2018 NRL odds, tips, ladder predictions, team previews and Premiership best betsPosted on 28/02 by Joe Gann
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The battle for the 2018 Minor Premiership is likely to be a three-way fight between the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys.
The most talked about player movement of recent times has been Cooper Cronkís defection from Storm to the Roosters and such is the value of the player, it could have a considerable bearing on the destination of the title. How Storm deal with the loss of their influential playmaker is likely to determine their fate, nevertheless, with Craig Bellamy at the helm, there are doubtless solid contingency plans in place, with Brodie Croft earmarked to step into his idolís shoes (Continued below ...)
The manner of their hugely dominant title success last year suggests that they wonít be too far away again this year, as they become the latest side to attempt to regain the Championship for the first time in a unified competition since 1993.
The Premiersí loss is undoubtedly the Roosters gain, and Cronk will bring a high level of game management to a side that struggled with consistency at times last term.
The Cowboys also harbour serious title ambitions this year and are boosted enormously by the returning Johnathan Thurston, who will be entering the final season of his illustrious career. Freed of Origin commitments, he will no doubt be extra motivated to go out with a bang. With Matt Scott also back in the fray, alongside former Storm man Jordan McClean together with the imperious Jason Taumalolo, the Cowboys possess one of the most fearsome packs in the game.
Outside the top three, the chasing pack is led by the Parramatta Eels and the Brisbane Broncos. Brad Arthur will be acutely aware of the need to ensure that the presence of Jarryd Hayne does not create any discord within a united playing group; harmony within the squad is of paramount importance.
Notable progress was made by the team in 2017, and they gave the Storm an almighty scare in last yearís qualifying final before bowing out at the hands of the Cowboys. Semi Rhadradraís decision to cross codes and ply his trade in France will leave a massive void on the flank for the Eels; the giant winger was an invaluable source of points with a staggering 82 tries in 94 games for the Blue and Golds.
However, the midseason capture of Mitchell Moses proved to be an inspired move and his form in the second half of the season augers well for the new year.
The Broncos may have invested in some top class potential in the shape of Jack Bird, but incomings have been far outweighed by outgoings at Red Hill. With Ben Hunt, Benji Marshall, Adam Blair, Herman Eseíese and Tautau Moga all leaving the club, Wayne Bennettís side may be desperately short on experience over the coming months. They are boosted by the timely return of Andrew McCullough however; the hooker missed last seasonís run-in with an ACL injury.
Their hopes will rest on key man Anthony Milford who will be expected to further develop his partnership with Kodi Nikorima following Huntís exit; the team won 10 of the 12 games in which the duo started together last term. With teams around them fortifying their squads, the Broncos are in danger of being left behind, and although a place in the eight should be assured, the Broncos wonít crack the top four this season.
The addition of James Graham could be a masterstroke for Paul McGregorís men, with the Englishmanís competitive nature already rubbing off on his younger teammates. The team suffered from injuries to key players at a crucial stage and found it tough to scale the heights they reached in the opening stages of the campaign.
The absence of Gareth Widdop, in particular, highlighted a lack of depth to the squad and the club have acted decisively in securing the services of Ben Hunt to rectify the problem. Hunt and Widdop have the potential to be lethal combination - possibly the best in the competition.
They have undoubtedly learned from the painful lesson of last year, where an eighth-placed finish was snatched from their grasp on the final day of the regular season, and anything less than qualification for finals footy this year would be unthinkable.
Many pundits have predicted big things for the Panthers in recent times and the team has failed to live up to these lofty expectations. Last seasonís seventh-place finish in the regular season, paved the way for the semi-final defeat to the Broncos, as they rallied to save what had been an average campaign up to that point. The development of Nathan Cleary was a bright spot for them, and it is easy to foresee his progression continuing apace with the veteran James Maloney acting as a tutor in 2018.
Ricky Stuartís men will be desperate to atone for a disastrous 2017 when the action gets underway next month. Preliminary finalists in 2016, the Green Machine will be keen to prove that last yearís underwhelming ninth-place finish was a mere blip; it will be a collective effort as the club has managed to retain the majority of their talented roster.
With one of the most exciting back-lines around, there are lots of points in the team, but they have a challenge to overcome at dummy half; a long-term injury to Josh Hodgson and the departure of Kurt Baptiste leaves Siliva Havila as the sole option for the number nine jersey.
The Sharks are bound to miss the presence of James Maloney who has joined up with the Panthers, with Matt Moylan moving the other way. Both his and Jack Birdís departures have been offset by Josh Duganís arrival from the Dragons, although quickly assimilating the new man into a widely anticipated slot in the centres will be a matter of urgency for coach Shane Flanagan.
With Dugan, fellow new-boy Moylan and Valentine Holmes all capable of filling in at full-back, the Sharks are spoilt for choice in that particular department but Holmes is favourite to retain the role despite his outstanding World Cup showings on the wing for the Kangaroos. Discipline and an ageing pack remain the major weaknesses of this team, and it is hard to see a sufficient improvement materialising that will carry them back to the heights of their 2016 success.
The salary cap investigation has hampered the build-up to the new season, and uncertainty over new recruits has meant that the Sea Eagles come into the new year under a cloud. Plans to replace Blake Green with Trent Hodgkinson have been put on hold while the NRL integrity unit completes their investigations.
Last season's stand -out performer Dylan Walker underwent five operations in a bid to resume his career in time for the new season. However, Round four is a more realistic timeframe for the Dally M centre of the year to make his comeback.
Despite the influx of top-class additions, a top-eight finish may just be beyond the Newcastle Knights in 2018. Integrating so many new faces straight into the side may prove problematic and an instant qualification for finals football following three years of last-placed finished may be too much of an ask.
The infusion of class and experience supplied by Benji Marshall and Josh Reynolds will complement Luke Brooks in the creative department as Ivan Clearyís revolution begins to take shape. The fixture list hasnít treated the Tigers kindly, and the brutal first five rounds are likely to impede their ability to make their mark early on in the campaign.
The prospect of facing Melbourne (twice), Roosters, Brisbane and the Eels adds up to a nightmare start to the campaign, and the Tigers will probably find themselves playing catch up from the outset.
Inspiring an immediate upswing in results is a big ask for rookie coach Anthony Seibold at the Rabbitohs, despite the signing of Wally Lewis medallist Dane Gagai and imminent return to action of Greg Inglis. The superstar fullback has been on the sidelines for 16 months, and it is by no means a guarantee that he will return to his previous best; especially considering that he will have turned 32 years of age by the time the season gets underway. One of the weaker packs in the country has not been upgraded, and itís difficult to see how the Bunnies will improve.
The expectations for the Warriors diminish by the year, and another finish outside the eight is widely expected now following a six-year hiatus from the knockout stages. A bad start and the knives will be out for coach Stephen Kearney who may find his position untenable after the previous season's failure. Having to play each of last yearís top four twice has done nothing to improve their chances of claiming a place at the upper echelons of the ladder this season.
The Bulldogs are another side going into the new campaign with a degree of uncertainty surrounding the club, following a change in management. Dean Pay is the man chosen to replace beleaguered predecessor Des Hasler and the Canterbury fans demand a more expansive style of play than what they have been subjected to in recent times.
A chronic lack of point scoring talent is a problem that may have been solved by the arrival of Kieran Foran, although the decision to bring in the ex-Warrior at the expensive of fan favourite Josh Reynolds is a risky one. Aaron Woods will add some much-needed firepower upfront although James Grahamís leadership will be sorely missed.
With Jarryd Hayne no longer casting his shadow over the club, the Titans can at least get back to concentrating on matters on the field. Although recruiting a high-profile name hasnít been discounted going forward, an emphasis on young player development is a pressing issue for the future health of the club for new coach Garth Brennan.
The reshape has already begun with Brennan determined to bring back a fiercely competitive streak to the side; a hallmark of past Titansí teams and one which made them such difficult opponents. A tricky outfit to predict, a dearth of talent in the pack and paper thin depth in the backline may have fatal consequences this season.
1. Sydney Roosters
2. Melbourne Storm
3. North Queensland Cowboys
4. Parramatta Eels
5. Brisbane Broncos
6. St George Illawarra Dragons
7. Penrith Panthers
8. Canberra Raiders
9. Cronulla Sharks
10. Manly Sea Eagles
11. Newcastle Knights
12. Wests Tigers.
13. South Sydney Rabbitohs
14. New Zealand Warriors
15. Canterbury Bulldogs
16. Gold Coast Titans
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