We are six sleeps away from the start of the 2018 NRL season and I couldn't be more excited to watch the opening game between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Brisbane Broncos on Thursday night at Jubilee Oval. At 8.05pm when that whistle blows, the season will officially begin and the march towards September begins.
Because there's still almost a week until the season kicks off, it means I have time to make some bold predictions about the year ahead.
Last year, I wasn't particularly successful with my fearless predictions. Most notably I mimicked plenty of other footy fans who decided the Canberra Raiders would be the 2017 premiers.
Despite my failure to pick the Melbourne Storm as premiers, plenty of people have still been asking me who I think will win in 2018.
That's a difficult question and that's partly because I think the top eight will be one of the most competitive we have ever seen. Almost every team is capable of making the top eight. That's the first time I can remember thinking this and I can't single any team out as the "easybeats".
So before predicting a premier for 2018, here's my top eight:
- Melbourne Storm
- North Queensland Cowboys
- Sydney Roosters
- Cronulla Sharks
- Parramatta Eels
- Brisbane Broncos
- St George Illawarra Dragons
- Newcastle Knights
Some observations about my top eight
- The 2017 season will always be remembered as the year the Storm dominated. They won the minor premiership six points clear of the Roosters. I think this year we will see a similar pattern where the top four teams are a cut above the rest and where there is a significant drop in quality from the rest. Unsurprisingly I expect to see Melbourne dominate again with the Cowboys boosted by the return of Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston not too far behind, followed by the Roosters who are very hard to dismiss given the additions of James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk.
- You'll see that the last two spots in my top eight belong to the Knights and the Dragons. But I am not particularly confident about these two picks because, as I said, I think we have an exceptionally even competition where we will have two or three standout teams… and then the rest. Those final two spots on the ladder are up for grabs (just like last year where we had to wait until the final game of the regular season to see how the top eight would look), but I think the Dragons and Knights have the teams to snag those final two positions. The Dragons will be lifted up front by the arrival of James Graham and also have a proven playmaker in Ben Hunt in the halves. As for the Knights, they have recruited exceptionally well and if players like Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson play to their potential, the Knights faithful will be rewarded for their loyalty during a couple of difficult years.
- You will notice the New Zealand Warriors are missing from my eight. This is a team that made my top eight last year, when I vowed if they missed the finals in 2017 I would never pick them in my eight again. I have stayed true to my word and in fact, have them finishing with the spoon. Despite having talent in their team like Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke and having recruited Tohu Harris and Adam Blair, the reality is no player has gone to the Warriors and become a better player. I predict more dashed hopes for Warriors fans and do not expect them to go anywhere near the eight.
The teams that are an 'unknown quantity'
More than any other year, this off-season has been characterised by player movement. Bryce Cartwright to the Gold Coast Titans. Aaron Woods and Keiran Foran to the Canterbury Bulldogs. Josh Reynolds to the Wests Tigers. There have also been plenty of changes to coaching ranks like Dean Pay to the Bulldogs, Anthony Seibold to the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Garth Brennan to the Titans.
None of the teams I have just mentioned have made my eight simply because they are unknown entities. I have no idea how any of these teams are going to perform – and that's exciting, particularly when coaches like Brennan signal their intention to play exciting and entertaining footy.
Whether these teams can make the eight will depend on how quickly new combinations can gel and how strong a start they can muster.
A strong start will be fundamental. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they have a very tough start to the season, facing the Storm twice as well as the Roosters and the Broncos in the first five weeks. If they can jag a couple of wins there, they may also find themselves with a chance at a top-eight spot.
Who wins the premiership?
This year I genuinely have no idea and can't split four teams – the Cowboys, the Eels, the Storm and the Roosters.
We all know how difficult it is to go back-to-back, so perhaps I can eliminate the Storm.
I am an Eels fan, so perhaps them winning the premiership is wishful thinking (but will I think depend on how well Jarryd Hayne settles in and if they can find a way to score points without Semi Radradra).
That leaves two teams, so I am predicting a grand final between North Queensland and the Roosters with the Cowboys being the premiers.
So without further ado, bring on season 2018 (and please don't bring up how inaccurate the article is in October).