The Sydney Roosters, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Melbourne Storm are flying in 2019, but which team will join them in the top four and challenge for the premiership? The NRL.com experts have their say.
NRL.com's experts view
Steve Renouf (Maroons legend)
Raiders for me. I believe that Ricky Stuart has brought together a team that's playing for each other and with this year's English recruits on board they've made this team a bit more dynamic. With the individual performances of Jack Wighton, John Bateman and Josh Hodgson they look the goods.
Brett Kimmorely (Former Kangaroos halfback)
Cronulla have a great crop of kids coming through, and a coach that knows them and trusts them. They love getting into an arm wrestle and playing tough. They have experienced and quality players to come back into the side who will be fit in the second half of the season, and have the extra motivation of a Paul Gallen farewell.
Jamie Soward (Former Blues five-eighth)
The Sharks. They're being led by Chad Townsend who's playing the season of his career. Their young guns will keep them in the race until their stars return, and then they're a stronger side than the likes of Canberra who are yet to show they can match it with the NRL's elite teams.
Mary blasts Dragons over second half fade out
Michael Chammas (NRL.com chief reporter)
The Cronulla Sharks have the team most capable of challenging the big three for the title. On paper they have one of the strongest rosters in the competition, and the return of Matt Moylan, Aaron Woods, Shaun Johnson and Wade Graham over the next month or so will see them pushing for a top-four berth.
Margie McDonald (NRL.com senior reporter)
Take a look at the top-five clubs for points, tries, goals, possession after nine rounds and you'll see Ricky Stuart's Raiders right up there among Craig Bellamy's, Trent Robinson's and Wayne Bennett's troops. Then think how many Storm, Rabbitohs and Roosters key men may be involved in Origin, compared with Canberra, and let's see who emerges in August for a healthy run home.
Brad Walter (NRL.com senior reporter)
The Dragons have dominated periods of nearly every game this season but the absence of key players has severely impacted their depth, particularly in the forwards as they have had to rely on less experienced players during the middle periods of matches. If they can remain within striking distance when Corey Norman, Korbin Sims, Gareth Widdop and possibly Jack de Belin return the Dragons will be a force to be reckoned with.
Tony Webeck (NRL.com reporter)
You need to be defensively sound to compete with those three and the Raiders have displayed enough resilience to at least go toe-to-toe. Add the class of Josh Hodgson and on their day they can cause an upset.
Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League)
Heading into round six, my view was that if the Cronulla Sharks could stay in touch with the top eight over the next month then they would be serious challengers for the title given the talent they have sitting on the sideline. Since then, the Sharks have done far more than that, even beating the Storm while being down on troops. Cronulla have the best depth in the competition and will be a serious threat when all their talent returns.
Paul Suttor (NRL.com editor)
Newcastle should be the team that can challenge the big three – they have a loaded roster, Mitchell Pearce back in form and most importantly, Kalyn Ponga, back at fullback and firing on all cylinders. With a few adjustments, including getting Jesse Ramien more open space, they could get on a roll and surge deep into the post-season.
Knights on the up
Chris Kennedy (NRL.com reporter)
Cronulla. The Sharks are still clawing out wins with half their salary cap sidelined, including that incredible win over Melbourne. They have no fear of the top teams and have some superstars to come back. If they can stay in touch while those players are out they will be a real force once everyone is available. The Raiders have mostly been impressive and defended well but have looked off the pace against the top teams.
Maria Tsialis (Big League editor)
They've been hit with some key injuries but the Raiders should be able to recover to be thereabouts at the end of the season. Their more mobile forward pack has been causing headaches and their defence has tightened up massively this year, plus Jack Wighton's move to five-eighth has been a masterstroke. The best thing about them is they still play what's in front of them – something that gets under the skin of the more practised sides.
Alicia Newton (NRL.com reporter)
Cronulla. If they can get all their stars back on deck over the next few weeks plus the return of Wade Graham it will take them to another level to match the three clear front runners. Their youth is beginning to come through and experience will help in big matches.
Brett Keeble (NRL.com reporter)
Cronulla. Despite an injury toll that has claimed some of their best players, the Sharks keep finding ways to win. They should only get better as their big guns return in the weeks ahead, and they have the experience and expertise to compete with the big three.
Corey Rosser (NRL.com reporter)
The Sharks. Even with a horror run of injuries to start the season, Cronulla sit inside the top eight and have beaten the Storm and footed it with the Roosters. Once they get everyone back on deck, the Sharks have the talent to finish in the top four.
Dan Walsh (NRL.com reporter)
Raiders. Canberra won't have a huge Origin contingent compared to the big three and despite losing injured stars John Bateman, Joe Tapine and Jordan Rapana for the middle third of the year, they've got a relatively comfortable run in that period. If they can avoid further injuries their newfound resolve in defence and attacking combinations should only improve for the business end of 2019.
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Lone Scout (NRL Fantasy expert)
The Sharks may be the obvious answer here but I'll go out on a limb and back Des Hasler's Sea Eagles. Their revival this season has been stunning, not only because they seemingly have so few star players but because they've been smashed by injuries – including to a couple of those stars. Tom Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans will return in a few weeks to boost a team that has already beaten the likes of Souths and Canberra, and they'll only get better at full strength.
Jonathan Healy (NRL.com reporter)
If the Sharks can get all their stars on the park at the pointy end of the season they have the best chance of challenging the big three. They have a good blend of youth and experience, with a forward pack that can stand up to the rigours of finals football.
Kenny Scott (NRL.com podcaster)
Surprisingly, had injuries not torn the team apart, the answer would have been Manly. Alas, with the boys from the Northern Beaches treating their wounds, the honour then falls to the Raiders who should be a serious worry for the big three come September. The Raiders let themselves down last week with a few lazy defensive displays and some poor choices in clutch moments, however to score 24 unanswered points against the Roosters is no mean feat and bodes well for their changes come finals time. They'll learn from that and be better for it.
Tanisha Stanton (NRL.com reporter)
The Raiders are probably the pick of the bunch. They were unlucky not to knock the Roosters off their pedestal in Sunday's Magic round clash. Jack Wighton has made a seamless transition into the halves while Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and John Bateman have been great additions to the team. If they can steer clear of anymore serious injuries to key players, they have a chance to take it to the big dogs.
Zac Bailey (NRL.com reporter)
The Sharks. I didn't rate their chances before a ball was kicked in 2019, but their ability to overcome key injuries and life under new coach John Morris has helped them to be just one win outside the top four. The return of Matt Moylan, Aaron Woods, Shaun Johnson and Wade Graham will help strengthen the Sharks even more in the back end of the season to make them a genuine threat.