The 16 NRL contenders have rounded the halfway marker, with several clubs exceeding pre-season expectations and just as many failing to live up to theirs. We review the best and worst of the 2014 premiership to date – and take a look into the murky crystal ball to see who will still be duking it out for the title in September.
Penrith: Shock ladder leaders at the halfway mark of the competition, the Panthers are destined for just their second finals appearance in a decade. Phil Gould’s five-year plan is well ahead of schedule – but are the mountain men really genuine contenders?
Parramatta: With Jarryd Hayne receiving some belated support, the two-time wooden spooners are driving hard for a top eight return thanks to a shimmering brand of attacking football and renewed starch in a largely unheralded forward pack.
Wests Tigers: Second-last in 2013, the injury-hit Tigers had less prospects than any club of improvement this season – but their resurgence has been one of the feel-good stories of the year. The Tigers’ brilliant youngsters and mid-range recruits are leading a merry charge back to finals contention.
Brisbane: Although a dark salary cap-related cloud looms in the background, the Broncos have overcome several hurdles in an admirable return to form. An NRL-imposed sanction is seemingly the only landmine capable of blowing up Brisbane’s top eight bid.
Cronulla: ASADA and a heavy injury toll can be used as excuses, but the Sharks’ form has generally been woeful even when taking those setbacks into consideration. Still can’t score a try, while their trademark defensive steel has fallen by the wayside.
Newcastle: In a season the most spiteful Rugby League fan wouldn’t wish on even Manly, one disaster after another off the field has contributed to last year’s preliminary finalists tumbling out of contention in 2014. The Knights’ efforts can’t be faulted, but the results just aren’t coming their way.
Melbourne: The recruits and youngsters haven’t responded to the Bellamy touch as their predecessors did, while a scratchy start by the ‘Big Three’ has left Melbourne in a rare position of vulnerability halfway through 2014. A broken arm suffered by Cooper Cronk could see the Storm miss the finals – for non-salary cap reasons – for the first time in 12 years.
Canberra: Typically erratic on the field, the Raiders’ woes have been compounded by having the recruiting powers of a used handkerchief. The hyped return of club legend Ricky Stuart is quickly turning into an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ style fable, with his limited coaching capabilities at club level being exposed as they were at Cronulla and Parramatta.
Jarryd Hayne: Playing with consistent dominance not seen since 2009, Hayne has carried Parramatta back to credibility and stands on the precipice of leading NSW to a history-making triumph after producing one of the great Origin performances in the series opener.
Daly Cherry-Evans: Has further enhanced his claims to the code’s best halfback mantle – many consider him the best player in the game – after helping Manly maintain its lofty status, while he now has a gilt-edged, if extremely daunting, chance to do the job as an Origin linchpin for Queensland.
Sam Burgess: Lamentably signed to switch to Union at the end of the year, but his performances for Souths have gone to another level. Possesses an irresistible blend of unbelievable work-rate and dynamic impact, and is reminding fans exactly what they’ll be missing on a weekly basis.
James Graham: Only a shade behind countryman Burgess in the NRL’s best forward stakes, Graham’s toughness and skill is throwback to the great British forwards of yesteryear, but the addition of phenomenal work-rate pegs him as the ideal modern prop.
Ben Hunt: Handed the ominous task of steering Brisbane out of the cellar – with the notable handicap of playing alongside a novice five-eighth – Hunt has improved every week, to the extent that he is the NRL’s form No.7 and a regular match-winner. Only an injury withdrawal away from a Maroon jumper.
Dylan Walker: Still only 19, Walker’s youthful exuberance is balanced by the toughness and guile of centres in the veteran class. A future NSW Origin stalwart who can also be a superstar at five-eighth or fullback.
Josh Reynolds: Loved by Bulldogs fans and loathed by opponents, Reynolds’ tenacity and off-the-cuff attacking flair is the perfect foil for Canterbury and NSW halves partner Trent Hodkinson – and are key ingredients in the success of both sides.
Luke Brooks: Has somehow lived up to the impossible expectations placed on him, quickly shoring up defensive frailties and lighting up the competition with his attacking class. The future of the Tigers, Brooks can steer the club to a finals return in a few short months.
Semi Radradra: ‘Semi-trailer’ heads the NRL’s tryscoring table, combining brutal power and pace with flashes of deft skill.
Trent Hodkinson: Some reports suggested Canterbury was scouring for a new No.7, but Hodkinson’s brilliant performances in the Bulldogs’ 2014 winning streak have pitched him into the Blues Origin side – little more than a year after plugging away in the NSW Cup following a wretched injury run.
Tyrone Peachey: The most exciting attacking forward to emerge since Steve Menzies, the dynamic Peachey has already produced some of the season’s most stunning individual tries. A rep star in the making and a big part of Penrith’s recent success.
Josh Starling: Many predicted the Sea Eagles would tumble down the ladder after several front-row stalwarts departed, but they retain one of the toughest and most respected packs in the business – and much of that is due to tyro prop recruit Josh Starling’s form.
Martin Taupau: A fringe player at Canterbury, the hulking prop earned a shock New Zealand Test call-up after a barnstorming start to his tenure at the Tigers.
Dale Copley: After missing all of 2013 with injury, Copley has scored 11 tries in 13 games – second in the competition – as an outstandingly consistent performer for the Broncos at wing or centre.
Manu Ma’u: The comparisons with Suaia Matagi are obvious for ex-jailbird Ma’u, but the 25-year-old has made just as big an impact as his fellow Kiwi. The Parramatta backrower is equally bruising with or without the ball.
Peta Hiku: Last year’s rookie find has continued to fill a Mr. Fix-it role for Manly at fullback, wing and centre, but now commands a permanent starting spot, and is the new Kiwi Test No.1.
Michael Morgan: Pitched into the fullback role after Cowboys recruit Lachlan Coote went down injured, half Morgan has adapted spectacularly, providing defensive poise, playmaking class and surprising speed in the custodian role.
Paul Vaughan: The burly Italian international has been one of the few Raiders to enhance their value during 2014, earning a Country Origin call-up.
Sam Perrett: The Bulldogs have been linked to every fullback on the open market – and several others who are under contract. But the steady Perrett has grown into the role and has been an unsung hero in the club’s resurgence.
Chris Sandow: What a comeback from the enigmatic No.7 after apparently exorcising his off-field demons. Sandow is playing the best football of his tumultuous career and is capable of steering the Eels to a top four finish.
Adam Blair: Arguably the most maligned player in the NRL after two dismal seasons as a high-priced Tigers flop, Blair has returned to the form which earned him Kiwi vice-captain status while at Melbourne. He received a Test recall on the back of his role in the Tigers’ early-season charge.
Jamie Soward: Jettisoned by the Dragons prior to an uninspiring half-season in London, Soward has rediscovered his best in piloting the Panthers to the top of the table. Still inherently unlikeable, but ‘Sowie’ is at least good to watch again.
Peter Wallace: Another castoff to come good at Penrith, Wallace has put a disappointing final year in Brisbane behind him to combine superbly with the similarly reborn Soward. The Panthers skipper is arguably more important to their title quest than any other player.
Tony Williams: Earned a brief Blues recall after emerging from a lacklustre first season at Canterbury with a string of blockbusting performances.
Andrew Fifita: The overwhelming individual success story of 2013, Fifita’s campaign has been mired in suspension, injury and a contract debacle. Dropped from the Test side, while NSW is on the verge of creating history as he sits on the sidelines.
Josh Papalii: Axed by the Kangaroos and lucky to be selected for Queensland, Papalii’s recent injury may have saved him from the ignominy of being dropped by the Maroons.
Chris McQueen: Clinging to his Origin spot, McQueen has been forced to play off the Rabbitohs’ bench for most of the season.
Joseph Leilua: Began 2014 in devastating form, but a string of error-riddled outings removed him from NSW Origin calculations.
David Williams: Currently being kept out of first grade by Kiwi utility back Peta Hiku.
Dane Nielsen: Persevered with for far too long, the former Origin centre is now plugging away for the Warriors’ NSW Cup side.
Terry Campese: The veteran ballplayer has to shoulder some of the blame for the Raiders’ on-field struggles.
Jarrod Mullen: Touted as an Origin contender when he returned from his hamstring injury, Mullen’s recent displays have been awful.
William Zillman: Why the Titans aren’t utilising in-form David Mead at fullback instead of the erratic Zillman is a baffling mystery.
Bill Tupou: Spent a few lamentable weeks on the Raiders’ flank, bombing tries and struggling defensively. The former Warrior will be lucky to see NRL football again.
Pauli Pauli: The giant 19-year-old has the physique of Optimus Prime, and boasts speed and skill to boot. Pauli could be anything and is a huge backrow weapon as the Eels launch an assault on the finals.
Siliva Havili: Outrageously picked for a Kiwi Test debut after three interchange appearances at NRL level, Havili looks at home in top company and shapes as the Warriors’ long-term No.9.
David Fusitua: Freakishly talented and tall winger Fusitua has produced a series of stunning highlights in his short NRL career, while the likes of injured flyer Glen Fisiiahi may find it impossible to dislodge the teenager from the Warriors’ flank.
Paul Carter: A gritty, dynamic performer in the backrow or at dummy-half for the Titans, Carter’s future has been clouded this week after being arrested for high-range drink driving.
Kirisome Auva’a: The rampaging youngster forced Kiwi Test incumbent Bryson Goodwin out of Souths’ centres and doesn’t look like going anywhere anytime soon.
Alex Johnston: Usurped Nathan Merritt, and the teenager looks to possess the club legend’s innate tryscoring ability.
Curtis Rona: Shone in the Cowboys’ Nines triumph and has scored four tries in as many NRL outings. The big and rangy Rona has reportedly been snapped up by Canterbury for 2015.
Kurt Mann: While Melbourne’s production line appears to be waning, centre/five-eighth Mann is one out of the box. Scored the winning try on debut and has the makings of a future champion.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak: Just 18, the Kiwi winger scored two tries on debut and appears destined to plant the acronym DWZ in Rugby League’s modern lexicon – despite incurring a four-match gouging ban this week.
Jake Mamo: Plays at full-throttle and is a bona fide crowd-pleaser at wing or fullback. Mamo scored three tries for NSW Under-20s a few weeks back and will put the heat on Newcastle’s star-studded backline for a permanent first grade spot.
Isaah Yeo: Tall, robust and a strong defender, teenager Yeo finds himself in the centres for the ladder leaders after Jamal Idris’ latest off-field turbulence.
Nathan Peats: His season has been tragically cut short, but Peats was a major part of Parramatta’s early charge and was on the cusp of a NSW call-up before Robbie Farah recovered from injury.
Sam Tomkins: Certainly produces his share of mistakes, but doesn’t dwell on them and has proven a potent try-scorer and provider. The Warriors’ British fullback lacks nothing in the courage stakes despite his small frame.
Elijah Taylor: So valuable for the Warriors, outstanding backrower Taylor has been equally consistent and hardworking for the Panthers.
Will Hopoate: An incredible return for the Eels after two years out of the game, resulting in an Origin recall after just 12 matches.
Gareth Widdop: Although he has plateaued during the Dragons’ downward spiral, Widdop was the NRL’s form player of the early rounds.
Surprise packets Starling, Peachey and Taupau, and revivalists Soward and Wallace also make this list.
Blake Ayshford: Has barely fired a shot in attack for Cronulla and has been regularly exposed in defence.
Sam Williams: The Red V No.7 was his for the taking, but Williams couldn’t cement it and has now left for Super League after the Saints recruited Benji Marshall.
Kevin Naiqama: Made one great early-season appearance for Penrith, but currently being kept out of first grade by rookie Isaah Yeo.
Martin Kennedy: Highly-rated, the former Rooster has not delivered and has now suffered the double-blow of an injury after being dropped from first grade.
Lote Tuqiri: The 34-year-old was dumped after four rounds and only an injury crisis will see the dual international play first grade again.
Luke Keary: The youngster makes his long-awaited return from a pectoral injury in NSW Cup this weekend; he could add an extra dimension to Souths’ attack if Michael Maguire opts to hand him the No.6 jumper.
Brisbane’s salary cap crisis: A penalty such as the ones meted out to the Bulldogs and Storm, or even a minor deduction as the Warriors received in 2006, could scupper the Broncos’ admirable return to contender status.
Parramatta’s dummy-half situation: Nathan Peats’ injury has left a giant hole, but the Eels have done well by luring Isaac De Gois from Cronulla mid-season. The veteran won’t offer the same impact as Peats, but he should be able to fill the void adequately.
Superstar fitness: How the likes of Jarryd Hayne, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Daly Cherry-Evans, Robbie Farah, Justin Hodges and Johnathan Thurston pull through the Origin series could have a major bearing on the premiership race.
Injured stars’ recovery: Several teams are sweating on the return of key players to help them to the finals, with Josh Morris, Brett Morris, Cooper Cronk, Ben Matulino, Glenn Stewart, Dylan Walker, Boyd Cordner and Thomas Leuluai among the high-profile performers who are currently sidelined for extended periods.
Sonny Bill Williams: The departing multi-code superstar is starting to produce his form of 2013 after a slow start to the year, and is the single most important player in the Roosters’ bid to go back-to-back.
Minor premiership predictions
- Sydney Roosters: Warming up nicely with their big guns starting to fire, a second straight Tricolours title is where the smart money is.
- South Sydney: Their courageous win over the Warriors continued a hot winning run and could provide the impetus for a Rabbitohs title charge, but they are still unproven against the heavyweights so far this year.
- Manly: Overall, the most impressive side so far this season – particularly in light of their injury toll. The biggest threat to the Roosters’ title defence, the Sea Eagles are on a path to a fifth Grand Final appearance in eight years.
- Canterbury: The Bulldogs’ remarkable winning streak has come to an end and the Origin drain is already throwing down plenty of banana skins, but they are still in this title race up to their eyeballs.
- Penrith: While their climb has been admirable, the Panthers have reached the top of the ladder via a winning streak against struggling or weakened sides. They were unable to piece together consecutive wins prior to Round 10, and the proof will be in the pudding as Penrith emerges from the soft part of the draw.
- Parramatta: If Hayne and Sandow retain form and fitness, the sky is the limit for the Eels; one of the great redemption stories has been halfway told – it remains to be seen whether the current squad has the mettle to finish it off.
- Warriors: The NRL’s great enigmas look to be on the verge of something special, boasting a new attitude in defence under coach Andrew McFadden and wielding a plethora of game-breakers. It will be a bumpy ride, but they now have the substance to match their style.
- Wests Tigers: The Tigers will have to scrap for every win, but there is enough character and firepower in this squad to snatch a finals berth. And from there, anything can happen – 2005, anyone?
- Brisbane: The salary cap drama and a tough draw will conspire to thwart the Broncos’ admirable return to respectability in a finals race destined to go down the dying minutes of Round 26.
- Melbourne: The Storm’s reign as the NRL’s perennial superpower is almost over – their current ladder position, two-thirds of an Origin campaign still to negotiate and the injury to Cronk represent the three strikes to send Melbourne flailing out of the finals race.
- North Queensland: Dominant at home but awful on the road, the Cowboys are still missing a couple of ingredients. To say Bowen is one of them would be disrespectful to Michael Morgan’s efforts – North Queensland needs a top-quality hooker and more punch from their backrow.
- St George Illawarra: The Dragons’ recent slump and forward pack limitations will prevent a finals return, but Marshall, Widdop, Dugan and Merrin can make the Saints’ coaching post one to relish with some encouraging performances to round out the season.
- Gold Coast: Another dreadful season injury-wise looks certain to bump the Titans out of the running, while it may not be enough of a reason to save John Cartwright’s job.
- Newcastle: The law of averages dictates the Knights’ wholehearted efforts will soon reap some tangible rewards, but they have given the rest of the field too much of a start to overtake many rivals.
- Canberra: The Raiders’ ability to win football games is matched only be their capacity for repelling free agents. The club may only pick up one or two of each before the season is over.
- Cronulla: Amazingly, the long-suffering Sharks have not collected a wooden spoon since 1969. That is set to change in half a season’s time, regardless of whether ASADA takes a hatchet to their squad or not.
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