As Origin hits the NRL like a wrecking ball at the midpoint of the season, causing major disruption to the competition, let’s look at how the teams have gone so far and how they are shaping for the run to the playoffs. Who is gone and who can take out the title?
Hit their straps reaching the top rung of the NRL ladder the round before Origin now hoping the state v state behemoth doesn’t disrupt their momentum. Have shown remarkable resilience flicking injuries away like fleas revealing the depth and strength of the club.
Rating: A+ - To be leading the comp with Nathan Cleary your key playmaker out for half these matches on top of all the other injuries is incredible.
Predicted Finish: Premiers – can go all the way with James Maloney and Nathan Cleary’s partnership only improving as the season goes, playing behind a forward pack that is tough and has lots of improvement in them. The Panthers squad has size, strength, and skill. It’s a lethal cocktail.
Player Alert: James Maloney – if the Panthers are to go all the way they’ll need his leadership, big game experience and deadly accurate boot.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Set the standard from round one rarely dropping their guard. Have the complete package, punishing defence, brilliant halves and improved their attack immensely from the 2017 version. The Saints can slay you from anywhere on the park.
Rating: A+ - I had them missing the playoffs before a ball was kicked! Recruited very well and gelled sensationally. Have the forwards to dominate anyone.
Predicted Finish: Top Four – have the side to take out the title, the only question mark is will injuries hit? The Dragons have been fortunate in that department and have fingers and toes crossed they get through Origin unscathed.
Player Alert: Ben Hunt – taken his game to another level away from the Broncos and his game management frees the brilliant Gareth Widdop up to influence proceedings. Hunt is a vital cog who will return from the Origin arena an even better player.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Anthony Seibold take a bow! No one other than Russell Crowe would have had the Rabbitohs in the top four at this point or any stage of 2018! The free flowing, play what you see, expansive footy encouraged at Souths has them flourishing. The return to form of the Burgess’ brothers allows the footy to fly!
Rating: A+ - Exceeded all predictions to be legitimate title contenders.
Predicted Finish: Top Four – the Bunnies have that smell about them, this isn’t a mirage, they have some serious momentum building that won’t fall away.
Player Alert: Damien Cook – from a battle with Robbie Farah sharing the role to making it his own to making Origin! Cook’s explosive speed out of dummy half causes no end of problems, if he stays fit he is a game breaker.
New Zealand Warriors
If you’d offered the Warriors this lofty position at season’s start they would have taken it, but after a brilliant beginning familiar cracks are starting to show. Inconsistency has kicked in with some poor defensive days rearing their ugly head. The squad is much better than previous versions and can rectify some worrying issues.
Rating: A – Predicted to miss the finals, this has been a brilliant effort to be top four at this point.
Predicted Finish: Top Eight – have some quality clubs chasing their tail and it will be enthralling watching how they handle the pressure. I think they can hang on and make their first finals series since 2011.
Player Alert: Issac Luke – bounced back to his 2014 premiership winning form. Looking fit he is tearing through the ruck and giving time and space to the star halves Shaun Johnson and Blake Green
Playing a more expansive style of footy but it’s causing plenty of errors. The usually precise machine is a bit clunky but shown glimpses of their best. The failure of Brodie Croft to fire has hurt the Storm but Cameron Smith’s shock Origin retirement will leave him fresh for the run to the playoffs.
Rating: B+ - the premiers are a bit off their game, expected to be sitting higher on the table than this at the halfway mark.
Predicted Finish: Top Four – improve the error rate and the Storm will be fast finishers. The old stagers Smith and Billy Slater won’t panic they know titles aren’t won by June they want to peak in late September. The back to back title attack is still very much in play.
Player Alert: Cameron Munster – a proven big game player and with Croft currently out of favour and Ryley Jacks serviceable without being a star, it’s Munster who can take his game to the levels required to be the influential playmaker to lead the Storm to the premiership.
A disappointing start to the season but this is the team to watch as the Roosters have the squad with probably the most improvement in them. Star recruits James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk still haven’t gelled with their new team mates. The Roosters have had their moments, but a poor completion rate is killing them, but importantly their defence is rock solid.
Rating: C+ - big things expected but so far not delivered.
Predicted Finish: Top Eight – improvement is coming but still big question marks over the forward pack. They can rise but not sure they can squeeze into the top four, confirming a finals position is first stop.
Player Alert: Cooper Cronk – he was bought to perform in high pressure playoff football, the Roosters will hope he can steer the side to the top four and beyond. Nic Politis will demand it!
A mixed first half of 2018 but after a slow start the Sharks are starting to motor. Along with the Roosters there is potential to leap up the ladder after dealing with plenty of injuries in the forwards, while Matt Moylan is only beginning to look comfortable in the Shire.
Rating: B – Pretty much sitting about where most pundits predicted, though it took a six-game winning streak to get them there.
Predicted Finish: Top Eight – will be amongst a group fighting to fit into that top four safety net. The Sharks have the quality to win this comp
Player Alert: Andrew Fifita – the wrecking ball has the game and destructive ability to win a match on his own. A renowned performer at the highest levels, he’s done it before famously in the 2016 Grand Final and if the Sharks are to salute again in 2018 look no further than the human headline.
Have hovered around the top eight all season, without playing the type of football that screams out title winners. Light on up front the forwards need to harden up but most importantly the halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima need to up their game, insipid at times they need to find consistency, the occasional highlight reel moment won’t cut it.
Rating: C – the effort is there but not the polish. Room for improvement and enough talent within the squad to cause problems without the quality to win when it matters most in September.
Predicted Finish: Top Eight - for such a proud club scraping into the top eight is not good enough but I think they will do it in a canter then blow a shoe.
Player Alert: Anthony Milford – a premiership winning side normally contains a dominant playmaker. The Milf needs to find his mojo if the Broncos are to charge to an unlikely title triumph.
Have confounded the pundits by starting the season with a bang, knocking off the Storm twice and the Roosters among others. A coach’s dream this team gives everything every play for the full 80 minutes. Defensively sensational it is the Tigers inability to score points that is their Achilles heel.
Rating: A – for a side predicted to potentially walk home with the wooden spoon they are defying critics and giving long suffering fans plenty to cheer. Deservedly in the hunt to play in the finals.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – need a huge second half of the season to force their way into the playoffs. I may be harsh in saying they’ve overachieved to be on the cusp of the eight at this stage of the season. I predict the top eight as it stands will not change only the positions of the sides within it.
Player Alert: Luke Brooks – after starting the year in such fine form he was in Origin calculations, Brooks has dropped a notch and the Tigers win loss ratio has followed suit. Needs to run more and improve his last tackle options for Wests otherwise the team from Tiger Town will be watching the playoffs from a bar in Bali.
Another bunch of close losses, mirroring 2017, have the Raiders giving the leading pack a head start. Scoring tries isn’t an issue, there’s been plenty of crackers but icing games down the stretch has and that’s where the Raiders need to improve.
Rating: C - after blowing their opening three games that should have been six points the Raiders should be sitting pretty inside the top eight, a poor sign they haven’t learned their lessons from last year.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – the Raiders are a dangerous side one capable of making a run at the playoffs. Need to knock off sides above them consistently to make their way through the field and while they will threaten to do it will fall just short in another year of shoulda, woulda, coulda – didn’t!
Player Alert: Josh Hodgson – the playmaking Englishmen is due back from injury in round 16 and could bring the X factor that propels the Raiders towards the playoffs. Canberra have missed his skill and while not expecting miracles his mere presence could provide the boost they need.
The feel-good story of the year, alongside the Tigers, the perennial wooden spooners recruitment drive has delivered but after a gripping start to the year the Knights finals hopes are fading. Injury to star halfback Mitchell Pearce has coincided with the slide and unfortunately the Knights may be knackered by the time he returns.
Rating: B – the shining start has lost some lustre but it’s a big pass mark for a team that will only improve. Great team spirit and playing attractive footy a marked rise on the drivel shown in the past few years.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – too inconsistent to earn the wins that will push them into the eight, plenty of potential in the club with more to come with Jesse Ramien on his way to the Hunter. Watch them go in 2019.
Player Alert: Kalyn Ponga – the wunderkind has lived up to all expectations and if the Knights are to surprise all by putting themselves in the playoff mix it will be off the back of this genius. Ponga can do it all, a genuine superstar.
Gold Coast Titans
Another side who had no expectations on them who have surprised. They have a tough forward pack, brilliant half in Ash Taylor and talented backline but the Titans just cannot produce the consistency required to contend for higher honours.
Rating: B- - for a side who many handed the wooden spoon before a ball was kicked the Titans have gone okay without looking like matching the heavyweights.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – the Gold Coast just haven’t the cattle to get on the winning streak required to play in September. Nuisance value, they’ll cause the odd upset but will be working on their tans on the Glitter Strip when the business end of the NRL begins.
Player Alert: Jai Arrow – a sensational start to the season culminated in Queensland Origin selection. A tireless worker Arrow has become a stats monster who Garth Brennan will hope will return from the rep arena an even better player.
Manly Sea Eagles
Oh boy what a year thus far. When the off-field dramas steal the headlines from whatever meagre offerings you produce on it, you know it’s not a great start to the season. The Sea Eagles have flown away from the stench and seem to be focussed on footy now, but their wings have been clipped.
Rating: D – a side with enough talent to make the finals have been hijacked by fighting: internally – salary cap mess leaving the squad light on; and externally - Jackson Hastings and Daly Cherry-Evans in Gladstone.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – too far back the Sea Eagles need a marked turnaround to fly into the finals. They have the talent to trouble any team but do Manly have any fight left to go the distance?
Player Alert: Jake Trbojevic – having his best season by far, he has turned into one of the best back rowers in the NRL. His work rate combined with his silky ball skills make Jake a premier player. If Manly are to make a run he’s the man to make it happen.
North Queensland Cowboys
The danger signs were showing early, a tattered and tired team, with even the great Jonathan Thurston looking mortal. After such a brilliant run to the 2017 GF there was the issue of whether the returning JT would gel with Michael Morgan and mess the mojo. Morgan now at fullback answers that question.
Rating: F - Anyone see this coming? The team tipped by many to win this year are the flops of the first half of the season. Epic fail.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – the one thing the Cowboys have in spades is team spirit and the past three weeks there have been good signs that they still think they’re a chance. They need a miracle and can go on a streak that could give the Cowboys faithful hope but they’re too far back.
Player Alert: Jason Taumalolo – looking jaded after Tonga’s sensational World Cup the fire looks to be back in this colossal forwards eyes and thighs. Beast Mode has been reactivated and Taumalolo is back racking up monster metre eating stats. The hopes of NQ are on his rather large shoulders and if anyone can drag the side to the grand finish that Jonathan Thurston’s glittering career deserves it’s Taumalolo.
After all the talk of Dean Pay bringing a more expansive play to the Bulldogs attack the same old problem surfaced, scoring points. The Bulldogs defence is solid, you cannot fault the effort, they give it everything which is great signs the players back Pay and his methods.
Rating: D – though not expected to set the world on fire in 2018, sitting 15th you can’t rank them any higher. Bulldogs fans expected a better start to the season.
Predicted Finish: Miss Finals – the issue for the Bulldogs is they just don’t have the cattle and a finals place is pure fantasy, but they have enough talent to pop up a couple of places. Pay will already be looking ahead to 2019 but if I was a Bulldogs fan I wouldn’t, with massive salary cap issues the future looks bleak.
Player Alert: Aaron Woods – with cap problems that have seen Moses Mbye already shipped off to the Wests Tigers, the big prop is being openly chased as the Dogs look to free up space on the books. Woods is in the shopfront so expect a huge second half of the season.
From predicted top four and premiership contenders to the basement, the Eels began the season with high hopes but slipped down the laundry chute faster than the suspiciously clean Parramatta jerseys that go in the wash post game. There seems to be a distinct lack of effort and the Eels are playing like very unhappy campers.
Rating: N/A - there isn't a letter in the alphabet worthy of what the Eels have dished up.
Predicted Finish: Wooden Spoon – it isn’t a huge prediction for the Eels to remain stone motherless last though they have the talent to string a few wins together they don’t seem to have the will.
Player Alert: Coach Brad Arthur – the man can coach he will see the second half of the season as a great challenge rather than a chore. Can he find the key to unlocking the Eels misery? He has the rest of the season to find some wins or a ‘Brad has the full backing of the board’ email may be leaked to the media.
Predicted Grand Final:
Penrith Panthers v Melbourne Storm