The 2008 NRL season is headed towards a heavy duty face-off for the minor premiership, top 4 and top 8 with the benchmark to get into the finals set to increase in 2008.
After Brisbane only just squeezed into the top 8 with just 11 wins and 24 points in the 2007 NRL year, John Chelsea predicts NRL teams this year will require at around 13 wins and possibly 30 competition points to confirm a berth in the NRL finals in 2008.
In 2007 when Melbourne and Manly had surged six points clear of the rest of the NRL by the halfway mark of the season, in what resulted in a 2-horse race for the trophy, 2008 is looking far more open.
The leading 5 clubs are sharing the NRL ladder lead on 18 competition points and the top 11 clubs are only 2 wins away.
The ups and downs of the 2008 NRL season have a nightmare for commentators, tipsters or punters, but the as we see it for the final 13 rounds – Melbourne are expected to come home strong to a 3rd minor premiership with an hot battle for the remaining places in the finals as the field separates under end-of-season pressure and returning Origin stars.
1. MANLY SEA EAGLES (18 points)
Manly have snuck under the radar to reach the ladder lead with halfback Matt Orford in sublime touch to lead the Dally M medal count. The forwards pack a decent punch and can match most in the NRL. But if Orford gets injured the Sea Eagles’ season could easily fall apart. Should be thereabouts at the end but questionable if they have enough attacking options to go all the way.
Predicted finish: 2nd (36 pts)
2. MELBOURNE STORM (18 pts)
Onerous Origin commitments have cost Melbourne two games with a third loss likely before Origin III. But when all are on deck the Storm remain the benchmark. Billy Slater is enjoying his finest season and unless injury rips through the squad late in the year it is hard to imagine they won’t be at ANZ Stadium on grand final day.
Predicted finish: Minor Premier (40 pts)
3. SYDNEY ROOSTERS (18 points)
The big improvers in 2008 under coach Brad Fittler but last week’s 42-0 drubbing from Manly shows there is a lot of improvement left in the glamour boys. Forward depth is a strong point, Braith Anasta is in fine touch and their rep stars can cope with big expectations. But can young halfback Mitchell Pearce handle the heat of finals football?
Predicted finish: 3rd (36 pts)
4. GOLD COAST TITANS (18 points)
Bolted out of the gates and remain undefeated at home, but form away from the Gold Coast is a weakness and could ultimately cost them a valuable top four finish. Halfback Scott Prince is in white-hot form while Anthony Laffranchi and Luke Bailey lead a committed forward pack. Their premiership hopes rest on Prince seeing out the year and finding a way to win on the road.
Predicted finish: 6th (32 pts)
5. CRONULLA SHARKS (18 points)
Claimed some big scalps early in the season but have lost other games they should have won and their attack remains coach Ricky Stuart’s major concern. Halfback Brett Kimmorley is playing some superb footy and if Origin stars Greg Bird and Paul Gallen hit stride the Sharks can mount a challenge. Have hit the wall around this time in previous years, do they have the legs to keep going?
Predicted finish: 5th (36 pts)
6. BRISBANE BRONCOS (16 points)
Have shown they don’t need Darren Lockyer to be competitive, but if he finds full fitness the Broncos will become Melbourne’s biggest threat for the title. With a young, hard-working forward pack and a slick backline, Brisbane are genuine threats to send coach Wayne Bennett out with his seventh premiership. Have a good run to the finals which should secure them top four finish.
Predicted finish: 4th (36 pts)
7. WESTS TIGERS (16 points)
With stars Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah back to full fitness the Tigers could mount a 2005-like charge to the finals. Scoring points is never a problem, but defensive intensity remains a concern and coach Tim Sheens will need to push the right buttons to get the desired results. A tough final month of the regular season could decide if they continue on in September.
Predicted finish: 7th (30 pts)
8. PENRITH PANTHERS (16 points)
The 2007 wooden spooners overcame a horrific start to quietly sneak up the ladder, but questions still remain as to whether they can match it with the top teams. Utility Luke Lewis is doing a good job at halfback, but does he have what it takes to lead a side to the finals? No more byes and yet to face the top two teams, the run home for Penrith looks much harder than the first half of 2008.
Predicted finish: 10th (24 pts)
9. ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS (14 points)
Won their last four and beaten each of the current top four teams but two of those wins were gimmes against sides missing Origin stars. Nathan Brown has settled on his halves and if Mark Gasnier fires the larrikin coach might just depart with a finals appearance. But away matches to Gold Coast, Melbourne, Brisbane and Roosters await and life is going to get a lot harder from here on in.
Predicted finish: 9th (28 pts)
10. NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS (14 points)
Newcastle have claimed some big scalps this year, beating three of the top four, but have stumbled against lowly opposition. Finals hopes rest on Danny Buderus and Kurt Gidley remaining injury-free. The next few weeks will be a test with no bye reprieve as Buderus juggles Origin and club duties. Tough run home too, with away trips to Canberra, Gold Coast and Brisbane and a visit from the Storm.
Predicted finish: 12th (22 pts)
11. PARRAMATTA EELS (14 points)
The sleeping giants of the NRL, but they’re running out of time to wake up. Yet to put together a full 80 minutes of good football but every club is wary of the Eels and coach Michael Hagan’s ability to give the title a shake in 2008. Next month is crucial with four games against top eight sides. But run home from here is outstanding with one trip to Newcastle their only venture out of Sydney.
Predicted finish: 8th (30 pts)
12. CANBERRA RAIDERS (12 points)
Three season-ending knee injuries to key players are just the tip of Canberra’s injury crisis. The enforced changes have wrecked Canberra’s attack and scoring points is hard work. Winning on the road remains a serious problem and with trips to Melbourne, Brisbane and Townsville to come the battle only gets harder. Could finish strongly with final four games against sides outside the top eight.
Predicted finish: 13th (22 pts)
13. NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS (12 points)
Major disappointment so far with form in Australia as abysmal as their turnstile defence. Losing fullback Wade McKinnon for the year before kick off hasn’t helped, but that doesn’t explain their defensive shortcomings. They had the fifth best defence in 2007 and are now a distant last. Have six more trips across the Tasman so winning at home alone will not be enough to make the finals.
Predicted finish: 11th (24 pts)
14. BULLDOGS (10 points)
Started surprisingly well but have lost five of their past six as injuries expose the lack of depth after offseason departures. The drama off the field, with superstar Sonny Bill Williams in dispute with club hierarchy, dominated headlines and their performances on the field suffered. With nine key injuries it’s time to look ahead to 2009.
Predicted finish: 14th (20 pts)
15. NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS (8 points)
The biggest disappointments of 2008 with just three wins, the Cowboys have already seen coach Graham Murray stand down. Have lost six straight and injury concerns are exacerbated by discipline issues as lengthy suspensions further deplete the Cowboys. Halfback Johnathan Thurston has yet to fire, but getting North Queensland to the finals from here looks beyond even one of the world’s best players.
Predicted finish: 15th (18 pts)
16. SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS (6 points)
The Hollywood fairytale is well and truly over at South Sydney but the drama remains. Their two wins were thrillers, but everything else has been a mixture of comedy and horror. Losing halfback saviour Craig Wing just eight minutes into the season didn’t help and six players have since had a crack in the No.7 jersey. Finals are near-impossible and 2009 can not come around quick enough.
Predicted finish: Last (14 pts)