<big>The Big 12 predictions for 2012</big>
By Andy Withers FOX SPORTS February 27, 2012 1:11PM
The 2012 NRL premiership season shapes as the most competitive for years, and there’s only one thing about which we can be truly confident: expect the unexpected; whatever you think will eventuate week to week, the polar opposite is highly likely to occur. This is a fact, a result of an incredibly strong, and even, competition.
We wrote last year in our “Big 11 for 2011” NRL premiership predictions: “Every season the NRL throws up its fair share of surprise packets and disappointments - often puzzling so-called experts as less-informed tipsters are made to look like geniuses.”
Last year looked difficult, and we’re happy to reflect that four predictions out of 11 came to pass. But this season looks more difficult again, and we might just give ourselves a passmark if we get three right.
Read our 12 big NRL premiership predictions for 2012, and tell us if we’re off our rocker or on the money.
1. Storm come back to the pack
It’s with trepidation that I go dead-set against the wisdom of knowledgeable colleague Trent Hile, who has tipped the Storm as a banker for the premiership. Melbourne Storm were the best team in the comp through the minor premiership last year; big guns Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are still running round; and they remain under the tactical influence of Craig Bellamy; no wonder they are tipped by Trent and many pundits to remain the bechmark team in 2012.
But they did become very unthreatening in an attacking sense at the pointy end of last year, and was it really such a surprise to see the Warriors, not the Storm, produce the “big X-factor play” in the preliminary finals? The Storm’s attack seemed to become predictable - pedestrian, even - despite the influence of the big three. Of course, they had previously scored points aplenty through the minor premiership, but their opponents when the stakes were highest seemed to know exactly what to expect, hence were able to defend it easily. Certainly, the Warriors “out-Stormed the Storm in the preliminary final” - doing the basics right then making the big plays.
No doubt Gareth Widdop will be better again as a playmaker this year, but, big three apart, the squad might be said to lack a little “x-factor”. The Storm can never be criticised for their recruitment policy - players are always selected for a ability to fit Bellamy’s structure – but Will Chambers and last season’s recruit Maurice Blair most certainly are not the “artist formerly known as Greg Inglis” they seem to need; hence the Storm remain over-reliant on Smith, Cronk and Slater.
They’ll remain hard to beat because of their great defensive structure, and because they make fewer errors than anyone else, and that takes you a long way towards the premiership; but they might just fall short in the finals. That said, the newly announced “double chance” for the top four finalists - if they qualify for the top four - seems to suit a team such as the Storm more than rivals who might be a bit more “hot and cold”.
2. Dragons run out of puff
OK, this prediction, maybe, won’t create such a furore; Fox Sports rugby league commentator Laurie Daley tipped them to miss the eight, and “Dragons to miss the eight” as a prediction this year seems almost de rigueur. But they went into freefall post Origin last year, after previously playing as if they had one hand already on the trophy, claiming only 10 competition point from the final 12 rounds. They were then meek against Wests Tigers in the qualifying finals before a courageous effort in defeat by Brisbane Broncos in the semi-finals.
St George Illawarra Dragons record in the second half of last season, on its own, would not condemn them. This is, after all, a new season. But the loss of coach Wayne Bennett, Darius Boyd and Mark Gasnier does. You don’t easily recover from such blows. New coach Steve Price and the new names on the team sheet may be about to forge their own legends (and we wish them good luck), and who knows whether the 2011 malaise was caused only by the mid-season announcements that Bennett and Gasnier (hence, the transfusion of new blood represents the cure), but other teams presently seem better placed to challenge for the finals.
3. Carney plays State of Origin
There’s little doubt that Todd Carney, at his best, is one of the most exciting players in the game; nor that Carney at his worst wouldn’t know how to find the rails he’s run off. But even Carney - surely - recognises he’s seen the outside of the Last Chance Saloon exit door, and we believe that understanding will spur him to rediscover his Dally M-winning best form with Cronulla Sharks after a wasted 2011 season at Sydney Roosters. (And he wouldn’t be the first player on whom Roosters coach Brian Smith has enjoyed a positive effect for only one season.) We believe he’ll hit the ground running, and produce form such that New South Wales selectors will recognise the impact he could make in State of Origin. (From the interchange, at least.) His claim to a run-on jumper is less certain, as we think Blues selectors finally might recognise the importance of naming a stable team. Jamie Soward is the incumbent New South Wales No.6, and he’ll take some shifting from the jumper as he did little wrong in 2011; but Soward’s the definition of a “confidence player” and the Blues’ starting spot could open up if St George Illawarra Dragons struggle this year. As for State of Origin itself …
4. Blues break Origin drought
Cue comments from Queensland (and elsewhere, no doubt) questioning the author’s credentials! Last year we wrote: “Blues coach Ricky Stuart will bring a new dimension, but it’s old Queensland combinations that have been hurting NSW for the past five years … Darren Lockyer fit and Johnathan Thurston pumped for a huge season the Maroons will triumph 2-1 to make it six straight, as NSW move closer to the mark, but ultimately fall just short.” Queensland won the hard-fought three-match series by a margin of just four points, and we wonder how they would have gone without the genius of Lockyer. The great man’s heir apparant in the No.6 jumper, Thurston, is a genius, too; and Cooper Cronk, Thurston’s erstwhile replacement at No7, is obviously Origin class and better; still, they’re not Lockyer, and a Queensland team even only 1 per cent less effective may not have won last season. The Blues must improve again to win this season - but may not by as much as the improvement they seemed to make last year - and their selectors must nominate a team and stick with it. But this might just be the year that Queensland - a team for the ages, a team among the best in the history of any sport - appear fallible. And they, simply, have to lose a series again some time. Don’t they? Blues to win 2-1, having claimed the opener in Melbourne and Origin II in Sydney.
5. Buderus turns back time
Danny Buderus, among Newcastle’s most favourite sons in history, left the Knights in controversial circumstances - the rake departing at the end of 2008 as then coach Brian Smith set about his remit of changing the club’s culture. So it was a happy day for all concerned when “Bedsy” returned home. Now you might consider “you never go back”, especially at the age of 34, but Buderus is considered one of the greatest hookers of the modern era, and he has meanwhile played two years of great football for Leeds Rhinos in Super League. He also returns without citing “homesickness”, indicating his head is still in the right space. Rather, he returns home to a club he never wanted to leave in the first place - and does so being exactly the sort of player with whom Wayne Bennett has enjoyed so much success. We expect him to perform exactly as if it were 2001-2006, and to be a key figure in the Newcastle Knights revolution. Could he even play State of Origin once again?
6. Kieran Foran wins Dally M
He’s the playmaker and one of the star performers of a Manly Sea Eagles side that we expect to win far more matches than they lose, and to make a strong bid to defend the NRL premiership, despite early-season public concerns about coach Geoff Toovey’s ability to steer the ship. As such, he fits the profile of a Dally M winner: a key-position player in a winning team. He is most certainly not the most obvious selection to win the Dally M, but luminaries such as Andrew Johns believe he is the most promising playmaker in the recent history of the NRL premiership. Hence - to using horse racing parlance - he still offers plenty of upside. We’re looking forward to watching him this season.
7. James Maloney struggles
The Warriors five-eighth put himself into early contention for a Blues State of Origin jersey on the back of a stellar 2011 season. But we have a feeling James Maloney’s decision to put pen to paper on deal with Sydney Roosters for 2013 - a whopping 460 days before he pulls on a tricolour jumper - will see him slip back into representative obscurity in his final year with the Warriors. There’s always a lingering questionmark over players who sign for other clubs several months in advance. A red-hot Jamal Idris joined Gold Coast 325 days prior to pulling on a Titans jersey, before ‘disappearing’ on the field for the Bulldogs for the rest of the season. If times get tough at the Warriors, we tip Maloney’s focus to meander towards the sunny shores of Bondi.
8. Adam Reynolds named Rookie of the Year
South Sydney’s halfback has a huge boom on him, and pressure to match as he’s the nominated replacement for Chris Sandow. But Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire paid him some compliment when he refused to secure a top-line No.7 to replace Sandow, and he clearly believes the halfback has what it takes to direct Souths well enough to get the most out of their high-profile line-up. One of the stars of the Rabbitohs’ 2010 Toyota Cup grand final-qualifying team, he missed last year after a pre-season injury cruelled his hopes. But he seems to have “the game” to succeed - he’s not slow to talk, he defends well, he has an excellent kicking game and he’s described by Souths co-captain Michael Crocker as “a really good organiser”; we think his ambitions were merely put on hold for 12 months. One of the few rookies seemingly assured a key-position starting spot, his form in Souths’ winless pre-season suggest he’s a major hope of following in the footsteps of Daly Cherry-Evans at the Dally Ms. We can only hope that a successful season does not see one of his nicknames - “Rendiggiti” - infecting our collective conscience like a Crazy Frog.
9. Souths to challenge strongly
South Sydney fans have suffered more false dawns than Hobart in mid-winter, but this finally might be the year they truly contend for their first premiership trophy since 1971. (Cynics note that five wooden spoons in the meantime do not count as trophies.) They haven’t been in the finals since 2007, but the feeling is they’d have got there last year but for injuries and discipline issues. That said, few teams divide the foxsports.com.au editorial team more than South Sydney when discussing the coming season: Ben Glover feels they’re a major hope, while Trent Hile believes they might be closer to winning another spoon than to winning the premiership as “they still don’t have a proven quality halves combination”.
Chris Sandow, last year, finally produced consistently strong performances as he almost single-handedly rode John Lang’s side close to the finals, and Souths fans will be hoping they’re not left to lament the one that got away. But we think that Adam Reynolds might be the real deal (see above). And Michael Maguire, after two successful years with Wigan Warriors in Super League, after previously assisting, and learning the structured, disciplined ways of, Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, might just be the best coach at Redfern since Jack Gibson left in 1979. (And even the original Supercoach struggled with Souths.). The consensus in the divided foxsports.com.au team is that they’ll make the eight granted better luck with injuries. If they do make the finals, fitness of key personnel allowing, even the office grouches concede they can then march strongly towards the grand final - if not all the way to the decider.
10. Titans remain in the cellar
Gold Coast Titans recruited strongly for 2012 - Jamal Idris, Beau Champion and Nate Myles are all potentially excellent headline signatures – and only Cronulla Sharks are seen to have a more improved squad. But the recruits do not address the key issues that afflicted the Titans in 2011: they struggled in key positions as Nathan Friend suffered a horror injury, Scott Prince looked like he might be going over the hill into the sunset, and Mat Rogers went unreplaced; as a result, they ranked last in both attack and defence. Coach John Cartwright can still sit comfortably in his seat at Skilled Park, having signed a lucrative five-year contract extension last season, but he’ll surely be shifting uncomfortably if his side claims, or goes close to claiming, another wooden spoon.
11. Tigers miss top four
Wests Tigers top the NRL premiership betting markets, and many people are tipping them for the premiership given that Benji Marshall is predicting his best season yet. We’re not willing to say in our “Big 12 predictions for the 2012 NRL premiership season” that they won’t win the show; we are, however, willing to say they’ll have to do so with a double chance in the finals - missing the top four for the first time since 2009. Robbie Farah and Marshall are the equal of any player in their respective position; but Tim Moltzen has something to prove at halfback, while fullback - for all the promise of James Tedesco and Mitch Brown, and the experience of Joel Reddy – could be a problem, so the spine might not be as strong as Tigers fans believe. They can always put Moltzen back to No.1, but who, then, will play in the No.7 jumper? They also have a worrying lack of proven depth behind Marshall and Farah so injury to either could be season-defining. Much has been made of the fact that Adam Blair has joined from the Storm, and no doubt he is a great asset, but we have a gut feel that the Tigers do not yet know exactly how much they will miss Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita.
12. James Graham best “bulldog”
We love nothing more, as Australians, than panning the Poms - with only the “bloodsport” of slamming their cricketers having a stronger following than panning rugby league teams and players from the Old Dart. But top British players are increasingly seen as desirable commodities in an NRL team. (Whisper it softly for fear of word getting back to Britain.) We learned to love Mal Reilly, Ellery Hanley and Adrian Morley, and now we appreciate Sam Burgess and his band of brothers, Jack Reed, Gareth Ellis and Gareth Widdop (at least until they face the Kangaroos). But James Graham might just be the best Pom in the NRL this season. He signed for Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, the St Helens and Great Britain captain signing a three-year deal, and he seems to be the perfect player around whom Des Hasler can build his new dawn at Belmore. One of the best players in Super League, he ran for more than 3900 metres last season, making more than 22 runs per game, and is said to be even better on “faster ground”. Cop the tip and select the former Man of Steel, Rugby League Writers Player of the Year, World XIII player, and “best prop in the world”, in your Fantasy NRL team for a bargain $200k.