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Tigers, Titans, Bulldogs ready to rise and surprise

A lot of NRL fans are predicting Newcastle to be the team that makes a big leap into the finals in 2019 but the Wests Tigers are nicely placed to be this season's surprise packets.

It was a prediction of mine the last couple of years that the Tigers would rise into the play-off picture but hopefully it'll be third time lucky – they look like a genuine chance of competing with the best teams.

There is plenty to like about their squad.

After the instability which plagued them towards the end of last year and the early stages of the off-season, they now have consistency of coach with Michael Maguire and an exciting new prospect in Ryan Matterson who will strengthen their right edge.

They also picked up Paul Momirovski to add even more depth to last season's squad.

My big question is, will Maguire opt for experience and pair Benji Marshall in the halves with Luke Brooks or look towards the future and pair Brooks with Josh Reynolds?

The Tigers were on fire early in 2018 but fell away.
The Tigers were on fire early in 2018 but fell away. ©Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos

Most years the big question leading into finals is which teams are going to make the play-offs but last year was an anomaly – by the final rounds, the eight teams were largely known with the question being which order they would finish in.

There was only one win separating the first-placed Sydney Roosters who finished on 34 points and the eighth-placed New Zealand Warriors (32 points).

There was then a significant drop to the Wests Tigers who finished ninth with 26 points, then another drop to the Canberra Raiders and the remaining teams who finished on 22 points or less.

My view is it will be similar in 2019 in that there will be four to six dominant teams but an increased battle for the final two top-eight spots. Just like last year we’ll also have four teams at the bottom that will struggle throughout the season.

Titans halfback Ash Taylor.
Titans halfback Ash Taylor. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

A team plenty of people seem to forget about is Gold Coast but after getting a glimpse of their promise last season, this squad will finally realise its potential.

This is a team that boasts some serious talent including the likes of AJ Brimson, Tyrone Peachey, Ryley Jacks, Ash Taylor, Jai Arrow and Ryan James.

There is competition for positions all round but most impressively, the Titans now boast an all-representative starting pack which should match it with any rival team.

While they're not in my predicted top eight, Canterbury are another team that will do better than expected.

Josh Jackson was my choice for captain of the year in 2018 in that he was able to rally a young squad to some impressive wins towards the closing rounds.

The reality is the Bulldogs are in for a rebuilding period and this may last some years, but if the squad plays with as much tenacity and passion as they did last year, their supporters will continue to back them and better times are ahead.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how Lachlan Lewis does in his first full year, no doubt benefiting from the experience and leadership of Kieran Foran.

It would be unfair to claim Newcastle as a team that is going to surprise us. The reality is, the Knights are a squad that has been building slowly but surely for several seasons that now has strike power all over the field through Kalyn Ponga, David Klemmer, Connor Watson and Jesse Ramien.

Bulldogs five-eighth Lachlan Lewis.
Bulldogs five-eighth Lachlan Lewis. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

My big question for coach Nathan Brown is whether a move to five-eighth is right for Ponga. Fullback is my preferred position for him but among NRL fans there appears to be increased appetite to move him to the halves. 

The biggest surprise of all in the 2019 Telstra Premiership may be the Sydney Roosters – they are well placed overturn the history of the last 25 years to become back-to-back premiers. Last year it took some time for the Roosters to find their groove, but once they did they were close to unstoppable and shocked many when they dominated the grand final from start to finish.

They have lost the metres and go-forward of Blake Ferguson, but they have gained Angus Crichton and Brett Morris, who some may have thought was nearing the end of his career but he was in fine form at the World Club Challenge last weekend to be a deserved player of the match.

We know how hard it is for players to find the motivation and the hunger to successfully defend their title but the Roosters could do it this year.

As a Parramatta fan, I have plenty of hope that the Eels will also be a team that surprises us in 2019, but given last year’s form, just getting out of the bottom four will be surprise enough for me.