This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
It’s just three more sleeps until the 2018 NRL season begins.
This is my favourite part of the season because at this particular point my team (and every other one) can win the premiership. The mistakes and disappointments of last year have (almost) been forgotten and it really is a fresh start for each of the 16 sides.
It’s also a fun time of the year because I get the chance to make some fearless predictions which will largely be forgotten by the end of the year (unless I’m right and then this article should be shared again!).
The question I’ve been asking people is ‘who makes your top eight this season?’ and the responses have been fascinating because, in my view, this is going to be one of the most competitive seasons we have ever seen.
It speaks to the evenness of our league (one that has seen five different premiers in the last five years) that I truly believe that every single team is capable of making the finals in 2018.
So after much thought, I give you my top eight:
1. Melbourne Storm
2. North Queensland Cowboys
3. Sydney Roosters
4. Cronulla Sharks
5. Parramatta Eels
6. Brisbane Broncos
7. St George Illawarra Dragons
8. Newcastle Knights
I am pretty confident that teams one to six will make the eight. But I’m less so about the last two spots, which are up for grabs.
I can’t recall a season where so many teams are heading into Round 1 as unknown quantities.
Rather than being remembered for drama, this off-season will be remembered for transfers and the number of changes we have seen at the clubs both in player and coaching personnel. So many teams head into this season looking dramatically different to 2017.
Ben Hunt and James Graham have joined the Dragons.
Aiden Guerra, Connor Watson, Kayln Ponga and Mitchell Pearce have joined the Knights.
For the Dragons, James Graham will be key in bolstering a forward pack in need of some aggression and mongrel.
For the Knights, part of me predicting that they will make the eight may be hope for the ever loyal Newcastle fans. But their squad is strong and if they don’t make the eight this year, they will go close.
But what about teams that have missed my eight? There are several there that may surprise all of us.
You have the Gold Coast Titans and their new coach Garth Brennan, recently bolstered by the addition of Bryce Cartwright. Brennan has some talent at his disposal including Ryan James, Ash Taylor, Leilani Latu and Michael Gordon.
It was good to hear Brennan admitting that he wants his team to play exciting, attacking football this year, so what the Titans look like this season will be anyone’s guess.
What about the Canterbury Bulldogs, who head into this season with a new captain (Josh Jackson), a new CEO (Andrew Hill) and a new Chairperson (Lynne Anderson)? The squad will also look very different this year with the losses of Josh Reynolds and James Graham and the inclusions of Keiran Foran and Aaron Woods.
It is a foolish fan that writes off the Bulldogs, so while they don’t make my eight, I wouldn’t be surprised if they snuck in.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs also intrigue me. For fans of the red and green, 2017 can only be described as a disappointment. The Bunnies finished the season with 22 points after compiling just nine wins and 15 losses.
But there have been plenty of changes this season. Greg Inglis will return fit and healthy and they have a new coach in Anthony Seibold. There is also plenty of potential in the squad including Alex Johnstone, Cody Walker and Angus Crichton.
For Souths, 2018 could be either a success or completely written off as a rebuilding year.
So who doesn’t make it?
One team that plenty of people have making their top eight is the Penrith Panthers. Truth be told, I just don’t see it.
Yes, the Panthers have talent – Dylan Edwards, Nathan Cleary, Josh Mansour, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Maloney.
But something just doesn’t feel right for me.
We’ve seen the likes of Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright depart the club this year. It seems bizarre to me that the club would be willing to part ways with two such talented players who looked to be a key part of the nucleus that the Panthers were looking to take into the next five years.
Josh Mansour has also indicated that 2018 may be his last at the club.
If there’s drama off the field, then talent on it isn’t going to be enough to save the Panthers.
Then there’s the Warriors – my wooden spooners for the year.
When I predicted my top eight last year, I included the Warriors and said that if they didn’t make the finals in 2017 I would never pick them in my eight again.
I have stayed true to my word and despite a squad that features the likes of Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Adam Blair and Tohu Harris, I cannot recall a player that has gone to the Warriors and become a better footballer.
The Warriors are serial underachievers and will underachieve again in 2018.
Because I’m feeling generous, I have one more prediction.
The Sydney Roosters and the North Queensland Cowboys will play in the grand final this year and the Cowboys will win.
Bring on Round 1 – if there’s one thing I’m sure about it it’s that it will be an exceptionally entertaining season.