The 2023 NRL season will have the most teams since 1999 and is set to be a landmark year for the competition. Spanning an absurd length of 27 rounds plus four weeks of finals, fans will be treated to a total of 31 weeks of club football.
Predicting the final finishing position of teams is notoriously fraught with risk so to caveat any predictions with disclaimers would simply be fence-sitting. One thing is guaranteed; this writer will have egg on his face at some stage in 2023. Using assessment criteria such as injuries, favorability of the draw along with coaching and roster overhaul, here is how each team is predicted to finish in 2023:
14TH PLACE – GOLD COAST TITANS
The Titans have a roster that could well finish much higher than 14th and even push for the top 8. The word potential is often overused, however, the Titans have a number of ex-Australian Schoolboy stars in their squad who are one year closer to realising their full potential.
Kieran Foran should make a great addition to the 17 and provide much needed experience in the halves. It’s a big year for David Fafita, who struggled to replicate the form seen at the Broncos. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui has grown to be one of the best forwards in the game and deservedly captains the side.
Pressure is starting to build on coach Justin Holbrook, who came to the Titans very highly regarded following a successful stint in England with St Helens. In reality, St Helens have won multiple Super League titles in his absence, providing further evidence of why NRL clubs have become more cautious about recruiting successful Super League head coaches.
The 2023 season sees the Titans open with winnable games against Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra. Things are anticipated to get a lot harder from here, as the team takes on the Storm and the Cowboys before heading into their first bye in round five.
TITANS BEST 17 – 1. AJ Brimson, 2. Sosefo Fifita, 3. Aaron Schoupp, 4. Brian Kelly, 5. Phillip Sami, 6. Kieran Foran, 7. Toby Sexton, 8. Moeaki Fotuaika, 9. Sam Verrills, 10. Isaac Liu, 11. David Fifita, 12. Beau Fermor, 13. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, 14. Tanah Boyd, 15. Jaimin Jolliffe, 16. Erin Clark, 17. Joe Stimson
15TH PLACE – ONE NZ WARRIORS
A new coach, an old home, a new name and a plethora of both departures and arrivals see the Warriors start a new era in 2023. Though, this much roster overhaul rarely results in cohesion from the outset. Warrior’s fans will likely have to continue to be patient in 2023 as the effects of Covid-19 on the club’s junior pathways will be felt for years to come.
Andrew Webster has been very open in his desire to play new signings, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at fullback and Dylan Walker as a specialist 14. The return of a NSW Cup team will allow highly rated juniors such as Rocco Berry to spend more time learning the nuances of the game out of the limelight.
There is genuine competition for spots in the roster and it may take months for Webster to settle on a best 17. The losses of Euan Aitken, Reece Walsh, Eliesa Katoa and Matt Lodge will be hard to get over, however, the club has arguably broke even with the singings of Mitch Barnett, Dylan Walker, Marata Niukore, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and young gun, Luke Metcalf.
Draw-wise, the Warriors go into round one as favourites against the Knights in Wellington. From here, they play three top 8 teams in four weeks as they take on the Roosters, Cowboys, Bulldogs and Sharks. A pass mark would be two wins from this cluster of early season games.
It will be interesting to see the role that young halves, Luke Metcalf and Ronald Volkman play in the wider squad. In terms of young forwards, look out for twin brothers, Otukinekina and Valingi Kepu to get some game time later in the year.
WARRIORS BEST 17 – 1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, 2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 3. Viliami Vailea, 4. Marata Niukore, 5. Marcelo Montoya, 6. Te Maire Martin, 7. Shaun Johnson, 8. Addin Fonua-Blake, 9. Wayde Egan, 10. Tohu Harris, 11. Mitch Barnett, 12. Josh Curran, 13. Jazz Tevaga, 14. Dylan Walker, 15. Jackson Ford 16. Freddy Lussick, 17. Bunty Afoa
16TH PLACE – DOLPHINS NRL
Make no mistake, this squad is well undercooked and clear evidence that the NRL should have given them another year to prepare for entry into the NRL. If it wasn’t for Wayne Bennet, arguably the greatest coach of all time, this team would almost certainly be resigned to the wooden spoon, and still may well be.
With a salary cap floor stipulating that each club must spend at least 95% of the salary cap each year, fans are left wondering how this team have managed to spend what other clubs have in 2023. Recruit Manager Peter O’Sullivan is a savvy operator though and this writer suspects the bulk of the Dolphins’ contracts may well be front loaded, leaving possibly the largest surplus of any club to spend on recruiting players for 2024 onwards.
The above being said, the Dolphins’ 2023 best 17 leaves a lot to be desired. A no-nonsense forward pack consists of men, not boys, however, a large portion of them are on the wrong side of 30 and one wonders how they will go in an increasingly young man’s sport.
Very few expect the Dolphins to do much in 2023 and the club has stated multiple times that they’re looking for long term success, not a sugar hit for 2023. In saying this, the temptation to play teen sensation, Isaiya Katoa in the halves at some stage will largely come down to how journeymen, Sean O’Sullivan and Anthony Milford perform.
The Dolphins will open their season with a baptism of fire, facing off against premiership favourites the Roosters at home in round one. This will be proceeded by games against the Raiders and Knights before the inaugural local derby against the Broncos. All in all, this is an okay start to the season, measured against how their early opposition performed in 2022.
DOLPHINS BEST 17 – 1. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, 2. Jamayne Isaako, 3. Brenko Lee, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Edrick Lee, 6. Anthony Milford, 7. Sean O’Sullivan, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Jeremy Marshall-King, 10. Thomas Gilbert, 11. Euan Aitken, 12. Felise Kaufusi, 13. Ray Stone, 14. Kodi Nikorima, 15. Kenny Bromwich, 16. Mark Nicholls, 17. Jarrod Wallace
17TH PLACE – ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
This is a prediction that will no doubt get a few noses out of joint, however, the Dragons somewhat over performed in 2022, largely off the back of a stellar season from halfback, Ben Hunt. If the Dragons are to avoid the wooden spoon, Ben Hunt will need to stay fit for essentially the entire year, a prospect far from guaranteed given the playmaker turns 33 just a few rounds into the season.
The off-field drama surrounding five-eighth, Talatau Amone has almost certainly caused disruptions to any pre-season planning. Thankfully, the team has a ready-made replacement in Jayden Sullivan, however, this reality places even further pressure on a team struggling for depth.
— St George Illawarra Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) December 21, 2022
Signings-wise, the club has been almost completely off the radar. Expect this to change, with up to four top 30 spots still left to be filled. Jacob Liddle and Zane Musgrove (Wests Tigers) represent the only signings with substantial NRL experience. This is not a good sign given both signings are from the team who finished last in 2023. The Warriors have released forward Ben Murdoch-Masila to sign with the club however this is reportedly still pending medical assessment.
On a positive note, the Dragons start the season with a very favourable draw. A bye in round one will allow an extra week of preparation, with the proceeding rounds pitting them up against the Titans, Broncos, Sharks, Dolphins, Titans, and Raiders. The Sharks and Raiders are the only two teams on this list who made the top eight in 2022. This is good news for under pressure coach, Anthony Griffin.
DRAGONS BEST 17 – 1. Tyrell Sloan, 2. Mat Feagai, 3. Moses Suli, 4. Zac Lomax, 5. Mikaele Ravalawa, 6. Jayden Sullivan, 7. Ben Hunt, 8. Zane Musgrove, 9. Jacob Liddle, 10. Blake Lawrie, 11. Jack Bird, 12. Jaydn Su’A, 13. Jack de Belin, 14. Moses Mbye, 15. Tyrell Fuimaono, 16. Josh Kerr, 17. Francis Molo