In recent years the NRL has not been as evenly poised as the game’s administrators had hoped. Teams liked the Storm and Roosters have looked a lot better than the rest, while teams like the Bulldogs and the Titans were woeful at times.
Heading into 2020 I think the top teams will continue to be hard to beat, but I think there’ll be an evening up of the competition. As a general trend, I am likely to be backing some underdogs early in the season, before the bookies have caught on to just how much some teams have improved.
For instance, in 2019 the Storm finished on 42 competition points and a positive differential of 331. The Titans finished on 10 competition points with a points differential of -281. So that is a difference of 32 competition points and 612 in points differential.
I expect that gap between the best and the worst to narrow significantly this year. While the predicted ladder below might look pretty standard, I think the gap between the teams battling for 6th to 8th and the wooden spoon will only be a few competition points. So I would not be surprised to see teams I have 13th or 14th making the finals, as I don’t think they will be too far outside the 8 all season.
It’s set to be one of the most exciting seasons in recent times… with plenty of opportunities to make money!
I think 2020 will be the year of the young gun. As every season passes I get more convinced that a youth-first policy is the key for teams that are trying to climb their way out of a hole. While these teams need a few experienced stars to show them the way, guys like Haas, Ponga, Fifita, Cotric, Mitchell and Brimson have all demonstrated what a dominant role young guys can play in the NRL.
The Titans, Broncos, Dragons, Knights and Eels are the teams to look out for in terms of young stars. The Storm, with such a strong Queensland feeder club in 2019, will also be throwing up some new names that will surprise people. Teams that stick with underperforming veterans will be good to bet against.
I think the reason for this trend is twofold:
Long-time members of my NRL tips service will know how much I hate the wrestling part of modern Rugby League. While I understand ruck dominance, some of the latitude given in the play-the-ball is ridiculous, with the Storm, Roosters and Raiders the greatest proponents of this slow-down tactic. Slowing the play-the-ball, along with tactical penalties while defending the red zone are a blight on our game.
But following a campaign over the offseason led by Souths with a dossier of evidence, I expect the NRL to crack down on these tactics this year. This makes sense not only from a spectator point of view, but the NRL is opening itself up to a lawsuit if we ever see a player suffer serious injury due to a grapple tackle gone wrong. If a crackdown does occur, I expect clubs like Souths, Cowboys, Broncos and Panthers to relish the faster play the ball. I also expect to see higher total points, as teams will find themselves playing with a man or two down, as the sin bin becomes even more well used.
With the change in rule allowing high-flyers to catch offensive kicks without being tackled, I expect the likes of Tupou, Feldt and Ferguson to score plenty of tries. From a player safety perspective, it never made sense for defensive players to be allowed to tackle players in mid-air, so that this rule change, along with the crackdown from last year on blockers, will see a lot of cross-field kicks and more tries scored.
I have no idea how these rules changes will change things from a betting perspective! But I like both rule changes and will be monitoring their impact from Round 1.
One of the most difficult things in the NRL is predicting the ladder at the beginning of the season. You will always be embarrassed as to how things turn out, but the key to making sure you are a winning punter is by ensuring your bets have a positive Expected Value. If I pick a team to come 3rd who then come 9th I don’t mind, provided I didn’t bet on them to make the Top 4 etc.
But anyway… here is where I think the teams will end up on the regular season ladder:
I don’t think the Warriors have done enough with their roster in the off-season. Letting Lisone go, right as they encountered a shortage of front rowers due to the injury to Afoa, was silly. I’m not sure what Kearney’s plan is for 2020. He’s made some strange decisions at the helm and while it looked like there was a method to his madness in 2018, he seems to be too willing to let players leave rather than work with them and improve them.
The Doggies are the other cellar dweller that I think will be part of an evening in the competition. While their roster is nothing to write home about, it has improved under Pay. DWZ and Hopoate are pure class while Meaney, Okunbor, R Smith and Lewis are all underrated contributors. And despite having a pretty boring attacking style, their defensive desperation was second to none and they really give 100% every game.
Despite conceding more metres than any other team in 2019, they were ranked equal fifth in line breaks conceded. That indicates a team that does anything to stop their opponents breaking their line. If they can improve their attack off the back of new signings like Stimson and Britt, they’ll be a hard team to beat.
I don’t expect the Titans to come last in 2020, which is a controversial opinion due to how poor they were last year. I think a lot of what went wrong with the Titans last year came down to their coach, the issues around Ash Taylor and a lack of defensive grit. They topped the league in missed tackles and line breaks conceded.
But it was a totally different team in their trial against the Broncos. While I don’t read too much into trial matches, the Broncos named a strong team and despite a good start couldn’t deal with the physicality of the Titans. Arrow, Wallace and Fotuaika will form the bedrock of the Titans forward pack. Despite being poor in recent years, I’m expecting Proctor to have a solid year now that he’s been handed the captaincy and is playing for a new contract. Lisone is a good pick up from the Warriors and Shannon Boyd is the forgotten man of the NRL after having an injury plagued year in 2019. In shape, the big man was playing for Australia not that long ago, so this Titans pack has a ton of potential.
While I think Cleary will improve without Maloney in 2020, I worry about the patchy form of guys like Mansour, Edwards and Luai. Despite having so much young talent at their disposal, Cleary has made some strange team selections. Guys like Burton and Aekins should be picked in my view, but they seemed to have gotten passed over in 2020 despite their form warranting selection. Tyrone May could be the surprise pack they need, he looked tremendous before being embroiled in the sex tape controversy that derailed their 2019 season. Plenty of upside if they get things right.
With Ponga and Pearce in great form, the Knights will always be hard to beat on their day – especially at home in front of their passionate and loyal fans. Brailey will help fill the void at 9 and they have plenty of competition for spots out wide. If Lino can make the 6 jersey his own and the Knight forwards stay fit, then they could surprise to the upside… but they fizzled out last year and I have some doubts about their solidarity as a club in the wake of Brown’s departure in 2019.
My main concern for the Sharks is the lack of professionalism in the front office and the lack of experience in their coaching ranks. Sometimes it looks like their senior players are running the show and although their roster is strong, guys like Fifita, Dugan and Josh Morris have all shown glimpses of not wanting to be there in recent years. Townsend is a bit hit-and-miss, as is Johnson and Moylan. On their day, they can beat anyone… but I can also see them capitulating often in 2020. With Shark Park out of action in 2020, I think their temporary home in Kogarah will also diminish their home ground advantage.
I think the Dragons will really improve this year. Despite their second-half capitulation against Souths in the Charity Shield, their pre-season form has been solid. I put this down to coaching changes over the off-season. Shane Flanagan appears to have added some grit to the Dragons and with the likes of young Jason Saab, Mikaele Ravalawa, Adam Clune, Ben Hunt, Josh Kerr, Jackson Ford, Tyrell Fuimaono,Tristan Sailor, Brayden Wiliame and Cody Ramsey, the Dragons have a much deeper squad in 202. If the likes of Aitken and Lafai don’t lift their game, then they have plenty of talent ready to step up.
The Cowboys have recruited some gun outside backs, and with McLean, McGuire and Taumalolo in the forwards I think they will be very hard to beat up north. I am a little concerned by their forward depth and also what they’ll do at 9.. Robson is promising but hasn’t shown he can handle the rigours of the NRL at the Dragons, while Granville has been poor in recent years.
I have Manly rounding out the final eight. This is a big call and I might be embarrassed by the Sea Eagles, but I worry about a lack of depth and the risk of injury to their stars. Tom T has already shown he’s prone and now Jake T is going to be out for the first few matches alongside Fonua-Blake. That could mean they start slow and when Origin hits, they will be without their three big guns in DCE and the Trbojevic brothers.
While all the focus has been on the recruitment of the Leilua brothers and Doueihi, I think the likes of Garner, Chee Kam, Twal, Nofoaluma and Reynolds are the key to Wests surprising this year. Brooks was sensational last year and Benji keeps delivering. I rate Coach McGuire highly, so I expect a fit and well drilled Wests outfit to finally play finals in 2020.
A lot will come down to how Coach Siebold manages this team. With Arhtus and Boyd likely to start out wide in Round 1, I have my concerns over his team selection already. Farmworth and Coates is the combo I would go with and I expect them to be given a shot very soon. Lodge’s injury is also a big setback, but Fifita and Haas along with the highly underrated Carrigan and Flegler will be hard to contain all year long. Expecting a big season from Bird at the back and Milford at 6.
While I have the Raiders falling back a little, I do think they will be genuine contenders in 2020. G Williams looks great and he will prove the doubters wrong, while Scott is not the awful replacement that the media is making out for Joey. Despite being destructive on his day, Leilua’s failure to pass to Rapana in the Grand Final cost the Raiders the premiership and Ricky Stuart does not tolerate selfishness.
An all-star back line and Damien Cook will see the Souths attack go to the next level. Coach Bennett always has great defence but has struggled to find points in recent years. That should change in 2020. Although the forward pack is not full of superstars, they have some underrated guys (Knight, Tatola, Sironen) that will surprise a lot of people.
Bellamy has been very clever with his recruitment policy. Brenko Lee is a first-grade quality player that will put pressure on the halves, while Hynes looked a star in Queensland Cup and will also provide options out wide. The Storm will look to Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to bolster their forward stocks, and with Big Nelson, Welch and J Bromwich to learn from, he’ll have a break-out season. Harry Grant, if he stays, will play a role off the bench and Jacks returning to Melbourne provides depth around Origin time.
With guys like Mahoney and D Brown a year older and wiser, I think the Eels will be even better in 2019. Their forwards have been strengthened with the recruitment of Matterson and RCG, plus they have a few young guys that provide plenty of depth. Moses has turned into one of the competition’s true superstars, while guys like Nathan Brown are massively underrated. Sivo, Ferguson and Gutherson and one of the best back 3 combos in the game.
Still the benchmark in defence and although they’ll miss Cronk, Flanagan is the perfect replacement. His goal kicking will cover the loss of Latrell and based on the last few seasons’ form, the Roosters deserve to be favourites in 2020
Despite these predicted rankings not being too far off the markets, I don’t think there will be too many easy beats in 2020. When a top-rated team has an off day I think we’ll see an upset. I”m keen to capitalise both at the head-to-head and the line.