March 22 feels like an eternity ago. It was what many thought could be the final day we see NRL action for 2020.
A lot has happened off the field since then, but we now sit only days out from the resumption of what will surely be one of the more memorable NRL Premiership battles we’ve encountered.
More has changed than anyone could have thought, so it’s important to take a look back before we can look forward.
Now that the NRL 2020 Premiership draw is out, let’s take a look at the major flag threats and sneaky contenders for the restructured season.
Two wins to open the season and the huge advantage of playing at AAMI Park make the Melbourne Storm formidable in 2020.
They have nobody out with injury and, alongside the Sydney Roosters, will be the best-prepared team for the resumption of play.
Craig Bellamy’s genius as a coach has been in adjusting to refereeing interpretations and coaching his players accordingly.
An immediate switch to one referee gives the Storm a huge boost with the game’s smartest player, Cameron Smith, controlling the ruck.
Much like Josh Hodgson for the Canberra Raiders, Smith can either play fast and fluid or slow the game down and pick the opposition apart that way.
With the release of the draw giving double-up games against the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles and Raiders, Melbourne’s top four prospects are not as strong as usual.
Just as night follows day, however, the Storm will once again be among the favourites for the premiership.
Hot Tip: The $4.25 for the minor premiership looks a good investment, but we’re not sure they have the depth to win the big one.
Melbourne Storm to win minor premiership
Not many teams lose the NRL Grand Final but capture the hearts of neutral fans quite like the Canberra Raiders did in 2019.
In previous years, the Raiders were a flashy team who had a plenty of pretty wins but found ways to lose games that seemed inconceivable.
Canberra’s 2016 season was one of the best attacking seasons in the last 20 years, but at the same time they conceded 20 or more points in 10 of their 24 home-and-away games before bowing out in the preliminary finals.
In 2019 they kept three different teams scoreless. Why is this important? Since the year 2000 there has been just one team – Wests Tigers in 2005 – to win the flag without a top four defence.
Expect Josh Hodgson to be Canberra’s best player in season 2020. The English hooker’s ability to create space for his teammates off slow play-the-balls gives the Raiders a huge advantage under the altered rules.
With Jack Wighton hitting the sweet spot in his career, John Bateman emerging as a star on the second row and Jordan Rapana returning on the wing, the Raiders will capitalise on their opening two wins and finish in the top four.
Hot Tip: The $6 for the premiership feels about right for the Green Machine, and I’d also look at Josh Hodgson for the Dally M Medal at $34.
Josh Hodgson to win Dally M Medal
Since their last premiership in 1986, the Parramatta Eels have failed more often than not when the pressure is on.
They had a wonderful 2019, but it only came after they won the wooden spoon the year before.
Parra have two wins in the kitty and play five of their next six games at Bankwest Stadium, where they have built a tremendous home record in quick time.
Brad Arthur has a fully fit squad who look capable of winning a lot of regular season games, especially if they play a lot of games at their new home ground.
The Eels are another team that could benefit hugely if the pace of the game quickens under one referee, as it would unlock Mitchell Moses and create opportunities for forwards to offload the footy and create second-phase plays.
Parra haven’t won the minor premiership since 2005, and this might be their best chance to snap that streak. Everything is in place for the Eels to succeed, but we have all said that before.
Hot Tip: The $5.50 for the minor premiership feels like a great price considering Parramatta’s schedule.
Parramatta Eels to win minor premiership
Back-to-Back premiers and they started the season with back-to-back losses.
Replacing a commanding presence like Cooper Cronk is impossible. The development of young halfback Kyle Flanagan throughout the year will have a big say on whether the Sydney Roosters sneak into the top four.
James Tedesco is rightfully the favourite to repeat as Dally M Medallist, but how will he and Luke Keary fare without Cooper Cronk?
Flanagan is a good emerging prospect but needs more time to develop his own game and the combinations with his other creative players.
The competition suspension probably did the Chooks more favours than anyone. They start two games behind, but skipper Boyd Cordner and several other stars have now had an extended break for the first time in several years.
Triple-premiership coach Trent Robinson will have expertly used his time on ‘Project Apollo’ to figure out how to get an edge over his opposition coaches.
Hot Tip: The Roosters will make the eight, but they’ll miss the top four. Tedesco narrowly misses out on a second Dally M Medal.
Sydney Roosters to finish in top eight
It has not been smooth sailing Anthony Seibold in his short reign at the competition’s glamour club, but the Brisbane Broncos are one of only five teams who have maximum points this season.
A win first up against long-time rivals North Queensland and another against South Sydney have given Broncos fans cause to be optimistic.
Brisbane ran for more than 1600m in both wins, and one could argue that the development of their yardage game will be crucial to their flag chances.
In their 58-0 flogging against Parramatta in last year’s finals series, the Broncos could only muster 813 metres across 80 minutes. While only two games have transpired since that dark day, they’ve shown the blueprint to success.
The power game of Brisbane’s fantastic young forward pack can cause headaches. New halfback Brodie Croft might lack a little in creativity, but his strength is running the ball between the markers and ‘A’ defenders around the ruck.
If the rule changes get the desired results and the game becomes quicker, Croft’s value for Brisbane rises. If it goes the way statistics suggest with the speed of the ruck slowing down with one referee, Brisbane will have to lean more on Anthony Milford’s creativity.
Hot Tip: Get on the $3 for Brisbane to make the top four, as they are one of the few teams that will play at their home ground this season.
Brisbane Broncos to finish in top four
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
The Manly Sea Eagles shocked almost everyone when they reached the second week of the 2019 NRL Finals, but they should back it up in 2020 despite the loss of Api Koroisau and Manase Fainu in their hooker rotation.
A powerful forward pack, one of the best halfbacks in the league, a superstar fullback and a well-coached supporting cast will have the Sea Eagles well and truly in the premiership race.
This is a team who will benefit from the change to one referee because of the size in their forward pack and a cunning coach in Des Hasler, who knows more than most how to bend the rules as far as possible.
A first-round loss to the Storm and a gritty win over the Roosters in round two while undermanned will leave Manly full of confidence for a push at their ninth premiership.
Hot Tip: The $11 for the premiership seems great value. Don’t be afraid to tip a few bucks in that direction.
Manly Sea Eagles to win NRL Grand Final
South Sydney Rabbitohs
There seem to be controversies galore happening at Redfern, but if any man knows how to navigate tricky waters, it’s South Sydney Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett.
The question of where Latrell Mitchell is best suited to play in 2020 seems to be a hot topic. If James Roberts is set to miss weeks following rehabilitation and social isolation, it may force Bennett to move Mitchell back to the centres and Alex Johnston to fullback.
A tested halves pairing of Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker will ensure the Rabbitohs won’t fall too far while they figure out how to best utilise their star recruit.
A fast ruck in years gone by has made Damien Cook the most important player in the Souths squad, so the referee changes could have a bigger impact on the NSW Blues hooker than any other player in the competition.
In the last two seasons, Souths have come up short in big games in large part because their opposition has figured out how to nullify Cook. Thus, his adaptation to the new landscape could make or break the Bunnies.
Hot Tip: Should make their way into the top four of the regular season. The $8 to make the grand final presents some good value.
South Sydney Rabbitohs to make NRL Grand Final
With two early wins under rookie coach Adam O’Brien, the sun is shining a lot brighter in the Hunter Valley than it has in recent seasons.
The addition of expert assistant coach David Furner has been huge addition to the Newcastle Knights, with big improvements already being seen in their offensive game.
The season-ending injury to Jayden Brailey casts big doubts around who will fill the void. Connor Watson’s new role on the bench seems to be a better fit for the team, so expect rookie Chris Randall to get first crack.
The change to one referee puts even more pressure on Mitchell Pearce to lead the Knights to the finals. He led the first two rounds with five try assists and a four-pointer of his own, but he carries a heavy burden without proven operators at hooker and five-eighth.
Pearce will get help from Kalyn Ponga at fullback, but the Queensland rep will need to show he can assist teammates around him as well as provide his own personal highlight reel.
A decent forward pack, size in the outside backs and two wins in the bank leave Newcastle on the precipice of a finals berth for the first time since 2013.
Hot Tip: The $5 for a top four finish may be worth a quick thought.
Newcastle Knights to finish in top four
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