Expert predictions for NRL top eight in 2018

This story was first written and published for NRL.com.

St George Illawarra Dragons fans take note – your team will be featuring in the Telstra Premiership finals. At least that’s the opinion of the experts at NRL.com.

The Dragons, boosted by the addition of Ben Hunt and James Graham to a side that finished just out of the eight in 2017, have attracted plenty of love from the 24-strong panel.

Big League editor Pamela Whaley joined Ladies Who League’s Mary Konstantopoulos and a host of NRL.com staff including chief reporter Michael Chammas, senior writers Brad Walter and Margie McDonald and video journalists Katie Brown and Zac Bailey in supplying their predictions for the upcoming season. 

At the pointy end of the ladder, the North Queensland Cowboys and Sydney Roosters unsurprisingly attracted plenty of support.

After making their now memorable run through to the 2017 decider, the Cowboys will add top-line trio Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jordan McLean to that playing group.

After the predictions were collated, Melbourne, Cronulla, Parramatta, Brisbane, St George Illawarra and Penrith round out the top eight after the Cowboys and Roosters.

Fifteen of the 16 teams garnered top eight votes. Sorry Wests Tigers fans, but your team were the ones who weren’t included in any top eights.

Here are the top eights, best roughie and which team might fail to live up to expectations from a couple of special guests and the NRL.com team:

Michael Chammas (NRL.com chief reporter)

1. Roosters

2. Eels

3. Cowboys

4. Sharks

5. Panthers

6. Dragons

7. Storm

8. Knights

The Roosters and Cowboys are the obvious favourites but Parramatta are on the verge of something special. The experience of Ben Hunt and James Graham will guide the Dragons back to finals football while Melbourne will slip down the ladder as a result of Cooper Cronk’s departure. A new-look Newcastle will sneak into the top eight.

Best roughie: The hopes of the Bulldogs rest on the fitness of Kieran Foran. If he can play 80 percent of games then the Dogs will fix their attacking woes and play finals football. However, there are doubts his body will be able to withstand the rigours of a 24-game season.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The departure of Ben Hunt is massive for Brisbane. They’ve lost a couple of exciting youngsters like Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese, as well as the experience of Adam Blair. Who knows where prized recruit Jack Bird fits into the equation and there are concerns over Anthony Milford’s ability to steer the team around the paddock alongside Kodi Nikorima.

Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League)

1. Melbourne Storm

2North Queensland Cowboys

3. Sydney Roosters

4. Cronulla Sharks

5. Parramatta Eels

6. Brisbane Broncos

7. St George Illawarra Dragons

8. Newcastle Knights

If there are any rugby league fans that have not included the Storm, Cowboys and Roosters in their top eight, please direct me toward them because I want to hear their reasoning. In 2018, these are my top three teams by a long shot.

Each year the demise of Melbourne is predicted, but it’s been proven time and time again that as players come and go, the Storm system is capable of replacing them. The Cowboys will be stronger with Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott returning from injury and the Roosters have two slick new recruits in Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco.

I’ve predicted the Dragons and Knights to jag the final two spots, but I’m not confident. Those last two spots are certainly the two that are up for grabs.

Best roughie: The Canterbury Bulldogs do not make my top eight, but it is a foolish rugby league fan that completely writes off the team from Belmore. The thing with the Bulldogs is, they are an unknown quantity. They have a new coach in Dean Pay and new recruits in Keiran Foran and Aaron Woods. It is anyone’s guess what Pay’s game plan looks like and whether Foran will be able to return to his form at Manly which made him one of the best players in the NRL.

Additionally, don’t underestimate the impact of a stable front office. With a new CEO in Andrew Hill and a new chairwoman in Lynne Anderson the focus will firmly move from the front office to the field this year and I am expecting an improvement from 11th place last year.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: I do not understand the hype around the Panthers and I think I’m one of few people that has them missing the eight. Don’t get me wrong, the Panthers have an impressive squad with the likes of Josh Mansour, James Maloney, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Dylan Edwards and Nathan Cleary but for me, something isn’t right out west.

How is it that two players in Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright, tipped to be the nucleus of the team for the next decade are suddenly no longer with the club?

Sharks centre Josh Dugan.
Sharks centre Josh Dugan.©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Pamela Whaley (Big League editor)

1. Cowboys

2. Roosters

3. Storm

4. Sharks

5. Eels

6. Panthers

7. Broncos

8. Rabbitohs

The Cowboys have only strengthened as a team since making the grand final and the addition of Melbourne’s Jordan McLean up front will be huge for their depth in the forwards. It’s Johnathan Thurston’s final year before retiring and they’ll be next to unstoppable to give him the fairytale ending he deserves.

Best roughie: The Dragons. I have them missing the top eight, but only just. We saw how good they were when everything was working well last year … until it didn’t. If they can maintain their form over 25 rounds they will definitely be a finals contender.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: It’s impossible to know whether the Knights are going to be an instant success or if they will warm up the deeper we get into the season. They’re a complete mixed bag of homegrown talent, youth and established recruits. Anything could happen and it would be no surprise.

Brad Walter (NRL.com senior reporter)

1.Eels

2.Cowboys

3.Sharks

4.Dragons

5.Roosters

6.Warriors

7.Storm

8. Bulldogs

The Eels exceeded expectations last year to finish in the top four and will be a better team with Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman having an off-season to work together, while Jarryd Hayne is still capable of some magic moments that win games. The Cowboys, Sharks, Dragons, Roosters and Warriors look stronger, while the Storm may drop a cog without Cooper Cronk and the Bulldogs are settled off the field.

Best Roughie: If the Burgess brothers can return to their best and the Rabbitohs backline stars, led by captain Greg Inglis, new recruit Dane Gagai and halfback Adam Reynolds, can stay fit they have the potential to challenge the top teams.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Broncos are a club which rarely misses the finals but they’ve lost some leading players in Ben Hunt and Adam Blair and are relying on replacing them from within. Jack Bird is their big signing and he could be a star but his best position is unclear.

Margie McDonald (NRL.com senior reporter)

1. Roosters

2. Storm

3. Cowboys

4. Sharks

5. Panthers

6. Rabbitohs

7. Sea Eagles

8. Raiders

If the Cowboys remain healthy, they should win the grand final driven by two main things: (1) the Thurston Farewell Tour and (2) they lost that game last year. The Roosters have the best halfback-hooker combination for 2018 in Cooper Cronk and Jake Friend. That’s also why Penrith will make the eight with Nathan Cleary and Peter Wallace – and why Broncos won’t make it with ”I’m no Ben Hunt” Kodi Nikorima alongside Andrew McCullough.

Best roughie: St George Illawarra. I’m liking the Cameron McInnes-Hunt connection here but I’m worried the back five has plenty of points in them to score but can they defend?

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Everyone is saying ”the Parramatta of old” is back… by ”old” are they meaning 2009? Because that Eels vintage had Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and Fuifui Moimoi. I’m not convinced the 2018 forward pack is near that class – the backline definitely is.

Paul Suttor (NRL.com editor)

1. Eels

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Storm

5. Sharks

6. Broncos

7. Dragons

8. Rabbitohs

Cowboys star Jason Taumalolo.
Cowboys star Jason Taumalolo.©NRL Photos

The Cowboys and Roosters deserve to be Telstra Premiership favourites, the experience of the Sharks and Storm can’t be ignored while the Eels are the team that could come from the clouds to break their lengthy title drought of everything clicks.

Roughie: The Wests Tigers will surprise their many critics this season if Ivan Cleary’s coaching history is any guide but sneaking into the finals is probably a step too far.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Penrith have lost a lot of depth with the likes of Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu and Mitch Rein going for the Gold Coast, and the Panthers are vulnerable if injuries strike their star halves Nathan Cleary and James Maloney.

Steve Turner (NRL.com reporter)

1. Roosters

2. Cowboys

3. Eels

4. Storm

5. Sharks

6. Dragons

7. Bulldogs

8. Warriors

The Roosters deserve to be the NRL Telstra premiership favourites with Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco now in their colours, while the Cowboys are a close second. The Eels are a genuine title contender and will learn from last year’s finals exit, while the Storm will be looking to go back to back and the Sharks with so much experience will be knocking on the door of the top four.

Rounding out the eight will be the Dragons, Bulldogs and Warriors, three sides who all failed to play finals football in 2017.

Best roughie: The South Sydney Rabbitohs welcome back star fullback Greg Inglis from injury and have also added Dane Gagai to their squad, as well as a new coach.

Consistency is what has been lacking for the 2014 premiers over the past few seasons and unless this improves, playing finals is well off for the Bunnies.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Brisbane Broncos have lost plenty of depth over the summer with the likes of Ben Hunt, Benji Marshall, Herman Ese’ese, Jai Arrow, Adam Blair and Tautau Moga all moving on.

The Broncos are a side who will be hit hard through the Origin period and the pressure to guide the team to the finals will fall on the shoulders of 23-year old halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima who have less than 200 NRL games between them.

Zac Bailey (NRL.com reporter)

1. Cowboys

2. Roosters

3. Storm

4. Sharks

5. Eels

6. Broncos

7. Panthers

8. Sea Eagles

It’s simple for the Cowboys. Add co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, and recruit Jordan McLean in the mix and last year’s runners-up are deservedly among the favourites for the 2018 Telstra Premiership. The addition of Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco puts the Roosters in the mix as well after they fell one win short of the grand final in 2017.

Best roughie: The Dragons finished one win short of the top eight last year. While they’ve lost Josh Dugan, Joel Thompson and Russell Packer, the recruitment of Ben Hunt and James Graham could be enough to lift the Red V to their second finals series in seven years.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: While I’d love to see the Knights go from wooden spooners to finalists, I think they will fall just short of the top eight. They’ve added plenty of big names, but it could be too much change for it all to click in their first season together.

Tanisha Stanton (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Sharks

5. Eels

6. Broncos

7. Panthers

8. Raiders

Despite the departure of Cooper Cronk, the Storm still have a solid side with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater leading the way and some promising youngsters coming through. After a ripper 2017, Cameron Munster gets his opportunity to dominate without Cronk in the halves.

Best roughie: The Knights seem to be starting on a clean slate this year with plenty of new faces at the club. There’s a lot of excitement around how well they recruited in the off-season, so how they go throughout the year will depend on whether they gel well together or not.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Penrith. Although there is a lot of hype around the club, losing several key players in Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu and Mitch Rein could cost them.

Katie Brown (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Eels

5. Broncos

6. Manly

7. Knights

8. Titans

It would be a fairy-tale finish for JT if the Cowboys were crowned 2018 Telstra Premiership winners, especially after their efforts last season. But the Storm will stop at nothing to go back-to-back.

Best roughie:  If the Titans can keep their injuries to a minimum, the Gold Coast will shock the haters. Coach Garth Brennan has respect from his players – watch out.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: They were the 2016 champions, but the Sharks have taken a gamble on Matt Moylan being able to replace James Maloney. If he doesn’t click at No.6, what’s the back-up? The fullback spot is already filled with Valentine Holmes.

Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary.
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary.©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Neil Cadigan (NRL.com reporter)

1. Cowboys

2. Broncos

3. Roosters

4. Storm

5. Eels

6. Dragons

7. Sharks

8. Knights

The Cowboys have the most stable line-up in the NRL, will be driven to send JT out a winner and just have the class. My top five pick themselves as finalists, but the rest is a lottery.

Best roughie: The Titans. Have no external pressure on them, a lot of players who will develop rapidly and will be the big improvers of the second half of the season if they are not beset by injuries, however playing ”on the road” from rounds two to six while the Commonwealth Games are on is their first challenge.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: There has been a lot of movement at the Panthers and while James Maloney adds experience in the halves, there’s just a question mark on whether they have enough strike-power across the park.

Brad Preston  (NRL.com social media journalist)

1. Cowboys

2. Eels

3. Roosters

4. Storm

5. Sharks

6. Broncos

7. Panthers

8. Dragons

It’s hard to look past a Cowboys outfit with Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott back to full fitness and also the addition of Kangaroos front-rower Jordan McLean. Thurston will be attacking every game as if it is his last, and off the back of what is now arguably the best pack in the competition, the Cowboys are the team to beat in the 2018 Telstra Premiership. Closely following will be the Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters who could easily be in the top position come finals time.

Best roughie: Gold Coast Titans – Not to necessarily feature on grand final day but if all things click, they could definitely push into the eight. Garth Brennan has snookered some handy talent from his old club and they look like they have the makings of a handy team. Their season hinges on the performances of their halves in Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey. Elgey seemed to go into his shell a bit last season with Taylor steering the side around but if he can recapture some of his previous form, the Titans can cause a few headaches.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Dragons. Ben Hunt and James Graham’s arrival at the club is a huge positive but will everything just fall into line straight away for Paul McGregor’s men? Their two trials haven’t been overly convincing, however,their forward pack looks to be their shining light. Jack de Belin was the best Dragon on the park in the Charity Shield and Tyson Frizell is set for another huge year at all levels. The big question mark for me is around where the points will come from.

Dragons back-rower Tyson Frizell.
Dragons back-rower Tyson Frizell.©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Dan Walsh  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Roosters

2.Cowboys

3. Storm

4. Broncos

5. Sharks

6. Raiders

7. Eels

8. Dragons

The heavy-hitting Roosters and Cowboys will only be stronger for their off-season recruitment, while the Dragons’ big-spending will lift them back into the finals reckoning.

But for a couple of golden point losses, Canberra would have been there last year as well and have too much skill in them to go missing again. Melbourne and Brisbane still have the class to cover the loss of their top level halves and threaten again, and Cronulla and Parramatta will be thereabouts again.

Best roughie: If Manly miss the eight it won’t be by much. Trent Barrett has made good strides with his roster and the Trbojevic brothers are going from strength to strength. But the absence of a scrumbase foil for Daly Cherry-Evans due to the ongoing salary cap saga leaves them short in such a critical area, especially if the skipper is injured or not firing at full capacity.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Panthers no doubt have the cattle for a top eight finish, but there’s valid concern about what’s going on out at the foot of the mountains. The pressure is on a team constantly being turned over and being traditionally slow starters, they’re every chance of digging themselves a hole their undoubted talent can’t pull them out of.

Chris Kennedy  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Cowboys

2. Storm

3. Eels

4. Roosters

5. Dragons

6. Sharks

7. Broncos

8. Panthers

Adding Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jordan McLean into a grand final team is a recipe for success. The Eels should be better this year than last year and the Storm are never bad, so even despite the loss of Cooper Cronk, they’ll be up there. The Roosters have a minted best 13 but their depth is a worry and any injuries will be keenly felt which is why I have the title favourites down in fourth. The Dragons, Sharks and Broncos should all be good enough to make the finals.

Best roughie: The Knights will have an improved season and they could even sneak into the finals if things go their way. The young forwards that improved so much last year will be better again with the likes of Jacob Lillyman and Aidan Guerra to help out. Mitch Pearce will have a big year, Kalyn Ponga is a superstar in the making and their depth actually looks pretty good. They need a bit of luck but eighth spot isn’t completely beyond them.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Penrith should scrape into the top eight but how much do you read into their poor trial form? Their halves combination is strong but they’ve had a host of departures (Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright, Leilanu Latu, Peta Hiku, Mitch Rein) with James Maloney the only notable signing, which affects their depth. They can’t afford to start as slow again this year as they have the past few years.

Scott Hazlewood  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Eels

5. Dragons

6. Raiders

7. Panthers

8. Knights

The culture the Storm have managed to cultivate will see players step up in place of Cooper Cronk, as much as those are very large shoes to fill. The Cowboys are boosted by the likes of Thurston and Matt Scott back together with the signing of Jordan McLean, they’ll be tough to beat again.

Best roughie: The Knights could be the surprise packet of the competition this year. Yes, they have bought plenty of talent, but can they make it work in such a short period time in crucial positions? The Titans too have bought well in the off-season and are set to raise some eyebrows.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Broncos will be relying greatly on the combination of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima in the halves, and with Jack Bird not being available for the first month, a good start is crucial if Brisbane is to make the eight.

Warriors five-eighth Blake Green.
Warriors five-eighth Blake Green.©photosport.nz

Jackson Thomas  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Roosters

2. Sharks

3. Cowboys

4. Broncos

5. Storm

6. Eels

7. Warriors

8. Raiders

The boys from Bondi have no excuses this year. With the additions of Cronk and Tedesco, the Tricolours are minor premiers in waiting while the Storm will fall a few spots with a new spine. Expect the new-look Sharks to make a genuine premiership push also. 

Best roughie: The only way is up for the Newcastle Knights and they have recruited well for season 2018. A finals birth might be a bridge too far but fans should expect improvement.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Dragons took a hit when Josh Dugan decided to become a Shark and despite the promise shown by Matt Dufty, this side still looks to be lacking a genuine game breaker. A spot just outside the top eight for the Red V.

Andrew Marmont  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Sharks

5. Broncos

6. Warriors

7. Dragons

8. Knights

The Storm and Cowboys should start as premiership favourites as they have their strongest roster across the board. There’s also plenty of incentive for North Queensland to send Johnathan Thurston out a winner, plus the Storm will be keen to prove they can create history with a back-to-back title.

Best roughie: The Warriors look well placed to break their run of not reaching the finals with their improved roster and a settled squad. Coach Stephen Kearney knows most of the players through the Kiwis and Blake Green is an excellent foil for Shaun Johnson.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Canterbury look good up front with Aaron Woods and David Klemmer but are light on in the halves, particularly as Kieran Foran is coming off an injury-plagued season. The Knights could sneak into the eight with Mitchell Pearce set to be the missing link.

Alicia Newton  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Cowboys

2. Storm

3. Roosters

4. Eels

5. Dragons

6. Rabbitohs

7. Sharks

8. Broncos

Traditionally two or three teams miss the finals after playing the previous year, while there always tends to be a surprise inclusion (Manly in 2017), and a side that doesn’t live up to expectation (Canberra in 2017). The Dragons on paper look the big movers for this season, along with South Sydney.

Brisbane will be the big sliders, along with Cronulla, after losing experience over the off-season. Manly, who go into the season without a recognised five-eighth, and Penrith, who have lost depth, to be the two clubs to miss out after last year’s efforts.

Best roughie: Newcastle Knights. It’s not likely to happen this season, but if everything can go right and with a bit of luck, the club may be a surprise packet in 2018. You’d imagine nearly every rugby league fan wouldn’t mind seeing that happen after three lean years in the Hunter. Their biggest strength is they’ve got nothing to lose, but the reality is they possess a losing culture – one that with the right recruits can quickly help turn things around.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Penrith. We’ll know by the early rounds how they fair. They have the firepower and a strong balance to guide them around the paddock but they simply need to go to another level. Losing key men over the off-season doesn’t help their cause, along with constant media speculation over coach Anthony Griffin’s tenure.

South Sydney star Greg Inglis.
South Sydney star Greg Inglis.©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Dylan Morris  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Roosters

2. Cowboys

3. Storm

4. Eels

5. Broncos

6. Sharks

7. Panthers

8. Rabbitohs

In terms of the top four, it’s hard to see anyone but the Roosters and the Cowboys at the top. They have the best teams, and the best coaches on paper, and have built cultures of success in the past years which should have them firing on all cylinders.

The Storm will undoubtedly lose something without Cooper Cronk, but Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster and Brodie Croft will be ready to pick up the slack and pull Melbourne into the top four, while the performance of the Eels in 2017 should have them full of confidence that the return of Jarryd Hayne will turn them into a force to be reckoned with.

Best roughie: This roughie is very rough, but if everything goes right, the Knights should make the eight, given their squad that has young talent and talented experience throughout with the likes of Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce. It would be miraculous for such a fresh squad to gel in only their first season, but stranger things have happened in the NRL.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Sea Eagles are tipped to make the finals after a strong run to sixth place in 2017, but off-field drama could hobble them in 2018.

They’ll need another streak through the State of Origin period like they had in 2017 coupled with more consistent performances into the back-end of the season if they want to make the eight.

Peter Jolly  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Cowboys

3. Roosters

4. Broncos

5. Eels

6. Panthers

7. Sharks

8. Knights

The Storm and Cowboys are well-oiled machines and expect them to be going strong at the pointy end of the Telstra Premiership season.

The Roosters should continue to fly high with Cooper Cronk calling the shots while Knights fans could be in for a pleasant surprise with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga leading the way.

Best roughie: The Canterbury Bulldogs are built on toughness and bite. A fresh start – from the boardroom to a new coach – extending to their multi-million buy Kieran Foran. If Foran stays injury free and steps up with Aaron Woods and Moses Mbye this side could well make a statement.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: They have the roster to cause major upsets along the way, but do they have consistency? The Dragons have to take full advantage of playing six home games in the first 10 weeks.  If the fans roar, so will The Big Red V.

Sea Eagles lock Jake Trbojevic.
Sea Eagles lock Jake Trbojevic.©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

 Joel Gould  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Cowboys

2. Storm

3. Roosters

4. Broncos

5. Eels

6. Sharks

7. Warriors

8. Dragons

The North Queensland Cowboys are in prime position to make Johnathan Thurston’s final season one to remember. With Thurston and Matt Scott back from injury and new recruit Jordan McLean set to give the forward pack more international clout, the Cowboys have assembled the best squad in their history.

This is the season where the Warriors will return to finals football for the first time since 2011 on the back of signing Blake Green at five-eighth and adding starch and quality to their forward pack with Adam Blair and Tohu Harris.

Best roughie: The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have been a disappointment in recent seasons but if new half Kieran Foran can stay on the field and their forwards go back to playing like forwards, and not playmakers, they could sneak into the eight. The addition of new coach Dean Pay will bring a hard edge to the Bulldogs forward play and his understanding of club culture will also play a key role in getting the best out of his men.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Broncos expect to, and should, make the top four with the squad they have at their disposal. He has the size, but there is a big question mark over whether Matt Lodge can provide the grunt to the engine room that the club has lacked in recent seasons. The loss of Adam Blair’s professionalism and one-per-cent efforts will be felt and it remains to be seen whether the rest of the Broncos forwards can fill the breach.

Hayley Byrnes  (NRL.com reporter)

1. Storm

2. Sharks

3. Roosters

4. Cowboys

5. Penrith

6. Souths

7. Warriors

8. Eels

The Storm won’t miss a beat despite Cooper Cronk’s departure. While most question whether the inclusion of Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan will work at Cronulla, their halves and backline will get it together. 

The Roosters can’t be ignored as long as Latrell Mitchell and Tedesco remain healthy. Souths are also ones who could dominate given their pack. 

Best roughie: The New Zealand Warriors. This is finally Stephen Kearney’s team. He has recruited strong-minded and experienced players who can only add value to Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The fact RTS bought in and signed a four-year deal shows promising signs.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: Have Canterbury really improved? Aaron Woods isn’t a whole lot better (if he even is at all) than James Graham, and Kieran Foran has hardly been lighting up the NRL on the field in recent times.

Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu.
Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu.©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Dominic Brock (NRL.com journalist)

1. Roosters

2. Storm

3. Cowboys

4. Eels

5. Sharks

6. Broncos

7. Dragons

8. Sea Eagles

The Roosters were runners-up in the regular season last season and have added two superstars, plus they’ll enjoy the easiest draw in the league in 2018. They should win the minor premiership, with Parramatta and Cronulla battling to join last year’s grand finalists in the top four.

The Dragons should have played finals footy last year and have got a couple of excellent recruits in Ben Hunt and James Graham, and I’ll gamble on the Trbojevic brothers and Daly Cherry-Evans carrying Manly into eighth.

Best roughie: The South Sydney Rabbitohs have a new coach and a new backline star in Dane Gagai, as well as a fit-again Greg Inglis. If Anthony Seibold can get the most out of rising stars Angus Crichton and Cameron Murray and the Burgess brothers they could challenge for a finals spot.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Penrith Panthers may have just made back-to-back finals series for the first time since 2004 but they look set to drop out of the eight again after the exits of Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright. Individually they’re not massive losses – James Maloney is a great replacement for Moylan and Cartwright wasn’t his usual self last season – but with teams around them improving the Panthers could be the side to slip.

Paul Zalunardo (NRL.com journalist)

1. Cowboys

2. Roosters

3. Sharks

4. Dragons

5. Storm

6. Eels

7. Broncos

8. Panthers

The addition of Ben Hunt and James Graham to a side that should have made the finals last year should be enough to help the Dragons to a few more wins. As for the Cowboys, they will add Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jordan McLean to the team that made such a great run through the 2017 finals. Watch out.

Best roughie: If all this talk about the Bulldogs attack being let off the leash proves correct and Kieran Foran is able to recapture some of his old magic, Canterbury might just squeeze into the bottom of the eight. The only way is up following last year.

Team which could struggle to meet expectations: The Manly Sea Eagles had a lot go right last years. Things didn’t go so well over the off-season. They let Blake Green go because they thought they were going to get Mitchell Pearce. When that didn’t work they were left scratching around for a No.6. That’s hardly the ideal preparation for a new season.