Wing: Why it's harder to break into finals than stay there

Teams that missed the finals in 2018 will find it harder to break into the playoffs than the eight teams from last year trying to stay there.

It's not always as hard as you might think to back up year by year when you have a successful team.

Often a lot of the players who tasted success are retained so unless you lose players to retirement or salary cap pressure, there is less incentive to go to market. As a team you already have an idea what works and your off-season is more about fine-tuning than re-inventing the wheel.

For the teams that missed out, there are more parts of their game to work on and a broader spectrum of issues to be addressed. They are more likely to have a complete review of the team overall and more likely to look for recruits to bolster areas they struggled in.

That in turn means more time is needed for the new line-up to come together and more things to work on.

The lower a team finished one year, the more pressure there is early in the next season to rack up a few early wins. Otherwise the fans and media start to pile on quickly and the pressure builds.

2018 premiers the Sydney Roosters.
2018 premiers the Sydney Roosters. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

A team like the Roosters coming off a grand final win, yes they'll be expected to start strong but if they lose three or four games in the first six rounds people won't be writing them off and the coach won't be tempted to make wholesale changes because they already know they have a system that works.

Pressure can be a really big thing. Once the media jump on and it gets in your head at the start of the year it can be an unpleasant environment to be in unless you have a really level-headed coach who can shield a team from all that.

Wayne Bennett is a classic for that, he can bear as much as you can heap on him and he'll keep a team together and believing and playing for each other, whereas others you can see the stress and the pressure flows through them into the team environment and that's recipe is disaster.

Most years see a turnover of two or three teams moving in and out of the top eight so here are the three teams I see as most under pressure to stay in the finals zone and the three with the best chance of pushing their way in.

Finalists under pressure

Warriors

On one hand the Warriors seem to be on the up. The things they're saying about culture, preparation and not getting carried away, all that stuff is good talk as long as they follow through with it.

But the loss of Shaun Johnson and no experienced player to replace him means they might find things tough early in the season. He was behind a lot of their creativity and attacking plays. 

Blake Green was steering the ship and getting them in the right position and it enabled Johnson to fade in and out of the game, which will be a tough dynamic to replace. Young guys are more focused on just doing their job and getting through sets which will leave them wanting with their natural attacking style, throwing the ball around.

Adam Keighran and the Warriors at pre-season training.
Adam Keighran and the Warriors at pre-season training. ©Andrew Cornaga/www.photosport.nz

Sharks

Cronulla have had plenty of turmoil in the off-season with Val Holmes moving to the US and losing their coach Shane Flanagan. Luke Lewis has retired, Wade Graham is out injured for a while and their other forward leaders aren't getting any younger.

I'm sure everyone's behind new coach John Morris but it only takes a couple of stumbles early and doubt starts to creep in. Once you have doubt in what you're doing it can be a downward spiral. I'm not saying that will happen but there's a balancing act down there so they are one of the teams that is a chance of dropping out.

Dragons

The Dragons really stumbled towards the end of the year but then again played sensationally against the Broncos in the first final and almost beat the Rabbitohs in the semi-final.

The only thing that counts is how you finished and they did quite well at the end, starting to get a game plan together.

The worrying thing was how long their slump lasted and it was only the number of wins they racked up early in the season that saved them dropping out of the finals altogether.

They've also got some changes with Corey Norman coming in, Gareth Widdop likely to move to fullback. What effect does that have on Ben Hunt's game? It will be interesting to see how they go in the trials, they'll want to start the season on fire because otherwise the fans and media will jump on them straight away. 

Bottom eight sides on the up

Knights

Newcastle should be stronger again with David Klemmer going there. He's a hard worker and brings a lot to the table and the rest of the pack will lift around him. He was one of the backbones of the Bulldogs late last year and when they performed better than people expected.

With senior players like him and Mitchell Pearce and some good young players, they'll be in the hunt. They've bought well so they could make their way up.

Cowboys

Admittedly they've got no Johnathan Thurston this year plus they've lost Ben Barba late in the off-season and no doubt would have been structuring plenty of plays around him.

They've played well without Thurston and have been preparing for his retirement for a while. Michael Morgan will need to step up but they get Josh McGuire to boost their pack which really got on a roll at the end of last year.

They've got other guys in the squad who can take over from Barba at fullback if they don't find a way to recruit someone else and behind the forwards they will have, any of those guys could go well at fullback.

Cowboys winger Nene Macdonald.
Cowboys winger Nene Macdonald. ©cowboys.com.au

Wests Tigers

Michael Maguire's style of coaching from what I've heard is really tough. He's a good coach that will harden up a team and take them to another level, not dissimilar to when Ricky Stuart came to the Roosters in 2002 when we had a lot of good players but his hard work ethic and how hard we trained really toughened us up and everything came off the back of that.

The Tigers have always got those guys that can create tries and some tricky stuff but put a solid backbone behind them and I think they can creep up. From what I hear the senior guys are doing everything the younger guys are doing so everyone's in the same boat, there's no easy rides for the older guys which I think it will work for them.