Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 7: Parramatta Eels

Layered with turmoil on and off the field in 2016, the Eels will be looking to put that behind them and will be hoping for a change in fortunes in 2017. With star players out and about getting into trouble, the mass salary cap saga that implicated several administration employees and so much more, it was a year to forget for the Parramatta Eels, a club with a rich history and a proud brand. 

Whilst things may seem on the up and up in 2017, there are still some questions that remain over the make-up of their side as well as whether they can put the past behind them and focus on the goal that all clubs chase – premiership success.
As a club, the Eels have had their ups and downs in recent years and whilst they have possessed talent sides, many players have failed to live up to the expectations placed upon them and as a result, the Eels have missed out on finals footy for quite a number of seasons now.
As the 2017 season nears closer, fans are quietly optimistic that a top eight spot is within their reach. With Brad Arthur at the helm, a fair yet imposing presence as a coach, who wants the best out of his players and helps them achieve their on-field and off-field goals, the Eels are in a good position and fans have full faith in Arthur to deliver consistency, potential success and hopefully a finals berth.

A major talking point by many Eels fans and even rival fans is the make-up of their halves. Some believe that the Eels should have made a play for an elite halfback to play alongside Corey Norman but the Eels and coach Arthur had other ideas. Impressed with the performances of Clint Gutherson at five-eighth towards the back end of 2016, Arthur has made a decision to continue with him in the role with the aim to form a sound combination alongside Norman. Shifted around somewhat as a player in his Eels career, Gutherson found his home first at centre and then at five-eighth, and Eels fans will be hopeful that he can continue to perform in that role.

To follow on from that point is Corey Norman himself. Forced to take on the dominant half role after Kieran Foran was injured and had his off-field issues resulting in his departure, up until he himself was suspended for an off-field incident, he seemed to perform relatively well and control the game.
Though 2017 will be made tougher for him given that there is added pressure to perform. As the dominant half for the Eels in their setup, he will have to dictate terms, call the shots and become the focal point of the club’s attack on virtually every play, much like Thurston or Cronk are for their respective clubs. Dealing with such a burden is not something all players respond to but if Norman can harness that pressure and turn it into confidence and consistency, it could be just what the doctor ordered for the Eels.
Brad Arthur has put the faith in the duo to perform, the question is – can the duo of Gutherson and Norman justify their coaches faith in the halves.

Perhaps the player that is under the most pressure at the Eels in season 2017 is Bevan French. A technically gifted player, French as the finesse, the speed and the agile nature, that complements his individual style of play so well. As he prepares for a permanent move to fullback, though, how will the added expectation of playing there week in and week out and having the fans counting on you to perform affect his overall performance? Whilst he performed strongly in the final two games of the 2016 season at fullback, there was little pressure there. Fast forward to Rd 1, 2017, and there will be high hopes of him that he can perform and do so consistently.

With a new season in tow, the expectation on the Eels team as a whole is high. With a side that represents that in which coach Arthur wants and one that fans believe can go places, their form on the field is crucial if they are to challenge the top sides. In their own right, they have the personnel to perform well and coupled with their new signings and the existing players, they will be expected to be consistent and get the best out of each other.
Overcoming the numerous factors that stand in their way will be no easy feat but with Brad Arthur at the helm to draw the very best out of his players, you can bank on the Eels being competitive in games and pushing teams all the way.

Best buy: If his form at the Nines was anything to go by, the Eels and their fans will look forward to having Suaia Matagi at their disposal. Finishing up in the Auckland Nines team of the tournament, Matagi is a power runner in the forwards and constantly gets over the advantage line. Hard to stop on the frontline, he powers ahead and makes strong metres with each carry. Just the sort of forward that the Eels need, Matagi can be the perfect foil for metre-eating forwards such as Mannah and Moeroa.
Matagi’s style will punch inroads in the defence and create quicker play the balls and more opportunities for the attacking players to do their jobs. Eels fans expect a lot of Matagi and his form, at this stage, is exactly what they are expecting of him.

Best Young Talent: Compared to Tim Mannah by many, the Eels have a young prop that could make an impression if given opportunity in 2017 – Alex Twal. Whilst the club have strengthened their forward pack, the youngster is highly rated by coach Brad Arthur. Tall and lanky, he has the heart of a lion and a motor to boot, throwing himself at the defence in search of as many metres as possible. Whilst he might be a touch down the pecking order given the signings the Eels have made in the forwards, he will be closely watched by Arthur and his coaching staff as an option to consider if things get tough or if there  is nothing to play for in the season. For now, he bides his time with the Eels feeder club, Wentworthville. Though Eels fans will be watching him closely to see if he can perform well there as a prelude to what might see him earn a first-grade spot.

2017 gains: Kirisome Auva’a, Nathan Brown, Jamal Fogarty, Josh Hoffman, George Jennings, Suaia Matagi, Marata Niukore, Frank Pritchard, Will Smith & Siosaia Vave.

Our predicted Eels line-up at full-strength:

  1. Bevan French
  2. Semi Radradra
  3. Michael Jennings
  4. Brad Takairangi
  5. Josh Hoffman
  6. Clint Gutherson
  7. Corey Norman (C)
  8. Suaia Matagi
  9. Issac De Gois
  10. Tim Mannah
  11. Beau Scott
  12. Manu Ma’u
  13. Tepai Moeroa

14. Nathan Brown
15. Kenny Edwards
16. Siosaia Vave
17. Frank Pritchard

Titans prop forced to retire due to back injury

David Shillington

In an ideal world, a player will be able to dictate and choose when they retire from the game but unfortunately, David Shillington has not had that opportunity. 

Today, he has been forced to retire from the NRL due to a number of chronic injuries. The 33-year old played in 215 NRL games.

The Brothers junior represented the Sydney Roosters, the Canberra Raiders and the Gold Coast Titans as well as playing in 14 games for Australia, 4 games for the Prime Minister’s XIII and 8 games for Queensland.

With a ninth bout of surgery in 12 years, Shillington knew that the time had come to close the curtain on an illustrious career.

“It’s not necessarily the way that you’d like to retire from the game but injuries are a part of it and it’s just all a bit much for me to continue putting my body through it,” Shillington said.

“I’ve had a great time in the game and it’s given me so much. The people I’ve met along the way and the fun I’ve had, has given me plenty of great memories.”

He was quick to thank the three clubs that he was involved in over his career as he looks forward to working with the NRL Ambassador Program.

“I’d like to thank the three clubs I played for over the years for allowing me to play the game that I love for a living and helping me achieve many of my goals,” said Shillington.

“I won’t be lost to the game though, I’m looking forward to my next chapter where I’ll do some work as part of the NRL Ambassador program.”

His contribution to the game and to the Titans organisation was praised by coach Neil Henry.

“David has been a quality rugby league player throughout his career but more importantly, he’s been a good role model,” Henry said.

“Even throughout a tough season in 2016, he continued to help the younger players in and around training with their development.

“He will be a great ambassador for the game moving forward.”

Those sentiments were echoed by club CEO, Graham Annesley.

“There are many quality people in our game and David Shillington is one of the best,” Annesley said.

“I’m so glad he won’t be lost to the game and I know he will make a very smooth transition into life after football and forge an equally successful non-playing career.

“I know everyone in Rugby League will join with me in wishing Dave, Sonia and their young family nothing but the best for the future,” Annesley concluded.

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 6: Penrith Panthers

The Panthers are that team that many believe can go far, even if they are not regarded as an elite team. With a big fanbase, able players and a smart system in place, every year, their profile grows as does their confidence. 2017 shapes as a season whereby the Panthers can emerge as a genuine threat in the game and compete with those teams regarded as elite. 

With that, though, comes added pressure. With somewhat of a youthful playing roster, their experienced players will have to step up and act as mentors to guide both the young players and the team itself forward. Their youthful exuberance is a result of the club blooding the youngsters that they believe are capable and knowing that mixing it with experienced players is the way to achieve a perfect balance.

One of the most important players for the club is halfback Nathan Cleary. With the dreaded second year syndrome a real thing in the rugby league landscape, there is genuine pressure on Cleary to continue to perform at the level that he did in his debut season. A talented half blessed with an astute kicking and passing game, his individual success is instrumental to the Panthers chances in 2017. As a half, it will be up to him to lead the side around the park, dictate the terms and then taking advantage of the groundwork laid out by the forwards.

The next interesting point is who will partner Cleary in the halves. Cartwright or Martin? Both are equally adept at playing in the five-eighth role but they are also very different types of players. Cartwright, as we saw late on in 2016, is a genuine runner of the ball blessed with a knack of offloading the footy in easy or difficult situations. That ability comes from his upbringing through the junior ranks and the start of his NRL career, where he played almost exclusively as a back-rower. Whilst his defence might be a bit suspect in the eyes of some, he is seen as an x-factor in the Penrith side and if they want an adlib player capable of producing a moment of brilliance, in the middle of the field for a hard-running forward or the club’s fullback, then Cartwright’s offloading ability might just be able to create those opportunities.
As for Te Maire Martin, he is coming off a long-term injury, which may prevent his play at the start. He is gifted, however, and highly rated by the fans, which does work in his favour. With a tendency to pick players that can play within the confines of his system, Martin is a player with something to prove and if his transition back into the first-grade proves successful, he and Cleary could become the mainstays of the club’s halves for years to come.

Enjoying some success last year as a team, the 2017 season presents a dynamic of a different kind for the club, its fans and coach Anthony Griffin. 2017 sees the return of both Peta Hiku and Dean Whare, both talented players in their own right and capable of producing solid, consistent form.
The different dynamic in this instance is the form that fill-in centre Tyrone Peachey showed just how good he is in the role, forming a strong partnership with the winger on his outside. Which then begs the question – do you retain Peachey in that role based on how he performed in 2016 or does he revert back to his original position as the bench utility?
Whilst he is not a natural centre, his form in the role in 2016 might be enough to see him retain it. With the looming threat of more genuine centres in Whare and Hiku, though, is it worthwhile retaining him there or utilising the proper centre options at your disposal. In addition to that, many still believe that Peachey’s best position is as that utility off the bench, given the array of spots he can cover in a pinch and maintaining consistency.

All in all, many Penrith fans have high hopes and expectations of the team and with the players they have both produced and bought in recent years to strengthen their side, you would think that they are on the precipice of elite status as a footballing team. With that, though, comes the expectation which for some teams and players, they can often struggle to cope with and deal with. Therein lies the challenge for not only the Penrith players but also coach Anthony Griffin. In order to get the very best out of his players and have them challenging the top sides, they will need to work together as a unit, remain consistent and perhaps most importantly, establish a sense of unison and cohesion between all the players on the park.

Best Buy: Making a surprise move from former club, the North Queensland Cowboys, the Penrith pack became even bigger and stronger, with James Tamou signing. Whilst in the eyes of some, he can be inconsistent, he has proven that he can perform consistently at the club level and he has the representative appearances to justify that consistency. A hulking prop, more often than not, he gets over the advantage line and helps set the platform for the Penrith team who then have the players to capitalise on the good metres. Working in tandem with the likes of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Trent Merrin, the trio – among their other forwards – will be expected to lay a solid foundation and make the hard yards that the club needs. Penrith fans are excited about the signing of Tamou and believe he can contribute greatly to the overall nature of what the club wants to achieve.

Best Young Talent: Penrith have always been blessed with a litany of talented juniors and this year is no exception. The potential for a first-grade spot beckons for Dylan Edwards who is perhaps one or two injuries away from making his mark. A technically gifted player, Edwards has shone at both the Holden Cup and NSW Cup level and has Penrith fans excited about what he can produce at the top level. Some may see him as a touch small in stature but he showed enough versatility in his sole first-grade appearance to suggest that it will not be an issue. A hard-worker and a player that prides himself on performing well, Edwards has every chance to become a mainstay of the side if the cards fall into place and Penrith fans will be hopeful that he can make the most of it and perform well to help propel their side towards potential success.

Our predicted Penrith line-up at full strength for the 2017 season is:

  1. Matt Moylan (C)
  2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
  3. Dean Whare
  4. Peta Hiku
  5. Josh Mansour
  6. Te Maire Martin
  7. Nathan Cleary
  8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
  9. Peter Wallace
  10. James Tamou
  11. Isaah Yeo
  12. Bryce Cartwright
  13. Trent Merrin

14. Mitch Rein
15. Tyrone Peachey
16. Leilani Latu
17. James Fisher-Harris

Newcastle junior returns home for one final hurrah

Anthony Tupou

It has been quite some time since he would have donned any sort of Newcastle jersey or played in the area but he has returned home now, with Anthony Tupou signing for the 2017 with the Newcastle Knights. 

With a total of 234 NRL games to his name, Tupou has had representative honours, overseas stints in England and provides crucial experience for a Knights side that is one of the youngest in the NRL overall.

With the emergence of some of their promising forwards, they will need a forward leader and a player like Tupou, having been around the game for so long, is the perfect foil and mentor to help guide them through.

“We’re very pleased to bring Anthony to the Club ahead of the 2017 season,” coach Nathan Brown said of the signing.

“He has a wealth of experience in this competition and will be able to assist in the development of our younger forwards.”

He has joined the club immediately.

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 5: South Sydney Rabbitohs

A foundation team with one of the richest histories in the game, the cardinal and myrtle of the South Sydney Rabbitohs resonates with Australian rugby league. Blessed with numerous legendary players and premierships, 2017 shapes as an important year for both the team and coach Michael Maguire. Since their premiership win in 2014, Souths fans will tell you that their side has struggled since then and been unable to perform consistently. Is 2017 the year for them to turn things around?

A key factor for the Bunnies will be the dynamics between their halves. In their own right, Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker are gifted players but there has been some collusion when it comes to who takes more ownership. Traditionally, Souths setup is one built upon defence, hard work and execution, areas that have been lacking in the past. The halves play a big role in the execution stakes and Reynolds and Walker have two very distinct styles of play.
Walker, as a runner, takes the line on with acceleration and often comes out the other side to make the breaks. Therein lies his major strength in the game, a strength that sees him among the top when it comes to breaks made by halves. Conversely, for Reynolds, whilst he can also be a runner of the football, he is at times a bit hesitant to do so – Souths fans will know this well – due to prior injuries to his knee.
What he lacks in running less, however, Reynolds makes up for with a pinpoint kicking game – long and short. Often regarded as one of the best general kickers in the game, Reynolds gives his side the advantage and metres required with the boot, a valuable asset in the world of rugby league. If the two of them can gel and mesh together whilst excelling at their unique halves skills, they can lay the killer blow in the attacking zone for Souths when it matters.

The forward pack is also an interesting proposition for Souths. With many disappointed in the form of the Burgess twins in recent years, they have to step up their game or risk losing their spots in the side. As to which one starts, some believe Thomas should get the nod whilst others believe George should get it, hoping he gets back to his 2014 form. There is plenty of pressure on he and other Bunnies forwards to perform with the emergence of players such as Zane Musgrove, Cameron Murray and Angus Crichton, all of whom are stating their claims for regular first-grade spots and opportunities. The pressure is on the Burgess brothers and should they not perform, they may find their spots in jeopardy for both the short and long-term.

The final point to take out of the Bunnies 2017 roster is their back-line. It’s safe to say that Greg Inglis and most likely Alex Johnston are certainties to be picked. The other positions are somewhat up for grabs, even more so with the injury sustained by Aaron Gray. Bryson Goodwin, you would imagine, gets the nod somewhere given his experience and leadership but the overall make-up of the back-line would be quite iffy. With several youngsters patiently waiting including the trio of recruits George Jennings, Tyrell Fuimaono and Braidon Burns, they all have a chance to stake their claim for a vacant spot. The question is, though, are they ready for that level and can they perform consistently to hold down a spot?

If the Bunnies can recapture their 2014 form, gel with their new recruits and perform well, anything is possible. They have an able roster to challenge the top sides but they will need all their key plaeyrs to step up at the crucial moments if they are going to emulate that 2014 success. Easier said than done due to the nature of the competition itself and the strength of their opponents, the young and the old, and the new and the veterans, all need to make their mark. If even one aspect is lacking, it may serve as a detriment to their team and thus their success. In the end, the man that looms as their key is half Adam Reynolds.

Best Buy: Becoming more of a front-rower in recent times, Robbie Rochow is a handy addition for a Souths forward pack that needed a bit of defensive prowess. Whilst not as flashy in attack as some Knights fans wanted him to be, Rochow, now at the Bunnies, as the defensive starch needed to hold down the middle of the field alongside the likes of Sam Burgess. His versatility may end up proving handy if injuries strike but it will be his leadership that will also be an important factor. With many young forwards at the club and coming through the ranks, by leading from the front and setting an example for them, his guidance will be crucial. He may not be a superstar but his presence and performances are important for the younger brigade.

Best Young Talent: Whilst he may not start in first-grade from the get-go, one player that Souths fans rate highly is lock forward Cam Murray. Rated highly by Souths fans, Murray has performed well at both the Holden Cup level and the NSW Cup level, staking his claims for a regular first-grade spot. With players currently in front of him, he might be just an injury or two away from getting an opportunity. A hard-working, hard-running and hard-hitting forward, Murray is a player that can set the tone and make consistent impact in the attacking department. Often a handle to bring down and tackle, he looms as a genuine attacking depth option if the club need to call upon someone to step up to the plate.

2016 gains: Braidon Burns, Anthony Cherrington, Robbie Farah, Tyrell Fuimaono, Robert Jennings, Luke Kelly, Robbie Rochow & Connor Tracey.

Our predicted Souths line-up at full strength is:

1. Greg Inglis
2. Alex Johnston
3. Hymel Hunt
4. Bryson Goodwin
5. Aaron Gray
6. Cody Walker
7. Adam Reynolds
8. George Burgess
9. Robbie Farah
10. Robbie Rochow
11. Angus Crichton
12. John Sutton
13. Sam Burgess

14. Zane Musgrove
15. Thomas Burgess
16. Damien Cook
17. Jason Clark

Talented Sharks utility back signs contract extension

Valentine Holmes

A crucial player for the Cronulla Sharks, there were rumours galore surrounding his future but Sharks fans can rest easy. Valentine Holmes has re-signed via a contract extension for a further two seasons.

Since making his debut at 18 in 2014, Holmes has gone on to be a regular at the club, holding down a spot over the last 18 months in particular.

Eager to get it done prior to the season starting, Holmes is looking forward to staying and to starting in the fullback role if given the chance.

“It’s very exciting and good I was able to get it done before the start of the season,” Holmes said.

“We’re trying to keep the same team that won the premiership together, it’s a great bunch of guys, there are some good young blokes coming through and I’m really happy with the way we are going.

“As for playing fullback, I can’t wait to play there.”

Coach Shane Flanagan praised the re-signing, knowing just how important Holmes is to the club.

“Val is a representative standard player and someone destined for a long career in the NRL,” Flanagan said.

“It’s great for the Club, our Members and fans and for our corporate partners to know that he will be here for many years to come.”

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 4: St George Illawarra Dragons

Their fans are perhaps some of the most passionate and vocal in regards to their team’s performance and they have high expectations all the time. For the St George Illawarra Dragons, having missed out on finals in recent years, 2017 shapes as a big year for the coach and the players. Desperate for some sort of success, many would say that they have their work cut out but that is not to say that they do not have talented players at their disposal.

In the past and even in the present, many fans have been vocal of Paul McGregor as coach and the perceived inability to get the best out of the players to perform regularly. By extension, that criticism has also been dished out to CEO Peter Doust, as fans struggle to understand the inaction taken by the club at times. Whilst McGregor was a good player in his own right during his time with the club, many fans believe that he is the wrong fit for the club as a coach given the lack of success the Dragons have had over the last few years. McGregor is under just as much pressure as coach as the players are and if the Dragons are to have a successful season, it is up to him to utilise all his experience and knowledge and get the very best out of his roster.

As we move onto the field itself, the one major talking point is the Dragons halves conundrum. For several years now, the Dragons have tried to find the right player to partner Gareth Widdop in the halves. Widdop, a talented five-eighth, has often had to carry the play-making burden in both a running and kicking sense, heaping more pressure on him that has lead to some inconsistency in the last 18 months.
The Dragons plan was set to be Drew Hutchinson to partner Widdop but that plan backfired when the halfback injured his ACL and was effectively ruled out for the season. As they look for another player to replace him in the halves, Dragons fans have differing views on who that player should be.
A very small minority would like to see Josh McCrone get the nod. The most experienced of the trio vying for the role, McCrone’s utility value could also serve as a useful proposition on the bench. Though many believe that he is not the right player for the role and thus they want two other possible options in the role.

One of those options and perhaps the most exciting of the lot is young halfback Jai Field. Blessed with natural ability and pure speed, that was on show at the recent Nines tournament where Field blitzed the field with speed, agility and a fantastic show of in-game awareness for a player of his age. Although with those strong performances also comes uncertainty. How would he perform at the top level and could he do so consistently? A further point to consider is how does the impending arrival of Ben Hunt for 2018 affect Field’s mindset and play? Does he perform consistently or does it weigh on his mind and thus affect his form?
The final option is Shaun Nona who is also a talented player in his own right but perhaps one that many Dragons fans see as more of a depth option than anything else. With the battle waging on as to just who will get the nod, it remains to be seen who McGregor chooses to go with, how well they can link up with Gareth Widdop and how well they fit into the team dynamics.

Many are likely to write off the Dragons for the 2017 season including some of their own fans but on their day, if they perform well and consistently, they might just be capable of good results. That will hinge on player relationships on the field and how well the selected half alongside Widdop performs both in partnership with him and in partnership with the rest of the team. Equally important for the Dragons chances is consistency of Josh Dugan. If Dugan can fire and perform consistently and stay on the field and avoid injury, he can provide additional link-up play by the Dragons and take some of the pressure off Widdop in attack.

Best Buy: Dragons fans have been crying out for a hard-running, hard-working prop and they may just have found their man in Paul Vaughan. With limited opportunity in the end at the Raiders, the barnstorming forward is a perfect foil for the likes of Russell Packer and Jack de Belin, who can also run hard and provide genuine impact. Vaughan’s hard work never goes unnoticed, with fans of many rival clubs fans of twhat he does and the way in which he carries himself on the field. Whilst it is unclear as to whether he will start or come off the bench, he will certainly provided an extra dimension in attack for the Dragons to help propel them forward and to get them on the front foot both early on in games and when they are under the pump.

Best Young Talent: There are two primary options here and narrowing it down to one given the success of both is not easy, so we decided to mention both. As previously mentioned in this editorial, the performances of Jai Field both in Holden Cup last year and the NRL Nines this year, have many Dragons fans salivating at the thought of Field playing in the halves in first-grade. With genuine speed and ability, he could become the crucial x-factor that the Dragons have perhaps lacked in the past.
Equally impressive is Matt Dufty who, much like Field, has genuine ability and speed. More of a fullback than anything else, he was also impressive in the Nines tournament and in the Holden Cup. As talented as he is, a downside is that some believe he might still be too small to play in first-grade. That argument has obviously been proven wrong in the past but some think that given the game has changed, so too must its players, which means Dufty would need to bulk up somewhat. Whether he does or not, he is on the cusp of a first-grade opportunity and he is more than likely to take it when given one.

2016 gains: Levi Dodd, Jacob Hind, Josh Kerr, Nene Macdonald, Cameron McInnes & Paul Vaughan.

Our predicted Dragons line-up at full-strength is:

1. Josh Dugan
2. Jason Nightingale
3. Euan Aitken
4. Kurt Mann
5. Nene Macdonald
6. Gareth Widdop (C)
7. Jai Field
8. Leeson Ah Mau
9. Cameron McInnes
10. Tariq Sims
11. Joel Thompson
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Jack de Belin.

14. Russell Packer
15. Paul Vaughan
16. Luciano Leilua
17. Jake Marketo

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 3: Sydney Roosters

With some lean years in recent seasons, the Roosters have a chance to start with a fresh slate and get back to their consistent, top eight ways. Although to start the season, they will be forced to deal with some injured players, fans will be hopeful they can get off to a good start and enjoy a sound season. Boasting some tremendous players that can make a solid impact during games, they also have several youngsters to choose from that will be pushing for first-grade. With a mix of youth and experience, can this be the year the Roosters get back into the upper echelons of the competition?

One of the crucial players for the Roosters is halfback Mitchell Pearce. His talent is evident but off-field exploits have seen him play sporadically at times affecting both his form and the form of the team. Although he knuckled down and performed strongly towards the back end of the 2016 season after his return, consistency will be the mitigating factor for him, both for his Origin claims and for the betterment of the team. A fit and firing Pearce is perhaps the most crucial element for the Roosters in 2017 if they are to have any chance of challenging the top contenders.

Following on from that will be how well Pearce and likely new half Luke Keary link up. Having never played together at the top level, their relationship as a halves duo will either shape up as a boom or a bust. Keary, in his own right, is a talented player, even if he had his critics during his time at previous club, the Rabbitohs. With Pearce likely to be the dominant half and control the game and the tempo of the club’s attack, Keary will be relied upon to provide some running spark and catch out the tiring forwards. He is capable of doing so but will have to pick his moment and make the runs at the right time, rather than trying to usurp the work that Pearce is doing on the other side of the field.

Blessed with numerous young backs pressing their first-grade claims, one wing spot is apparently still up for grabs if one was to believe the rumours that Daniel Tupou is on the outer at the club. An inconsistent player that draws the ire of Roosters fans, his spot is on thin ice and with some talented youngster making pressing claims of their own for that spot, Tupou is no guarantee to play.
Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck and Joseph Manu are the two primary candidates apart from Tupou for that spot and having impressed in the past at different times, it presents quite the dilemma for coach Trent Robinson.

In a nutshell, the Roosters have a talented roster that has the potential to go places in 2017. Their hopes, whilst largely resting on the shoulders of Pearce, also requires the players around him to step up and perform. Whilst Pearce is the glue that will hold the side together, he needs the resources around him to play their roles and ease his burden against the top teams.
Capable of winning games on his own, Pearce’s role and influence will never be so crucial in a season where the fans are expecting the Roosters to bounce back and do so well. The slew of new recruits, youngsters and veteran stars provide what appears to be a winning formula on paper. However, in the NRL, we all know that games are not won on paper but rather, they are won by the actions of a football team on the field. The Roosters are capable of success but need consistency across the park if they are to achieve it.

Best Buy: Every team needs experience to help guide their younger brigade around the park and with the relative inexperience of Latrell Mitchell, signing someone to help him develop and grow is imperative. To combat that and to help him learn, the Roosters have signed veteran custodian Michael Gordon. A fan favourite of the three teams he has played for in the past, Gordon’s experience has seen him become an established, reliable player that can not only perform consistently but can draw the very best out of the club’s younger generation. What you see is what you get with Gordon and he will perform at his best and looms as a under-rated contender in the Roosters chances this season.

Best Young Talent: Having already tasted first-grade, Joseph Manu looms as a genuine contender for a wing spot in 2017. With continued uncertainty about the future of Daniel Tupou, there is a chance for Manu to usurp the more experienced winger if he is able to perform consistently during the trials and impress coach Robinson. Although in some respect, experience might work out better in the eyes of some, knowing what Manu is capable of as a player and the potential he has, many Roosters fans would much rather see Manu get the opportunity as they start to plan for the future. As a player, Manu is exactly what you want in a young, potential first-grader. He has a nifty step, good acceleration and upper body strength to deal with any would-be defenders. Very Tupou-esque in some ways in size and style of play, he has proven that he is a genuine contender for the wing spot and that he would not look out of place should the opportunity be given to him.

2017 Gains: Paul Carter, Mitch Cornish, Michael Gordon, Brock Gray, Luke Keary, Liam Knight, Brenden Santi, Chris Smith & Zane Tetevano.

Our predicted Roosters side at full-strength is:

1. Michael Gordon
2. Latrell Mitchell
3. Blake Ferguson
4. Shaun Kenny-Dowall
5. Joseph Manu
6. Connor Watson
7. Mitchell Pearce
8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
9. Jake Friend (C)
10. Dylan Napa
11. Boyd Cordner
12. Mitchell Aubusson
13. Sio Siua Taukeiaho

14. Paul Carter
15. Issac Liu
16. Aidan Guerra
17. Nat Butcher

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 2: New Zealand Warriors

A team that is always highly rated with the players at their disposal, in recent years, the Warriors have faltered under the pressure and not performed at their best. As they undergo a further transition ahead of the 2017 season with a new coach in Stephen Kearney and a new half in Kieran Foran, Warriors fans will be wondering if this is the year that they can stake their claims or if it will be much of the same. A talented side across the park, the Warriors certainly have the personnel to perform consistently but do they have the mental fortitude to be consistent?

A new coach can often have numerous effects on a side, all of which have differing natures. It can re-energise the team, bring them together and galvanise them to perform better and more consistently on the field to get the desired results. In this type of setup, the coach can extract the very best out of players that have perhaps been inconsistent in the past. This is the type of coach Warriors fans hope Stephen Kearney will be, given the general inconsistency of some of their players.
Conversely, disharmony can be a striking factor when a new coach arrives due to factions that may exist within the playing roster or riffs between the playing roster and the staff. Players often become quite attached to coaches for different reasons despite what might be said in the media, so the challenge for Kearney as well as for his players is to put concerns or differences aside and focus on what is important. The football, the results and the fans.

Another focus of the Warriors 2017 season is the pending return of star fullback, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. One of the elite fullbacks in the game, Tuivasa-Sheck had little chance to show just how good he could be in 2016 before he suffered an ACL injury that ended his season. With the hype and billing around him and his play so high, Warriors fans are expecting a lot of him and are expecting him to fire.
Boasting a star-studded team in some respects, all eyes will be on Tuivasa-Sheck and how quickly he returns to top form after his injury lay-off and how he links up with the likes of Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke. Those two aforementioned in Johnson and Luke will also play an integral role in the Warriors potential success – with Johnson’s playmaking abilities and astute running game and Luke’s nifty, dynamic runs from dummy half.

In the end, the Warriors chances hinge on the success of Johnson, Tuivasa-Sheck and Luke. With that said, it is the role players of the team – the other players on the roster – that need to provide an ample supporting cast for the key players to make their mark on games. Without a solid support cast around them, the Warriors efforts will likely go the way of previous years that will once again leave them disappointed by the end of the season. Most importantly, what are the expectations of the team under new coach Stephen Kearney?

Best buy: To date, the Warriors have only really signed one player and that is Kieran Foran, so it leaves little room for selection. Foran’s exploits as a player on the field are undeniable. A talented, gifted footballer, he proved his worth as a Manly player and then as a Kiwi international, showcasing just how good he was. Although his move to the Parramatta Eels eventually ended in differing circumstances due to some off-field issues, he showed glimpses of his form and just how good he was. When he gets the all-clear from the NRL to return to the game as a starting half, Warriors fans will hope he can be the cool, calm influence on Johnson, and take away some of the pressure from the man that has carried the side on his back in recent years. How long it takes Foran to get back to elite form is the question and whether he can be the man to guide the club to premiership success.

Best Young Talent: He may have seen some limited opportunity last year but this season could be the one whereby Bunty Afoa makes a name for himself. A hulking back-rower, Afoa’s line-running skills were on display last year in one particular game when he scored two tries by hitting a gap at the right time off two stellar passes from Johnson. With some uncertainty surrounding their forward pack moving forward, opportunities for Afoa could come sooner than many think. Afoa would not look out of place in the team, given how highly rated he is by fans. The change in coach may affect the time he sees early on but should he impress for the Warriors feeder team, he may see first-grade time sooner rather than later. He will be a player that will only get better as he gets more game time.

2017 Gains: Kieran Foran (Parramatta Eels, 2017).

Our predicted Warriors line-up at full strength is:

1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
2. Manu Vatuvei
3. Solomone Kata
4. Tuimoala Lolohea
5. David Fusitu’a
6. Kieran Foran
7. Shaun Johnson
8. Jacob Lillyman
9. Issac Luke
10. Ben Matulino
11. Bodene Thompson
12. Simon Mannering
13. Ryan Hoffman (C).

14. Sam Lisone
15. Albert Vete
16. Charlie Gubb
17. Bunty Afoa

Coach: Stephen Kearney.

Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 1: Wests Tigers

Another pre-season and another lot of NRL previews brought to you by one of our key men, Ricky. Over the next month or so, he will be outlining his thoughts on each team and the big questions surrounding them heading into the 2017 season. This year, we thought we would do things a bit differently and start with the Wests Tigers. So basically, we’re doing the previews in reverse alphabetical order.

The Wests Tigers boast some talented players and such a fact cannot be disputed. However, many still have them slated as potential wooden spoon contenders. You have to ask yourself, though – is it justified to lump them in that category for the 2017 season?
Boasting one of the top young fullbacks in the game in James Tedesco who, as we saw in 2016, can single-handedly win a game for his club, they are blessed with natural talent, flair and footballing smarts from the back. The downside, however, is that a lot of the Tigers fans hopes often pin on the feats of Tedesco and should a team dominate the Tigers defensively or if Tedesco gets injured – which for the sake of NRL fans and especially Tigers fans we hope does not happen – then the Tigers often struggle in games as we have seen in the past.

Encouragingly, one other player did step up towards the back end of the year to help the Tigers to some victories and that was five-eighth Mitch Moses. Since he has been in the NRL, he has taken Tigers fans on an up-and-down ride in terms of his form but he impressed in 2016 and has many Tigers fans excited about what he can do to start the 2017 season. If he and fellow young half Luke Brooks can find their mojo early, the Tigers have the attacking nous to perform well and perform consistently. The big questions surrounding them, though – can they both remain consistent and can they take the load off Tedesco in attack?

Another big question now surrounds the vacant hooker position. Despite the turmoil that eventually led to his departure from the club, the absence of Robbie Farah leaves his replacement with incredibly big shoes to fill. An attacking player that acts like a third playmaker, in the eyes of some Tigers fans he eased the burden on the club’s young attacking players and in the eyes of others, he made it worse for them by taking away from their capabilities. Fast forward to 2017 and the club has two primary options at hooker in Matt Ballin and Matt McIlwrick. Ballin, whilst a veteran of the game and well revered, is coming off a lengthy stint out of the game due to a knee injury.
Whilst a good player in his own right, Tigers fans will be concerned about his longevity and whether he can offer the impact and dynamism from the hooker role. Conversely, Matt McIlwrick looms as another option for the club but his inexperience at the first-grade level looms as a fundamental concern.

For the Tigers to have any sort of consistent success this year, they need some their players to rally around Tedesco, Moses and Brooks. They have other talented players at their disposal and now is the time for them to step up and perform to take the pressure off their young play-makers. With experience in the likes of Aaron Woods, Chris Lawrence and Elijah Taylor, the trio shape as key leaders for the club in 2017 to guide them towards potential success.

Best buy: Not overly active in the recruitment market ahead of the 2017 season, the most interesting buy the Tigers have made is the purchase of Jamal Idris. Once a genuinely talented up-and-comer in the league, off-field issues and family drama led to inconsistency in his game and ultimately his departure from the NRL. After going on a soul-searching mission to rediscover himself and find his inner peace, Idris sought a return to the NRL, given a chance by a Tigers side many deem as being on the rise. Whilst many have their doubts about him given he has been away from the game for a while, others are quietly hopeful that he can replicate earlier success in his career and become a handy addition for the Tigers side.

Best Young Talent: Talk to any Tigers fan and there is one name on their lips. Esan Marsters. A hulking, young lad, he has impressed over the last couple of seasons with some Tigers fans carefully monitoring his progress and calling for him to be given first-grade opportunities. Performing well at all levels he has played in so far, he is a player that has endless potential.
Already a talented player from a basic edge forward level, what takes Marsters to the next level is astute footwork close to the line and some surprising ball skills. Now in the club’s full-time squad, Marsters has a chance to stake his claim in the NSW Cup after what can only be described as a phenomenal individual season in the Holden Cup last year. Keep your eye on him because if he plays, he could be something special.

2017 gains: Jamal Idris (sabbatical) & Matt McIlwrick (Cronulla Sharks).

Our predicted line-up:

1. James Tedesco
2. David Nofoaluma
3. Jamal Idris
4. Tim Simona
5. Kevin Naiqama
6. Mitch Moses
7. Luke Brooks
8. Aaron Woods (C)
9. Matt Ballin
10. Sauaso Sue
11. Chris Lawrence
12. Josh Aloiai
13. Elijah Taylor

14. Ava Seumanufagai
15. Tim Grant
16. Michael Chee-Kam
17. Joel Edwards

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