The 2017 NRL season is upon us and what a year we are in for. The Sharks look hard up against it in defending their premiership after losing Ben Barba and Michael Ennis. Melbourne are always around the mark and will once again be in the mix. North Queensland have the most talented roster. Who knows what is happening with Brisbane. Can Canberra and Penrith take the next step and ascend to the truly elite.


The Banker

Melbourne are the most reliable team in the premiership. Under Craig Bellamy the only time they missed the finals was when the NRL threw them out of the premiership. They have lost some big players with Kevin Proctor, Mariaka Korobiete and Blake Green all gone and Tohu Harris and Billy Slater suffering long-term injuries but that means little when Bellamy is coaching the team and Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are running the show. The team is bombproof and are helped by a draw that ranks as the second easiest. Melbourne are Top 8 certainties and plenty of value to reach the Top 4 and to win the title.


The Premier

North Queensland rank as the top selection for the title on roster talent alone. Johnathan Thurston is the best playmaker the game has ever known and he is paired with the dynamic Michael Morgan in the halves. Jake Granville is the perfect hooker for their system. Such is the depth in the three-quarter line that Kalyn Ponga, Javid Bowen and Gideon Gela-Mosby are not in the best 17. Shaun Fensom has been added to a strong forward pack a week out from the year. Without the pressure of defending the title, the Cowboys look primed for another title run.


Rising Fast

The Sydney Roosters finished 15th last year but they are Top 4 bound in 2017 with a premiership not out of the reckoning. They have been – rightly – hammered in just about every market throughout the pre-season. The Chooks were about as unlucky as any team could get last season. They finished 0-8 in close games while they finished 4.5 wins shy of their real win total. Since 2008 teams that have won fewer than 20% of close games have improved by nearly seven wins the following season, on average. With some astute recruitment in Michael Gordon and Luke Keary and some outstanding depth, the Roosters look the real deal. Anything short of a Top 4 finish would be a major disappointment.


On The Up

South Sydney finished last season with four straight wins and a one-point loss to Melbourne – and those five games were when Damien Cook finally won the starting job. He will play a major roles with the Bunnies this year even with Robbie Farah joining the side. Farah was a good buy but their best purchase was versatile forward Robbie Rochow, who provides some much-needed class to a Bunnies back. If the Burgess boys get back to somewhere competent, Souths are a Top 8 quality side.


The Slider

Cronulla could become the first team since the Wests Tigers in 2006 to fall from premiers to missing the playoffs. The signs aren’t good for the Sharks though, who have lost two key members of their spine. The Sharks went 6-1 in close games last year and overshot their real win total by 4.7 wins. With depth an issue and the difficulties that inherently exist with defending a title, it is hard to see Cronulla going even close this year.


Overrated

Both Canberra and Penrith have quality young teams but both could be at least a year off. The Raiders have had some unfavourable roster turnover and overachieved by 3.1 wins last season. With the worst fullback in the premiership, Canberra look more vulnerable than most suggest. The Panthers have incredible depth but are lacking top-end talent through the spine. There is also a concern that they perhaps have too much talent and how that all fits together could be an issue.


The Spoon

The race for last is a race in one with the hapless Newcastle Knights virtually assured of a last-slot finish. A year after managing just a win and a draw, there seems to have been little improvement to the roster. This Knights team may not even win the NSW Cup. Newcastle are the only team to play 14 matches against Top 8 teams from 2016 so they have been curried no favours by the NRL.


The Draw

Canterbury have been handed the easiest draw playing just nine games against Top 8 teams from last year. The Eels play three games on Origin-affected weekends and will likely be better off on all three occasions.


Early Season Angle

Look to back home underdogs getting a start of four or more in the opening four rounds of the year. Since 2008, home underdogs of +4 or bigger are 37-8 against the spread, a ridiculously strong cover rate. In the opening round that means a heavy play on St George Illawarra.


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