Let me just start by saying that this, like all offseason conjecture, is absolutely speculation. But it sure is fun to do. I’ve taken the offseason moves of each of the NRL clubs and their last few years of results and made a decision based on my analysis of this. I’ll be releasing updated NRL power rankings every week once the season starts. And so, without further ado, here are my first power rankings for 2013.
1. Melbourne Storm (2012: Premiers)
It’s impossible to put the Melbourne Storm anywhere but number 1. While many other teams have won the premiership in the last decade, none have been as consistently excellent as the Melbourne Storm since 2006. Many will say that this is because of their manipulation of the salary cap in the years leading up to the 2010 scandal. However, they have proved in 2011 and 2012 that they can be, and still are, dominant. As long as Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith are all under contract with Melbourne and healthy, the Storm will be the team to beat in the NRL. Notable acquisitions include impressive second-rower Junior Sau, and the return of Brett Finch from Wigan to complement Cronk and the under-rated Gareth Widdop in the halves. There is nothing to suggest that the Storm will be letting up any time soon, let alone in 2013.
2. Canterbury Bulldogs (2012: Runners-up)
The 2012 Grand Finalists have hemorrhaged players left, right and centre this off-season, while picking up Tony Williams from the Sea Eagles seems to be their only major acquisition. However, the key peices of their 2012 campaign remain. The electrifying Ben Barba returns alongside Michael Ennis as the real drivers of the club. Williams’ partnership in the second row with Frank Pritchard also has the potential to be devastating to opposing clubs. Because the main components that make the Bulldogs an outstanding club remain, I’ve kept them at number 2. Look for Des Hasler’s team to make another strong push for the premiership in 2013.
3. Sydney Roosters (2012: 13th)
Sonny Bill Williams. James Maloney. Michael Jennings. It reads like part of an all-star roster, and they were each paid all-star salaries to come to Rugby League’s oldest club. The Roosters have undoubtedly had the most exciting offseason, in a recruitment period where luring a recognised upper-tier five-eighth to partner their State of Origin halfback is arguably the least of their acquisitions. A game-breaking centre in Michael Jennings gives the Roosters breakaway speed on the left flank, and Sonny Bill Williams (his partner in crime for 2013) gives them a supremely talented, if controversial player, in the forwards. All we have is theory in the offseason, and in theory, the Roosters have one of the best teams in the competition.
4. Brisbane Broncos (2012: 8th)
Following a relatively disappointing 2012 in which they just, and undeservedly, scraped into the eight, the Broncos are looking to re-assert their dominance in the NRL.They appear to have gone a long way toward acheiving this by acquiring Scott Prince from the Titans. Prince has consistently been one of the top 5 halfbacks in the League when healthy. He will easily step into the primary playmaker role left open by Lockyer, and along with icon Peter Wallace, the Broncos will have one of the strongest halves pairing in the NRL. One of the more interesting storylines will be how the Broncos’ forward pack, including newcomer David Stagg, steps into the place of the departed bruisers Petero Civoniceva and Ben Te’o. Paired up with Corey Parker, there won’t be a shortage of players willing to put their hands up in defence for Brisbane’s pride and joy.
5. North Queensland Cowboys (2012: 5th)
The mindset of North Queensland going into 2013 will be that it’s now or never. Jonothan Thurston is going off contract at the end of the season and our best prediction is that he is unlikely to stay. Matt Bowen in the meantime may still be a class act despite his age, but his greatest strength is his relationship with Thurston. Many see this year as the Cowboys’ last chance for a premiership in the foreseeable future. A quiet offseason shows confidence in a squad that was a force to be reckoned with in 2012. North Queensland are definitelly a contender for the 2013 season.
6. Manly Sea Eagles (2012: 4th)
Manly are still strugling to prove that they can win it all without Des Hasler. A strong season in 2012 has done little to dissuade me that they will still fail to win the big games in 2013. They definitely look good enough on paper to make the top eight, but I can’t see them going any further. An offseason where they have picked up alot of untested young talent is a high risk move, and whether or not it pays dividends will be critical for their season.
7. Cronulla Sharks (2012: 7th)
Cronulla have had a very productive recruitment period for the 2013 season. Picking up both Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon from the Panthers. Luke Lewis has been an elite back row player for a long time, while Gordon was under-utilised at Penrith before his season ending injury last year. Cronulla has a fair chance of scraping into the finals with a strong forward pack featuring the always formidable Paul Gallen. Tigers duo Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan also join the Sharks, adding creative flair to a team typically struggling to put points on the board. The play of the halves pairing of Todd Carney and Jeff Robson will be a major factor as well.
8. New Zealand Warriors (2012: 14th)
The Warriors are no longer the dark horses of the NRL. Last year’s 14th place finish was an abberation. In 2010 and 2011 their presence in the finals and one Grand Final appearance shows that New Zealand are not a team to be trifled with. Despite the losses of underrated five-eighth James Maloney, Lewis Brown and Michael Luck, the Warriors still boast electrifying halfback Shaun Johnson and a forward pack stalwart in Simon Mannering. If the club can unify around young leaders like these two and start clicking, expect them to be a powerful squad in 2013.
9. South Sydney Rabbitohs (2012: 3rd)
It feels harsh to put the Rabbitohs this low in the rankings after a great year in 2012. They not only made it deep into the finals, but looked extremely competitive all year. However, they haven’t yet proven that they can shake their inconsistency for good, being unable to string alot of wins together in the last few years. With a solid but underwhelming recruitment period the Rabbitohs will challenge for a place in the top eight, but are unlikely to go deep into the finals. Much of their success will rely on superstars Greg Inglis and Isaac Luke, who both have the potential to break a game wide open, but suffered from inconsistency in 2012. Young coach Michael Maguire will also be out to prove that he’s not a one-trick pony in the NRL.
10. Gold Coast Titans (2012: 11th)
Adding Dave Taylor to the mix will beef up the Titan’s already considerable forward pack, while adding the magic touches that Taylor inexplicaply brings to the game. In the backline the Gold Coast will try to make up for the loss of Scott Prince with dynamic youngster Albert Kelly, who showed flashes of brilliance with Cronulla before his injury. The Titans have been on the fringes of the Premiership conversation for the last few years, and after last year’s disappointing showing this year will be another solid step towards that first Grand Final appearance.
11. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (2012: 9th)
The Dragons are another club that has lost alot of players in the off-season. They’ve opted to recruit more underrated talent in 2013 such as Gerard Beale from the Broncos. Steve Price will have alot to prove this year and may be on the coaching hot seat if he turns in another disappointing season after the highs of the Wayne Bennet era. St. George has the players to be outstanding on their day, but after an inconsistent 2012 from Jamie Soward and co I don’t see them making the finals this year.
12. Canberra Raiders (2012: 6th)
The Raiders are an enigma. They are possibly the most hot and cold team in the NRL, and as a result this ranking is more of a stab in the dark than any of the others. After a very poor start followed by their fairytale finals run in 2012 the Raiders are primed for a big year in 2013. Despite being relatively quiet in the off-season, the Raiders will be a competitive side if they can just find consistency. Terry Campese staying healthy for the full season will be a huge part of that. Canberra will need to continue pulling out the big wins at home and away.
13. Parramatta Eels (2012: 16th)
It’s not saying much after 2012, but the Eels look to be an improved side in 2013. And the main improvement isn’t even on the field; it’s the arrival of Supercoach Ricky Stuart. Stuart promises to bring a new winning culture to the club, mentor mercurial halfback Chris Sandow to reach his full potential, and, well, just let Jarryd Hayne be Jarryd Hayne. It’s a long road back though, and this is just the start of a rebuilding phase; the Eels will be hard pressed to make do with a depleted forward pack, after the retirement of Nathan Hindmarsh, and the departure of Justin Poore, Shane Shackleton and Justin Horo. The only way is up.
14. West Tigers (2012: 10th)
Looking like certain finalists at the mid-way point in 2012, the Tigers collapsed spectacularly in the back end of the season. Injuries played a big role in this, with Robbie Farah missing some time, as well as veteran winger Lote Tuqiri. 2013 brings a fresh start for the club, which is in no small part personified by a new coach in Mick Potter. Potter is old hand in coaching in the Super League and was its former Coach of the year in 2008; it will be interesting to see what he brings to the NRL. The Tigers will lean as heavily as ever on Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah this season, and the contribution of veteran signing Braith Anasta could bring even more class to the already talented playmaking positions. However, the loss of some of their most damaging players such as Chris Heighington will be telling, and while hopes for a premiership push will be high, I think the Tigers will be outgunned this year.
15. Newcastle Knights (2012: 12th)
It’s not easy to put any Wayne Bennet coached team at number 15 in any rankings, but the Knights have done nothing to impress this off-season. Their biggest addition would have to be Beau Scott, whose main role is a defensive centre. Protecting the incapable defence of Soward these past seasons, his impact will be mitigated by the fact Mullen can actually tackle. No matter who your coach is, you need to have consistent talent accross the board. Newcastle may well surprise everyone and make a decent run of it, but a key injury to a player like Jarred Mullen or Danny Buderus could ruin their entire season.
16. Penrith Panthers (2012: 15th)
Oh Penrith… 2013 does not look good at all for the mountain men. The triumphant return of Phil Gould to his original club has not exactly gone to plan so far. We can only assume that the owner of one of the greatest minds for Rugby League has a long-term plan. Cutting ties with three of their best players in Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon, and Luke Lewis has left them with practically no firepower. At the same time, it has left them with alot of salary cap space for 2014. If any team has ever been in a rebuilding year, it’s the Penrith Panthers in 2013. Ivan Cleary’s side will rely heavily on Luke Walsh and Kevin Kingston to scrape together a few wins and hopefully avoid the wooden spoon.