Predicting the 2020 NRL top eight

This article was first written for and published by The Roar.

I actually relish a small part of the preseason, because anything is possible. At this point we all still think that our team can win the premiership.

My excitement this year is even more because on the whole, the off-season has been relatively drama-free.

We’ve had a World Club Challenge which garnered plenty of interest, thousands of people turning out for a trial game in Papua New Guinea between the Canterbury Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks, and the NRL Nines which were fun and demonstrated an interest for the game in Perth.

The big question at this point though is who makes the finals.

Each year, I find it harder and harder to select the top eight. It’s a demonstration of how close our competition is that every team is capable of making it.

So after much thought, here’s my top eight – with the caveat that the top six teams I have selected will definitely make it:

Sydney Roosters
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Melbourne Storm
Canberra Raiders
Manly Sea Eagles
Parramatta Eels
Brisbane Broncos
Newcastle Knights

Incredibly, even without Cooper Cronk, the Chooks will be the benchmark yet again.

Latrell Mitchell will be an outstanding acquisition for South Sydney and I look forward to him making the fullback position his own.

A couple of years ago I made the mistake of predicting Melbourne’s demise after big departures like Cronk and Billy Slater, but even though star players may leave, the Storm have a system in place which makes sure that the next generation slot right in.

And then of course there’s Cameron Smith.

Cameron Smith Dally M Medal 2017

Sorry, who? (Matt King/Getty Images)

Manly will go deep into the finals, given what they were able to achieve last year with an average squad and injuries to Tom Trbojevic.

The team that seems to be causing contention is Parramatta, who finished fifth last year. Everyone knows I am an Eels supporter, but I’m curious to understand what has people leaving them out of the eight altogether? The only reason I can come up with is that the last time the blue and gold went into a season with expectation, 2018, they finished at the bottom of the ladder.

But this year, the squad has improved with the additions of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson. Bankwest Stadium will be a factor too – the player love running onto it and have a genuine home-ground advantage.

They will make the finals.

I was wary about including Brisbane, because I question some of Anthony Seibold’s coaching decisions, but I selected them based on their emerging talent – particularly David Fifita and Payne Haas, who are game-changers.

The Knights snare my final position. They were close to the eight last year, but clearly a rift developed between Nathan Brown and his players. With a new coach in place, Newcastle will cause some major upsets.

Kalyn Ponga of the Knights

Kalyn Ponga of the Knights. (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)

But what about the teams I haven’t chosen?

Notable omissions include the North Queensland Cowboys, Cronulla Sharks and Wests Tigers.

Many have picked the Cowboys based on the recruitment of Valentine Holmes, the improved fitness of Jason Taumalolo, and the impact of a new stadium. I still hold reservations.

Last year, Paul Green made some curious calls, favouring experience and his older players rather than taking the opportunity to blood fresh talent. The squad has talent, but I query whether Green is capable of leading them to glory again.

The Sharks have a good squad, including the likes of Matt Moylan, Wade Graham, Bronson Xerri and Shaun Johnson, but something doesn’t feel right.

Cronulla’s off-field dramas have been well documented, including the departure of another CEO and the loss of their home ground for the next three years. What impact will no permanent home have as they take games all across the country?

Would it be cruel to tell you all that the Wests Tigers occupy my ninth spot?

I have tremendous faith in what Michael McGuire is doing, but this squad is missing players in key positions.

I hope to be proven wrong.

The Gold Coast to surprise us all this year with major improvement. They have a new coach, Ash Taylor looks enthusiastic and ready to play rugby league, and while the loss of Ryan James is big, surely 2020 has to be better than 2019 for the Titans.

The Bulldogs will be another improver, just not enough to make the eight.

If there’s one thing I’m sure about, it is that this will be an exceptionally entertaining season, so bring on Round 1.

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