With the odd exception, clubs rarely stay at the top or bottom of the premiership for too many seasons in succession. The NRL’s evenness is spruiked as one of its most alluring qualities and a selling point over its competitors. Last year’s premiers, the Sydney Roosters, finished a dismal 13th in 2012 before making a memorable title charge. Meanwhile, 2012 minor premiers and Grand Final runners-up Canterbury slipped to sixth last season and made a quick exit from the playoffs; likewise, top eight sides Canberra and Brisbane languished with the also-rans in horror 2013 campaigns. The teams most likely to improve or lose ground on their 2013 achievements are profiled below.
Everyone’s tip as finals’ dark horses for 2014, Penrith’s extensive recruitment drive puts the club squarely in the frame for just its second post-season campaign in a decade. The Panthers were one of the big improvers of 2013 after a poor start, racking up 10 wins in their last 18 games – including the scalps of Melbourne and Manly – to finish 10th. The pulling power of GM Phil Gould and highly-rated coach Ivan Cleary has seen the Panthers add Kevin Naiqama to their backline stocks and bolster their engine-room contingent with veteran Brent Kite, versatile Kiwi Test star Elijah Taylor, boom backrower Tyrone Peachey and Kumuls World Cup cult figure Wellington Albert.
Jamal Idris was a shock recent arrival after cutting ties with the Gold Coast and is one of the code’s most dangerous centres at his best, but his ability to sort out recurring weight and attitude problems will determine how much value his new employers get out of him. The most intriguing recruits, however, are high-profile halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace. The former NSW Origin halves were punted by their respective NRL clubs in a confidence-sapping 2013. Previous Penrith No.7 Luke Walsh enjoyed a career-best year after being told he would not be required in 2014, while relatively unknown pivot Isaac John was also superb. Cleary will no doubt persevere with Soward and Wallace for as long as possible, hoping their recent decline was merely an aberration.
For all the personnel changes at the foot of the mountains, the Panthers’ biggest strength may be the players that improved out of sight last season. James Segeyaro was magnificent working in conjunction with hooker and captain Kevin Kingston; long-serving winger David Simmons scored 19 tries and was arguably their best player; Josh Mansour is a representative star of the future; Dean Whare became an established Kiwi Test centre; Matt Moylan’s playmaking class from fullback forced Lachlan Coote out of the club; and Lewis Brown, Sika Manu, Tim Grant, Sam McKendry, Adam Docker and Nigel Plum formed the basis of a well-rounded pack. The components are in place for Penrith to give the premiership a shake this year, but their prospects depend on a new, flighty halves pairing and the ability of a new-look line-up to gel together.
New Zealand Warriors
Given the Warriors’ diabolical start to 2013 and a limp finish that garnered an unflattering 11th on the ladder, it’s easy to forget the enigmatic side was regarded as a premiership threat after going on a giant-killing mid-season run. The Warriors lost just one game during a two-month period, claiming the heavyweight scalps of Manly, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne along the way. Some make-or-break roster changes could help the club fulfil the potential it has so often frittered away.
Superstar Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins has arrived with a colossal price tag matched only by the expectation placed on him by the rugby league media and public. No British backs have made a genuine impact in the Australian premiership since the halcyon days of Hanley, Schofield, Currier and Davies in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but Tomkins has the chops to change that trend. Boasting unbridled confidence – along with a record of 145 tries in just 147 games for Wigan – he may provide the killer instinct the Warriors have traditionally lacked.
Kiwi Test No.1 Kevin Locke could justifiably feel jilted by the recruitment of Tomkins, but he will prove a versatile ace up coach Matt Elliott’s sleeve. Elijah Taylor’s departure to Penrith is a blow, but will be adequately covered by ex-Cronulla backrower Jayson Bukuya and Ben Henry’s return from injury. Extraordinary depth in the three-quarter line, front-row and backrow departments should see the Warriors cover any contingencies during the year.
Halfback Shaun Johnson remains the key, and if he introduces all-round consistency to his peerless array of attacking tricks, the Warriors will go close to a top four spot. Tomkins should ease some of the pressure on the No.7 match-winner, while he has also played with incumbent five-eighth Thomas Leuluai extensively at Wigan.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The joint venture sunk to its lowest ebb in 2013, while coach Steve Price hung onto his job by the barest of margins despite two ordinary seasons in charge. But the injection of some top-class talent to complement their existing superstars should see the Dragons improve dramatically on their 14th-place finish.
Another club to field an all-new halves pairing, the Saints’ improvement hinges on ex-Melbourne premiership winner Gareth Widdop and former Canberra No.7 Sam Williams. Both are quality players, but both are young and have not occupied the senior playmaker role at first grade level. For all his tenacity, retiring veteran Nathan Fien could not provide St George Illawarra with the necessary direction or attacking punch in 2013, and was not afforded the luxury of a regular partner at five-eighth. That should all change for the Dragons this season.
Classy South Sydney three-quarter Dylan Farrell is an excellent buy, and may be joined in the centres by Gerard Beale, who was recruited last year to play fullback before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Kiwi Test representative has no chance of wearing the No.1 with Josh Dugan now on board, but can offer plenty of value around the backline.
A Test wing pairing in Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale, one of the NRL’s most promising hookers in Mitch Rein, and a workmanlike forward pack boosted by the acquisition of Joel Thompson, Matt Groat and Englishman Mike Cooper are other features of the Dragons’ line-up. But their real trumps are NSW Origin stars Dugan and Trent Merrin. Both had their 2013 campaigns cut short by injury, but were magnificent when on the paddock – the fullback and lock/prop rank among the competition’s most dynamic game-breakers.
Master mentor Craig Bellamy usually has his Melbourne machine humming come September – in 2012, the Storm won their last eight matches to take out the premiership following a post-Origin slump. But the wheels fell off last year as Melbourne came into the finals in patchy form, before being outplayed and out-enthused in back-to-back losses to Souths and Newcastle. Discounting their salary cap-wrecked 2010 campaign, it was the Storm’s earliest exit from a title race since 2005.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Melbourne’s disappointing exit was the lacklustre performances of the fabled ‘Big Three’ – the ever-reliable Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. With their stars off-colour, the Storm’s game-plan fell apart. The World Cup triumph will have been a welcome mood-booster, but now Cronk and Slater are racing the clock to be fit for Round One. It would be foolhardy to say the ageing superstar triumvirate is on the decline but they will approach the 2014 season under greater scrutiny than they are accustomed to.
Enigmatic Ben Roberts and emerging stars Ben Hampton and Cody Walker will battle it out for Gareth Widdop’s vacant five-eighth spot. Bellamy has an unparalleled history of making silk purses out of sows’ ears, but Roberts is beyond even his transformative abilities. Manly prop George Rose is Melbourne’s highest-profile recruit, with the cult hero effectively a replacement for the retired Jason Ryles.
The Storm will make the top eight, but the prospect of an uncustomary slow start and another tough Origin period may see the perennial heavyweights in sudden-death territory in week one of the finals.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys had one hand on the ‘Biggest Disappointment of 2013’ tag, before producing the comeback story of the year by winning their last six games to scrape into eighth spot; the winning streak came after long-serving coach Neil Henry was told his contract would not be renewed.
New coach Paul Green comes highly credentialed, with two Queensland Cup titles at Wynnum-Manly and an assistant role with the Sydney Roosters last year on his résumé. But for every Trent Robinson and Michael Maguire, there is a bevy of fledgling NRL coaches who have struggled in their first season – just ask Mick Potter, Brian McClennan and Stephen Kearney how tough it can be.
But the on-field changes to North Queensland’s squad will be even more difficult to overcome. There is no overnight fix for the departure of fullback institution Matt Bowen; the popular No.1 played less than 19 games in a season just twice in the last 12 seasons – and the Cowboys finished 15th on each occasion. Lachlan Coote is an exciting attacking fullback and a great support player, but has lacked consistency since hitting the first grade scene in 2008. The club sacked another custodian option, outstanding 2013 rookie Wayne Ulugia, last month after a series of conduct breaches. Northern Pride star Hezron Murgha may yet emerge as the best option at the back for coach Green.
The Cowboys’ experience factor has been further eroded by the retirement of Dallas Johnson and Ashley Graham. Arguably the NRL’s most dynamic and imposing pack on paper a couple of years ago, the Cowboys’ engine-room appears somewhat listless aside from Test props Matt Scott and James Tamou, with young backrow wrecking balls Tariq Sims and Jason Taumololo failing to kick on.
A team spearheaded by Johnathan Thurston cannot be discounted, but history has proven that when the playmaking genius is left to play a lone hand it only translates to a prominent position on the Dally M leaderboard, and not the NRL ladder.
A memorable finals charge rendered Newcastle one of the stories of 2013, but it also masked a terribly inconsistent regular season. Meanwhile, the Knights have been rocked by a disastrous off-season that will only cast a harsher spotlight on their ageing roster.
Russell Packer’s two-year jail sentence – besides being a harrowing personal setback – has robbed the Knights of much-needed front-row depth. The burly former Kiwi Test prop was a readymade replacement for Neville Costigan, but now the load will fall heavily on 33-year-olds Willie Mason and David Fa’aologo to support pack anchor Kade Snowden.
Dane Gagai, who linked with the Knights in 2012 after being punted by Brisbane for off-field indiscretions, has cost himself a likely Queensland call-up after going AWOL during the Maroons’ Emerging Origin camp in January. Slipping back into those habits threatens to break up arguably Newcastle’s greatest weapon – an electrifying backline.
Injury-prone Kurt Gidley must adapt to life as a fulltime hooker following the retirement of lionhearted No.9 Danny Buderus, while the pressure will be on halves Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts to back up career-best seasons with even better form in 2014, particularly with Michael Dobson returning from England in search of an NRL start.
The jury is still out on whether the Bennett magic is starting to make a difference in the Hunter Valley. A stellar finals series – which included upsets of 2012 Grand Finalists Canterbury and Melbourne – papered over the cracks at Newcastle. The Knights finished seventh after winning more than two games in a row just once, and had 40 points put on them in their preliminary final loss to the Sydney Roosters. Their premiership window may have already closed, with Newcastle’s ‘Dad’s Army’ in danger of a similar slide to the one which struck Gold Coast’s uber-experienced side in 2011 after back-to-back top-four finishes.