Welcome to the penultimate edition of Everything Rugby League’s predicted finishes series. This writer is confident that the top two teams below are in most fans placings, however, teams three and four may be considered lucky to finish where they’re positioned in this series.
1ST PLACE – SYDNEY ROOSTERS
A new stadium, a foundation club, a premiership winning coach and freakishly talented backs. 2023 should really be the year of the Roosters. Cursed by a wretched run of injuries over the last few years, this is a club who have still really underperformed since their back-to-back premierships in 2019 and 2020. It could be argued that the team simply missed the services of Cooper Cronk post retirement, however the time for excuses is up.
Largely due to a chronic lack of genuine juniors, both the Roosters and Melbourne Storm have unrivalled talent identification systems. The fact that the Roosters had the starting fullbacks in three of the four 2021 World Cup semi-final teams illustrates just how blessed this backline is. Captain James Tedesco leads from the back with, Golden Boot winner, Joey Manu still stuck in the centres. Meanwhile, generational talent, Joseph Sua’ali’I will likely line-up on the wing.
Thanks to what many fans consider a huge blunder from the Warriors, the Roosters were able to sign Matt Lodge on a fairly minimal deal; one which looks to be the missing ingredient in the clubs forward pack. Lodge should enable enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to shoulder less of the burden up front.
The addition of Brandon Smith, one of the game’s premier number nines, also bolsters the starting 17, substantially. Crucially, Smith is the only change in the spine as Tedesco, Luke Keary and Sam Walker go into 2023 having further enhanced existing combinations.
Draw-wise, the Roosters open the season against new club, The Dolphins. While this represents an element of the unknown, the Roosters are realistically in a different class to the Dolphins in terms of their roster. From here, they play with Warriors and Rabbitohs before heading into the team’s first bye of the season.
Sydney Roosters best 17 – 1. James Tedesco, 2. Daniel Tupou, 3. Paul Momirovski, 4. Joey Manu, 5. Joseph Suaalii, 6. Luke Keary, 7. Sam Walker, 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 9. Brandon Smith, 10. Lindsay Collins, 11. Angus Crichton, 12. Nat Butcher, 13. Victor Radley, 14. Connor Watson, 15. Egan Butcher, 16. Matt Lodge, 17. Sitili Tupouniua
2ND PLACE – PENRITH PANTHERS
Defending Premiers Penrith Panthers are aiming to become the first team since Parramatta in 1981-83 to win three premierships in a row. This is certainly a squad who could well do it, too. Possessing the largest junior rugby league nursery in the world, the Panthers won all four grades in 2022; the NRL, under-18 SG Ball Cup, under-20 Jersey Flegg Cup and the NSW Cup. This achievement represents a 113 year first in the sport of Rugby League.
Most fans would agree that Nathan Cleary is the game’s premier, halfback however it was the form of, five-eighth, Jarome Luai that took many by surprise at the 2021 World Cup. Often in the shadows of Cleary, Luai proved instrumental in taking Samoa all the way to the final against Australia.
With a production line perhaps unrivalled in rugby league history, the focus of this club is to keep as many of their core contingent of players together, whilst replacing departures with juniors. This may sound fairly obvious, however history shows this is not an easy act to balance. The team will likely miss the service game of, hooker, Api Koroisau. While Mitch Kenny is expected to step up, it will take time to learn each other’s game given what an important role Koroisau played in the team over the last few years.
The contract situation surrounding star centre Stephen Crichton risks becoming a distraction for Ivan Cleary and his men. Crichton sees himself as a fullback long term and thus commands fullback money on the open market. At this stage, Crichton seems more likely to leave than stay, with his likely destination being the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Draw-wise, the Panthers first month is quite a challenging one. The team opens the season against the Broncos and Rabbitohs before their first bye in round three. From here, they take on arch rivals Parramatta in a grand final rematch which will be the hottest ticket in town.
Penrith Panthers best 17 – 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Brian To’o, 3. Stephen Crichton 4. Izack Tago, 5. Taylan May 6. Jarome Luai, 7. Nathan Cleary, 8. Moses Leota, 9. Mitch Kenny, 10. James Fisher-Harris, 11. Scott Sorensen, 12. Liam Martin, 13. Isaah Yeo, 14. Tyrone Peachey, 15. Luke Garner, 16. Spencer Leniu, 17. Jaeman Salmon
3RD PLACE – MELBOURNE STORM
This may be a boring pick for a top four finish, however, the Melbourne Storm system has proven its ability to reinvent itself time and again. This author isn’t bold enough to join the growing chorus of fans predicting the downfall of the Storm in 2023. In saying this, there’s no denying that this season represents the biggest overhaul of the Storm’s forward pack in recent memory.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery and the Dolphins unashamed raid on the aging Storm forward pack tells us that Melbourne still have a culture and work ethic that’s the envy of every club in the league.
Despite the overhaul in the forwards, this team is still very well equipped. Christian Welsh returns from injury to partner enforcer Nelson Asofa-Solomona. They will be joined by new signings Tariq Sims and Eliesa Katoa to form a formidable pack.
Melbourne possesses one of the most potent spines in the NRL. While expected to miss the season’s early rounds, fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen will eventually join, halves, Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster. With service from Australian hooker Harry Grant, you’d have to be a bold person to predict the downfall of this team.
The future of master coach, Craig Bellamy will be a talking point until he addresses the issue of his immediate future. Many pundits are predicting 2023 to be his last year, with names such as Jason Ryles, Billy Slater and, current assistant, Marc Brentnall being thrown around as possible replacements.
With the exception of round one against the Eels, Melbourne have a relatively friendly opening month of the season. Round two sees the team take on the Bulldogs, followed by the Titans and Tigers.
Melbourne Storm best 17 – 1. Ryan Papenhuyzen, 2. Nick Meaney, 3. Reimis Smith, 4. Justin Olam, 5. Xavier Coates, 6. Cameron Munster, 7. Jahrome Hughes, 8. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 9. Harry Grant, 10. Christian Welch, 11. Eliesa Katoa, 12. Tariq Sims, 13. Josh King, 14. Tyran Wishart, 15. Tepai Moeroa, 16. Tui Kamikamica, 17. Trent Loiero
4TH PLACE – PARRAMATTA EELS
The Eels are another team who many pundits are predicting will slide down the ladder in 2023. There’s no doubt that team will feel the loss of, quality dummy-half, Reed Mahoney, not to mention, second rower, Isaiah Papali’i. These two names aside, the club also loses the service of Marata Niukore and Oregon Kaufusi, both of whom played week to week in the NRL team last year.
The loss of the above names is further evidence that players won’t stay for “unders” unless the team wins a premiership, not just makes the grand final. From the outside looking in, it appears as though Parramatta have struggled to balance the negotiation tight rope when it comes to contract renewal. For whatever reason, the club just doesn’t have staying power of other powerhouse clubs such as the Sydney Roosters or even the Brisbane Broncos. This is further evident in the fact that Mitchel Moses remains unsigned beyond this year.
In saying the above, the team still has the majority of the players that saw them make the 2022 grand final. Of particular strength is the cohesion between fullback, Clint Gutherson and halves, Dylan Brown and Mitchell Moses. This combination represents a level of cohesion built over years of playing together. How Josh Hodgson fits into this group is a key focus point for fans to watch. Hodgson likes to play almost like a second halfback, similar in style to Robbie Farrah. The Eels simply need the service part of his game as Moses and Brown can take care of the rest.
The pairing Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Junior Paulo form one of the best front row partnerships in the competition; it’s what happens when these two players go off the field for a rest that poses the real question for fans. There’s a glaring lack of forward depth for the Eels in 2023, with players such as Bryce Cartwright and Ryan Matterson needing to step up. The culture hit of Matterson taking a multi-week suspension over a fine surely would have raised some eyebrows from fellow team members.
The Eels have perhaps the toughest start to the season of any team. After kicking off the year against the Storm, they go on to play Sharks, Sea Eagles, Panthers and Roosters. There can be no better test for a team rightfully or wrongfully labelled as flat track bullies in 2022.
Parramatta Eels best 17 – 1. Clint Gutherson, 2. Waqa Blake, 3. Will Penisini, 4. Bailey Simonsson, 5. Maika Sivo, 6. Dylan Brown, 7. Mitchell Moses, 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. Junior Paulo, 11. Shaun Lane, 12. Jack Murchie, 13. J’maine Hopgood, 14. Bryce Cartwright, 15. Ryan Matterson, 16. Nathan Brown, 17. Jake Arthur
Whichever way the chips fall, 2023 is shaping up to be an ultra-competitive season. Most of last year’s weaker team have signed well, specifically the Bulldogs, Tigers and Warriors. The addition of the Dolphins makes 2023 a historically important year, too. Get ready people, less than 8 weeks to go before kick off!