Here we go again, 158 days after the Melbourne Storm trounced North Queensland Cowboys to win 2017’s NRL premiership.
The long off-season was punctuated by league headlines, good and bad, to tide us over. The Kangaroos won another World Cup. Rumours spread of teammate punch-ups in the Australian and Italian camps. Moses Suli was booted from more clubs in a month than a perennial drunk. The Storm smacked Leeds Rhinos in the World Club Challenge. Debate raged about whether new Broncos forward Matthew Lodge should be allowed to play in light of his legal indiscretions.
But a smorgasbord of player transfers dominated fan and media discussions. The 2018 season will see many stars change teams, making for an unpredictable and exciting beginning to the season. This weekend will give us our first glimpse of how the player movement will pan out.
The new arrivals: who’s playing where
The biggest story of the last 6 months has been champion halfback Cooper Cronk quitting the Storm for the Sydney Roosters. The 34-year-old achieved every possible honour with Melbourne, but this multi-million dollar, two-year stint at the Tricolours may define his legacy. Cronk is joined in Bondi by livewire ex-Tigers fullback James Tedesco. If things click between the pair, expect the Roosters’ highlights reel to be even longer than their payroll.
“Cronk will provide great structure to the Roosters and Tedesco is one of the form attacking players who will fit in well,” decorated former St George, Queensland and Australian player Mark Coyne told Hatch.
The butterfly effect from Cronk’s signing resulted in the departure of longtime Roosters half Mitchell Pearce to Newcastle on a four-year deal. Pearce was last week named co-captain of his new club.
Down the M1 in Wollongong, former Broncos No 7 Ben Hunt and England prop James Graham connect at the Dragons, tasked with resurrecting a side that has made the finals only once since 2011. Coyne believes the duo can lead a rejuvenation.
“Graham and Hunt will make a big difference to the Dragons’ final chances. Only just missing the top eight last year, [they] will provide the Dragons with stronger leadership,” he said. “Over the past few years the Dragons have faded at the middle and back end of the season, and these players will help with mental toughness [to push through the full season].”
The Dragons will be without Josh Dugan, who is now a Shark. Former Panther Matt Moylan will join him in the Shire, having arrived at Cronulla in a straight swap for NSW Origin five-eighth James Maloney. “Dugan and Moylan are great additions to [Cronulla’s] backline and will provide strong attacking options,” said Coyne.
Jarryd Hayne is back at the Parramatta Eels, Bryce Cartwright is a Gold Coast Titan, Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods are at the Bulldogs, Jack Bird swoops into Brisbane, Joel Thompson will play for Manly, Jordan McLean heads north to the Cowboys, Tohu Harris arrives at the Warriors and Josh Reynolds, Benji Marshall and Russell Packer front a new-look Wests Tigers outfit.
And then there are the coaches. Dean Pay takes over from the sacked Des Hasler at Canterbury, Anthony Seibold assumes the reins at South Sydney Rabbitohs and Garth Brennan joins the Titans.
Based on recruitment and 2017 form, Coyne tips a top four of the Cowboys, Roosters, Storm and Sharks.
Megastars return from injury
Greg Inglis and Jonathan Thurston will return to the field after long injury lay-offs. South Sydney languished in the bottom half of the ladder last year without the inspirational Inglis, who had an ACL injury. He got through a 20-minute cameo at centre in the Charity Shield trial against the Dragons two weeks ago, confirming he’s fit to resume his pivotal role.
The return of Thurston, who missed the second half of the 2017 campaign with a damaged shoulder, will be a huge boost to the Cowboys’ premiership hopes as he begins his final season of top-grade footy. Thurston will notch his 300th NRL game on Friday night in front of his home crowd.
“Anyone who manages to play 300 games in the NRL is a special talent. But when you look at the size of JT and how he gets targeted every week, 300 games is [an exceptionally] special achievement – especially when he is someone who has such an influence in every game he plays,” said Coyne.
“He competes for every minute of the game. Then look also at his influence off the field with the work he does within the NRL community and the indigenous community. [He’s a] true champion of the game.”
Storm fullback Billy Slater was also set to reach the triple-century milestone this weekend, but was withdrawn from his side’s match against Canterbury as a precautionary measure after injuring his shoulder in the World Club Challenge. Slater will likely achieve the feat in Round Two.
Rookies thrown in the deep end
While most fans’ eyes will be on the plethora of top talent turning out for new clubs during the opening rounds, rookies may hold the keys to victory for some teams.
Despite having just nine NRL matches under his belt, the electric 19-year-old wonderkid Kalyn Ponga joins Newcastle on a reported $3.6 million four-year deal. Ponga, who played most of 2017 in the second tier at the Cowboys, will be required to immediately combine smoothly with Mitchell Pearce and fellow newbie to first grade, Connor Watson.
Expectations of Ponga are high from the Novocastrians: “What Kalyn Ponga is about to do in the next 12 months is going to blow people away,” Knights legend Matthew Johns told NRL.com.
The Dragons’ Matt Dufty is another inexperienced fullback predicted to make a big impact this season. The 22-year-old speedster made his NRL debut late last year in the absence of an injured Josh Dugan and kept his spot for the remainder of the season. With Dugan now at Cronulla, Dufty has emerged as a man who could wear the Dragons’ No 1 jersey for years to come, becoming the X-factor the Red V have sorely lacked in recent times. He started well in the pre-season trials, starring in a win over Hull FC and scoring a scintillating try against Souths.
The youngster with the heaviest load on his shoulders is Melbourne’s Brodie Croft, who will attempt to do the impossible in replacing Cooper Cronk. Croft will be the chief playmaker in a side boasting some of the game’s most hardened veterans. It seems a tough ask for the 20-year-old, but he’s looked very composed in his six first grade games to date. Croft was a standout in the Storm’s pre-season World Club Challenge triumph last month when he scored a try and set up three others, earning widespread comparisons to his predecessor.
Whether he can maintain his unflappable nature will prove integral to the Storm’s quest to become the first side since Brisbane to win back to back premierships (in 1992/3). Coyne believes that achievement isn’t beyond Melbourne.
“Despite losing Cronk and McLean, they still have the most influential player in the game in Cameron Smith and the best coach in the game … [They] won’t be the team they were last year, but [Craig] Bellamy won’t have them far away.”
The NRL season kicks off tonight when the Dragons host the Broncos at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah. – Troy Whittaker
Top photo: The captains gather – from the NRL’s Twitter.