PREVIEW (1/2): The Top Six ft. @ItsMitchell180, @Heighway_, @dr_nrl and @26Rounds

We’ve spent three Printcasts and around 12,000 words discussing clubs that aren’t really in the hunt; would you really expect us to use fewer words when discussing the top six?

Back again are messrs Mitch 180 (@ItsMitchell180), Ryan Heighway (@Heighway_) and the Guru, Dr NRL (@dr_nrl) to discuss the only teams that ultimately will really matter this year: the contenders. The Top Six.

As Sam Jackson once told an old guy at a park: hold onto your butts.

JARMEL:

6th: Warriors. Tomkins and Johnson should be able to bump them up into the eight alone, and towards the end of the year the kind of figured out how to travel — but leave it to Matt Elliott to take so long to figure out living in New Zealand could lead to some travel issues over the ditch. If the gauge of a coach’s ability was based on brilliant quotes in post-game interviews, Elliott would be the equivalent of Wayne Bennett — he once remarked about statistics that they are “like mini-skirts: they show a lot but hide the best bits”.

I guess a bit like Elliott’s teams.

Their forward pack is huge and skilled, but a lot rides on Mateo: if he steps back up this year then sixth spot could be too low. If he continues sliding, sixth might be generous.

5th: Storm. They are coming off the RLWC and another finals campaign, while their big three is beginning to struggle with injury (Slater’s knee especially).

You can never count out the Bellamy boys though, and as long as they have Cam Smith — for at least this year — they should contend although they are slightly worse off in my opinion — even accounting for the loss of Ryles and expected improvement from Bromwich and Tohu Harris.

But they could be sustained by the outrage caused by SBW’s “outrageous” backflip which forced Harris out of the World Cup. So who knows: maybe they’ll pull another flying V routine and rally that way:

Source: The Australian.

4th: Sea Eagles. Not a bad place to be, and their halves are just magnificent. But they will get the annual Brett Stewart injury to set them back a bit, while their depth is a little tested after losing Kite, Rose et al.

Their halves will have them contending though, and they should fire a lot closer to the finals as per usual. But after what I saw of them in the 4-0 battle in round one of the finals last year, I will never, EVER write this team off. Just too proud a club.

3rd: Cowboys. I like that Paul Green is already instilling some toughness into the defence, and they still have Thurston. They’ll lack at fullback, most definitely, but their forward pack can be monstrous and we could — nay, SHOULD — get a breakout season from Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo.

They worry me the most as a Roosters fan because Green will give them the straight dope on their styles, strengths and weaknesses. But they could easily finish well down the table once again: they’ve promised so much so far in the Thurston era but delivered so little. Regardless, they should make a fortress up north out of 1300SMILES Stadium. Even if it’s the least intimidating name for a fortress ever.

2nd: Bunnies. The loss of Keary stings I’m sure, and I don’t understand why they don’t just move Sutton back there in his absence. Say what you want about him, but with him and Adam Reynolds at the scrumbase they finished second last year.

They’ve lost a bit of depth, but the Burgii will keep them in then hunt as will Greg Inglis. If he stays healthy, they could be the biggest threat to the Roosters. But they have a heckuva monkey on that back, huh? a 43-year-old monkey. Must hurt.

1st: Roosters. I’ve discussed this at length in my season preview, but they have just too much class across the park. They are no certainties in life except for death, taxes and Taylor Swift writing shitty heartbreak songs, but I struggle to think of a team that is better placed to win it in 2014 than the Chooks.

Over to you, lads.

MITCHELL:6th: Sharks. Depending on what happens with the ASADA saga and Flanagan shenanigans, I think they’ll still be pretty stable. All hopes are on Carney’s shoulders in attack, though, and it’s on Fifita to lead the pack.Who knows how Grothe will go and if he even makes the side, but if Ayshford pulls his finger out he could be a good buy.Robson did a solid job last year but I doubt he’ll lead them deep into the finals.5th: Storm. Not a disaster, by any stretch, but a mini-decline should be expected. Ben Hampton has the six this year and has a big job ahead of him.

Source: Daily Telegraph.

(Personally I would have liked to have seen Cody Walker get first crack at the vacant five-eighth spot, but I digress.)

There’s no shortage of wing and centre options even with Duffie going down again. The forward pack needs to step up and I’m looking forward to seeing how a reportedly-in-shape George Rose goes off the bench.

With the Big Three and Bellamy still there they’re always a shot, but as a Storm fan I just hope they have done a bit of work in freshening up their stale attack, which was dire towards the end of last year.

4th: Cowboys. No conspiracy from me, they are on the incline with a new coach and confidence through the roof after the nines. Thurston and the number 7 seem to have a good chemistry, Morgan at fullback will be interesting with Coote gone. Feldt and Taumalolo will be entertaining.

3rd: Souths. Dylan Walker at five-eighth? I suspect we’ll still see Sutton at second receiver much of the time until Keary comes back.

They have the forwards, but if Tuqiri or Reddy play more than three games each then other clubs will be happy to say the least. Inglis had a quiet finals series, but I doubt he’ll be that quiet again.

2nd: Manly. They have the best spine in the comp, but Steve Matai (injuries) and The Wolfman (GF shocker) are real backline concerns.

Their depth in forwards is perhaps a concern as well, but it’s hard to doubt them after coming so close last year.

1st: Roosters. Scary! Only the curse of repeating can stop them, or a season-ending injury to Pearce or Maloney.

Mini..Tupou…RTS…Jennings…yikes!

I thought Sam Moa was buy of 2013 (pick yourselves off the floor) and he should continue that form. It’s also Sonny Bill’s last year, while JWH was massive and the Friend/Mortimer hooker rotation was vital…

Did I already say yikes?

JARMEL: I liked what I saw of Hampton but not sure if he’ll hold a candle to Widdop.

Bit high for the Sharks, Mitch, in my humblest of opinions. Carney’s hamstrings are made of tissue paper, and they’re apparently going to depend on Morris as the backup halfback — and, when he’s not there, at hooker. My god, how is it that JOHN MORRIS well get to 300 games?

David Williams ruptured his ACL, no? Either way, his confidence was unbelieveably shot, so maybe having Hiku out on the wing at Manly could be seen as a plus.

I like what you did there too, Pulling a Ginnane and refusing to name the Cowboys’ “Number 7”. Props.

MITCH: If Carney goes down Sharks are gone, big time. Oh, and remember the time John Morris was going to be the Tigers’ Cooper Cronk?!?!

Widdop did a job, but a lot of it was limited to the left edge. I was sad to see him go, but the reason why Storm will be okay in his absence and and the Dragons will be in trouble is the same: he hasn’t faced a game without the Big Three for anything more than a week at a time.

Hiku be next in line for D-Will’s spot, for sure, and he’ll be protected with Lyon next to him.

And I REFUSE to say that name!

DOCTOR: It looks like Mitch & I are in ‘broad’ agreement with our Top 6. It’s either a #crisis, or a case of great minds thinking alike.

That said, Jake’s sixth placing for the Warriors is a good one and highly defendable. I had them eighth, and would have had them in the Top Four had I been confident what I would get from them in a regular basis.

Here’s how I see it shaping up…

6th: Sharks. If ASADA couldn’t break them down last year, then I don’t see it happening in 2014, led by a group of heads that are harder to crack than a female’s mood code. Beginning with Gallen, and traversing the spectrum of equine-like features that feature Heighington, Fifita, Gibbs, Take-it-easy Tagatese, and the former England keeper, Matt Prior, here is a group of heads that have given an awful lot to rugby league … yet received little in return.

Their resolve cannot be doubted, however, and a successful year seems as predictable as a kebab after Carmen’s. Or a shag (in either order).

I agree that they rely a little too heavily on Todd Carney for inspiration, and that you are more likely to see a tattoo on his body than watch him make a tackle. His running game was off last year, and whether he continues to nurse Achilles and hamstring problems or something else, he needs to find another gear to take the Sharks to greater heights.

Source: Zimbio.

Ayshford is a good buy for mine. He has a horse sense about him to go with the appearance of his forwards, and is dependable with under rated ball-playing ability.

5th: Rabbitohs. I’m not convinced that Sam Burgess finishes the season at Redfern. Or is that Woolloomooloo? Or Entertainment Quarter? I’m just not sure what the Bunnies are standing for right now, and I don’t think I’m alone. The ‘heartland’ normally associated with Souths (which differs if you talk to Roosters fans!) is incongruous with the ownership structure that includes a Hollywood actor, a very rich businessman, and an even richer Eastern Suburbs tycoon who won’t stop until he has both hands in the pockets of rugby league fans.

Burgess expressed a desire to play World Cup rugby, and without a solid grounding in the sport, he will struggle to be a bit player in the 2015 campaign. I can’t see this ending well, and imagine there will be repercussions that affect team harmony throughout the year. I could be wrong…

That said, the last team to lose consecutive Major Preliminary Finals was the Dragons, who followed up those failures by falling to 13th in 2007. I see a similar pattern (albeit not as dramatic) emerging this year, compounded by an untested halves pairing that has injury problems, and may just have a question mark in defence. The outside backs (Inglis aside) will be tested against the true speedsters in the game, and it will be left to the forwards to do the heavy lifting.

4th: Storm. I struggled to have them in the Top Four, and see them as almost interchangeable with the Rabbitohs. The Big Three are ageing, and Slater in particular has lost a significant amount of ‘pizazz’. I see his impact being down on 2013, which was already an inferior performance to 2012.

It’s always dangerous writing off champions, or champion teams, but I believe we’ve seen the best of the Storm, whose depth is (currently) questionable. A single injury to any one of the Big Three, or Chambers, O’Neill or Hoffman (to a lesser degree) would be devastating.

Smith will be as reliable as always, but the real question mark surrounds the halves. Cronk will almost certainly make way for DCE as the Australian number seven, a move I thought might have been made last year (and defendable at that). He might struggle to hold the pairing together unless the Storm’s number six can step up, whether it’s Hampton, Mann or another.

The forward pack is very Manly-like in terms of size and ruggedness (and not just because George Rose’s slim-line twin plays for the Storm), along with some utility value, though without an abundance of ball-playing skill. Round one against Manly should be a belter, but a lot is going to be asked of the pack this year and we’ll see if they can hold the better teams.

3rd: Cowboys. After picking this team full of abundant talent to finish second last year, and have them embarrass me, themselves, their fans, the GAME OF RUGBY LEAGUE … Ahem, anyway, I can’t do it again, but they are good enough (or am I dumb enough?) for third.

A pack that is difficult to get on top of paves the way for the Cowboys halves to create space and points. Thurston in particular will be keen to make up for a sub-par (NRL) season in 2013, and he has an abundance of youth and speed (and Tate) to take advantage of it.

2nd: Manly. At the risk of falling for ‘recency bias’, the top two teams are last year’s Grand Finalists. Manly are irrepressible, they never give up, and are a team of thoroughbred footballers who love nothing more than to compete hard.

I see second as very much the best result they can achieve, as good and tenacious as they are. They have lost some size and experience in the engine room, but King returns to partner Lawrence, who is just awesome, and Josh Starling joins the club with a mullet haircut that suggests he is always ready for a scrap. Ballin is hardly the same quality as other hookers in the top eight — even if he is worth his weight in gold in defence, which cannot be underestimated.

All up, the forward pack has a unique blend of size and skill and mobility, with special mentions for Watmough and Symonds. This enables them to play a fast game that complements a scintillating backline that can strike like a cobra from anywhere, and do do repeatedly.

1st: Roosters. The Roosters are like some of the fringe teams in the sense their roster hasn’t really changed. Where they differ is the quality of that roster.

This time last year they were an unknown quantity, severely underdone as a ‘unit’, and fielding the re-emergence of an equally hesitant SBW (and we know how that turned out, on and off the field). They ended the season with an identical roster, but as a markedly different team, and this is the team they start with in 2014.

The great benefit the Roosters have is that they are a versatile team. They are tough where it counts and play the game with a stoic pride, but they are not as reliant on the ‘spine’ in the same way other teams in the competition are. It makes them more difficult to defend against.

There are several teams that can boast the best in the business in any one (or more) of the spine positions. The Roosters don’t, yet still have them all covered more than adequately, and have enough strike power across the park to keep other teams honest.

The back line is a mix of mesmerising speed and footwork and excellent defence, complementing the middle of the park which is as tight as a drum in defence, and it’s always asking questions in attack. Add Remi Casty’s footwork and size to the mix, and anything’s possible.

The other major benefit as I see it is that there is clearly room to improve. Skill levels let the Roosters down at times, whether handling or drawing and passing. They almost seemed to allow as many tries to go begging as they scored last year, and getting these right could prove quite ominous.

The major risks to going ‘back-to-back’ are complacency and hunger (having won the title last year), and the obscene penalty counts against them, which threatened to derail their season.

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