NRL premiership too close to call this year

That man ... Johnathan Thurston in action during the NRL Grand Final between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys at ANZ Stadium. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins.
That man ... Johnathan Thurston in action during the NRL Grand Final between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys at ANZ Stadium. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins.

If predicting an NRL top eight for 2016 without any semblance of confidence is the yardstick, then the NRL salary cap is working a treat.

After almost three decades as a so-called expert commenting on the NRL competition, here is my best effort at forecasting the finishing positions in 2016 - a season which looms as the closest contest in my memory.

1: Broncos - while the grand final loss will make them hungrier, hunger alone won't get them there again. James Roberts is an outstanding addition, Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford a year more experienced, and the heat is on for berths in a mobile pack. Deserved premiership favourites.

2: Cowboys - if JT stays fit they can unquestionably go back-to-back, although being the hunted every week will be gruelling. Did the celebrations last too long, and will the passion still be there? The World Club Challenge was a promising start.

3: Storm - sure the big three are a year older, but they are smarter and as determined as ever to win another title. Jesse Bromwich has developed into a genuine game breaker and Cameron Munster could be a revelation.

4: Rabbitohs - Sam Burgess is a huge positive, but did they make too many player sacrifices to lure him back? Isaac Luke leaves a massive hole, the speed of Dylan Walker will be missed and Tom Burgess is sidelined for the first seven weeks. Adam Reynolds must lift.

5: Roosters - looked sharp in England, but that is hardly a yardstick. Doubts over Mitchell Pearce combined with the loss of Roger Tuivasa-Scheck, James Maloney and Michael Jennings, plus long-term injuries to Boyd Cordner and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves has them looking vulnerable.

6: Eels - on paper, the big improvers and pre-season form supports the hype. Keiran Foran is the best off-season buy, and while he and Corey Norman will create chances, some doubt remains whether their pack can lay a platform.

7: Warriors - even though their No.6 will change, the Aucklanders still field the most potent attacking spine in the competition with Tuivasa-Scheck, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke. But lack of consistency remains the unavoidable question mark.

8: Bulldogs - fewer interchanges mean big is no longer beautiful, and the Dogs may struggle with that. But coach Des Hasler is the master of invention and will have solutions. They will be weaker without the direction of Trent Hodkinson.

 

Daly Cherry-Evans will again be a key for the Sea Eagles. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.
Daly Cherry-Evans will again be a key for the Sea Eagles. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.

 

9: Sea Eagles - roster has been improved and the pack toughened, but the form of Daly Cherry-Evans will be the key. He has to return to his absolute best for the Sea Eagles to threaten. Injuries could stall their start.

10: Sharks - James Maloney is an astute buy and is fundamental to the progress of their promising backs. But with an ageing and at-times ill-disciplined pack, another finals campaign may hinge on the Fifita twins.

11: Dragons - Russell Packer looms as the big plus for the Dragons, but the loss of Trent Merrin's creativity is huge. If Benji Marshall can find his zip, the Dragons might be top-eight material.

12: Panthers - doubts over ageing halves Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward is a concern, while the loss new skipper Matt Moylan for the first six weeks is a cruel blow. But the raw young talent among this Panthers roster is where the surprises could come.

13: Raiders - have recruited well and look strong, but a lack of dependability is their perennial weakness. Fewer interchanges might also dilute the influence of their massive forward pack.

14: Titans - could they possibly be stronger in 2016 without Nate Myles, James Roberts, Aiden Seizer, Dave Taylor and Kane Elgey? The answer is no.

15: Knights - Trent Hodkinson is a plus, but they have recruited no one else of note. New coach Nathan Brown needs to work miracles for them to dodge the wooden spoon in successive seasons.

16: Tigers - Robbie Farah's absence for the first month is a negative the Tigers did not need, especially with on-going speculation that coach Jason Taylor skates on thin ice. Another long, lean season looms.



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