Monday 15 June 2009

NRL Contenders Or Pretenders in 2009?


So here we are, halfway through the 2009 NRL Regular Season and we've all seen enough football to begin the annual sorting of contenders from pretenders for the premiership. Fourteen Premiership Rounds are in the books and each side has now played at least half their schedule, resulting in a premiership table that looks like this with both byes included. Table Updated: 16/6/2009 2:36pm PRETENDERS & POSSIBLES & CONTENDERS LISTED BELOW. What we have is a difference of 14 points between first and last with the Top 8 cut-off current standing at 18 points. But the ladder only tells us who can or cannot make the Finals. What it doesn't always divulge is which teams can actually contend for the premiership. So here is the lowdown on which teams can and which teams can't win the premiership in 2009. PRETENDERS - absolutely no hope of winning the title in 2009. WARRIORS - My pre-season pick for the title (remember that was when everyone was healthy and we only had last year's form to reflect on as well as how influential new players and coaching staff would be - you can't predict for injuries) are running 11th but haven't looked like a team that can win the comp since way back in Round 2 when they beat the Sea Eagles to start the year 2-0. Losing Brent Tate and taking too long to realise that Joel Moon isn't a strong playmaker in the number six put this team into a downward spiral that has seen them lose 7 of their last 10 games. Ivan Cleary has put Lance Hohaia in at pivot finally but a serious crack at the title bolted when Tate got hurt. To be fair to the Warriors they could find themselves in the 'middle/possibles' category by the end of the season but I still don't believe that they have a hope in 2009. Premiership Odds: $18.00 TIGERS - The biggest disappointment with writing these guys off, is that a team with Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall and Englishman Gareth Ellis won't be playing September football. Yes they could turn it all around and go on a 4 or 5 match winning streak to sneak into playoff contention but a title challenge is beyond this group that still features too many below average footballers in the 17 each week. Tim Sheens can't work miracles every year and until the club spends big on another forward and outside back they will remain on the outside looking in for a Grand Final birth. Premiership Odds: $67.00 RABBITOHS - The signing of Michael Crocker certainly added some quality to their backrow but this team doesn't have the class to compete in the Finals - if they make it that is. Craig Wing at lock works and John Sutton is starting to add some touches of quality to his ball playing game but the game plan in attack is unimaginative and defensively they've been found out too many times to suggest they have anything in reserve to mount a challenge later in the year. Premiership Odds: 67.00 RAIDERS - Went away from their 2008 game plan of ball movement after just one half of football in Round 1 (where they looked a million bucks in the opening half versus the Tigers only to shut up shop in the second and get beaten) and despite some suggestions in recent weeks that David Furner has gone back to that style - it has only been in the first half yet again before Furner's edict of playing big up the middle takes over and the attacking fluency disappears as they search for the miracle play on the last tackle. The premiership dream is over in Canberra after flirting with greatness at the back end of 2008 - and with a mediocre competition this was an opportunity the Raiders will regret for years. Premiership Odds: $67.00 PANTHERS - At their best they will only beat teams who don't play expansive football to expose Penrith's fragility on the edges in defence. If a team tries to play the Panthers up the middle they will invite Penrith into a game they want to play, but if sides hold Penrith's go-forward and target their edge defence - Penrith are very beatable. A side that has the likes of Petero Civonicea, Michael Jennings, Trent Waterhouse and Luke Lewis could contend if they didn't have a supporting cast that included Brad Tighe, Maurice Blair, Jarrod Sammut, Frank Pritchard (yes he's chronically over-rated), Frank Puletua, Nathan Smith and Matt Bell in their regular 17 man squad. In other words the top end quality is there but the supporting cast is very average - you can't win with that combination. Premiership Odds: $21.00 SHARKS - Based on their 2008 placing you have to scratch your head as to why it took until Round 14 to notch up their 4th win of the season. But their finish to 2008 was a choke in the Preliminary Final and probably showed a truer indication of their inability to put teams away when they had a glut of possession and field position. They are a team that defensively should turn up each week but don't have the strike-power out wide to worry good teams. There is some hope with the likes of Nathan Stapleton and Blake Ferguson getting a run lately but when their go to play in attack is a Corey Hughes inside ball to Paul Gallen (something the Raiders fell for yesterday) - Trent Barrett can't be that confident his outside men can do the job. And neither are we. Premiership Odds: $101.00 EELS - The good news is they've signed some new blood for 2009, the bad news is they aren't arriving until next year. The 2009 Eels are a work in progress and although the loss to injury of Feleti Mateo has been devastating in Daniel Anderson's rebuilding process - at least it opened the door to give Daniel Mortimer a taste of First Grade. But let's be honest - a title in 2009 is way beyond teams with more firepower than the Eels this year but who knows about 2010 - the Dogs recruited well this year and became contenders so don't be discouraged Eels fans by looking towards next season. Premiership Odds: $81.00 ROOSTERS - A team that relied on points from kicks in 2008 has found life is extraordinarily tough when that avenue to points fails you. The Roosters are a struggling football team in every sense of the word this year and the only hope on the horizon is that there are only twelve rounds left until the playing roster and coaching staff can start playing golf to help forget about 2009. The only key player on the roster not to regress from their 2008 performances is Nate Myles - although you could argue Braith Anasta is trying harder than ever - he's still not playing well enough to win games of football for his team. The upcoming off-season can make or break the next five years at Bondi. Premiership Odds: $501.00 POSSIBLES - it will take an unbelievable run in September to win in 2009. KNIGHTS - There is no doubt the Knights can play some entertaining and more importantly - effective football under Brian Smith but there are two things that will stop them making a serious dent in the Finals. The biggest drawback is despite a first half of 2009 that has them sporting 8 wins from 14 games - the likes of Kurt Gidley, Jarrod Mullen and Isaac De Gois (their 3 most influential players) can't play any better than they have so far and the Knights still don't have a premiership feel about them. The supporting cast is more than solid (even without Ben Cross and Adam MacDougall who are injured) but the second aspect that raises concern over the Knights ability to contend is Brian Smith's insistence to tinker with the starting line up to 'expose' his fringe first graders to starting football. This idea has some merit certainly but something noticeable from Smith's tenure at the Eels where this practice was an almost weekly occurrence is that the Eels couldn't put it altogether on the day they had to win. Resting key players is one thing but taking them out of their comfort zone in a game plan and messing with their roles to accommodate inferior players hasn't resulted in Smith getting the best from his key men on what turns out to be his sides last game of the year. Just an observation but it is just one of many key factors weighing against the Knights in 2009. Premiership Odds: $15.00 TITANS - This is the year they qualify for the Finals for only the second time (Doesn't matter what you believe Gold Coast CEO Michael Searle - the Titans are the continuation of the Giants/Seagulls/Chargers and their 1997 qualification and their wooden spoons count) and the first time since they re-entered the comp in 2007. They currently sit in second place on the amended table and barring another late season collapse like in 07 and 08 - they'll be playing in September. But for how long remains to be seen, they have a few top shelf stars in Scott Prince, Luke Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi and Preston Campbell and the supporting cast is offering more than they have in three seasons but the Titans just don't have a premiership smell about them. They lack attacking potency in the centres unless Mat Rogers is moved wider and their attacking game plan overuses second rowers Laffranchi and Mark Minichiello to the point where their effectiveness wanes as the season goes on. No premiership assault this year despite their ladder position. Premiership Odds: $11.00 COWBOYS - Sunday's loss to the Dragons has my opinion of Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys unchanged. Thurston is a great front-runner - and thus so are the Cowboys - but if they sport a team a significant lead, then Thurston/Nth Qld simply aren't good enough to beat the team that gets that lead. I rate Thurston very highly but his abilities are made for a front-running team and despite a couple of Dally Ms, Test and Origin jerseys and two extended playoff runs with the Cowboys (yes he won a premiership with the Dogs in 2004 but that wasn't as a starter) - I'm still to put him in the elite category of a Langer, Daley, Stuart, Fittler, Lockyer or Johns - all players who could win games from anywhere. We won't see the best of Matt Bowen again til next year coming off his knee surgery and despite the forward pack regaining an edge it lost in 2008 - the Cowboys will need a sensational month before the Finals to gain momentum and then have a better side fall over in September for them to seriously have a chance at the premiership. Premiership Odds: $11.00 CONTENDERS - In a mediocre NRL these sides have the quality to take advantage and one side will win the 2009 Premiership. SEA EAGLES - The defending premiers have struggled mightily without their best player Brett Stewart this season but in the last month their second best player Matt Orford has stepped up his game and led Manly to wins in four of their last five games and he has 10 Try Assists in that period. His influence on the game had to lift if Manly was going to start making a serious comeback into playoff calculations and Manly now only sit two points out of the Top 8 with all byes factored in. The promotion of Shane Rodney to the run on team has added some mobility that the team lost when Steven Menzies left and the play of Matt Ballin – which goes largely un-noticed – has risen to a new level in the past month. But as always with Manly they need Brett Stewart back by August the Sea Eagles to truly be a contender in 2009. Premiership Odds: $8.00 BRONCOS - Losing Justin Hodges for an extended period exposes a real weakness in the Broncos backline. Their feared right hand side becomes average with Israel Folau heavily marked at centre and the averageness of their left combination – Steven Michaels and Antonio Winterstein is truly exposed. But with Brisbane the question marks their forward pack had surrounding them entering the season appear to be unanswered halfway through 2009. Sam Thaiday has run out of gas after a sensational start to the season and apart from Nick Kenny and Corey Parker – the rest of the pack is finding life tough. Ben Te’o is being exposed badly as Darren Lockyer’s ‘minder’ without Hodges also lining up and the likes of Lagi Setu, Josh McGuire, Ashton Sims and of late – ‘bad boy’ Joel Clinton are having little impact in the middle of the field. Then there is the turnstile defence of Lockyer and the realisation that Peter Wallace actually isn’t very good. But in this competition mediocrity reigns and the Broncos have time on their side to get it altogether by August/September and the quality in Lockyer, Hodges, Folau and Karmichael Hunt to well and truly contend. Premiership Odds: $8.00 DRAGONS - Those fans who believed Wayne Bennett was a product of great players can’t be happy. It appears that you have no idea about football. That being said the Dragons rise to such a consistent level is still quite a shock given how much quality left the roster over the past few seasons. Bennett has instilled self belief into his players and given Jamie Soward the kind of free reign you wish other coaches would give their most gifted playmakers. The strangest thing about Soward is even with a free reign to run he’s never been and never will be a great ball player but his role is to kick long, link his outside men and know when to run. None of this structured game plan of repetition that kills all natural footballing instincts in the freakishly talented, just a directive from Bennett to Soward that he is to play smart football and seize the opportunity to try something when it arises. The maturation of Michael Weyman should also be heavily attributed to Bennett’s commitment to bettering the person as much (if not more than) as the player – as the kid we saw struggle with injuries and a role in Canberra is now the undisputed leader of the Dragons pack. The backline is gelling nicely as the season goes on but the key to this is edict from Bennett that they get ball. It’s not rocket science but the Dragons philosophy to improve by doing under Bennett has them well and truly in contention in 2009. Premiership Odds: $5.50 BULLDOGS - The rise and rise of the Bulldogs has continued throughout 2009 as a new coach, new players and a new attitude has the Canterbury club smelling a Minor Premiership just a season removed from the Wooden Spoon. As previously stated in this feature – the NRL competition is mediocre compared to even six years ago – but full credit must go to the Bulldogs who have rebuilt their team in key positions and have tasted defeat just 3 times in their first 12 matches. The Brett Kimmorley-Michael Ennis combination is moving the team around the park beautifully and the addition of some strike power out wide has made the Bulldogs a genuine premiership threat. There are concerns about the depth and quality the Bulldogs have on their bench but their starting backline and forward pack are producing the goods as they build towards a title charge later this year. Premiership Odds: $6.50 STORM - Adding Brett Finch made so much sense when hit the market and the Storm are still a premiership threat because of it. He’s freed up Cooper Cronk to return to his running/scheming best and given Ryan Hoffman a new lease on life after a poor start in 2009. Greg Inglis in the centres was desperately needed and if Cameron Smith hits a purple patch coming out of the State of Origin series then no team can run with the Storm offensively. But Melbourne’s deficiencies in attack to start the year aren’t the only concern. The edge defence that was the cornerstone of the Storm’s three consecutive Grand Final appearances has to be rebuilt and is still a work in progress. Positive signs up front is the emergence of Aiden Tolman and the return to form of Jeff Lima and Adam Blair after slow starts. Melbourne should be favourites for the title but their current combinations remain a work in progress. The good news for the Storm is if the combinations work they’ll win the comp. Premiership Odds: $6.00