THE LONG HARD LOOK WITH MIKE WILSON
It feels as if the 2011 Grand Final has only just finished and we are already looking towards the 2012 season. Amidst memories of last season, player signings and the ever talked about pre season trials, we’ll turn our focus to the upcoming competition and see if we can’t help you, the punters, find some value in the year ahead and ultimately put some $$$ in your pockets!
MANLY SEA EAGLES
Barely a day had passed after Manly’s Grand Final victory and everyone was talking about Des Hasler moving to the Bulldogs. Without delving too much into the finer points of the issues at the club, the overall saga is going to prove to be an off-field distraction for the team. Former Manly halfback Geoff Toovey (1988-2001) has been thrust into the coaching role earlier than he ever expected and there is a high standard set for him. No team has won back to back premierships since the Broncos in ’92 & ’93 and it will be tough for the Sea Eagles if the off field distractions keep up like this. Looking good for the side is that they have kept their title winning halves combination together for 2012 which is a good base to build the team around. Many of the other big representative names stay onboard for 2012 and it looks likely the Manly side will contest the finals series in 2012. They’ll be determined to prove they can win without Des Hasler and this will put them in the hunt for another premiership. A slow start to the season might be on the cards with 5 away games to start the season.
Key Gains: Ben Farrer (UK)
Key Losses: Will Hopoate (Sabbatical), Michael Robertson, Shane Rodney (both UK)
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
It was a case of so close yet so far for the pride of New Zealand. Many are backing the Warriors to go one better in 2012 but from looking at the cold hard stats, I’m not so convinced. They had a 2011 made up of streaks, opening with a winning streak and followed by a mid season losing streak and finished off with another winning streak. At the end of the first week of finals having been thumped by the Broncos, the Warriors had notched up just 1 win against a top 5 side. (Melbourne Rd 7.) Somehow they got out of jail against the Tigers the next week and credit where credit is due, they played excellent rugby league against a hotly favoured Storm side to make their way to the Grand Final. I look at the final parts of their season as being a peak and I don’t believe they will produce the goods in 2012 and will miss the finals.
The depth of their bench was the key to their success in 2011 and that will once again help them move forward in 2012. The key to major success will be winning big games and maintaining a switched on attitude every week.
New coach Brian McLennan has been ultra successful in his three year tenure of the Leeds Rhinos in the English Superleague. McLennan achieved a win rate of over 70% and 2 premierships in 3 seasons. His real test starts now.
Key Gains: Nathan Friend (Titans)
Key Losses: Shaun Berrigan (Raiders), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Lance Hohaia, Aaron Heremia (both UK)
The Storm are my pick for the 2012 premiership. Many love to write off the storm at the beginning of new seasons simply because they believe they are ‘due’ for a bad season. They haven’t received a lot of support in early betting but personally I don’t know how you can go past a team built around the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop. If they can keep these players injury free then there is no doubt the Storm will figure in the final 8. Where in the 8 depends on how badly the representative season affects them, but be it 1st or 8th, the motivation for the Storm to win the comp still runs high ever since the NRL stripped them of their 2007 & 2009 premierships due to salary cap breaches. The Melbourne Storm’s playing team has been shored up by a run through the finals in 2011 which gives them a better experienced line up in 2012.
Will figure in the 3rd week of finals.
Key Gains: Ryan Hoffman (UK), Jason Ryles (Roosters)
Key Losses: Chase Stanley (Dragons), Adam Blair (Tigers), Adam Woolnough, Troy Thompson (both retired)
The Knights are a team polarising opinions in 2012 and it largely comes down to what people think that super coach Wayne Bennett can do with the cattle he has acquired. Bennett himself is just one of many new faces at the Knights and plenty have walked out the door too. What’s your opinion? Just how good/bad will the Newcastle Knights do under Wayne Bennett in 2012?
One of the most talked about signings for the club is the local legend Danny Buderus. Buderus left the club in 2008 as one of the best players in the NRL at the time. He has since been playing for the Leeds Rhinos and if he can return to the Knights with just half of the form he had when he left, he will be a massive threat to opposing sides.
If Bennett can take the Dragons from the bottom of the 8 to a premiership, then he can certainly do it with the players he has at his disposal this year.
There is a major mental aspect that has made its way into Rugby League in the last 5 years and Wayne Bennett knows how to harness it. This is the number one factor that will see the Knights vying for a spot in the top 4 come the end of the season. The finals however will be another question, but with all the pieces of the Knight’s puzzle put together, they are entitled to go close to a premiership. The bookies know it too and are keeping them at safe odds, and that’s good news for us punters!
Key Gains: Danny Buderus (UK), Kade Snowden (Sharks), Darius Boyd, Adam Cuthbertson, (Both Dragons), Timana Tahu (Panthers).
Key Losses: Adam MacDougall, Dan Tolar, Ben Rogers (All retiring),Isaac De Gois (Sharks), Steve Southern, Cameron Ciraldo, Antonio Kaufusi (All UK).
Adam Blair joins the Tigers with some unfinished business following his ignominious end to the 2011 season when he was suspended for ‘that’ punch up with Glen Stewart from Manly. Blair missed the entire finals series but won’t be looking into the past too much as he endeavours to help his new team find their way to a Grand Final of which they have fallen agonisingly short of in 2010 and 2011. The Tigers have worked well as a team over the past 2 years and have strength in most areas of the park. Wade McKinnon at fullback last year didn’t seem to work and I felt Tim Moltzen would have been better at halfback rather than fullback. But if Joel Reddy, the new signing from the Eels takes up the fullback role then things could be looking a lot better. Moltzen will take up the halfback position following the sacking of Robert Lui for off field indiscretions. I’m really looking forward to seeing Moltzen partnering Benji Marshall in the halves for the first time since 2009.
Focus will be the vital component to the Tigers’ premiership charge as they have shown in the past they can be their own worst enemies when their minds aren’t on the job at hand. They are guilty of being slack in first halves and trying all too late to dig their way out of holes with sloppy passing and ball work. If they can eliminate the bad habits, they are more than capable of living up to their potential which has some bookmakers posting them as the competition favourites. I’m not prepared to bet with, or against the Tigers in 2012.
Key Gains: Adam Blair (Storm), Joel Reddy (Eels).
Key Losses: Robert Lui (Nth Qld), Simon Dwyer (Injury), Todd Payten (Retired), Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita (Both Sharks).
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
It doesn’t take a genius to know that a lot of the Cowboy’s success in 2012 will depend on the fitness of one Johnathan Thurston. If their star half back stays in one piece then things might be looking good for the Cowboys. Thurston has expressed interest in taking over Darren Lockyer’s five-eighth position in the Queensland and Australian sides but it remains to be seen whether he’ll play 6 or 7 for the Cowboys this year. The last time Thurston played club footy as a five-eighth was in 2005 and that year the Cowboys made the Grand Final.
The Nth. Qld line up were solid in 2011 and only a late season funk saw them drop to 7th before dropping out of the premiership race in the first week of finals. They have a good chance at going futher this year thanks to a team full of experience with the likes of Thurston, Hall, Johnson, Tate, Payne and Bowen who all have Grand Final experience.
Key Gains: Kane Linnett (Roosters), Robert Lui (Tigers)
Key Losses: Willie Tonga (Eels), Will Tupou (Rugby Union), Leeson Ah Mau (Dragons)
There have been a multitude of changes to the Eels’ squad in the off season following their 2011 campaign that they would probably rather forget. But Coach Stephen Kearney can’t afford to push it completely from his mind as there are plenty of lessons to be learned from what could be described as a weak effort in the previous 12 months.
The biggest change has been the recruitment of former Rabbitohs halfback Chris Sandow on a 4 year deal worth a reported $1.6 million. Sandow had a solid 2011 although playing in a side that failed to make the top 8. If he can improve on last year’s performance then he can help start the Eels off on the right track for the new campaign. If not, then the entire team is going to sink with him.
The rest will have to come from a group of players that turned up to many games last year looking disjointed and at times disinterested. They barely managed to string together a full 80 minutes and will need to put their lack of consistency under the microscope if there is going to be some changes for the better. I have my doubts as to whether coach Kearney can get this group of individuals firing as a unit in the next few months and I’m already looking to 2013 for the Eels.
Key Gains: Chris Sandow (Eels), Willie Tonga (Cowboys), Ben Roberts (Bulldogs), Esi Tonga (Titans), John Mannah (Sharks)
Key Losses: Joel Reddy (Tigers), Daniel Mortimer (Roosters), Jeff Robson (Sharks)
At the end of the 2010 home and away season the Canberra Raiders were the hottest side in the NRL. They fell short of the Grand Final that year and big things were expected for the 2011 season. But tragically the Raiders had no luck and were besieged by injuries which claimed their star play maker Terry Campese. I firmly believe that the Raiders, with the help of stars Terry Campese and Josh Dugan and not to mention the hard working men like Shaun Fensom, can pick up where they left off at the end of 2010. They have a very similar team and since then have added the likes of Brett White, Blake Ferguson, and Shaun Berrigan which will see the Raiders make a good run towards the top 8 this year. Josh McCrone has matured nicely and looks to be in control of his game more than before.
In thoroughbred racing we use the line ‘forgive last start’ for a horse that had genuine excuses for a poor run and I think we can forgive the Raiders for last year as nothing went their way.
Get behind your team this year Canberra!
Key Gains: Shaun Berrigan (Warriors)
Key Losses: Alan Tongue (Retired), Matt Orford (released), Daniel Vidot, Josh Miller (both Dragons)
2012 marks the beginning of life without the legendary Darren Lockyer for the Brisbane Broncos and everyone is waiting to see just how well the side will do without him. I myself have doubts but one can’t look past the plethora of youthful talent that Coach Anthony Griffin has at his disposal. Besides Lockyer, Coach Griffin was the Bronco’s man of the season in 2011 taking his troops to the 3rd week of the finals. It was a superb effort considering that Griffin was suddenly thrown into the head coaching role just weeks before the beginning of the season. Griffin certainly knows how to get the most out of young players having taken the under 20’s side to the grand final in 2008 and this aspect of his coaching ability will be crucial to the team’s chances in 2012.
Big Petero Civoniceva returns to the club having spent the last 4 years at the Panthers and he would have to be one of the best players in the comp to have acting as a mentor and advisor to the younger players.
Key Gains: Petero Civoniceva (Panthers)
Key Losses: Darren Lockyer (Retired)
It could be an interesting year for the Bulldogs now that Des Hasler has taken up the coaching reigns a year earlier than expected following his falling out with the Sea Eagles. A lot of recruiting has been done at the Bulldogs and it’s probably fair to say that Hasler had nothing to do with it. This means that Hasler won’t hesitate dropping any players this year if they aren’t up to his successfully high standards. If Hasler does take this line then 2012 could turn into a building year in preparation for 2013. But Hasler is certainly ultra competitive and will have another premiership firmly in his sights. One of the key signings was Englishman James Graham who has come from the St Helens side in the English Super League to test himself out in the NRL. Hopefully he can inspire the rest of his teammates because in a side that is now missing attacking powerhouse Jamal Idris, I can’t see much changing from last year. They will be doing well if they make the top 8 and having Des Hasler onboard is the only reason I would describe their relatively short price for the premiership as ‘fair’.
Key Gains: James Graham (UK)
Key Losses: Jamal Idris, Aiden Sezer (Both Titans), Ben Roberts (Eels), Andrew Ryan (Retired).
All eyes will be on Todd Carney as he looks to somewhat resurrect his career after his 2011 season turned out to be full of off field controversies and an on field failure to perform to the high standard he has demonstrated in the past. Success in the upcoming season will depend on how well Carney can get his wing and centre three-quarters firing on the outside of him. The backline have been far from inspiring in recent times and Sharks supporters will be hoping that Todd Carney can stay focused throughout the year enough to help gel the team into a unit that is capable of reaching the finals.
Team captain and front row forward Paul Gallen will have a few new recruits under him in the forwards thanks to some off season additions to the side including Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and Ben Ross. Anyone who knows Coach Shane Flanagan well enough only have good things to say about him and they are more than confident in his abilities as an NRL coach.
Overall it looks that the new signings for the Sharks are going to give them every opportunity in 2012 to become a force to be reckoned with. Whether or not they make the most of it is another story.
Key Gains: Todd Carney (Roosters), Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita, (Both Tigers),Ben Ross (Rabbitohs), Jeff Robson (Eels)
Key Losses: Kade Snowden (Knights), Jon Mannah (Eels), Luke Douglas (Titans).
GOLD COAST TITANS
Wooden spooners for 2011, the Titans line up for the new season with a mix of new and old faces ready to show their fans that they can do a lot better than the disastrous effort that was put out last year. I for one think they can make a run into the top 8 with the help of some new, big name recruits such as Beau Champion, Nate Myles and the menacing, attacking centre Jamal Idris. Idris has made such a huge impression during his time in the NRL that it’s sometimes hard to believe he is only 21 years of age. The side will miss hooker Nathan Friend but his replacement in young Matt Srama has shown that he is more than capable of making an impression on a game with his skills and massive workload.
One part of the Titans line up that the critics are targeting is the halves. Halfback Scott Prince had one of his worst ever seasons last year and in a team built around him, bad performances have a knock on effect. But this year he won’t be able to get the job done without the help of an able 5/8th and it’s this position in the Titans team that have many doubtful of how well they can perform. Aiden Sezer would appear at this stage to be the first choice 5/8th and despite having lingered close to the top grade for quite some time he has yet to make his NRL debut and thus is unproven at the top level. If he doesn’t perform then Coach John Cartwright also has the choice of Beau Henry or Greg Bird but I think he’d rather keep Bird in the forward pack.
It goes without saying that the halves are crucial to any team’s success and with the Titans in 2012 it’s where their improvements need to come from if they are to embed their name in the top 8.
Key Gains: Jamal Idris, Aiden Sezer (Both Bulldogs), Nate Myles (Roosters), Beau Champion (Storm).
Key Losses: Nathan Friend (Warriors), Preston Campbell (Retired), Anthony Laffranchi (UK).
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
Souths just missed the finals last year and a lot of their good efforts were down to some dazzling performances by halfback Chris Sandow. Sandow has now moved on to the Eels and it’s hard to see how they can make the finals when at this stage it seems unsure as to who the halfback will be. Whoever it is they will likely be a rookie and will need to have a big voice if they are going to direct the team around the park effectively. At five eighth, John Sutton has shown he has the ability but is frustratingly inconsistent and can’t be relied on.
On the plus side for Souths, they have an awesome forward pack with the likes of Sam Burgess, Isaac Luke and the juggernaut Dave Taylor. If the forwards can remain relatively injury free throughout the season it will be the best platform for them to build from.
Rookie NRL coach Michael Maguire takes over after a small stint the English SuperLeague and he has plenty of decisions to make regarding who will play what position.
It could be another trying season for Souths fans.
Key Gains: Matt King (UK).
Key Losses: Chris Sandow (Eels), Ben Ross (Sharks), Rhys Wesser (retired).
For a team that struggled majorly in 2011, the one hope they may have had was Todd Carney. Carney is now a Cronulla Shark and the Roosters are left without the kind of electrifying star that a team needs to be successful. Yes the Roosters have some quality players in Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce but they aren’t the guys to produce a game changing, solo effort that may be needed in clutch situations. The Rooster’s depth through and beyond the bench is young, inexperienced and generally lacking and if injuries strike it will hamper them severely.
I can’t see the Roosters figuring in the top 8 but if they are to do so it will be because Coach Brian Smith manages to get the best out of the youngsters in the side.
Key Gains: Daniel Mortimer (Eels).
Key Losses: Todd Carney (Sharks), Nate Myles (Titans).
The early signs for the Panthers don’t look encouraging after they lost workmen Petero Civoniceva and Trent Waterhouse in the off season. This leaves Luke Lewis as the only major strike force in the forwards and he’ll have his work cut out for him playing the role of captain as well. The rest of the forwards will need to step up if they are to give the halves a decent basis to work off.
As for the halves, Luke Walsh and Travis Burns will also need to step up if the side is to go further than they did in 2011. The two will need to work on adding some fluency to their game and work together because quite often we see them taking it in turns of deciding which direction the team will attack. Walsh tends to get very frustrated with himself and with an injection of composure to his game he could have one of his better seasons.
The biggest addition to the Penrith side for 2012 has been former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary straight off the back of taking the New Zealand Warriors to the Grand Final last year. One of Cleary’s primary tasks will be to help centre Michael Jennings regain the form he once possessed and made him a household name. When Jennings is firing, the whole team is firing.
Overall, Cleary will need at least a season to turn this side around and focus on some solid recruitment in future seasons. The Panthers are not for me this year.
Key Gains: Clint Newton (UK), Chris Armit (Bulldogs), Cameron Ciraldo (Knights).
Key Losses: Petero Civoniceva (Broncos), Trent Waterhouse (UK), Timana Tahu (Knights).
ST. GEORGE-ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Just because Wayne Bennett has left to coach the Knights, doesn’t mean that the Dragons are a complete write-off in 2012. New coach and rookie Steve Price will have a group of players under him that know how to win and are largely unchanged from when they won their premiership in 2010 albeit a bit older. There is no doubt that some of Wayne Bennett’s legacies will live on in the team and we can’t forget that Steve Price was Wayne’s assistant for 3 years and will know how to handle his team.
Darius Boyd is the big loss for the year and 20 year old Kyle Stanley is set to replace him at fullback. If Stanley is half as good as what some people say about him then he will have no problem filling the shoes left by Boyd and giving his side some potency in the backline.
The biggest key to success for the ‘red V’ is 5/8th Jamie Soward. Wayne Bennett knew how to get the best out of him but Soward had a lacklustre finish to the 2011 season. Hopefully he can regain his confidence in the new season otherwise the Dragons’ overall result may be hampered.
I can see the Dragons figuring in the bottom half of the top 8 in 2012 and with the plethora of experience under their belts, I’m not prepared to write them off come finals time.
Key Gains: Chase Stanley (Storm), Josh Miller, Daniel Vidot (Both Raiders).
Key Losses: Darius Boyd (Knights), Mark Gasnier (Retired).