NRL Preview: Hangin’ round the 8 ft @dr_nrl, @ItsMitchell180, @heighway_ and @26Rounds

In case you missed it, 26 Rounds has teamed up with fellow footy fiends Mitch (@ItsMitchell180 to you), Ryan “My Way Or The” Heighway (@Heighway_) and the curer of all nonsensical ills, Dr NRL (@dr_nrl).

Mitch is regularly contributing now to 26 Rounds and you can find his shizzle here, and we are hoping to rope Ryan in for a regular unpaid gig– although we have offered him unpaid internship after unpaid internship only to be declined like MC Hammer’s application for a mortgage.

I think that shitty reference just showed my age.

And the Doc’s website is worth more than just a look — it’s a must read for stat geeks and fans of advanced metrics as they may pertain to the NRL. Check it out over at drnrl.wordpress.com.

In previous “Printcasts” we discussed the make-up of the bottom five — and there were some shockers. You can check them out here and here.

And below, you’ll find out who we predict will make up that battle for the eighth spot i.e teams that will finish 11 through to seven. Let’s hope you enjoy.

(BTW — I’m keeping track of these predictions in a table that you’ll find at the foot of the article.)

JARMEL:

11th: Sharks. Whoa, right?

Source: 3AW.

But ASADA is bound to bite at some point (although we’ve been saying that for a year now) and I think the draining aspect of it is only really starting to kick in. Plus, Peter Sharp is coaching and the last time I remember him doing something along those lines was in the days of the Northern Eagles.

Fun fact: Did you know that John Morris is about to break the 300 game barrier? And yes, as long as he keeps the impressive Michael Lichaa out of the hooking spot, I have the Sharks struggling.

10th: Panthers. I just really dislike their halves as a tandem. They are both non-runners and now sport overrated kicking games — countering that, however, is the fact I like Ivan Cleary as a coach.

But compared to their halves now, what was wrong with Isaac John and Luke Walsh? At least John showed flashes of a running game, and I’m struggling to see how four years of Soward is any better than what Walsh brought to the table.

Is Idris enough to carry them to the top eight? This club is the biggest unknown to me; they can go in so many directions, but I am predicting they’ll be roughly where they were last year.

9th: Titans. Their forwards are getting older and I just can’t see them cracking through once again.

Love, LOVE their halves combination, and Paul Carter looks a real find. And having Brad Tighe there to replace Idris, who was injured essentially all of last year, means they’ll have some strike power out wide which they lacked in the second half of the season when they really fell off.

But their forwards, while tough and good with the metres, lack that offloading skill to be any threat. Metres can only get you so far, as can the kicking game of Aidan Sezer and the twinkle toes of Albert Kelly. They need another game-breaker.

8th: Knights. The Jarrod Mullen injury scares me, but it’s a hammy complaint — If Tinkler can’t afford to fly in the world’s greatest doctors to perform a hamstring transplant, then there’s something wrong.

And even if he can’t, I think Ol’ Benny finds a way to get past it. Tyrone Roberts will take on more of a role and he’s got some creativity around his kicking. And while many fear that Kurt Gidley will be five-eighth, chances are he injures a shoulder during a pre-game back-pat from the Origin selectors and they move Darius to five-eighth. Is it enough to win a premiership? Fuck no.

But with the strike power they have out wide, all they need is the ability to get it out there.

7th: Bulldogs. Fuck y’all!

(I apologise, that was far too aggressive.)

I reckon Dessie is far too good a coach to miss the finals for the first time ever, and they still have some strike power left. The Barba bullshit last year was a massive distraction, and getting him out of there will be like removing a haemorrhoid.

They’ll find a way to get a fullback, or they can move Sammy Perrett – who played all his junior footy in the role – to the back. They’ll be fine. They also have some improvement to get from Josh Reynolds, and this Moses Mbye kid is sounding damn special.

MITCHELL:

11th: Broncos. After watching their game against the Warriors I could put them a few spots lower, but the only reason I can’t is: surely the Broncos wont bottom out?

Josh Hoffman to the Bulldogs has now become Hoffman to five-eighth, which just boggles the mind. And shifting Corey Parker to front row is another strange one.

Is #griffius the new #sheenius?

Source: The Australian.

I was dazzled during the nines but now I’m very concerned. Their halves are the big worry for mine: they pushed out Prince and Wallace perhaps thinking they had Milford and Karmichael Hunt in the bag, but they got neither. And this year’s combination (whatever it might be) doesn’t exactly strike fear.

11th, I fear, might be too kind.

*Disclaimer – I really struggled to split the teams that could finish between 6th and 10th, but I’ll have a dig anyway.

10th: Knights. Mullen going down is just cruel. I had them on the way down anyway, but for me no Mullen for the first few months equals no top eight.

Boyd or Gidley at five-eighth is a stop-gap measure, but either won’t be enough. I do agree with Jake (#crisis) in that they have some good backs, but I’m not confident anymore with Mullen out and no conceivable and suitable replacement available to help Roberts.

9th: Panthers. It really does come down to how Soward goes, he could be the buy of the year or the biggest flop of the year.

It’s fair to say 2013 is a write-off for him thanks to his now-famous exit out of the Dragons and the #TaxiForSoward chant from Wigan fans while playing for the London Broncos. A fresh start is definitely what he needs.

He does have a coach who wants him and a GM (Phil Gould) who loves him, so he is surrounded by good vibes at the Panthers. If he can draw on that belief in him he’ll be good, but if his confidence wanes most aspects of his game collapse.

But enough about Jamie.

JARMEL: THANK. YOU.

MITCHELL: Peter Wallace is a strange buy as I thought Isaac John was good last year. Regardless,  the Kevin Kingston/James Segeyaro combo is brilliant, they have some young backs and Idris joining is a good pick up (although he’s no Jennings.)

The forward pack is honest, but again, how their halves mesh is the key.

8th: Warriors. Sam Tomkins and Shaun Johnson look to be on the same page which means watching the Warriors will be even more exciting this year.

The Auckland club’s issue since day dot has been their defence and it’s remained their Achilles heel.  But they have exciting backs and Chad Townsend hasn’t looked bad at all. I’m just not sure where Kevin Locke fits into the scheme of things at the moment…

7th: Titans. “Halves” is the word of the day, but I do rate Kelly and Sezer and the battle between Matt Srama and Paul Carter for the hooking role is a good dilemma to have.

They have a big, mobile forward pack, but they are perhaps a bit iffy in the centres and I bet they wish they kept Matt Russell to keep pressure on their five-year contract “star” William Zillman. Johnny Cartwright, though, is under pressure.

Neil Henry is the new assistant coach, and is a subtle-yet-constant reminder that if Titans struggle in first 10 weeks, Johnski is Gonski.

HEIGHWAY:

11th: Raiders. I have the Raiders placed slightly higher than you guys, but not by much. The Raiders suffered heavy losses towards the end of last year and throughout the off-season with the mass exodus of players headed by the controversial exit of Ferguson, Dugan and Earl. The loss of these three would be heavy enough if you disregard external affairs and focus solely on the footy, but unfortunately for the Raiders these weren’t the only ones leaving the nation’s capital with Joel Thompson, Shaun Berrigan, Sam Williams and Jonathon Reuben all following suit.

The Raiders also managed to pick up the myth himself in Ricky Stuart: definitely another downside for the green machine.

However, it’s not all stormy skies for the mob from Canberra, who still boast quite a talented young side with Mitch Cornish, Jack Wighton, Edrick Lee and Anthony Milford — though of course Milford has a few question marks to his name too, most specifically as to whether his head and his heart will be in it for the Raiders in 2014, or if he has checked out early.

The green machine is undoubtedly in the middle of a rebuilding phase and let’s be honest, who is there in the NRL that is better at sacking half a club in the name of ‘rebuilding’ than Ricky ‘It’s not my fault’ Stuart?

For me, the reason the Raiders escape the bottom tier is due to the fact that they are one of the few teams who still possess a genuine home ground advantage, along with the fact that they have an additional bye to every other team — they play the Dragons in Canberra.

10th: Mergewarra. St George were a mess in 2013, and I must confess I thought they were a shot at the spoon.

In 2014 the Dragons don’t quite look settled, but they at least have a proper set of halves for the first time in a long time. Dropping Jamie Soward and his ego — I’m sure that freed up some space in the change rooms — allowed the dragons to work better as a unit, with a lot less friction between the players. I quite like Widdop and I tip him to be one of the few who succeed outside of the Storm machine: he seemed less of a ‘cog’ than most of the other players Melbourne has produced in that he would stand up during Origin time when he was needed.

Source: Fox Sports.

As the senior playmaker of The Merge he will need to permanently step up, but I think he is capable of doing so. My main concern is how much of the old Widdop is left after his hip dislocation?

Late last year he came back and played for Melbourne and looked completely out of his depth. Hopefully for Dragons fans, a full off-season will help him regain his mojo. Sam Williams is a promising young prospect who offers an exciting counterpart to Widdop, and though he’s still quite raw this could be his breakout season now that he knows he is the one who the Dragons want in the number seven.

The Dragons have always had a strong forward pack, a trend which continues in 2014, where they are bolstered by the addition of Thompson.

However, they’ve lost a few key players this year as well with club stalwarts Weyman, Cooper, Fien, Prior, Vidot and the injury prone Chase Stanley all exiting stage left. With Josh Dugan out for a month, points will be hard to come by for the Dragons in the early rounds unless their halves produce something spectacular. They are playing the Tigers, Warriors, Sharks and Broncos in the first four rounds, I give them a 50/50 chance against the Tigers and the Broncos, and with Sharks v Dragons clashes notoriously unpredictable I would not write them off there either. If the Dragons come out and win one from four or even two from four I think their fans would be quite pleased with that, which, I feel, will be the story of their 2014.

9: Knights. The Knights overachieved massively in 2013 and with an aging roster and an injury to Mullen, I cannot see them replicating the feat.

The Knights have lost Costigan, Buderus and Naiqama in the off season, which, on face value, look like big losses, but in reality are just a test of depth, with only Newton and Dobson coming in as replacements. The loss of Costigan will hurt them, but the Knights are pretty stacked pack-wise. Buderus always seemed to be injured and Naiqama played second fiddle, never really cracking into the first grade squad.

With that being said, the Knights still possess a very physical pack that will muscle up and a back line that can be deadly on their day, with Uate, Leilua, Gaigai and McManus. All the interim halves really need to do is make sure they offer good service to their outside backs and let them run riot.

Whether they will achieve this or not is a mystery, but I am leaning more towards yes due solely to the impact of Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd’s special relationship, with Boyd looking likely to be the one to fill Mullen’s boots in a move that reeks of Darren Lockyer.

I predict Mullen will come back in time to steer the Novocastrians to just short of the eight this year.

8: North Queensland. The Cowboys start 2014 with a new coach and a lack of excuses, as many clubs have found themselves in years prior.

North Queensland will field a very different looking team to previous years with no Bowen, Dallas Johnson or Ashley Graham. Bowen is obviously the biggest loss for North Queensland as he provided a massive x-factor for the club, and his replacement Lachlan Coote, rupturing his ACL which will see him sidelined for six months.

While this is far from an ideal start to the cowboys 2014 campaign, you cannot write off a team that has Johnathan Thurston in it, who, as we all know, is one of the premier halves of the competition and is pure class.

North Queensland also wield the double edged sword that is the weather. Playing in humid far-north Queensland is never easy for travelling teams and it takes its toll on player fitness. This of course has the opposite effect on Cowboys players when they travel, especially to colder climates like in New Zealand or Melbourne, though in this case I think the home ground advantage will outweigh the disadvantages they face in the sheer amount of travel they must undertake every year.

It is very easy to blame a coach when under pressure, but with a new coach, the sole focus will be on the players and there will be nowhere to hide. I expect that will be a driving factor to a strong early start to the season with a bit of a mid-season fade, which will see the cowboys finish eighth with a bullet.

7th: Titans. The final Queensland team sees the state well represented in the top eight. The Titans have caused me many headaches over the last few years: they have a quality team, but they never seem to fully turn it on – the metre maids must distract them from their training.

The big names the Titans lost in the off season are hardly a cause for serious concern with O’Dwyer, Rankin and Idris all departing the Coast. The Titans however did pick up Mo Blair, Kalifi Fai-Fai Loa and Tighe, and while the names don’t eactly scream “World Beaters”, they do add some much-needed depth.

It is hard to see how a pack with Greg Bird, Nate Myles, Ashley Harrison, Luke Bailey and Dave Taylor cannot make an impact on the competition. It is up there among the best of them, but they also possess backs with lightning speed in the form of Gordon, Zillman and Mead and Brad Takairangi seems to have found his niche, beefing up the three-quarter line of the otherwise overly-slight Titans.

There is a good combination of youth and experience north of the border and their halves seem to be on the verge of a coming of age. Sezer and Kelly are an exciting halves prospect. All they need is a little consistency and they can threaten the top teams, as they showed late in 2013 when they knocked over Canterbury and the Roosters and only went down by a single point to the Storm. If the Titans can capture some of that form they should sit comfortably in seventh position.

JARMEL: I am rather shocked that you’ve got the Dragons essentially in that fight for the eight. Very… generous of you. Dugan will be a huge loss for them, but they could never count on more than half a season from him anyway. He has ankles made of lint and squirms too much in tackles — he just constantly seems like he’s on the verge of an ankle sprain.

I actually have the Cowboys higher than you — much, MUCH higher — but the Coote loss does stink for them. Is this a case of you thinking the teams ranked eight to five are interchangeable?

Mitch — does the Matt Elliott factor play a role in you having the Warriors so far down? I know you loves you some Tomkins…

I must admit, trying to look over the quality of these squads, there simply don’t seem to be many on the verge of major imporovement. If anything, aside from the premiers, most teams look to have taken a step back except for those at the bottom, and their step forwards can be counted in millimetres.

MITCHELL: Are we sure this is the real Ryan? The Dragons’ defence didn’t look great against Souths. Plus, Widdop has the weight of the world on his shoulders and as you said, coming from a hip dislocation injury, that weight will be significant.

I do worry about the Warriors defence, but they’re a funny side: they have a great record against the Storm when they should lose every game against them by 50, for example.  Jumping from 11th last year to eighth is a pretty good result considering Tomkins is their main buy.

I’m a fan of the fullback but he’s on huge money along with the Warriors playing a transfer fee so he is under the pump. However, I like his combo already with Johnson and while Kevin Locke is a good player, Tomkins might be the player Johnson needs.

It’s really hard for me to split teams six through 10. You could jumble them any way possible and I’d still be happy with it

JARMEL: It just looks to me like the middle of the pack didn’t improve, the worst got marginally better and the top fell off a bit, as we’ll see in the next printcast, of course.

HEIGHWAY: Those were my thoughts exactly. those teams at the top that were close did nothing to close the gap recruitment-wise, and the only real improvers were those sitting low on the table, such as Parra, because they had such a low starting platform.

I don’t really see any teams from five to eight as interchangeable as much as I see seven-through-nine being interchangeable.

I think St George are on the cusp between 7-9 and 11-14. That is the same way I feel about the team I’ll place in six: they are the team capable of an upset of the group above, but you wouldn’t bet on it. On the flip-side a run of poor games could see them slip into the lower grouping.

The Dragons being placed in at 10 is a showing of how much I like their new halves pairing. I also view a lot of those who left (Cooper, Weyman, Fien, Vidot) as more encumbrances or mementos of the Bennett era, clinging to the last remnants of success. Now that they are gone The Merge can finally enter into a rebuilding period properly.

The Cowboys are the eternal dark horses, always a chance, but never seeming to pull it together. I can’t say I can see them finishing in the top four, Jake.

JARMEL: Well we, sir, are on two different wavelengths!

DOCTOR: I had those freaking underperforming Cowboys second last year, and I’m sure many others had them somewhere close too, which just goes to show how precarious it is tipping Round 26 placings from our pre-season perch.

Last year I mixed in a bit of horse sense (for example, having the Roosters fourth, which was VERY bold at time) within an overall context of moving teams up or down from their 2012 finish using any relevant factors I could find.

It worked alright, but it wasn’t perfect by any stretch because there are always surprises thrown up for one reason or another, as you can see with the Cowboys – you really can’t screen for player-coach relationships, contract negotiations, injuries, boardroom squabbles, dodgy midweek kebabs outside the local nightspot and so on…

So now that I’ve absolved myself completely should I happen to get it horribly wrong, let’s get on with it.

The bottom five was fairly straight forward (I think!), with a surprise thrown in, and the Middle Five is essentially going to be a process of elimination i.e. rank the five teams that won’t be in my Top Six!

11th: Raiders. Another team that seems to also be standing still is the Raiders, and I don’t see what takes them to the ‘next level’ this year: certainly not the change of coach (though a renewed emphasis on defence might pay dividends initially), certainly not the loss of playing talent, as questionable characters as they may have been, and certainly not team harmony.

If it’s not Milford running around with an elevated sense of self-worth it’s problems with leadership groups and all the rest (which included the sacking of a good coach last year).

Source: Canberra Times

The Raiders boast an awesomely-talented line up, but one which I think is inferior to last year. They are big, but not so mobile. Croker is a centre of excellence all by himself, and Papalii is always more than a handful, but Campese doesn’t seem to run anymore.

That’s a shame, because a man of his size and guile keeps opposition defences in two minds and on the back foot. It’s physically draining for them in defence, they give up more metres and holes appear as a result. Clearly someone else is going to have to play that role this year! The Raiders’ success has always come from a skilful running game though, and I question whether they still have it this year.

10th: Bulldogs. It’s a slippery slope for the Dogs: Grand Finalists one year, lucky to make the finals the next, and likely to miss altogether this year.

Their style has been worked out and countered, and the double pump James Graham-led play is losing effectiveness with each match. The Dogs are going to have to come up with something quite new again as they did in 2012, because we all saw how their performances suffered without the pace and footwork of Barba sweeping around the back of set plays. While Reynolds is a terrier and scavenger right up there with the best of them, the halves don’t look threatening to me, and Hodkinson needs to be kicking at 90 per cent-plus to be of value to the team.

As mentioned by the other ‘panellists’ here, there are teams that don’t seem to have ‘improved’ with the benefit of the off season, and the Bulldogs, to me, are one of them.

9th: Titans. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes north of the Tweed, with some suggesting Cartwright is marking time for a coup that installs Neil Henry. I don’t see how this ‘pulls’ the team in the right direction, and as we know about professional sports (where competition is fierce within an already relatively even competition), you really want all moving parts working together.

The early season draw ‘should’ result in a competitive position after the first couple of months, but this is exactly the time where the effects of coaching uncertainty will be greatest. Simply put, they need to take advantage of this period, work their way into form, save Cartwright while they’re at it, and form a solid base for the second half of the season.

They are going to need to be in the top eight with six weeks to go, because their run home is a significant hurdle. One lesson I hope they’ve learned from their irresistible late-season form in 2013 is that it can be done, but they need to begin that run from a better position.

The Titans certainly have the cattle, even if they are ageing a little, so I don’t exactly know where the inconsistency comes from: whether it’s player-coach tension, preparation, their halves breezing in and of form, or something else.

Hopefully Henry can have a stabilising effect here, but the best thing to happen for them is to lose Jamal Idris. It’s also the best thing to happen to Idris, by the way! The Titans couldn’t afford to put all their chips on the Taylor/Idris roulette wheel – two massive humans with talent to burn, but an equally weak work rate.

For a team with the likes of Taylor, Kelly, Sezer, Takaraingi, Zillman, Blair, James, Myles … Goodness, I don’t even need to finish that … You get the idea.

8th: Warriors. As we saw last year, the Warriors can beat anyone, anytime, with a rare breed of attacking rugby league – except when the pressure is on.

They really should have made the finals last year, but stumbled inexplicably when the finish line was in sight, and their draw was the most favorable of all contenders. For Shaun Johnson, his brilliance seems to be missing in the pressure games, which is what the finals are, and coach Elliott is yet to win one himself. At some point, you have to weigh the old adage that the coach isn’t responsible for game day performance, with the idea that the opposition coach is ‘out-gaming’ him.

Nevertheless, the Warriors have enough thrust in their attack to account for most teams … When their minds are in the job. This is coach Elliot’s biggest challenge.

I’m optimistic their season will be better than their 2013 given the addition of high calibre players such as Tomkins and Bukuya, who looks like a young Anthony Tupou (and that’s a major rap as far as I’m concerned). The 2014 draw is also favourable, so if they can capitalise, they could do much better than eighth.

7th: Panthers. There were times last year where I was completely perplexed by the Panthers. Their start to 2013 was poor, then they had a run of terrific, pulsating performances that oozed promise, then there were games where they completely lost their way.

I expect the Panthers to play a heavily forward-centric, heavily-structured game plan this year as they become more comfortable with Ivan Cleary. It will almost be the NRL version of 10-man rugby (something Sam Burgess is about to discover), and is a game plan that Jamie Soward thrives on as evidenced by his time at the Dragons under Wayne Bennett (which I’m sure reminds Ben Ikin of of a story …).

Behind a formidable forward pack, the magnificent Segeyaro and Peachey should prove to be excitement machines.

Depending upon whether Jamal Idris is pumping out Jason Darullo’s ‘Trumpets’ in a sickly soprano out wide or is fit & focused for a change, the backline with flyers in the back three in particular could prove a handful for opposition teams.

The only thing stopping me predicting a higher finish is a concern about creativity. It’s not clear how the halves will gel together, and Soward will be forced into more of a running game (two ‘distributors’ won’t cut it). Further, the forwards are big, hard-working foot soldiers, but aren’t well known for ball play.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest the Panthers will have one of the highest kick/try percentages…

JARMEL: WHOA!

In all seriousness, that is my major concern with the Panthers — creativity. They have Buckley’s chance of putting together an acrostic poem from the word “TRY”, let alone scoring one that won’t come from a kick.

Their forwards are fine, and I love the addition of Elijah Taylor, but again there isn’t much in the way of a “game breaker” outside Idris.

Personally I think there’s more creativity in the Dogs, and at least Reynolds has a dig at both running and kicking with some imagination.

Interesting to see that everyone has picked the Sharks to at least finish sixth despite a peptide-shaped cloud hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles…

Very interesting.

Jake Jarmel

Mitch 180

Ryan Heighway

Dr NRL

Spoon

Tigers

Raiders

Tigers

Tigers

15

Eels

Dragons

Broncos

Dragons

14

Dragons

Tigers

Bulldogs

Eels

13

Raiders

Eels

Panthers

Broncos

12

Broncos

Bulldogs

Eels

Knights

11

Sharks

Broncos

Raiders

Raiders

10

Panthers

Knights

Dragons

Bulldogs

9

Titans

Panthers

Knights

Titans

8

Knights

Warriors

Cowboys

Warriors

7

Bulldogs

Titans

Titans

Panthers

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s