Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Can you hear that? It's a clock ticking toward the end of the 2016 off-season.
We now find ourselves less than one week away from kick-off for the 2017 Telstra Premiership season and I can't wait to watch the season opener between the Cronulla Sharks and Brisbane Broncos on Thursday night. When that whistle blows at 8.05pm at Southern Cross Group Stadium, footy will officially be back.
Until then, we still have time to make some bold predictions about the season ahead.
Last year, the only bold prediction that I made was that the Sharks would win the premiership - partly because I love a good fairy tale. When that prediction came true last October, the question everyone started to ask me was who I was picking to win the premiership in 2017.
That's a tough question in 2017, so let me start by trying to predict which teams are going to make the top eight.
In 2016, the top eight looked like this:
North Queensland Cowboys
Gold Coast Titans
Eighth position was hotly contested. The final rankings saw five points separating 7th and 8th while only three points separated 8th through to 11th. The Titans were very lucky to hold onto 8th spot and only inched out Wests Tigers by one point.
I'm predicting 2017 will be one of the most tightly contested top eights the competition has ever seen.
Consider some of the teams who missed out last year largely because of off-field drama. The Eels only missed the eight because of a salary cap breach which saw them docked 12 competition points. The Roosters only really came into their own towards the back of the season after State of Origin had finished wreaking havoc on their squad and when Mitchell Pearce returned after missing part of the season due to an off-field indiscretion.
We head into this season with 14 teams all vying for one of those eight spots. So who out of last year's top eight is going to miss the cut? Before I reveal my eight, here are some clues to help you work out who I think will feature come September.
Only two teams cannot make the top eight
When I look across the rosters of the 16 teams, I truly believe that other than the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Newcastle Knights, each team is capable of a top eight finish. I make this statement with apologies to Dragons and Knights fans, but fans of these teams should take comfort in the fact that we have already seen signs of clever recruitment from both clubs which will see their teams improve significantly in 2018 and beyond.
While others have predicted that the Wests Tigers and Manly Sea Eagles will struggle, when it comes to the Tigers I would not be completely discounting a team which features James Tedesco and Aaron Woods (particularly since the Tigers just missed out last year, even while the Robbie Farah saga continued to create noise off-field) and Manly should benefit from two of the most exciting young players in the game, Jake and Tom Trbojevic 'growing up' over the off-season. If the Sea Eagles are any chance to make the eight they must start strongly. Four out of their six first games are against teams who finished in the bottom eight last year.
Teams from NSW will be the minority in the top eight
For the second year in a row, the top eight will be dominated by teams that are not Sydney based and in fact, in my top eight there are only two Sydney teams.
This domination from non-Sydney teams only became a 'thing' last year. In 2014 and 2015, the top eight included five Sydney teams. This dropped to just three in 2016.
This reflects the strength of the competition across all states, particularly in Queensland where I see each of their three teams making the eight in 2017.
2017 is make or break for the Warriors
There are fans from several clubs that have suffered in recent years. Prior to their premiership last year I would have put the Sharks in this category. Eels fans definitely fit into this category and Knights fans too. However, without a doubt, there is no team more frustrating in the NRL than the Warriors, and I’m calling it: If the Warriors do not make the finals this year, it is time to throw in the towel.
Consider this. The Warriors have not made the top eight since 2011. This is the 2nd longest drought in the competition for missing the eight, equal with the Tigers and behind the Eels who have not played finals footy since 2009.
This year the Warriors have 10 Kiwi internationals and two State of Origin representatives in their squad and have never been in a better position to deal with Shaun Johnson having an off-night with the addition of Kieran Foran to their squad. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be their X-factor and when you consider the talent in their squad like Bodene Thompson, Tui Lolohea and David Fusitu'a, on paper they are looking very dangerous.
Unfortunately, looking good on paper has not led to results for the Warriors in the past. I'm predicting 2017 to be the year this changes.
The team I'm struggling to leave out
There is one team that just misses my eight, and it's giving me anxiety to leave them out. It's the Roosters.
This is a team that only won six games last year, but with Mitchell Pearce looking to prove a point in 2017 and one of the strongest forward packs in the competition, I'm looking for the Roosters to significantly improve this year (just not enough to make my eight).
You'll now have a pretty good idea of who my top eight for 2017 is, so without further ado, in no particular order, here it is:
North Queensland Cowboys
Gold Coast Titans
New Zealand Warriors
I should confess that I am an Eels fan. Whether this team will make the eight depends on how the halves combination between Corey Norman and Clint Gutherson works and whether they can break their ANZ Stadium hoodoo (having only won three games there in 2016).
And because I'm feeling generous, my tip for premiers in 2017 is the Raiders.
Let season 2017 begin.