The 2013 NRL season is set to kick-off with what should be an incredible clash between Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs and I can’t wait. I’m expecting big things from both these sides in 2013 and how they go on Thursday night will be a good indicator of where they stand. Here’s my take on how all the NRL clubs look heading into another exciting year of footy.
Brisbane Broncos: The Broncos struggled a bit last year, especially on the road and the pressure this season will be right on new signing Scott Prince and his halves combination with Peter Wallace. Brisbane’s strength is going to be in the back-row where they have Matt Gillett and Alex Glenn lining up together, both devastating runners around the rucks and on the fringes. The Broncos’ success will also depend largely on centre Justin Hodges and whether he can stay fit the whole year – without him they lose that extra bit of class out wide and come back to the field.
Canberra Raiders: The Raiders surprised a lot of people last year and I see them having a really strong 2013. If you look at all their star players you’ll see they’re all in the 24-28 years-of-age bracket where a player should be at his peak. Terry Campese’s fitness will play a large part in how the Raiders go this year with his added class in the halves a big bonus. He’ll compliment Josh McCrone who I have huge wraps on as a halfback with a big representative future ahead of him. They have a massive pack with Josh Papalli causing havoc with the ball.
Canterbury Bulldogs: Des Hasler did an incredible job taking the Bulldogs to the grand final in his first year at the club and he has a big challenge on his hands early in 2013. Star fullback Ben Barba is out indefinitely and Sam Kasiano and James Graham will miss the early games as well. Much of the attacking spark goes out of the team with those three players and the Bulldogs could struggle. But once they’re back, with Dessy steering the ship, grand final experience under their belts and wrecking ball Tony Williams in the side, they’ll be very hard to beat. Keep an eye out for young prop David Klemmer who has a big future in the game.
Cronulla Sharks: The Sharks will have another strong year on the back of a solid 2012 and with some of the best recruitment in the competition. On paper they have an extremely strong and aggressive pack with Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington joining Paul Gallen in the Shire. Todd Carney’s fitness will play a major role in how the Sharks go in 2013. I worry about how much potency they’ve got out wide, where new signings Beau Ryan, Michael Gordan and Jonathan Wright could help. There is a lot of positive buzz in the Shire over how the Sharks will go this year.
Gold Coast Titans: The Titans have to settle on a new halves combination following the loss of Scott Prince and I know they have a lot of faith in the abilities of Aidan Sezer. He will have a lot of pressure on him and how he handles that could make or break their season. It will be interesting to see how big Dave Taylor settles in on the Gold Coast. Taylor brings with him a lot of big game experience and on his day we’ve seen that he can be just about unstoppable. I love Jamal Idris, he’s talking up his fitness again ahead of the season and I hope he is back to his best and can stay focussed because he is one of the game’s great entertainers.
Manly Sea Eagles: There have been a few personnel changes at Manly ahead of 2013, but the key thing is they have retained the core group of players who have been there for several successful seasons. If they can keep the big guns on the field for most of the year, they’ll be tough to beat. Fullback Brett Stewart is looking particularly sharp at training and if he can remain injury free, the Sea Eagles will be right up there amongst it again.
Melbourne Storm: The Storm will be around at the pointy end of the season once again, they always are. It’s not too difficult to work out why – they have some of the best players and the best coach in the game. Craig Bellamy will be working his magic to blend his new recruits in and have them playing out of their skins to support the big three of Slater, Cronk and Smith. Brett Finch returns to the club after a stint in England and he will add great experience and depth to the halves or the dummy-half role whenever injury or State of Origin duty takes the stars away.
New Zealand Warriors: The Warriors continue to be the great unknown of the competition. Matt Elliott takes over as coach this year and he has some great players to work with. Thomas Leuluai will prove to be a great buy and his presence will give halfback Shaun Johnson the freedom he needs to perform at his best. The Warriors have a fearsome pack with Ben Matulino one of the best props in the game at the moment. On their day they are capable of tearing any side apart, Elliott just has to find some long-missing consistency if they are to be a threat come the end of the season.
Newcastle Knights: The Knights will be one of the big improvers in 2013, with coach Wayne Bennett already feeling more confident about his team’s chances. The addition of Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott to the pack will make a big difference to how the side performs. Bennett has to sort out how the spine of his side will operate with Danny Buderus, Kurt Gidley, Jarrod Mullen and Darius Boyd needing to combine well to lift the Knights to the next level.
North Queensland Cowboys: I think the Cowboys are the team to beat in 2013. They have the Australia props in Matt Scott and James Tamou leading the way and two of the most exciting second-row prospects in the game in Tariq Simms and Jason Taumalolo. The Cowboys have strike weapons across the park and can cut through the toughest defences thanks largely to their general Johnathan Thurston. If Thurston can play most games this season, going on his All Stars form, I can see the Cowboys holding up the trophy on grand final day.
Parramatta Eels: It’s going to take new coach Ricky Stuart a few years to turn the Eels around. They will be better than last year and under Stuart their general fitness and defence will improve. Parramatta’s 2013 fortunes will depend on how they start the season. A few early wins will boost their belief in Stuart’s coaching style and see a rise in player confidence. Jarryd Hayne needs to find his 2009 form where his running game was the best in the competition and carried the Eels to victory in many games.
Penrith Panthers: The Panthers are a club in the middle of a major rebuilding process. They have recruited well but they needed to, considering some of the talent which left the foot of the mountains at the end of last season. They are in a similar position to Parramatta where their 2013 fortunes will depend on how they start the season. Once they start to gel as a side we could see great improvement from them later in the year.
St George Illawarra Dragons: I am really worried about the Dragons this year. History shows you can’t lose experienced players of the quality of both Ben Hornby and Dean Young and not struggle. They will be blooding a lot of young blokes this season but I really worry about the depth in their halves. Jamie Soward is going to have to be at his running best and avoid injury if the Dragons are going to have any chance.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: If the Cowboys don’t win the premiership this year it could be because the Bunnies beat them to it. With Greg Inglis playing like he’s from another planet, behind a huge, mobile pack, the Rabbitohs are set for another great year. Halfback Josh Reynolds has bulked up and should have no trouble with the dreaded second-year syndrome. Former Bronco Ben Te’o is a great buy who is set to impress in a team which will be really hard to beat.
Sydney Roosters: The Roosters have been in sensational trial form without having to use trump signing Sonny Bill Williams. The combination between halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney is looking good already and with Michael Jennings out wide they have an extra attacking weapon. Sonny Bill will take half a dozen or so games before he reaches full rugby league match fitness, but once he does he could be devastating.
Wests Tigers: The Tigers are playing under a new coach for the first time in a long while and it will be interesting to see how they go. Benji Marshall is key to the Tigers of course and he has to continue to make the most of his running game. How Braith Anasta handles his new role with a new club will be interesting to watch. They have been hard to read so far based on trial form, but we should have a much better idea of how the Tigers will go after their first round clash with Newcastle.
NRL Premiers: North Queensland Cowboys
Dally M Medal winner: Greg Inglis
Young player to watch: David Klemmer – Bulldogs
State of Origin series: New South Wales – please.