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Experts' view: Who's dark horse for premiership?

As the Telstra Premiership heads into the second half of the season, there is a clear distinction between the top six teams and the rest of the competition.

The first-placed Panthers and fellow top-four teams Parramatta, Melbourne and Newcastle have established themselves as genuine title threats alongside premiers Sydney Roosters and last year's runners-up, Canberra.

Of the remaining 10 teams, which of these hot-and-cold outfits can get their act together and make a late-season surge to have a decent tilt at the title like the 1995 Bulldogs, the 2009 Eels, 2011 Warriors or even the ultimate Cinderella team, the 2005 Wests Tigers?

The experts have their say on which team is the best dark horse for the 2020 premiership.

Experts view

Jamie Soward (former Blues five-eighth)

If Daly Cherry-Evans keeps playing like he did last Saturday night when he dissected the Eels and they get Tom Trbojevic back in the next month or so, then Manly can go deep into the finals. They have a soft draw and the best half in the world - a perfect mix for playoff success.

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Steve Renouf (Maroons legend)

The Wests Tigers in my opinion are the best dark horse - they are playing tough and exciting footy. Madge Maguire has a great balance and seemingly good depth in players to call on.

Margie McDonald ( senior reporter)

Wests Tigers. Despite what Ryan Matterson may or may not think, the last time the Tigers won in 2005 they had a very crafty hooker and half – and they still have in Harry Grant and the original (and the best) Benji Marshall.

Michael Maguire is gradually turning the team from one with flair to a pack of ferocious defenders. And Maguire’s Rabbitohs and Wigan premiership wins were built on that very thing – defence.

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Paul Suttor ( editor)

It's a virtual lock that one of the top six teams will win the title but the St George Illawarra are a puncher's chance of getting on a late-season roll now they have settled on an impactful spine of Matt Dufty, Corey Norman, Adam Clune and Ben Hunt with Cameron McInnes tackling anything that doesn't stand still until he's at a standstill at lock.

Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League)

Despite Manly sitting in 10th spot, they still can't be written off as contenders. They have many injuries, including Dylan Walker and Tom Trobojevic, but before they went down, the Sea Eagles were flying high and had some good wins over the Roosters and Raiders.

Lone Scout ( Fantasy guru)

If any team from outside the top six can go all the way it's the 10th-placed Sea Eagles, who have struggled a little without Tom Trbojevic of late but can match any side when at full strength.

They’ve got the best halfback in the comp, a core of experienced stars and a savvy coach who gets the best out of the rest of the squad.

If anything the recent stretch has helped the team learn to not rely on Tom Trbojevic so much in attack which could make them even more dangerous in the run home.

The halfway mark: Tackle of the year

Tanisha Stanton ( reporter)

The Sharks have flown under the radar this season after being hit with a heavy injury toll early on. But now continuity has started to build with players returning and others finding form, which has contributed to them winning five out of their past seven games.

They will only keep getting stronger with the return of Matt Moylan and Andrew Fifita in the coming weeks.

Joel Gould ( reporter)

The Sea Eagles are set to get Tom Trbojevic back from injury and if they can keep the members of their casualty ward to a minimum, they have the firepower and the grit to make a run for the premiership.

The halfway mark: Try of the year

Manly famously played six games in 24 days on their way to winning the 1978 grand final replay and are a club that thrives on the kind of backs-to-the-wall challenge that will be needed to win a ninth title.

Chris Kennedy ( reporter)

One of the top teams will probably go all the way this year but the best dark horse is Manly. They showed plenty of grit to upset the Eels on Saturday and will be a completely different proposition once the likes of Tom Trbojevic and Dylan Walker return.

They just need to win enough games in the meantime to remain in the hunt.

Troy Whittaker ( reporter)

With some luck on the injury front, Cronulla could be a threat if they squeeze into the finals. The Sharks have scored at least 40 points in three of their past four games and proved their gritty defensive capabilities when they almost beat Melbourne in round two. 

Martin Lenehan ( senior journalist)

The Sea Eagles will come from the clouds to make a bid for a top-four finish. Des Hasler’s men can surge into the finals on the back of big wins over the Bulldogs, Titans and Warriors in the last three rounds and they’ll have superstar Tom Trbojevic fresh, fit and firing as they chase their first premiership since 2011.

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Zac Bailey ( reporter)

The Sea Eagles have shown on several occasions that they can mix it with – and beat – the best. This team has the guts and grit of a Des Hasler-coached squad as well as the class to go with it.

Manly have already enjoyed wins over the Eels, Raiders and Roosters and as long as they’re close enough to the top four when Tom Trbojevic and Dylan Walker return from injury, they’ll again challenge for the premiership.

Brad Walter ( senior reporter)

Manly have shown they can beat top teams like Parramatta and Canberra with the likes of Tom Trbojevic, Dylan Walker, Martin Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake injured or suspended and at full strength, they have the side and belief to go all the way.

When they are back to full strength, the Sea Eagles will trouble plenty of teams.

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Alicia Newton ( reporter)

Manly were my pre-season tip to finish first and at the halfway point of the season they’ve been disappointing. If they can produce better results in the second half of the year and get Tom Trbojevic back before the finals they’re a team to fear in October. 

Kenny Scott ( Sunday Session podcaster)

Those that believe in fairytales might take a liking to the Wests Tigers, but, when it comes down to it, any team that pushes for a title needs to have the troops to pull it off and of the dark horse teams, that’s Manly.

A fully fit Sea Eagles side can match it with any of the teams in the six, and had they not suffered from some unfortunate injuries, they’d probably be up there already.

Dan Walsh ( reporter)

No one does siege mentality quite like Manly coach Des Hasler and Tom Trbojevic and Dylan Walker are out long enough to keep stoking that fire, but are still due back for a decent finals lead-in.

Of the teams on the fringes of the top eight, Manly have an easier run than most with the Warriors (twice), Titans and Bulldogs on the horizon in the next 10 weeks.


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.

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