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Can Penrith prove critics wrong?

Penrith Panthers 2008 NRL Season As Penrith find themselves deep in a rebuilding phase, the crux of the Panthers 2008 NRL campaign lies in the hands of a few talented local products.

Naturally plenty of pressure will be applied to key off-season buys; Petero Civoniceva and Adam Woolnough and these two big units should go a long way to improving the defensive centre field problems of 2007.

Panthers coach Matt Elliott should also look to rookies Jarrod Sammut, Michael Jennings, Geoff Daniela and ex-Raiders half Josh McCrone to provide the spark the Panthers need in other areas to get them back to into the winners circle again.

If Penrith are to be serious finals contenders this time round, they will need to work hard in the areas of attitude, fitness and most importantly discipline. Too many times last year Penrith looked to be well off the NRL pace in terms of conditioning, with the Panthers losing several tight games after surrendering big leads. Early pre-season drills involving NRL referee’s at Panthers training was a step in the right direction for the mountain men as they try and curb their misbehavior problems on field.

Coach Elliott will be hoping that a more focused attitude from his squad will go a long way to improving their miserly 8 wins last year. Realistically though, the Panthers may struggle with depth this season should injuries or suspension bite them. It’s probably for this reason that most punters have penciled the Panthers in for a lower ladder position come end of season.

Advantages:

Penrith have an impressive array of younger talent coming through their junior sides, with players like Sammut, Jennings and Michael Gordon all making their marks last year. The Panthers do possess that try scoring potential from their outside backs and they should get plenty of chances to shine given the creative brand of footy that the Puletua brothers and others provide up front.

Penrith will have no problems in scoring tries, but they will have to stiffen their goalline defence if they hope to move up the ladder in season ’08. The additions of Civoniceva and Woolnough should go along way to solving that dilemma, as will the return of fullback Rhys Wesser from a lengthy injury spell.

Concerns:

With former halfback and favourite son Craig Gower relocating to French rugby and potential superstar Peter Wallace signing with the Broncos, it has left a massive hole in the Panthers halves pairing for this year. Former centre Luke Lewis steps into the unfamiliar role of five-eight, while enigmatic half Joe Williams gets first shot at the number seven jersey after two inconsistent years at Souths. The Panthers have seemingly the weakest halves pairing in the competition, with the most troublesome sign for coach Elliott is the lack of backup in the key playmaking positions.

2008 Likely NRL Starting Side:

1- Rhys Wesser
2- Luke Rooney
3- Michael Jennings
4- Brad Tighe
5- Michael Gordon
6- Luke Lewis
7- Joe Williams
8- Adam Woolnough
9- Luke Priddis
10- Petero Civoniceva
11- Tony Puletua
12- Frank Pritchard
13- Trent Waterhouse

14- Paul Aiton
15- Frank Puletua
16- Nathan Smith
17– Tim Grant

Player Acquisitions and Departures:

Acquisitions:

Petero Civoniceva (Brisbane), Joe Williams (South Sydney), Adam Woolnough (Newcastle), Brad Tighe (Newcastle), Josh McCrone (Canberra)

Departures:

Joel Clinton and Peter Wallace (Brisbane), Craig Gower (French rugby union), Nick Youngquest (Wests Tigers), Bryan Norrie (Cronulla), Matthew Cross (Gold Coast), Brett Firman (released)

Cameron Smith won’t miss Round 1

There were doubts over Cameron Smith starting in the Melbourne Storm lineup for Round 1, with his first child yet to be born and due any day. However, Storm fans can rest easy now – as the potent hooker is now a proud dad and ready to take his position on the field for Monday Night Football against the NZ Warriors.

His little girl, Jada Grace Smith was born at 1:54pm weighing in at an even eight pounds and both mother and daughter are fine and healthy.

 

“I was getting a bit worried there because the baby was two days overdue,” said Cameron Smith.

 

“We thought we were going to have to induce the baby, but luckily Barb went into labour this morning.

 

“Barb and Jada are both doing really well, and I’m just so glad the wait is finally over.

 

“It’s a great relief she had the baby before the game on Monday night otherwise I might have had another tough decision to make about whether I played or not.”

 .

 

Born at 1:54pm, the little girl weighed in at an even eight pounds and both mother and daughter are fine and healthy.

 

“I was getting a bit worried there because the baby was two days overdue,” said Smith.

 

“We thought we were going to have to induce the baby, but luckily Barb went into labour this morning.

 

“Barb and Jada are both doing really well, and I’m just so glad the wait is finally over.

 

“It’s a great relief she had the baby before the game on Monday night otherwise I might have had another tough decision to make about whether I played or not.”

Manly Sea Eagles to face their demons

Manly Sea Eagles 2008 NRLThere has been little if any talk of the Manly Sea Eagles during the NRL off-season. Seemingly flying under the media spotlight, as the Bulldogs had their boardroom fights and the Roosters poached their players and the dramatic headlines continued as the Eels dodged bullets in Kings Cross; yet the Eagles were left to quietly lick their Grand Final wounds from 2007 in relative peace.

As struggling clubs and coaches face up to the pressure of the season start; the likes of Matt Elliott and the Panthers ready to try and erase the memory of 2007, or Nathan Brown trying to get his team a premiership in what could be his final year at the helm or maybe Brian Smith and his catastrophe up in Newcastle – still no talk of Manly.

Des Hasler and the boys must be secretly happy about not having to answer too many questions about their build-up or new look side for 2008.

In reality, Manly face more pressure than most as they try to keep their winning ways intact with their Round 1 clash with Cronulla at Brookvale a stern early test. Fortunately for the Sea Eagles it’s a home game and the opposition side in the Sharks have been woeful in their trial form – so it could be the small advantage that the Sea Eagles need to get going.

For Manly, losing the Grand Final by such a heft margin was hard enough – but they then had to watch as prominent players left the club to join the UK Super League. Of most importance is the loss of Michael Monaghan, so often a game breaker for them – but talent in Travis Burns and Chris Hicks will also be sorely missed. Even 3 to 4 player changes can hurt a club and force them to lose their winning cohesion and habit.

We saw something similar at Penrith in the aftermath of their big Grand Final win in 2003. As they started losing only a few players such as Scott Sattler, Joe Galuvao and Paul Whatuira the cracks started to appear. While all strong players, these guys weren’t considered game breakers and many thought the Panthers machine would roll on – however, this proved far from true.

This is the syndrome that the Manly Sea Eagles face and getting a confident early start to the 2008 NRL season is critical to their chances more than other teams.

Jamie Lyon continues to find his feet at pivot and will take time to gel with Matt Orford, the gap between the Super League and the NRL was obvious for Lyon – with the former star struggling to reach the dominance of his early NRL career. The same concerns could possibly be held for David Vaealiki another former Parramatta Eel who joins the Manly Sea Eagles for 2008 after a stint in the UK Super League competition.

Des Hasler has always been a coach keen on fitness and there is no doubt the Sea Eagles will be physically prepared well and will be at premium fitness for this weekends match. But for the Grand Final losers of 2007, it shouldn’t be a cakewalk. The Sharks were underachievers last year and will be desperate for a strong early win and Ricky Stuart will be sure to target Brett Stewart who returns from that severe head knock in the GF and recent knee surgery in the off-season along with new boys David Vaealiki and Michael Bani who are new additions to the Sea Eagles backline.

Peter Roy


Riley Brown primed for Roosters debut

Riley Brown Sydney Roosters NRL 2008A grand final win is something that former Knight Riley Brown is hopeful for in the future, but for the time being the young utility is focused on a positive start to the season, earning a run on spot for the Roosters at hooker. Walking away from the Newcastle Knights last season after the Brian Smith clean-out, Brown is now man ready to start again.

The 23-year-old Queenslander has impressed his coach, Brad Fittler in pre-season training and shown form in the trial matches strong enough to earn him a spot in the starting team for Friday night’s NRL season opener against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.

Brown came to the Roosters from Newcastle to fill the gap left following the departure of Craig Wing and Heath L’Estrange from the club, and Fittler could not be happier with the hooker’s attitude.

“Riley was one of the only players not to miss a session in pre-season,” Fittler said. “He’s in the starting team because he’s got the spot and once you’ve got the spot people have to get it off you.”

“He’s a pleasure to coach, he comes with the same attitude every day. He’s unassuming and just goes about his business, and it was this attitude that has got him a jumper for the first game.”

“He gets to play hooker and he’s done a fair bit of work over the pre-season so we’ll see how he goes,” he said.

Brown is pleased to be in the run-on side for his debut game for his new club and is especially excited to be playing in the local derby.

“I’m absolutely pumped for it,” Brown said. “Friday’s game against the Rabbitohs is a big match and one I’m looking forward to.”

“I trained hard in pre-season and it’s obviously paid off. I try hard all the time so it’s good to get in the team,” he said.

“I’m not nervous yet but I’m sure as kick-off gets closer it’ll start to kick in.”

Tallis: Broncos can make Top 4

Gordon Tallis Brisbane Broncos 2008The new look Brisbane Broncos forward pack will be under more pressure than ever as they try to create a successful new engine room at the club that has lost several familiar faces there in recent times.As new club signings Ben Hannant, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker all speak of stepping up to take up the slack, after Petero Civoniceva has left Brisbane along with the likes of Dane Carlaw, Brad Thorn and only a season before; Shane Webcke.

The talk has been around new guys Joel Clinton and Ashton Sims wanting to stamp their authority too and put themselves in the best position to take over the reigns permanently.

With the NRL 2008 season only days from kick-off, now it’s showtime.

The Broncos forwards will be acid tested by the guys who only last year led them around the Rugby League field – Petero Civoniceva.

For each Broncos supporter and anyone who has ever been involved with the club, it will be an unusual experience to see big Petero run out for the Penrith Panthers this weekend.
Rarely has a Brisbane Bronco player worn the jersey with more pride and there is no doubting the impressive prop will be wanting to get some revenge on the club that didn’t show him enough respect.
Partnering him will be the Puletua gang, Frank and Tony, plus that other giant NZ rep Frank Pritchard.

All big, all tough and sure to be encouraged by the likes of Petero by their side; they are really going to give the new Broncos forward pack an early test and a good guide as to how they will perform this season without their experienced former stars.

There is no doubting, that the Broncos, having Darren Lockyer back in charge, Justin Hodges freed to perform his usual duties and  a fresh Karmichael Hunt, have the nucleus of a powerhouse side that should realistically not only make the finals and but achieve a top 4 finish.

It’s been said before, but it can only happen if the forwards lay that all important platform and the new men have big shoes to fill, lets not forget the fact that a specialist hooker PJ Marsh also comes into the new pack and should provide good gel amongst the group.

What’s critical is the early rounds of this years NRL as Lockyer starts to get his timing and confidence back, as he returns from a long layoff.

I have kept an eye on his comeback from knee surgery and no one that I have seen, has been more committed or professional in their road back.

Looking sharp at training for sure, but the skipper needs a chance to get his timing back. A failing forward pack with little go-forward will create nightmares for Lockyer as he returns.

I expect coach Wayne Bennett to have explained all this to the new forwards in particular to ensure the path of Lockyer and that of the Broncos is laid out correctly for this season.

This it, no time to shy away from the collisions. The Broncos forwards must work in numbers and throw themselves into the heat of battle without fear.

If this can happen, Darren Lockyer and the classy outside backs at Brisbane will have the ideal chance to forge a winning start in what shapes to be a new era at the club that has achieved so much in such a short time in the NRL.

Doubst to Oust Brown at Dragons

Nathan Brown Photo 1 Nathan Brown Photo 2Before reading this article, take a look at these two photos of Nathan Brown. The first from his early coaching days and the latter a more recent photo of the Dragons NRL coach. The National Rugby League will age a coach more quickly than the sauna technician at your local gym. Brown has felt the heat more than most in a baptism of fire at the helm of his Rugby League team.
Nathan Brown has probably been talked about more than he would have liked since joining the Dragons coaching ranks several years ago. A rookie coach moving into the hot seat at St George Illawarra; a team blessed by talent in the past decade or more but yet to reach the goal of an NRL premiership.

If Brown didn’t realise the pressure of the role he was stepping into, he found out pretty quickly. Calls for his head came thick, fast and early. A straight shooter, Nathan Brown probably made it harder for himself after the face slapping incident early in his coaching career and a few choice words after some games that saw him cop fines and become a media darling – as reporters always knew there was milage in a Nathan Brown interview.

But it seems all that is history now. Nothing short of winning the NRL Premiership in 2008 would see him be re-signed by the St George Illawarra Dragons.

Off-contract at the end of this season, Dragons CEO Peter Doubst has been tasked with compiling a list of recruits for next seasons coaching role. In the past, Doubt who himself has been under pressure at times and the Dragons management have been patient with Brown and have shielded him through any rough waters. However, they have no doubt turned up the heat for the 2008 Rugby League season – with the coaching hitlist being compiled, ready for the club to act quickly in replacing coach Nathan Brown should things turn sour.

Possible replacements include current Storm and premiership-winning coach Craig Bellamy, Brisbane’s long term boss Wayne Bennett, St Helens and former Warriors and Eels mentor Daniel Anderson, North Queensland assistant Ian Millward, current Catalans’ Dragons and former Saint Mick Potter and another former Dragon in AIS coach Brian Johnson.

You can understand St George Illawarra Dragons management for being proactive, but surely they could have kept this under tighter wraps. As if the job of Nathan Brown and their NRL players isn’t already hard enough, days before their Round 1, 2008 kick-off against the Wests Tigers – they have the blow torch right up their rear ends.

Brownie and the boys will need all the luck they can get in this super tight competition; but the former hooker should take heart – even if he is booted from the Dragons, at least he can start growing his hair back and get through a week of his life without having to explain yet again how the Saints managed to lose a football game.

Melbourne Storm team for Round 1, 2008

Melbourne Storm Round 1 2008 team and squad lineupMelbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy has named a 17-man squad for this Monday night’s Round 1 clash against the New Zealand Warriors. The game will be played at Telstra Dome from 7:00pm.

Russ Aitken has been chosen at five-eighth, filling in for Greg Inglis who is out for at least three weeks with a shoulder injury.

Jeff Lima has been given first crack at the starting front-row spot, with Ben Cross having left the club to play for the Newcastle Knights.

Matt Geyer takes his place on the interchange bench, as does Adam Blair who enters the 2008 season free of injury after sustaining a serious foot injury in the 2006 Tri-Nations Final.

Sika Manu and Sam Tagataese round off the interchange bench, having impressed in the pre-season trial games for the club.

NRL squad for Monday’s game:

Starting team:

1. Billy Slater

2. Steve Turner

3. Will Chambers

4. Israel Folau

5. Anthony Quinn

6. Russ Aitken

7. Cooper Cronk

8. Jeff Lima

9. Cam Smith ©

10. Brett White

11. Jeremy Smith

12. Ryan Hoffman

13. Dallas Johnson

Interchange:

14. Matt Geyer, 15. Adam Blair, 16. Sika Manu, 17. Sam Tagataese.

Coach: Craig Bellamy.

Parramatta Eels to push Storm in 2008

Parramatta EelsKings Cross shootings and other off-field dramas aside, the Parramatta Eels head into the 2008 NRL season with quite possibly their best chance of winning the competition since 2001 when their impressive squad went within 6 points of winning the Grand Final against a rampaging Newcastle Knights.

With new coach Michael Hagan well settled in and having a tremendous blend of experience and talented youth at his disposal, many predict the Eels to challenge the Storm as they did in 2007 and push for a Grand Final appearance after long last.

The Eels still have one of the few backlines possessing the strike power to trouble the likes of the Melbourne Storm and Manly Sea-Eagles, and with old heads Cayless and Hindmarsh leading a pack full of experience, the signs are there that Parramatta will be on the money in late September. With attacking weapons Hayne, Inu, Grothe, Burt, Mateo and Tim Smith in the side, nothing less than a top 4 finish will be expected. The other X-Factor for the Eels comes in the form of: Joe Galuvao. The former Panther and Bunnie could prove a dynamic asset if the Eels and their coaching team can get the former charger into his vintage form.

Advantages:

Widely regarded as having one of the strongest junior competitions in the league, Parramatta’s premiership hopes will again rest with a bunch of local young guns. While the likes of Krisnan Inu, Jarryd Hayne and Feleti Mateo burst onto the NRL scene in ’07, coach Hagan is again set to unleash a new batch of talented rookies in season ’08. Weller Hauraki, Junior Paulo and Matt Keating are just some of the young stars that Hagan will provide more game time with this season, and combined with the long term signatures of Ben and Tim Smith, the Eels are set to remain a force for seasons to come. The other advantage for the Eels is their ability to gain a penalty when required, in 2007 Parramatta got more penalties than any other team by a long shot and seem to be able to fight for a quick play the ball more than other sides in the NRL.

Concerns:

Having lost eight experienced players over the off-season, the Eels may well struggle if hit with injuries. The major concern for the Eels is their forward depth, mostly at prop – where they don’t possess a long line of backups should injury or suspension hit them. Their success this season will also largely depend on the availability of their precocious half Tim Smith – if he can again find his best form after an off season marred with controversy, then the Eels could indeed go all the way. Also of concern is the defence of Tim Smith and his partner Brett Finch. Both combined fairly well in 2007, but when targetted by opposition attackers in the line – they regularly require assistance to pull the big men down.

2008 Likely NRL Starting Side:

1- Luke Burt
2- Krisnan Inu
3- Ben Smith
4- Jarryd Hayne
5- Eric Grothe
6- Brett Finch
7- Tim Smith
8- Fuifui Moimoi
9- Mark Riddell
10- Nathan Cayless
11- Nathan Hindmarsh
12- Chad Robinson
13- Feleti Mateo

14- Josh Cordoba
15- Joe Galuvao
16- Weller Hauraki
17– Todd Lowrie

NRL Pre-Season Trial Matches:

22/02/08 v Penrith Panthers @ Lavington Oval, Albury
01/03/08 v Sydney Roosters @ Bluetongue Stadium, Gosford

2008 Acquisitions and Departures:
Acquisitions:

Joe Galuvao (Souths), Ben Raftery (Cronulla), Ben McLennan (Grafton)

Departures:

PJ Marsh (Brisbane), Timana Tahu (Super 14 Rugby), Blake Green (Cronulla), Aaron Cannings (Gold Coast), Justin Tsoulos and Nathan Tannous (Canterbury), Richard Fa’aoso (Newcastle), Ian Hindmarsh (retired)

Eels finally move to clean up image

Michael Hagan Parramatta EelsParramatta’s recent track record with player behaviour has certainly blown out of control. While many complain about the Bulldogs and their on-going problems, the Eels have quickly built up a long list of unenviable events. There was the original drinking sessions of Mark Riddell and Tim Smith, then Smith got himself into trouble several times with the bottle, and lashing out at locals and each time the Eels sat back and watched, well this week it has all come to a head with the Jarryd Hayne drive-by after a late night in Kings Cross.

While no NRL player deserves to be assaulted or shot at; Jarryd Hayne and his team-mates still had a chance to walk away from the flare up before things got too heated and yet they still remained in the dangerzone and have come off second best.

The Eels after consulting with senior players have decided to ban Hayne, Paulo and Hauraki from Round 1 of the NRL and have slapped each with a $2000 fine. Probably a good start and a move towards keeping players in line, but the Eels and other NRL clubs know that if they go all the way and sack players – other clubs will quickly swoop in and pickup the player and the merry go round starts again.

The NRL itself probably needs to step in and set some boundaries to assist clubs to keep their players in check. We know that no-one is perfect, but as many have said – Kings Cross at 4am is sure to bring trouble for anyone, let alone a high profile star.

The loss of Jarryd Hayne will no doubt hurt the Eels in their season opener with the Bulldogs. While Parramatta have been solid in their trial form, the Bulldogs will be itching to avenge last seasons finals defeat and will be keen to launch and early season raid to get some revenge and give their coach some breathing space before the vultures come knocking.

With Hayne banned, the opportunity comes knocking for Joel Reddy. The promising outside back has been a solid backup for the Eels in the past and has more than served his apprenticeship after 2 reserve grade premierships. Competition will remain strong in the outside backs for the Eels, with Luke Burt assured of the custodian role and the likes of Kris Inu, Ben Smith, Joel Reddy, Jarryd Hayne and Eric Grothe Jr fighting it out for centre and wing spots.

Will the Cowboys remain a force?

North Queensland CowboysThe Cowboys are set to lose coach Graham Murray at the end of this season, the NRL coach who has taken them from easy beats to consistent performers, peaking with a Grand Final appearance in 2005. The North Queensland Cowboys have also been plauged by player misbehaviour in recent times; with several big names including Jonathan Thurston getting into strife. So will a team in coaching limbo still remain a force in 2008 NRL?

The Cowboys have managed to retain the majority of the team that went within one game of making the premiership decider in 2007, the talented squad will be striving to take that next step in 2008. Despite losing some notable players during the off season, the Cowboys have recruited smartly. Former NRL and Canterbury centre Ben Harris returns to Australia to replace the retired Paul Bowman, and the halves pairing of ex-Manly pivot Travis Burns and Johnathan Thurston could see the Cowboys host one of the most lethal halves combinations in the competition.

For mine, the only thing stopping the Cowboys from cementing a top four position, will be the unavailability of Thurston for at least the first month of the premiership. North Queensland are notorious for bursting out of the blocks at the start of each year, but without the world’s best half steering them around, the Cowboys could well be behind the pack cum Round 6 (Thurston’s expected return).

Advantages:

The Cowboys seemingly possess talent in every position, and it would be a real shock to see them miss the top four. North Queensland have speed to burn in the outside backs, a creative set of halves, bullocking props and workaholic backrowers – they are pretty much a coaches dream.

The modern day Cowboys continue to play an exciting and expansive football, in recent times the Cowboys have had the ability to lay on a try from anywhere on the field. The blistering temperatures of Dairy Farmers Stadium, North Queensland is yet another major advantage for the Cowboys, with visiting rivals often struggling to overpower the acclimatised home team.

Concerns:

The Cowboys attacking qualities of 2007 certainly overshadowed their defensive abilites, Graham Murray’s men ending the year as the 13th worst defensive unit. Injuries playing a big part last year with several big name forwards unavailable at crucial times, but seven of the Cowboys ten season losses were against fellow semi-finalists. The Cowboys will need to improve their defence if they hope to compete against the top sides.

2008 Likely NRL Starting Side:

1- Matt Bowen
2- Ty Williams
3- Ashley Graham
4- Ben Harris
5- Ben Farrar
6- Travis Burns
7- Johnathan Thurston
8- Shane Tronc
9- Aaron Payne
10- Carl Webb
11- Steve Southern
12- Sione Faumuina
13- Luke O’Donnell

14- David Faiumu
15- Jacob Lillyman
16- Ray Cashmere
17– Matthew Scott
2008 NRL Pre-Season Trial Matches:

16/02/08 v Brisbane Broncos @ Browne Park, Rockhampton
23/02/08 v Gold Coast Titans @ Barlow Park, Cairns
01/03/0/8 v Canberra Raiders @ Brothers RL Club, Mackay

2008 Acquisitions and Departures:
Acquisitions:
Travis Burns (Manly), John Williams (Sydney Roosters), Ben Harris (Bradford), Dayne Weston and Anthony Watts (Cronulla), Anthony Perkins (Melbourne)

Departures:
Paul Bowman, Scott Minto and Jason Smith (retired), Brenton Bowen (Gold Coast), Justin Smith (released), Shane Muspratt (QLD Cup), Neil Sweeney (Macquarie, Newcastle)