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NRL 2015 season preview: we pick the premiers

Sydney Roosters star Mitchell Pearce. Photo: Getty

Sydney Roosters star Mitchell Pearce. Photo: Getty

Part two of league expert Will Evans’ comprehensive guide to NRL season 2015.

Page 1

Jack of all trades: Kurt Gidley. Photo: Getty

Jack of all trades: Kurt Gidley. Photo: Getty

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Why they can win it: An outstanding batch of youngsters highlighted by a stunning array of talent out wide, a couple of handy forward pick-ups and the prospect of starting afresh following popular mentor Rick Stone’s return to the head coach role.

Why they can’t: An inability to complete their line-up puzzle – captain Kurt Gidley is good enough to play in four positions but isn’t the best at the club in any of them, while incumbent Test star Sione Mata’utia has somehow missed Round 1 selection as Stone negotiates his embarrassment of backline riches. The temperament of the Knights’ halves is still a question mark and their forward stocks are limited.

Key player: Sione Mata’utia should ultimately wind up in possession of the No.1 jumper and can be among the top half-dozen outside-backs in the NRL by the end of 2015.

One to watch: The Knights have lacked punch out of dummy-half for some time, but if 19-year-old Junior Kiwis rake Danny Levi gets an opportunity in first grade he will be very hard to dislodge.

Predicted finish: 13th

NORTH QUEENSLAND

Why they can win it: A beautifully balanced line-up with few disruptions from last season, headlined by the game’s No.1 player in Johnathan Thurston and potentially the game’s best forward in Kiwi phenomenon Jason Taumololo, whose recent re-signing was a colossal coup. Coach Paul Green seems to know how to get the best out of this side and that chemistry will only improve in his second season at the helm.

Why they can’t: Finals demons and travel woes still have to be overcome – the Cowboys have not won a post-season game away from Townsville since 2005, while their wounds from recent controversial post-season exits are still festering.

Key player: Without Thurston, their increasingly-hyped 2015 premiership challenge falls apart. They may jag a win or two while he’s on Origin duty, but they can’t go all the way if he is sidelined. ‘JT’ just gets better and better.

One to watch: Former Bronco Jake Granville could provide the Cowboys with the zip around dummy-half they’ve missed since Aaron Payne retired.

Predicted finish: 6th

Young gun Will Hopoate. Photo: Getty

Young gun Will Hopoate. Photo: Getty

PARRAMATTA EELS

Why they can win it: The likes of Chris Sandow, Corey Norman, Semi Radradra and Nathan Peats came along in leaps and bounds in 2014, while the acquisition of Anthony Watmough to mentor the NRL’s most exciting, dynamic batch of young forwards was a masterstroke. Brad Arthur proved himself as a very astute operator in his first year as Eels coach.

Why they can’t: Jarryd Hayne produced the best season of his career in 2014 and the Eels still missed the finals. Replicating the 49ers’ newest signing’s output is an impossible task, so that would suggest a top-eight berth will be beyond them once again.

Key player: Will Hopoate was regarded as potentially the equal of Hayne and co. talent-wise once upon a time – if he can make the No.1 jumper his own, it will cushion the blow of their talisman’s departure.

One to watch: Tepai Moeroa is a Nathan Hindmarsh clone, but more explosive. Only 19, Moeroa could play Origin this year.

Predicted finish: 10th

PENRITH PANTHERS

Why they can win it: The experience of last year’s finals series was hugely beneficial. The burgeoning Panthers boast budding superstars such as Matt Moylan, Josh Mansour, Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright, complemented by in-form old heads Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace and Brent Kite. A marvellously balanced squad with unbelievable depth to cover any contingency, while Ivan Cleary is in the NRL’s top bracket of coaches.

Why they can’t: Key injuries dented the Panthers’ aspirations in 2014 and have already reared their head with Mansour, Nigel Plum and Adam Docker all missing Round 1. There will be no flying under the radar for last year’s fairytale team this time around, either.

Key player: Soward was a premiership-winning linchpin for the Dragons in 2010 and showed signs of reprising that role last year. Perceived as a prickly character in the past, the playmaker turned over a new leaf in 2014 – and looked more dangerous than ever.

One to watch: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scored seven tries in 10 games last year and was selected for a Kiwis Test debut aged just 19 before injury intervened. The similarities to Israel Folau at the same age are uncanny.

Predicted finish: 2nd

Can Benji Marshall get back to his best? Photo: Getty

Can Benji Marshall get back to his best? Photo: Getty

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

Why they can win it: Few club possess a triumvirate as dangerous as Josh Dugan, Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall … whether those superstars have enough back-up is doubtful, however.

Why they can’t: The Dragons’ only representative-quality forward, Trent Merrin, has already signed elsewhere for 2016 as salary cap woes continue to grip the club. Sorely lacking strike-power out wide, and the fact bumbling Dane Nielsen walked straight into a centre spot is a sad indictment on the Saints’ three-quarter line depth.

Key player: The Dragons require Marshall’s off-the-cuff brilliance and a strong organisational platform from their No.7.

One to watch: Former Warriors NYC backrower Adam Tuimavave-Gerard is a Kiwi international in the making and should get his chance at some stage in an ordinary Saints pack.

Predicted finish: 14th

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

Why they can win it: The 43-year-old monkey is off the Rabbitohs’ back, Greg Inglis is at the peak of his powers, and the likes of Dylan Walker, Adam Reynolds, Luke Keary and George Burgess came of age in a team that emphatically won a premiership. Souths’ World Club Challenge performance fired a shot across the bows of every would-be NRL contender.

Why they can’t: No team has done it in a full competition since Brisbane in 1992-93, and going back-to-back will be a mountainous challenge after losing their two best forwards and half of their Grand Final three-quarter line. Kirisome Auva’a’s suspension, the Arizona arrest debacle and John Sutton’s captaincy demotion were unwelcome disruptions for a side that will run out on Thursday night with six changes from the 2014 decider.

Key player: Inglis is apparently burnt out on and off the field, but the Rabbtitohs need him at his effervescent best – particularly after being thrust into the captaincy role, which was a make-or-break call by coach Michael Maguire.

One to watch: Bryson Goodwin and Joel Reddy are unsatisfactory backline replacements – look for Under-20s star Aaron Gray, a strapping centre, to push hard for a first grade spot.

Predicted finish: 5th

Sydney Roosters star Mitchell Pearce. Photo: Getty

Sydney Roosters star Mitchell Pearce. Photo: Getty

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

Why they can win it: Twelve of the Roosters’ 2013 Grand Final squad remain – a rarity in this salary cap-driven era – and the likes of Dylan Napa and Isaac Liu have stepped up seamlessly for the few who have left. It’s easy to forget the Roosters were minor premiers last season; they weren’t far off going back-to-back.

Why they can’t: The leadership void created by the double-whammy departure of Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams could have dire effects, on and off the field, for a squad that has had problems with culture in the past. Moa and Maloney are their oldest at 28, while new co-captains Pearce and Friend are just 25.

Key player: Mitchell Pearce hit career-best form on the back of his dumping from the NSW Origin team. A veteran of 182 games despite his tender years, the tenacious halfback is the player to lead the club forward.

One to watch: The controversial but freakishly talented Blake Ferguson shapes as an outstanding purchase. One of the NRL’s most damaging backs in poorly performed sides, the wayward star will relish playing outside Maloney and Pearce.

Predicted finish: 1st

WESTS TIGERS

Why they can win it: The Tigers boast the most exciting crop of youngsters in the NRL – James Tedesco, Luke Brooks, Mitchell Moses and Curtis Sironen can form the basis of a team that dominates for years to come. Incoming coach Jason Taylor means business, confidently making sweeping changes to the club’s underperforming set-up, and by all accounts the squad is responding well.

Why they can’t: Experience and forward depth are glaring deficiencies. Bursting with talent, the Tigers appear set for vast improvement in what will ultimately prove a learning-curve season, much like Parramatta in 2014.

Key player: Robbie Farah is still a top-shelf general with a point to prove after an unhappy 2014. The Tigers’ new breed needs his guile and guidance if they’re to be a genuine finals contender this year.

One to watch: Sauaso Sue had a bumper Four Nations campaign with Samoa and is a trump card in a backrow department that shapes as a potential area of weakness.

Predicted finish: 9th

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