Thursday, March 24, 2011

Gallops Parity Myth

The Gallop dream has been realised, after a 2nd Rd of the NRL season filled with dramatic form reversals leading to a nightmare for tipsters and gamblers alike, NRL parity is a reality. By Monday night it was clear that 2010 was not an aberration, that this is the new NRL, this is Gallops NRL. Parity is king now, but it is a parity born of mediocrity.

With approx 100 former NRL players now plying their trade in the UK Super League, European Rugby, Super Rugby and even the AFL, the competition is unquestionably watered down. The big names are well known and obvious, Sonny Bill, Falou and Hunt all attracted huge headlines when they left the completion for more money and even though others such as Gasnier, Sailor and Tuqiri have returned, these are merely the tip of the iceberg. The bigger issue for the NRL is the number of so called 2nd tier players leaving in their prime.

The Roosters are a case in point. When it was clear by 2006 that the team that went to 3 Grand Finals needed to be re-built the Roosters tried to develop what they hoped would become one of the dominant Centre Pairings in the NRL. Iosea Soliola and Setemata Sa both came into First Grade a bit before they had truly earned it and had some rough performances that certainly hurt their team, but as far as the Roosters were concerned any short term pain, in a season where they were never going to contend anyway, was worth it for the long term pay-off when these two players matured into the players the hierarchy at the club felt they could become. Sa in particular was seen as a star of the future, ironically considering what was to happen, the player he was most often compared to as a youngster was Sonny Bill Williams and with his size and speed he had moments that did conjure up images of Sonny Bill during his time at the Roosters. By 2009, he was starting to display more consistent performances, and with Soliola by this time an established Kiwi test star the future for the Roosters at Outside Back looked bright, but then came contract time. The Roosters were now in a bind, Soliola and Sa had shown plenty of promise, but were not yet the finished article so the club could not justify offering them mega-deals, plus with Pearce and Anasta to lock up to long term deals and a restrictive cap, even a rich club like the Roosters was prevented from being able to lock up their services (not to mention the money wasted on the Masons and O’Meley’s of the world).

Now, if these players had gone to other clubs within the NRL, then Gallops claim that he has bought parity to the sport would have some merit, if the cap had caused these players who had been the beneficiaries of a massive investment of time and effort, as well as money, to leave the Roosters for the Knights or the Bulldogs, then yeah it would have sucked for the Roosters to lose them, and many of the arguments that are now made against the Cap, such as offering concessions for players developed at the club etc, would still be made, but at least Gallop could claim that his management had led to parity and spread the talent around the league. However, they did not go to the Knights or the Bulldogs, these players, who were not even well known stars, ended up in the UK Super League. Sa, Soliola and the dozens of others like them, along with the Buderus’s and Hodgson’s of the world show us that the so called parity of Gallop is really mediocrity, that his system does not spread the talent around, it pushes it away.

Now Gallop would argue, and in fact often does, that there are always other stars coming through and the departure of stars does not hurt the league. He would look at the above story of the Roosters and point out that they just signed Kenny-Dowall to a 1.4 million dollar deal to play in the Centres, but this is where the problem lies. Remember when I said that if Sa or Soliola move to the Knights is sucks for the Roosters but at least they are in the NRL, this is what I was thinking of. If the Cap was not so ridiculously low, either the Knights would have Sa and the Roosters would still have Kenny-Dowall, or maybe the Roosters kept Sa and Kenny-Dowall ended up at the Knights (but hopefully he would have been outside Sa on the Wing for the Roosters) the point is that NRL fans would still have been able to enjoy the talents of both players facing each other, rather than the current system where the overall talent pool of the league is being constantly diluted and blockbuster position duels are extremely rare.

The Salary Cap works in the NFL and AFL because these are sports with very specific skill sets that really don’t translate to other codes. The Cap works in the NBA because even though it restricts LeBron James salary, he can still earn more in the US than he can in Europe and even the 7th guy in a NBA rotation has a bigger contract than all but the top dozen or so European players so there is no risk of losing their players. Football (soccer) does not have a cap for the same reason that the cap is a bad idea in the NRL, if the English Premier League applied a cap, then my beloved Stoke City would finally have a chance to beat Chelsea and maybe even contend for a title, but it would not be by Stoke improving, it would be by Chelsea losing Drogba, Lampard, Terry and Cole to other leagues and the standard of the league would just dive and the level of entertainment would drop with it robbing fans of the product they now enjoy.

Well this is what is happening in the current NRL, the fans are being robbed every week. When Danny Buderus left we were told he was at the end of his career, but he is still going strong in the UK today, Pat Richards scored one of the great Grand Final Trys in 2005, was in the UK by 2007 and is still going strong now, Chris Flannery one of my favourite ever players, gone to the UK in his prime. The issue is that in the past we missed the tail end of stars careers to the UK, Sterling went over to get a taste of it when he was washed up, but Aussie fans saw all the best Sterling had to offer, now we don’t, now we miss the primes of some of our best players, this is why I cringe every time that Gallop brags about 9 premiers in 10 years or whatever it is, and when Rd 2 happens and the media says this is the great thing about Rugby League, that every team has a chance, I think of the 3 or 4 clubs that don’t have anything resembling an NRL quality halfback, and how they can still upset better teams because in Gallops NRL every team has a glaring weakness, the playing pool is too thin, there are barely 32 NRL standard Centres to go round, nowhere near 64 props (2 starters plus 2 bench for each team) and most depressingly as mentioned, there are nowhere near 16 true NRL Half-Backs.... please don’t even mention Five-Eighths.

Finally, there is the impact that these moves have on Rugby Leagues showpiece, State of Origin. Back at the start of this millennium NSW had its most successful continuous run of success at State of Origin level. Left unsaid during this era of success however, was that it coincided perfectly with Matt Rogers, Lote Tuqiri & Wendell Sailor (all Queenslanders) leaving to join Rugby Union. The mass exodus to Europe had not yet really kicked in so NSW had a massive advantage, 3 of Queensland’s best and most experienced Origin Representatives were playing another sport and a look at some of the no-names to play in the outside backs for QLD (Steve Bell anyone) during that time shows the damage this had on their prospects. For the last 4 years it has been Queensland’s turn to inflict crushing defeats upon NSW, and NSW have not been helped by the loss of former Origin stars Matt King, Brett Hodgson, Jason Ryles, Mark Gasnier and Danny Buderus, as well as others I can not now remember. Remember this is the showpiece of Australian Rugby League, after 25 years of Origin the amazing stat was revealed that after seventy off game just 2 points separated the sides, but since then the glimmering jewel of the Rugby League Crown has been tarnished by the loss of stars overseas. Gallops NRL parity obsession, one that has led to a mediocre watered down NRL where parity is a debateable goal anyway (really, what’s wrong with a bunch of strong teams and weekly blockbusters when they meet each other) has had the unintended consequence of destroying parity in the place it was most needed, the games showpiece, State of Origin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

NRL Rd 1 Review/Rd 2 Preview

To begin I want to offer in advance an apology for any grammatical errors in this weeks column, I was 4000 words into a completely different piece, about the kicking game, that I realised on Thursday I could not do justice to just now, so I had to get this out quickly.  Still I hope there is some entertainment contained within, and that you continue to win money following my tips.

What a spectacular start to the new NRL season, no we are not just talking about Ozsportsdude following on with his stellar form from last years finals by going 7 from 8 v the spread in Round 1, impressive as that was, compared to the Roosters v Rabbitohs game on Friday night it was a mere blip on the NRL radar. When you also add in the Cowboys giving their fans plenty of reason for hope with the professional performance at Suncorp it was a stellar first night of the season. This meant that the Saturday games had a lot to live up to and they did not disappoint with the Storm and Dragons in particular announcing their intentions for the season with tough, grinding performances versus teams that have given them troubles in the last few years. The only real letdown of the weekend was Blowout Sunday. Penrith was the most disappointing performance of the weekend. The Sharks are a team that is not expected to contend this year, and they were playing against a Canberra team with realistic aspirations for a Top 4 finish, letting in 40+ points is terrible but it had more to do with a lack of quality than it did a lack of desire. However, the Panthers were a Top 4 team last year (though as a column I am currently working on will show 2009 was a false dawn for Penrith) and they were playing AT HOME, vs. a Newcastle team, that is on the rise but even they would admit, still early on their transition/re-building phase.

So the Round 1 awards are.

Game of the Week - Roosters v Rabbitohs

The NRL could not have asked for a better advertisement to kick off the 2011 NRL Premiership Season. Length of the field Try’s, quality big hits, a huge comeback by South’s, then amazingly the Roosters managing to beat the toughest opponent in the game, ‘momentum’, and swing the game back in their favour during a riveting last 7 minutes. The only ‘slight’ disappointment was the crowd, announced at 26 000+, probably about 5-7 thousand short of optimal, though the TV Ratings were superb.

Performance of the Week - Dragons v Titans

A boring pick I know and there are arguments for other teams, such as the Knights or Storm to get this award, but St George had to travel over to the UK, win the WCC, return to a series of “Bennett to Broncos” stories in the newspapers and then face a professional opponent, at one of the few grounds with a genuine home-field advantage in the competition. The Dragons stood tall in the face of all these potential distractions and announced to the competition that they will be contenders come September.

Individual Performance of the Week - Braith Anasta

Yes, Yes I am well aware that you could accuse me of being a complete homer with this pick, but stick with me whilst I explain myself. After returning to the 6 jersey in Carneys absence, Anasta displayed true leadership throughout the 80 minutes. Displaying his knack for being in the right place at the right time Anasta opened the scoring in the 6th minute. His kicking game was immaculate for the remainder of the game. Most importantly though, when momentum was all with South’s at the end of the game, Anasta’s leadership and skill shone through as he was instrumental in the key plays at the end of the game, particularly the short kick-off that led to the Try that re-took the lead. The Roosters played well as a team, and Pearce had his moments but Anasta showed the Rugby League world why he is the Captain of this team.

Goat of the Week - Referee Phil Haines
There is an argument that could be made for the entire Penrith or Cronulla sides for this award, but when a referee takes out a defender in the in-goal and is solely responsible for a Try being scored then this has been my easiest choice of the week.

ROUND 2 (Home Team first, my pick in Bold)

Eels (-2.5) v Panthers

As discussed in the Season Preview (last weeks column) we enter every season with storeys emanating from Parramatta Stadium telling us that this year was the year that the Eels finally understood the commitment required to succeed in the NRL, that they have never worked harder in the pre-season and that the Eels performances would finally equal their talent. It is easy to be dismissive of these reports, however, as discussed in last weeks column the difference this year is Stephen Kearney. It was clear from last weeks performance that Kearney has fully embraced the Bellamy coaching model, itself based on Wayne Bennett’s philosophy and it appears that more importantly the Parramatta players have also bought in. One of the most stunning stats to come out of Rd 1 was that the Eels did not attempt a single off-load vs. The Warriors. This showed a commitment to Ball Control and winning the Field Position game, no doubt Kearney will slowly remove the shackles as the players earn his trust over the season. As long as the large doses of crazy that have been the hallmark of the Boardroom at Parramatta can be contained away from the Football department then the Eels talent level make them a team you would prefer to avoid come knockout football in September. This should be a fun season for the Parra faithful.

Penrith on the other hand were just awful. As I touched on earlier I am currently working on a column that should explain why there is little reason for optimism in Penrith this year, I am gathering the stats for what will be an in depth column on the random nature of the attacking kicking game that I hope will input some science into the old ‘live by the kick, die by the kick axiom’ that is as old as Rugby League itself. But I digress, my main point is that Penrith need to be able to scare teams with ball in hand, this team has Michael Jennings, so when you hear Luke Walsh constantly refer to working on his kicking game in training it must drive Panthers fan nuts, what he should be working on is set plays designed to put the electrifying Jennings into space.

The only logical reason I can see for a line as close as 2.5 is that we had a lot of close games on Friday night last season and the TAB believes that teams don’t want to be embarrassed on the marquee Channel 9 games so will be more committed. I would argue that the reason we have more close games on Fridays is because Nine choose marquee games for that time and clearly they did not see the Panthers as I saw them, that as a team in decline.

Canberra (-2.5) v Broncos

Even during the middle part of the aughts when the Broncos were a perennial Top 4 contender they had a terrible record down at Canberra Stadium, so the 2.5 line seems very short considering that the Raiders are coming off a resounding victory, against the Sharks admittedly, and the Broncos are coming back from an uninspiring performance against the other 2010 bottom feeder, Nth Qld.

Basically these are the top, and maybe only 3 reasons why the Broncos might win this game

1. Darren Lockyer

2. Darren Lockyer

3. Darren Lockyer

Still Darren is that good that maybe, just maybe, he will be enough.

The one weakness in the Canberra team is a lack of big game experience. By big game experience I am not just talking about Finals games, but even just the marquee Friday Night Games. Being in a small media market, Canberra historically gets screwed when it comes to Free to Air telecasts. They get the odd Sunday Afternoon game, but Friday Night Football is a different animal to the Saturday and Sunday game. Both newspapers spend far more time focusing on the teams preparing to play Friday Night in the week leading up to the games as they know their readers want to be educated on what they will see when they flick on the football after work on Friday. So there are usually more one-on-one interviews and double page spreads on players/teams in the Friday Night Games than there are for the Saturday games. This means there are usually bigger media commitments for the players on these teams in the lead up. Canberra has been shielded from this for much of the last decade and has instead toiled away in Foxtel anonymity. That all changes this week, personally I think they will be fine, I find it more likely that they will be energised by the attention as opposed to it making them nervous and that is why I have them picked to win, however, if there is just a tiny bit of hesitation or fear in their play, then Darren Lockyer will be on hand to exploit it.

Storm (-3.5) v Titans

This is a battle of two of the most professional and best run Football Departments in the NRL so prepare for a high quality contest between two well drilled teams. By Football Department I am not talking about the Board Room or the Salary Cap end of the organisation, no, I am discussing the coaching, physio, Sports Science and youth development arms of the organisation. When compared to the Cronulla’s of the world it is like these clubs are playing in a different competition. In fact even when compared to their peers on the Premiership Table, these two clubs are have superior organisational strength at the Football Department level. Michael Searle has done a stunning job on the Gold Coast and when the lure of first rate medical staff and player development are coupled with the lifestyle afforded relatively famous, fit, young rich males on the Gold Coast when it comes to nightlife and women then the Gold Coast have a number of built in advantages that should ensure they remain a force in the NRL for many years to come. Craig Bellamy has done an equally good job creating a culture of excellence in Melbourne, I always enjoy watching these two teams go head to head.

I have Melbourne favoured in this game based mainly on Home Ground advantage, this coupled with the ‘Eff You’ mentality that I believe will be the driving force behind the team this season after the humiliations of 2010 should be enough to give Melbourne the advantage in this contest. One thing is for sure, it will be a cracking game and definitely one worth getting out to see if you don’t have Foxtel at home.

Wests Tigers (-3.5) v Warriors

The first game of the season between two teams that lost the previous week. Starting 0-2 is never a good thing and with both these teams rightly seeing themselves as contenders entering the season we should see a lot of desperation on display throughout the game. Leichardt is my favourite Suburban ground and it also gives the Tigers a real home ground advantage. The Tigers also have more quality in the Halves and with Tim Sheens as Head Coach they will enter the game well prepared and fully aware of the importance of getting back to .500

The Warriors on the other hand face some real challenges early in the season. Injuries have hurt them and the lack of quality in the Halves (an issue every year they have been in the competition without Stacey Jones is the Seven) is a definite Achilles Heal, but their dominating front row and real quality in the Outside Backs help to cover for these deficiencies and will give them confidence as they run onto the field

One thing that is certain is that this will be an entertaining game, containing as it does two teams that enjoy throwing the ball around and two forward packs unafraid to take risks with offloads, thus generating plenty of second phase play. If Benji Marshall can continue to develop the game management part of his game and show more patience, rather than trying for a miracle in every attacking set then the Tigers should win this game relatively comfortably. I still have my doubts as to whether Marshall has reached the level of maturity however, meaning I am leaning towards the Tigers but without much conviction.

Nth Queensland (-2.5) v Newcastle

Whew, what a tough round this is, so many close games, we are now 5 games in and the lines are all 2.5 or 3.5 the completion mantra of parity (mediocrity in my view, but that’s another column) is on full display this week.

This is another contest where is the game was being played at the other teams home ground then I would by tipping the opposite way. With Jarred Mullen’s outstanding performance last week taking away some of my usual confidence when tipping games that include Thurston that Nth Qld will have a huge advantage in the Halves, I have to look elsewhere for my keys to the game. A word on Mullen last week, he truly was outstanding, yeah Penrith were just terrible admittedly, but you can only play the opposition in front of you and Mullen took advantage of every weakness in the Panthers defensive line with deft ball movement and powerful, straight running. Of course one good game from a Number 7 with a NSW Birth Certificate will no doubt start the inevitable rush of columns extolling his virtues for the Sky Blues Number 7 Jersey* but I will avoid that here. Instead I will just point out that Mullen had an outstanding game in First Grade, which is a positive development for all Rugby League fans that have spent the last 2 years wondering what had happened to the promising kid we saw when he first broke into the Knights team.

*I mean Luke Walsh got his mandatory ‘NSW Half Back Bolter’ column last week in the News Ltd press, a column whose main thesis seemed to be, Andrew Johns is from Newcastle, Walshy is from Newcastle, ergo make him NSW Half Back, seriously it was that bad.

Nth Qld have way too much talent to finish where they did last year, that much is evident when you look at their roster, and something I should have considered before tipping them to finish well outside the Finals in last weeks season preview. It is nearly impossible to underestimate the effect that Dallas Johnson will have on this team. For the last few years Thurston has been basically the lone leader on this team, now on field, Thurston is an elite talent and a great on-field general and organiser. However, his off-field issues seem to preclude him from taking that Cameron Smith, Ben Hornsby type leadership, where through his very example he takes the culture of the club to a higher level. I believe Dallas will be the person (note, person not player) who provides this element to the club. Its hard to knock off early from a Weights Session when the only multiple premiership player on the roster is still in there, same goes for not working hard on field to get back the full 10 and not give away cheap penalties.

As mentioned before, Mullen was outstanding when it came to exploiting the holes and opportunities within the Penrith defensive line on Sunday, this week Dallas Johnson will be scrambling around covering those same gaps, and by his example will be ensuring that his teammates are doing the same. So with less opportunities to exploit at the attacking end of the field I tip the State of Origin and Test Superstar Half-Back, playing at home to be the bloke who takes advantage of them when they are there, and for this reason I am tipping the Cowboys.

South’s v Bulldogs (-1.5)

The Bulldogs once again looked like the Bulldogs on Monday night, with Frank Prichard and a couple of youngsters that seem to just roll off the Belmore Big Boppers Assembly line continuously pushing themselves over the advantage line, this was an old school Canterbury-Bankstown victory built on strong straight ahead ball running and up & in punishing defence. I am no fan of the Bulldogs, but as a sports fan I enjoy it how clubs carry identities through the generations and as a Rugby League fan it is somehow comforting to know that out west there is a team that wears Blue and White, defends up and in and believes a big forward pack is a key to victory.

South Sydney are the exact opposite, part of it is probably attributable to their enforced exile from the competition, some to the crazy ownership struggles of the last few years and the coaching merry go-round at Redfern has not helped, however the fact remains that the Rabbits are a team without an identity and it hurts them. What will hurt them more this week is the loss of Sam Burgess to a shoulder injury. If Burgess is in fact confirmed to be missing, then it is imperative that a search party is sent out to recover Dave Taylors confidence, it went missing sometime in the first half on Friday night and without its recovery South’s have no hope of winning a game that will no doubt be a forward battle.

John Lang needs to get something out of Chris Sandow for this game as well, for one of the few times this season the Rabbits will not be completely outclassed in the Halves as the Doggies are not exactly flush in that area themselves but it is still imperative that Sandow spends a lot of time in the video room this week and is as well prepared as he has ever been when he enters the field this weekend, because an 0-2 start coupled with a Burgess injury and an overweight Ingliss sounds to me a lot like how an article written in September 2011 will begin explaining what went wrong with the Rabbitohs season.

One last thing the Rabbits may want to consider, Ingliss was arguably the best Full-Back when he was at Melbourne, but Slater was a pure full-back whereas Ingliss could play in the Centre’s or even Five-Eighth they left Slater as the custodian. Well if Sandow and Sutton continue to show they are too incompetent to get the ball to Ingliss in dangerous areas when he is stuck out in the Centres, maybe it is time to consider moving him to Full Back and letting him control the game from back there much like the Eels did with Hayne in 2009. This may even be enough to motivate him to get in shape!!!

Roosters (-5.5) v Sea Eagles

Brian Smith has the full trust of his players and despite all the talk of how he has become more relaxed and calm as a coach, his legendary work ethic and attention to detail continue to give this still young and developing team an edge over most opponents. The game plan last week revolved around setting a solid foundation early and not allowing the new season’s nerves lead to early mistakes. So he sent out a starting Front Row that included Ryles, Kennedy and Piggy Riddell (in the run-on side for Friend who was named the Starting Hooker) and instructed them to play a safe brand of Football, running straight and hard, not looking to offload, get to Tackle 5 and then let the exceptional boots of either Pearce or Anasta establish Field Position. Once the Roosters had established a foothold in the game he then unleashed Mosse, Friend & Warea-Hargreaves for impact and this more dynamic line-up immediately got the Roosters on the front foot and helped them build a substantial lead.

Now the above game-plan seems so solid that you would imagine it will happen every week, but with Smith as Head Coach that will not be the case, each week the team will be prepared to take advantage of the other team’s weaknesses. For example, last weeks game plan was perfect for playing a Rd 1 game against South Sydney as with all the hype that follows that team into every season since Russel Crowe took over, it was important that the Roosters were not matching nerves with nerves, dropped ball with dropped ball. Smith understood that there was a possible advantage here and sent out a conservative and experienced line-up in the early going, leaving his impact for when the Rabbits had burned off their nervous energy and were settling into the game proper. Against the Sea-Eagles it will be a different situation, Manly still has a number of premiership players on their Roster, especially in the Forwards, so the Roosters can not rely on inexperience and nerves from opposition forwards to give them the edge. With Manly, the inexperience is to be found in the Halves and Smith can be expected to design a game plan to exploit any hesitation or nerves from the 6 & 7.

For Manly any hope of winning really revolves around setting a dominant platform with their big pack, getting Watmough to attack around the edges and getting Brett Stewart to feed off any off-loads as he is more likely to find space when receiving the ball in this situation than he will from his young half-back. If Carney plays for The Roosters then Manly need to make Anasta defend like a true second rower and see if they can wear him down and exploit any fatigue in the last 10 minutes, yeah Anasta is a solid defender, but he has spent most of his career in the Halves where he was a plus defender for a Five-Eighth, however now he is in the Back-Row they need to find out if he is still a plus defender when he has made 30+ tackles at the back end of games.

As I said in the NRL season preview, I don’t rate Manly this year and am looking forward to my beloved Roosters proving me correct this weekend, I think the Roosters have this game wrapped up by midway through the second half, and unlike last week I don’t think they will go inviting their opponents back into this match.

Cronulla v St George (-7.5)

Cronulla are truly an awful team, for all the good he did at Bondi, it is now becoming quite clear that Ricky Stuart is a poor first grade coach. Not only does he do a poor job of winning games and developing players he has a habit of leaving clubs in a complete shambles as he walks out the door. We often hear how great players do not make good coaches as they cannot understand why lesser players are unable to do things they used to find so simple and Ricky appears to be the very definition of this sort of coach particularly when it comes to Halves. So Shane Flanagan has a tough job re-building his roster and the confidence level of his young side. Unfortunately for him the Dragons already appear to be in mid-season form and look set to unleash a total beat-down of the Sharks on Monday night, thankfully for Cronulla this will happen in the relative anonymity of Monday Night Football


Wednesday, March 9, 2011



Welcome to season 2011, where after the stunning 8 from 9 run picking vs. the spread in last years Finals Series, we will be providing yet more opportunities to make money from following my picks. Or in the more likely scenario, the dream run will end and you can get rich by choosing the opposite of all my choices.

The Round One picks will be following in a column on Friday, what follows is the 2011 season preview, what follows is actually take 2 of the season preview. Take One was half written last week with a great introduction based around the lack of travesty’s involving players leading up to start the season, then Todd Carney was done drink driving (more on that shortly) closely followed by Benji Marshall deciding that 3 days after being the face of the NRL at the season launch would be a great time to go practicing his boxing out the front of a city McDonalds. Seriously it is getting to the point now that whichever player the NRL chooses to star at the season launch should just provide his mug-shot before he leaves the premises, it would save us all a lot of time.

Lets go back to the Todd Carney incident to begin with, to re-cap the facts, two weeks ago he went out on Friday Night (24 yr old males are allowed to that right?) and then woke up early on Saturday morning to drive to a meeting with his manager, on the trip he was pulled over by a police officer and given a random breath test, he still had some residual alcohol in his system from the night before and blew .052. Due to past traffic violations including incidents with drink driving he was driving on a .00 license, this led to him being arrested and charged with being over the limit. Now there is a scandal here, but not the one Phil Rothfield and the rest of the morality police that masquerade as Rugby League journalists in this town have tried to create.

When Carney pulled out of his driveway he had a Police Car driving down the road in front of him, from reports it appears the copper looked in his rear-view mirror, recognized who Carney was, pulled up, let Carney past and then put the Sirens on to pull him over for a ‘random’ breath test. Now I would suggest that no other car driving down that road at that time of the morning would have even been pulled over in that situation, it was only because Carney was an NRL star that the police officer in question decided to ‘randomly’ pull him over and breath-test him. This is the scandal, not Todd Carneys behavior, but the fact that Todd Carney was treated differently by an officer of the law because of who he was.

Not to get all political, but one of the basic tenets of life in a democracy is that ‘all men are created equal and treated equally under the law’. In this situation however, Carney was clearly treated differently than you or I would have been in that position, we would not have been recognized and therefore not pulled over and given a ‘random’ breath test. It is illegal to profile suspects based on race, gender or religion, Airport Security staff are not allowed to target Muslim’s or Arabs for extra attention at random screening stations for explosives, police are not allowed to randomly search aboriginals at a higher rate than the rest of the population for drugs etc, that is called Profiling and is a tactic that’s illegal for law enforcement officers to employ in the fight against crime. Yet it appears that profiling NRL Players for special attention when it comes to Traffic Violations is perfectly OK in NSW, at least according to intellectual midgets like Rothfield and Rebecca Wilson, well how would they like it if this form of profiling was put in place for illiterate sports journalists, I’m tipping they would be against it, if every time they went out they were afforded extra scrutiny by the police, hell I know they would be, seeing how over the top their reactions are to even the slightest criticism from their peers.

Onto the team by team season preview……..

Brisbane Broncos.

It is really, really tough to get a read on the Broncos at the moment. Sacking the coach 3 weeks before the season begins is never a good sign. Even though the little known assistant coach they have replaced Henjak with seems to be respected within the game, the fact they have all but put the word ‘Caretaker’ in front of his title is not a good sign. Brisbane has chosen this path as they wait to take pole position in the Bennett sweepstakes at the end of the season, unfortunately for the 2011 campaign this gives the strong impression that they are prepared to sacrifice this season while they wait for their shot at Bennett in the summer.

Such a strange stance for this club to take at this time, particularly with the amazing Darren Lockyer being at the tail end of his stellar career you would think that the club would try and make a real run at premierships in each of the last few seasons they have this true match winner on their roster, instead they are in this weird twilight zone of not re-building nor truly contending.

No big buys in the offseason other than Ben Hannant, the overrated Wallace partnering Lockyer in the halves and the aforementioned new coach on a one year contract, just too many red flags to have much faith in this team this year. It truly appears that this season will all rest on Lockyer's leadership and the development of some of the young kids particularly in the forwards.

Predicted Finish - 12th

Canberra Raiders

A lot of hype around this team entering the season, based mainly on the many talented youngsters we saw begin to show real promise in the second half of last season. This hype may well be fully warranted, especially as they have two genuine blue chippers in David Shillington and Terry Campese (currently injured but will be back for the run into the finals). Also Matt Orford is a smart buy for this team, he is a professional half-back, don’t know if I trust him to win you big games, and he is prone to go missing in big moments but he will be invaluable in helping this team get off to a solid start as they await Campese’s return and will provide a veteran presence to help guide the many young stars that make up the 2011 version of the Green Machine.

The main hype with this team surrounds the blistering play and boundless potential of their young Full Back Josh Dugan. Some of the play that Dugan produced last season was that of a true super-star in the making. Unlike Jarryd Hayne from the previous season, there just seems to be something a little more substantial about this years superstar de jour, mentally Dugan seems tougher and less likely to fall victim to his own hype than Hayne and consequently less likely to suffer a 2010 Hayne-like slump.

Still there is always the risk with players coming off a breakout season that as opposition coaches start to specifically game-plan for them and create specific strategies designed to take away the players ability to beat them using his primary skill and plays that have worked before they will quickly run out of ideas and lose their ability to impact games. This then raises the question for the up and coming superstar, do they have an elite secondary skill set that they can use to keep dominating games?

Dugan just seems like the sort of player and person who would have worked hard all off-season on adding some extra strings to his bow, like Kobe Bryant developing a post game in the off-season following his first Non-Shaq championship, the great ones never feel they have arrived and always work hard at developing themselves. Before you think I have gone all Rothfield on you, I am not anointing him early as a great one, based on ½ a season, I am merely saying that if he is to become an elite talent then he would have worked hard developing himself in the off-season and will see the fruits of those labors throughout 2011.

Still this can not be taken for granted and that is why the word ‘cautious’ precedes optimism in nearly all discussion of the mindset of Canberra Raiders fans, his elite trial form has helped remove some of this caution, but it will still be the first 5 – 6 weeks of the new season that will tell us a lot about Dugan and his young teammates, maybe by round 12 ‘cautious’ will be replaced with ‘unbridled’ and Canberra fans will start to dream of September glory.

Predicted Finish - 5th

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Such a transformation from this club in the last few years, a team that spent so many years on the front pages of the paper, with scandals from Coffs Harbor to the Salary Cap, Sonny Bills defection, Willie Masons all round craziness and a fan base that did not always show the club in the best light, the Bulldogs have recently become a professional and somewhat boring team. After an awful season on field after the Sonny-Bill drama, they quietly and competently re-jigged their whole team in 2009 bringing Brett Kimmorley on board and turned themselves into a serious contender for the title.

What does this have to do with 2011, well this offseason feels a lot like the 2009 offseason, again the Bulldogs have just gone quietly about their business, no big moves in the player market, no pre-season predictions of dominance, instead just a professional club preparing maturely for the upcoming season. If it was another club that had endured a season like the Bulldogs in 2010 and had seemingly done so little to upgrade their roster in the offseason I would have them penciled in for a finish in the lower half of the ladder. However, Canterbury (the new version) is such a well run organization that I view them as this years sleeper team, one that will not only challenge for a spot in the Finals but one that could be there deep into September. As a Roosters fan it is my duty to hate the Bulldogs and I happily fulfill that obligation on an hourly basis, but even though I hate them I still fear and respect them, the Bulldogs play a solid simple brand of Football, they always seem to have an assembly line of solid young forwards coming through the ranks who’ll give you an un-complicated, aggressive 130 Yards a game and if they can get consistent play in the halves, they will be a team you don’t want to face in September.

Predicted Finish - 6th

Cronulla Sharks

Cronulla are sort of like the Bulldogs, only the exact opposite. It’s so tough to even find 100 words to write about this awful team. Shane Flanagan appears to be a very good coach, I really believe that he was an underrated part of the success of the 2002-04 Roosters dynasty, so maybe he can get something out of this rabble, but it will be tough. With the departure of the overly conservative Ricky Stuart as head coach, maybe Anthony Tupou will finally feel free to express himself with the football and produce more of his signature off-loads and become the player that Cronulla thought they were signing 2 years ago.

It must have been so hard for Tupou to play for a coach like Ricky, basically Tupou has one elite skill, that is off-Loading the ball after drawing multiple defenders, basically creating instant attack, however with the ball control obsessed Stuart as his Head Coach Tupou did not feel empowered to utilize the very skill he was signed to provide, lets hope for his sake and for the sake of the long suffering fans in the Shire that Flanagan takes the shackles off and allows Tupou and his teammates express themselves.

If you are going to lose you might as well be entertaining, losing low scoring snooze-fests week after week for the last 2 years must have been brutal for Sharkies fans, let’s hope that if 2011 can’t give them more wins, it at least gives them more entertainment.

Predicted Finish - 16th

Gold Coast Titans

The big questions on the Gold Coast this year revolve around age. Is this team too old? Is relying on an aging half-back with a brutal injury history and the apparently ageless, but nevertheless aging Preston Campbell for most of your attacking flair a formula for success in a league that seems to be skewing younger all the time?

Look around the NRL at the moment, look at the ages of the players mostly regarded as the elite, gone are the days of the experienced older hands being the dominant players on the field, instead of Joey Johns, Freddie Fittler, Alfie Langer, Shane Webcke and other players around the age of 30 being the competition benchmarks we now have a league where each season seems to present a couple of players under 24 who are setting the standard for elite players and leading their teams. Over the last few years, the title of brightest star in the game as been passed around between Jonathan Thurston, Sonny-Bill Williams, Greg Ingliss, Benji Marshall, Todd Carney, Jarryd Hayne and now Josh Duggan. Salary cap constraints and player defections see the league getting younger and younger, even Cameron Smith (my choice for best player in the world) who feels like he has been around for ever at this point is still only 26.

There are so many questions for the 2011 Titans.

Will the age and experience of the Titans provide an advantage?

Will all that experience in big games, tough moments and defining plays provide the edge for this team as we get down to the big games at the end of the year?

Will the fact they have been there and done that allow them to negotiate the Origin period more clinically than their youthful rivals?

Will the grind of the brutal 26 week NRL season catch up with the older legs leading to a straight sets exit come finals time (if they get that far)?

This feels like more than just a season for the Titans, this feels like a referendum on where the league is headed, what happens with the Titans this year, a team that is smartly coached and has as good a front office as exists in the sport, will be watched closely by teams all around the league who will have to decide in future seasons, do we top up with experience if I feel like we’re close to contending for a premiership (not a concern for Cronulla of course), or will youth and fresh legs give us the edge we need. The 2011 Titans will have to find out all by themselves if experience still matters in the NRL.

Predicted Finish - 9th

Manly Sea-Eagles

Such a boring team I nearly forgot to even include them in my season preview. Des Hasler (worst Haircut in the NRL and that’s saying something) continually talks about flying under the radar and I really don’t think that will to difficult for them this year. Brett Stewart is a quality Full-Back who 10 years ago would have been elite, but he is a player born to the wrong generation. He is a solid ball runner and has a nose for the Try-Line but in the modern NRL you need more than that from your Full-Back if he is your best player. His ball-playing is sub-par so he is incapable of creating the sort of overlaps that Karmichael Hunt patented in Brisbane, this coupled with his straight ahead running style means he is incapable of threatening teams laterally. He will get his fair share of Try’s but without a top level half back feeding him into the miniscule holes that constitute gaps in the modern NRL defensive line he will not dominate the way he did with Orford and Monaghan creating those gaps for him.

Maybe I am wrong about this team, it’s certainly possible as I find them so boring, even their awful maroon jerseys are boring, that I find it difficult to take much notice of what is going on with the team, so maybe they will be a contender but I just don’t see it. This is a team that would have gone toe-to-toe with the Ricky Stuart Roosters, but much like Ricky found at Cronulla the last few years, the NRL has evolved and I think that Manly will be a team that goes the way of the Dodo and the dinosaur. By Round 15 we will start hearing rumors about the demise of Des Hasler, but even this would be a mistake, the issue for Manly is not Hasler who has proven he is a good coach for a club that is re-building or contending, the issue for Manly is a lack of game breaking talent, this is a blue collar team that will produce a blue collar style of play. Let’s just hope that all this workmanlike play will not put a good coach in Hasler out of work altogether.

Predicted Finish - 15th

Melbourne Storm

This week the Melbourne Storm will play their first game for premiership points in just under 12 months. After the well documented salary cap issues last year, this is a different looking Storm team than what we have been used to in many ways, but in the most important areas it still looks very much the same as the juggernaut we have known over the last 4 – 5 years.

Yes there is no Greg Ingliss anymore, a couple of the $200K+ a year forwards have gone, and they will surely be missed, but they still have the best player in the world (Cameron Smith) the most dangerous match winner in the code (Billy Slater) and a half-back who seems like he was genetically manufactured to run a Craig Bellamy coached team (Cooper Cronk). They also still have an elite coach in Craig Bellamy. Make no mistake, this team has been weakened at the edges, it might not be as dominant as it was in years past, but they are still my tip for this years title. There are so many reasons to fear this team, let’s list just a few here:

1. This is a team that will be in complete and fully fledged EFF YOU mode all season, after being humiliated and forced to play for nothing for basically the entirety of last season; this team has been through a uniting experience unlike any other in team sports. They have waited for 11 months to come out and reap their revenge on the competition, this will not be a team that takes its foot off the throat of any opponent this year, I can see 3 or 4 scorelines of the 48-4 and 54-6 variety. There are two types of teams you never underestimate, teams that have the mindset of “Nobody believes in us” and teams in complete ‘Eff You Mode’, both these mindsets are born of feelings of disrespect, the Melbourne Storm don’t just feel disrespected, they feel that the league tried to humiliate them, Craig Bellamy is a proud man, I expect a proud response.

2. If every player in the NRL was made Free Agents tomorrow and a league wide draft was instituted to re-spread the talent around the League the Storm have 3 players who would definitely go in the Top 10, and quite possibly top 5 (Cronk is not the 5th best player in the game, but he is a half-back and you can’t win without an elite Half-Back in the modern NRL) Cam Smith would be picked first, 40 tackles a game, smart ball player and the cherry on top a great kicking game, having a non-half who can kick is one of the most valuable assets in the modern game as it means opponents cannot tee off on your halves come tackle 5 so even if Smith doesn’t kick the ball, his very presence buys extra time for Cronk to get his kick and he has one of the most astute short kicking games in the NRL.

3. Being in Melbourne helps immensely, no Police Officer is randomly recognizing NRL players in Victoria and subjecting them to unfair treatment of the type Todd Carney faced, they can go out and live relatively normal social lives and as the Storm players are basically the only people in Victoria who understand the game it all but forces them to hang out together, helping forge stronger bonds than exist at clubs in Sydney.

4. An elite coach in Craig Bellamy, very few players leave the Storm and become better players at their new club, this says something about the systems, both in-game strategy and their development on the training paddock, that they have down in Melbourne, and this is an elite Football Department, that develops its players better than any other team in the competition.

So they have an elite coach, you just know that by Round 12 we will be talking in glowing terms about 2 or 3 Melbourne players, probably forwards, that we don’t even know the names of today, they have an almost unprecedented motivation level and are led by 3 of the best players in the world. That sounds like a contender to me.

This is shaping up as one of the all time great EFF YOU seasons in the history of World Sport. If they win, just seeing Gallops face as he is forced to present the trophy to Bellamy will be epic and the Cam Smith/Craig Bellamy post GF speech could be one for the ages.

Predicted Finish - Minor Premiers/Premiers

Newcastle Knights

Interesting times at Newcastle, with the quasi-buy out by Nathan Tinkler creating yet another interesting new ownership model in the already byzantine governance structure of Rugby League in this country. I’m currently undecided on what to make of this Tinkler fellow, from what I have seen so far you can tell he genuinely loves the game of Rugby League, this is not a situation like Clive Palmer with the Gold Coast A-League franchise that appears to be more about ego than love of the game. Tinkler genuinely seems like a Rugby League die-hard.

Also he seems to have some good ideas that frankly should have always been part of the Newcastle charter anyway. The Hunter region creates so many good footballers, that Tinkler is right when he says a Hunter Valley 17 would be a very good chance to win the premiership (he said they WOULD win, I say they would be a bloody good team that would have no hope of being under the cap). Still his plan of creating a team made up mainly of Hunter Valley juniors is so obvious that it seems crazy that this would not be the Newcastle plan anyway, then you remember that Paul ‘Chief’ Harrogan, hardly an intellectual colossus has been a key figure on the Knights board for the last few years and any failings up Hawkesbury way start to make a lot more sense.

I also like the fact that he has repeatedly said he has neither the time, nor the inclination to run a Football Club, as a fan of the Washington Redskins in the NFL, let me tell you there is nothing worse than a sports team owner who treats your team like his own real life version of a fantasy team and starts micro-managing playing personnel decisions. However, straight after saying this we find out that he is calling Kane Snowden and all but telling him not to sign with Cronulla because he should come to Newcastle. Well the question clearly is, if he was doing this stuff when he is just a donor to the Knights, now that he is a much more influential member of the organization will he still be making these calls, and what happens when he wants a player with or without Hunter Valley roots and the Head Coach thinks that the player does not fit his system, in this situation whose opinion will matter more, Coach or Owner?

It’s all well and good to espouse a philosophy and expect decisions to be made that fit within it, which is just smart management. A good front office appoints a Head Coach and a Football Manager, sets some parameter’s and then steps back and lets the experienced/talented people he has hired do their jobs. The nightmare scenario for fans is when the Owner/Front Office starts putting in their 2 cents on what should be done with individual players. One thing is for sure, for non-Knights fans this will be fun to watch either way. As for this season, I feel the Knights are a team and a club in transition and unless Jarrod Mullen has huge season they will be closer to the bottom of the ladder than they will to a spot in the Finals. The question then is, will Tinkler be able to sit back and observe what happens to his money, or will he feel compelled to tell them where to spend it? (See told you this will be fun)

Predicted Finish - 13th

New Zealand Warriors

Yet another club that is really tough to get a read on for this season. It has become such a cliché to talk about inconsistency with this team that I am embarrassed to be writing this sentence, but it is unavoidable…… This is a team that if it can develop a mentality of consistent effort not only week to week but also within games will be very dangerous, but no-one knows if they can or will. Its so strange too because Ivan Cleary is a very high quality coach, he is measured, calm and committed to the fundamentals of Rugby League, and even he can’t break this team of its maddening multiple-personality disorder.

I believe that clubs develop cultures that define them, yeah coaches can come in and occasionally impose their will on the club and you feel they have changed the culture of the place, but usually when they are gone, clubs return to the personality that has historically defined them. For example, Anderson did some good stuff at Cronulla, imposed a level of professionalism on a club not used to it and managed to get some good results, but even before he was gone, they started to just be Cronulla again. The Bulldogs are a factory that pumps out big mean aggressive forwards, and no matter what the trends of the league are, they will always be a club that plays with an aggressive up and in defense and wins with its forwards.

So maybe the Warriors, who remember are now about 11 years old as a club, just have a culture of inconsistency, maybe the high-risk, high-reward, free-spirited way they play, with multiple off-loads, from massive framed but sublimely skilled Polynesians has way of seeping off the field of play and defining the culture of the entire organization, maybe their inconsistent playing style (unavoidable with the risks they take) has a way of becoming part of the DNA of the club. Yep, it’s a crazy theory, but can you come up with a better reason why if you Google the New Zealand Warriors and pull up a Newspaper Story or a match report from any time of the last 12 years I can all but guarantee that the word inconsistency will appear somewhere in the article (go ahead and do it, the column will be waiting for you to come back…… see what I mean, it was there wasn’t it?).

So this year, will they be good or bad? With absolutely no confidence at all in my pick, I am guessing this will be a down year, but that is only because I have so many teams I think will be good this year that I have to pick some teams to be with Cronulla down the bottom.

Predicted Finish - 10th

Nth Qld Cowboys

The big unknown with this team entering the new season is what impact did the Phil Gould review have on the operations and structure at the club moving forward. This cannot possibly be downplayed in considerations of the prospects for this club. North Queensland last year was a complete and utter shambles (surely it is not a coincidence that the lowest points in the recent history of 3 different clubs, Bulldogs, Roosters & Cowboys came when Willie Mason was on the Roster right??). Thurston who until the last 2 years had appeared to be a model footballer, well when related to on-field and training anyway, suddenly was feuding with his coach, playing uninspired football and appearing on the periphery of all sorts of unsavory incidents and story’s.

It really appeared that Thurston only appeared fully engaged in 2010 when playing Origin for Queensland; this had to be frustrating to his coach and his teammates. I mean it was just so obvious, there he was in a Maroon jersey charging around the field, patting players on the back, barking out orders and generally appearing to be involved not just physically but spiritually in all aspects of the game, then as soon as he put on the (hideous) Cowboy Jersey (seriously, time for a re-design of that horrific jersey) he seemed sullen and disengaged. If the fans can see it, believe me his coach and teammates can and that has to impact the mood of the playing group and the club as a whole.

Which leads us back to the Gould Review, say what you will about Phil Gould (full disclosure: I am a huge fan of his, yeah his bluster can be over the top at times, but he is a Rugby League savant) the man has a full and deep understanding of the game, he knows how to relate to elite sportsmen, he understands what makes a good organization tick and he just understands Club Rugby League. If the club bought in, more importantly, if Jonathan Thurston has bought in and the club and player can mend their differences then Nth Qld could be the surprise of the 2011 season. Never forget, Half-Back is still clearly the most important position on the field, an elite Half-Back can cover weaknesses at other positions and there is no doubt that an engaged Thurston is elite.

What I see happening is that Gould’s review will have a positive impact on the club in the early rounds, and Nth Qld will get off to a solid start, but once the grind of the season really begins and a couple of bad losses in a row happen, the fractures will re-appear. Nth Qld may not be a terrible team, but there are a lot of good teams this year and I just cannot see them making the Finals.

Predicted Finish - 14th

Parramatta Eels

Another pre-season, another round of stories and quotes from Parramatta telling us how they finally get it at Eels stadium, how they have never worked so hard in a Pre-Season before, how the players are finally going to match their potential this year. How this is for sure, absolutely 100% going to be the year when Parramatta fully buys in and commits to doing all of the tough, unsexy but crucial things that are required for a team to win the Premiership. So is this the year where it happens or will it be like all the others in Parramatta, are all these quotes just more hot air from the west, or is their reason to believe this time?

My view is that this year, Parramatta will be a force to be reckoned with. Stephen Kearney has been the next great coach for the last 4 years, and it certainly seems like he could have left Melbourne a number of times in recent years to be the main man elsewhere, but from what I have read, he remained in Melbourne because he still felt he had more to learn and he wanted to be fully prepared when he got his first gig as the head honcho. This should encourage all Eels fans as it shows that in a profession filled with ego-maniacs who always believe that they are the smartest person in the room, you have a Head Coach with self-awareness and perspective.

Coming from Melbourne, working under Craig Bellamy for a number of years, you just know that the traits of hard work, commitment to fundamentals, focus on the basics as well as an understanding of top level sports science will all be key parts of the Kearney coaching structure. He seems like the right man for the job for me. Now it just remains to be seen if some board level madness will engulf the club during the year and provide the massive distraction that has become a bi-annual event for Parra.

The playing roster does look very strong, Nathan Hindmarsh will continue to be Nathan Hindmarsh, though it would be good if Kearney could achieve what no other coach has been able to and convince Hindy that it would be in the teams best interest if he made 6 or 8 less tackles per game and used that saved energy to be the damaging ball runner we all know he can be.

Daniel Mortimer will be a crucial cog, the question is as he gone and developed the new tools in his game (discussed in the Canberra section) that he clearly had not spent time developing before last year, the lack of which leading partly to his sophomore slump. I also would like to see Jeff Robson returned to the Half-Back role and Mortimer returned to Five-Eighth, that is the structure that gave them success in 2009 and even though Robson is anything but a sexy option at the glamour Half Back position, he defends well, he moves the ball quickly and efficiently to his more talented team-mates and generally just doesn’t get in the way. This doesn’t sound like much, but when you have the talent in the backs that the Eels do that can often be enough, which leads us, as most things do with Parramatta to Jarryd Hayne…

Hayne is not the player we saw in the last 12 weeks of 2009, nobody is that guy for an entire career. Those 3 months were the result of a perfect storm of talented athlete, playing with great freedom and in amazing form against a competition that was unprepared to create the strategies required to deal with a player of his size and pace playing almost perfect football. It truly was an epic period of sustained excellence and one of the truly great sporting performances I have seen, but no one can possibly keep up that level for an entire career.

Luckily for Parramatta fans they do not need Hayne to play at that ridiculously other-worldly level to have success; they just need him to play at his true level, that off a Top 3 Full Back/Top 20 Player with the god given ability to 3 or 4 times a year all but win a game on his own.

What the Eels do not need, is the sulking, whining often disinterested version of the Hayne Plane we saw last year, which reminds me, probably wouldn’t hurt him at all to lose the whole ‘Hayne Plane’ thing altogether. Personally though I get the feeling that Kearney will get through to Hayne, at least for year one, and as long as they get off to a good start, and with Duggan breathing down his neck for the Blues Full Back Jersey Hayne will remain motivated and power the Eels into September.

Oh by the way, speaking of the his 12 weeks of excellence in ’09, some journalists got that carried away, and were so devoid of any perspective or appreciation for the 100 year history of the game that he was being called the best Rugby League Player of all time, yep I am not making this up, go back and read the story’s written at the time. This was such a ridiculous insult to the careers of players like Graeme Langland’s, Joey Johns & Clive Churchill amongst others that any journalist who wrote such rubbish should have his fingers chopped off so we would never have to read their tripe ever again. Of course one of these pathetic writers to jump on the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) bandwagon based on a 12 game sample size, was the Daily Telegraphs resident nut job……. Phil Rothfield.

Predicted Finish - 7th

Penrith Panthers

The Panthers are such a boring team this year; they literally have nothing to get me the least bit excited. At least with Cronulla the last few years you had the possibility of seeing a team that was historically atrocious. With this years Panthers team, you just see a professional grind it out team, with a well respected and good coach, albeit a coach that you get the feeling is at the end of his time with this group of players. When you start hearing the little whispers that were coming from the foot of the mountains last year about issues between the Head Coach and his players that stuff never really disappears and it is always just a 4 game losing streak from returning in full force.

But even that may not be a problem this year, as Penrith look like the quintessential bubble team, I just see them spending the whole season on the fringe of the Top 8. I also see them playing a lot of really boring games, relying as they did in 2010 on the kicking game for most of their attack. When I think of the 2011 Panthers, my minds eye just conjures up an image of Saturday Night (Can’t see the Panthers playing too man Channel 9 games this year), cold, wet and miserable, with a small crowd and a ball being kicked to the corner for leaping winger to try and get the ball down, just boring, boring, boring rugby league. I also hear something too when I think of the 2011 Panthers, the thing I hear is the shrieking voice of Luke Walsh’s mum. My mates and I had the misfortune to run into Walshy’s old cheese at a game last year, my mate Brenden who, how do I say this politely, vigorously enjoys and fully employs his right to free speech when he attends the football, was spending a good portion of the Roosters-Panthers game offering Luke Walsh some unsolicited advice on his overall ability and specific play, well we soon found out that Walshy’s mum was in the vicinity and she took exception to Brenden's interpretation of her sons impact on the game. What looked to be her long suffering husband sat beside her, and I swear I am not exaggerating had his head in his hands as Walshy’s mum got into a shouting match with Brendo. It has to be explained here that Brenden though boisterous is really just a fun loving harmless bloke, but he is nearly 6-6 and solidly built and you could tell that the long suffering companion of Mrs. Walsh wanted no part of any dispute with him, not that this stopped her from carrying on like a pork chop (how exactly does a pork chop carry on by the way). Anyway it was most entertaining, and if you want some entertainment at Panthers games this year, because God knows the Panthers wont be doing much in the way of entertaining, seek out an Old Typical Westy looking woman yelling way too much and way too loud for Walshy. Then go up and offer a dissenting opinion on the skills of the jockey known as the Penrith Half Back and believe me a boring Panthers game will suddenly provide you with lots of entertainment and a story to tell on Monday when you get to work, trust me you wont be disappointed.

Predicted Finish - 11th

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Is this finally the year for the Rabbit’s? Since their return to the competition this has been a popular pre-season refrain from the Rugby League community. This year there are many reasons for optimism, but equally there exist many concerns about the structural make up of this team. South Sydney do have some of the best players at their respective positions in the world but also many concerns.

Firstly the positives, Sam Burgess is not only a charismatic media personality, he is also one of the best, if not THE best Prop in the world today. He is the evolutionary Adrian Morley, and the similarities go far beyond the country on their Birth Certificate, like Morley, Sam is a brutal and destructive ball-runner on the edges as well as a dominating defensive force. With his front row partner Dave Taylor, South’s have the most dangerous attacking Prop tandem in the world, whereas Props at all the other clubs play the whole season in fear of the dreaded end of season nudie run that is punishment for going a whole season without scoring a Try, the Rabbits may get more Try’s from their front row than most teams do from their entire pack.

It is not just the big boppers who will cause opposition teams nightmares this season either, with Greg Ingliss joining the team this season, South’s can readily claim to not only have the worlds top Prop, but also the worlds best Centre as well. A motivated Ingliss is still the most exciting player in the modern game, at 6’4”and a 110 kg, Ingliss has the build of a large 2nd Rower, but moves with the grace of a Gazelle and escalates through the gears like a Ferrari, there are few more beautiful sights in Rugby League that Ingliss shedding a would be tackler before accelerating away from the defenders into the open field. With Nathan Merritt a proven Try Scorer on his outside, South’s seem like a team that should have a lot of Try’s in them, but when you look more closely, there are areas of concern that could de-rail this season.

The area I am referring to, obviously, the Halves. In the Salary Cap era, if you invest a lot of money, and therefore a high percentage of your Salary Cap in one area, you have to go cheap in others. This is the reason that the Storm let Ingliss go, when it was clear they would have to lose one the big 4 (Ingliss, Smith, Cronk & Slater). There is little debate that Ingliss is a better player than Cronk, and you could argue is the best player of the lot, but the Storm made the wise decision that losing an elite Centre is less damaging than losing an elite player from your spine. The most crucial positions on the field in the modern game are no secret. Half-Back, Hooker, Full-Back & 5/8 are the positions that touch the ball the most and in the case of Full Back in the most dangerous areas.

South Sydney however, have chosen the opposite path, which makes it ironic that they were the team to pick up Ingliss. Whereas the Storm have invested a large portion of their Cap Space in the spine and relied on a blue collar pack and youth in the backs, the Rabbits have done the exact opposite, getting elite props and backs whilst trying to develop a halves combination on the cheap. Sandow is at best a streaky Half-Back and Sutton while a talented Ball Runner lacks elite ball playing skills which means Sth Sydney are below average at the two of the most crucial positions on the field. The question is will an elite Front Row and talented Outside Backs make up for the deficiencies at the scrum-base, we will find out over the next 26 weeks.

Predicted Finish - 8th

St George-Illawarra Dragons

Last years Premiers enter the season with all their key pieces from last season in place. Boyd, Soward and Hornsby will continue to direct the team around the park, Soward's elite kicking game will ensure that the Dragons have a distinct advantage in the field position game against nearly all opponents and Morris will continue his development into the games pre-eminent Try Scoring threat. Still the major advantage this team will have over the 2010 Dragons is Mark Gasnier. Yes Gasnier was a part of the Grand Final winning team and was a solid contributor after his arrival from French Rugby half way through the season but it was clearly not the Gasnier of old, he was more like the deleted scenes on your favorite DVD, yeah he offered some valuable extras, but he was not crucial to the story.

This year will be different, with a full pre-season under his belt he will likely have resumed his leadership role and no doubt will be a much bigger part of the overall game plan. To repeat as champions is incredibly difficult in the Salary Cap era, being as good as last year is never enough, luckily for the Dragons, Gasnier will provide the improvement that is required for them to remain at the pointy end of the ladder.

The big issue facing this year’s team will be the potential distractions associated with Coach Wayne Bennett’s contract situation. With half the competition lining up to bid for Bennett’s signature at the end of the season, there will be a constant flurry of rumors throughout the year about different team’s potential offers, poorly researched story’s, often written based off a single misinterpreted quote will unleash days of media speculation about Bennett signing with everyone from the Bronco’s to the Baghdad Police Department, the question is will this be enough to derail the season. Bennett could end any risk of distractions tomorrow by signing an extension, but with Brisbane all but laying Red Carpet from Kogarah to Suncorp to entice him back, all indications are that he will return north at the end of the year. Is St George a team that is mentally strong enough to overcome the drama of the Bennett sweepstakes, my guess is no.

Predicted Finish - 3rd

Sydney City Roosters

As regular readers are aware the Roosters are my team, however, I will try to look at my beloved team with at least some perspective. In fact that should not be too hard as I have real concerns for this team entering the year. My biggest concern is that I hope the Roosters have spent the off-season preparing for this season with a mindset that they are the team that was 20 Seconds, a knock on and an amazing field goal away from being knocked out in the first week of the Finals rather than seeing themselves as the Grand Final runners up. This team gave its fans a magical ride last season, but that should not blind us to the significant holes in the team and the amount of improvement this team requires to be truly considered a title contender on the level of the Storm & St George.

Shaun Kenny-Dowall is a case in point, as any Roosters fan can attest; Kenny-Dowall like the team as a whole, can be exhilarating and infuriating in equal measure. Too often he runs east-west and totally breaks down the attacking structure of a team based on the swift lateral ball movement of Carney and Pearce, this is a team that throws the ball sideways and runs straight, but Shaun often deviates from the script and ruins entire attacking sets. Then, just as you are ready to give up on him, he will unleash a run like that in last years Semi-Final against the Tigers that most players are incapable of even contemplating, never mind completing.

Kenny-Dowall therefore, like I said, is much like the team as a whole, at their best there is no team in the competition that can match the Roosters attacking flair. Everyone marveled at Carneys 30 metre cut-out balls and imaginative kicking game last year, but what makes him & Pearce so dangerous is that teams have to focus equal effort to combat their ball running as well as their ball playing abilities. This buys them time every time they touch the ball in attacking areas and results in defenders being caught flat footed as they get caught in two minds over what to defend. The other under-rated part of both their games, but particularly Pearce is their Defense. In an era, where an illiterate fool like Phil Rothfield anoints a complete defensive liability like Benji Marshall as the best player in the game, Pearce plays like someone who understands that half the game is spent in Defense and he and Carney take real pride in this part of their game. Pearce to me is the true successor to Andrew Johns as the complete Half-Back, no, he is nowhere near as good as Joey, I doubt I will ever see a player in my lifetime who is, but he is the successor in the sense that he is a complete footballer, many modern NRL players are athletes who happen to play Rugby League, Pearce is a Rugby League Player who happens to be an elite athlete, there is a big difference between the two.

Finally, so much of the Roosters fate this year will rest on Brian Smith. Moving Anasta to the back-row is the best thing for the team and for Anasta himself, who has always been a more dangerous ball runner than he ever was a ball-player, but there is still an ego to be managed here, and it is the coaches job to ensure that Anasta does not see the move to the back-row as a negative commentary on his play in the halves, but embraces it as a commentary on his elite ball-running skill.

Also Brian Smith has to find a way to develop the many young players coming through at Bondi, Kane Linnett and Mose Mosoe are two examples. Both showed flashes of real talent last year, but if the Roosters are to take the next step this year it is imperative that these two and the other younger players at the club continue to develop and add consistency to their games. Mose needs to evolve from a player who gives you a destructive 10 minute burst against the opponents reserve forwards and develop into a start of game enforcer, one who can go toe to toe with the Dave Shillington’s and Sam Burgess’s of the world. If Mose realizes his potential this year, he will be out there at the start of games setting the tone, he will not be providing entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying cameos in the middle of the halves as he did last year.

As for Linnett he just needs to be more consistent, the Roosters have craved a true speed merchant on the outside since Todd Byrne was tackled by a fatigued Scott Sattler in the 2003 Grand Final (ultimately costing the Roosters a Premiership), Linnett can be the answer, and hopefully start to wipe away the pain of the memory of that tackle. (Who am I kidding, that is a pain that will never be erased, even whilst writing this sentence I am running that play through my head again and screaming at Byrne to stutter step inside, no matter how many times I replay it though he just runs straight into Sattler’s sliding tackle…. Fuck I hate Todd Byrne!!)

So Roosters fan have real reasons for optimism this season, the main concern is how they negotiate a brutal early schedule, facing the Dragons, Bulldogs, NZ (away) and the Broncos all in the first 6 weeks, following the rivalry game against South’s. If the Roosters can come out the Anzac Day game with a record above .500 they will be well set to launch an assault on the Top 4 and maybe play all the way into October. (Wait, why am I jinxing them before a ball has been kicked….. The Roosters are a terrible team and will undoubtedly miss the finals…… that’s better)

Predicted Finish - 2nd

Wests Tigers

So as mentioned above, Phil Rothfield, in his pathetic rip off of the famous AFL Top 50 column, (a pre-season staple of his News Limited Colleague Mike Sheahan for the last 20 years) listed Benji Marshall as the Top Player in the game and he is not alone in that view. Do these people even watch the games? Seriously, do they? Benji Marshall is an amazing offensive talent, with his quick feet, rare vision and amazing ball playing skills he is a threat to create points at all times. However, and this is a huge however, he is probably responsible for more busted plays and wasted sets, than any other ‘elite’ Half/Five-Eighth in the game. Too often he goes for the miracle, when it comes off it is repeated endlessly on Sports Tonight and the Sports Segments on the news bulletins and this is why I seriously ask if Rothfield and is ilk actually watch the games. Because if they did watch the games they would see the 7-10 occasions a game where Benji grinds his teams attack to a complete standstill by trying to be too clever with the ball in hand. Andrew Johns (the best Footballer I have ever seen) was the master at making sure every single attacking possession counted, he would do this by ensuring that every attacking set had a purpose, and each of the 5 tackles in each attacking set meant something. He would get his players in motion at all times and often just run simple inside-outside plays that offered no immediate threat, so that he could assess what the defense was doing and who they were keying in on in different situations and then put that knowledge in the memory banks and exploit it 3 or 4 possessions later.

Benji on the other hand, lacks patience, he try’s to make something happen on every single play. Intellectually lazy journalists would use a phrase like “this is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness here” but that is complete bullshit. Benji's greatest strengths are taking advantage of turnovers and quickly turning defense into attack, in getting the ball in broken play and exploiting staggered defensive lines. His insistence on trying to make something of nothing when the defense is well set is Benji’s weakness, yeah occasionally something will come off, but more often than not what happens is Benji runs around like a chook with his head cut-off whilst 12 other Tigers stand around watching him completely perplexed and with no idea where to run and the whole set is wasted by Tackle 3. If Benji learns patience and starts thinking 3 moves ahead, then look out NRL, but currently he is not even the games best attacking player, never mind its best overall player. Which brings us to the main, flashing neon lights reason of why it is almost criminal to label Benji Marshall the best player in the world, and that is his historically atrocious defense.

Jamie Soward at least has an excuse for his turnstile impressions in the defensive line, the dude is basically a midget, and the same goes for Preston Campbell. Benji on the other hand is physically similar to Todd Carney in height and weight, yet Carney is a solid defensive presence, whereas Marshall basically has a flashing neon sign saying “Target” on him when he is in the defensive line. Now with his history of shoulder injury’s you can excuse some of his defensive frailty, but what you cannot excuse are his glaring technical deficiencies when he attempts to tackle. He goes way to high, often leaving his feet to tackle, which then means he has no leverage whatsoever to use to stop his opponent, it’s simple physics. Also, he to often tackles with his arms and not his body. A player truly committed to elevating the defensive part of his game would have spent time working on these technical glitches, then again an athlete committed to being the best he could be, would not be eating McDonalds at 3am one week before the season begins would he. Benji is a great footballer and the Tigers hopes rest with him, but he is a long way from being the number one player in the code.

With all of this it might seem I have little faith in the Tigers, this would be incorrect, Benji, as I said is an elite talent, just not the best player in the world. Tim Sheens is one of the best coaches in the game, Farah is a top 3 Hooker and with Gareth Ellis this Tigers team had real grunt up front. The Tigers will be a dangerous team all year, and maybe even a title contender, and they will certainly be a team that no-one wants to face in September.

Predicted Finish - 4th

So the season begins in two days, how many of the above predictions will come true, my guess would be Zero, maybe 2 or 3 if I am lucky. One this is for sure, it is going to be a lot of fun finding out.

I was going to write a full column for this weeks picks but after 9500 words you will just have to settle for my choices I'm afraid

Roosters (-2.5) over Rabbitohs

Cowboys (+6.5) over Broncos

Eels (+6.5) over Warriors

Dragons (-4.5) over Titans

Storm (-4.5) over Sea Eagles

Raiders (-9.5) over Sharks

Panthers (-3.5) over Knights

Tigers (-1.5) over Bulldogs