're not a surprise packet for rivals any more.

CK: I almost tossed Raiders in too but having tipped them to take out the comp I guess I need to stick with them to be consistently at the top of their game...

MG: Adam Blair said yesterday that we should expect a less structured Broncos side in 2017. Does this make them a more unpredictable proposition than years gone by? Their backline remains a mystery, and they don't have as much size up front as some of their main rivals.

TW: In his 68th season of coaching I don't expect Wayne Bennett to change things up too much. Expect high energy, bit of tip-on passing from the forwards and Hunt and Milford to play what's in front of them.

CK: I'm not buying unpredictable Broncos I don't think, not with Wayne at the helm.

DB: Any more suggestions? We've named several clubs now – and of course the most unpredictable team will turn out to be one we've ignored altogether in this chat.

MG: Perhaps the Roosters, but I'm actually tipping them as one of the teams to beat.

TW: I've got the Panthers in the same bracket with the Raiders because there are still so many youngsters learning what it takes to back up week after week. But they should be pushing for a top four spot all going well.

CK: The only one I was thinking that we haven't mentioned is Manly. I've got them landing about 12th or 13th but if Green and DCE and Turbo link up well they could surprise a few people.

DB: The start of the new Manly era under captain Cherry-Evans and with the Trbojevic brothers taking centre stage could earn them a few surprise wins at the very least.

CK: Manly surely won't have the same bad luck with injuries too. I still have massive questions over their pack outside Jake T but if young Fonua-Blake and Shaun Lane establish themselves and Jackson Hastings shows what he's capable of they could be better than I'm expecting. 

TW: But I don't think they'll be unpredictable as such. Green will be the steadying hand DCE needs to get back near his best. They could be good, or not, but probably not wildly different from one week to the next.

MG: I think there are huge question marks surrounding their edge defence, and until that improves, they won't be in my eight.

DB: And nobody's willing to gamble on a stunning finals run for my beloved Knights? No? Fair enough then. 

CK: No.

MG: Yes. 

Wait. No.

DB: Well at least they're consistent. Cheers guys, we'll leave it there.