So it begins: the wild ride of an NRL season. Eight games a week, impossible to escape coverage. The odd bitten fingernail. Here’s my predictions for what 2023 holds in the NRL…
Penrith to make it a three-peat
I know, it’s an easy and expected prediction, but hear me out: I believe it’s easier to win a third consecutive Premiership than a second.
I’m not deluded: I know it hasn’t been done in the NRL era, or since the 1980s, but I believe that’s probably a case of timing and squad turnover more than anything else.
After winning the comp, you become the hunted. Everyone wants to beat you, which becomes a drain and it makes going back-to-back a mental challenge as much as a physical one.
When you do go back-to-back, it’s not so much about being the hunted anymore as it is the feared and respected.
There is still so much driving this Penrith team, and they remain determined to win. The core nucleus of talent remains intact.
The Panthers will win it again.
Eels and Rabbitohs to miss the Finals
Now I must be on pre-drinks early, right?
I honestly don’t believe Parramatta and South Sydney will make the top eight this year, as foolish as putting such a prediction in print may be.
The Rabbitohs have done nothing in the player market this season but have lost Mark Nicholls, Kodi Nikorima and Jaxson Paulo. They finished seventh last year and face the Sharks, Panthers Roosters, Sea Eagles and Storm in the first five weeks. They could seriously be none from five.
The Eels also face a tough draw first-up and while many believe their 2022 Grand Final appearance will be the spark needed to fire them up this year, I’m not so convinced.
They’ve added Josh Hodgson to replace Reed Mahoney but have also lost some strong talent in Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore.
You heard it here first: The Eels and Rabbitohs aren’t playing Finals footy.
Sea Eagles, Broncos return to Finals
So if Souths and Parramatta are missing out, who is replacing them in the top eight?
As long as Tom Trbojevic stays fit, I see no reason why Anthony Seibold won’t guide Manly to the Finals in his first season at the club. The pride saga is the only thing that stopped them playing in September last year.
While I do have some question marks over Brisbane given their fall from the top eight last year and some recently announced departures to the Dolphins for 2024, I think Kevin Walters will get the job done this year.
Save your cash Broncos and Sea Eagles fans, you’ll be buying Finals tickets.
Griffin to face axe at the Dragons
Anthony Griffin appears to be a dead man walking at St George-Illawarra and it’s hard to imagine he’ll still be in charge of the club at the end of the season.
A soft draw could help Griffin keep his job until at least mid-season but if the Dragons lose some of those early season games, it could be curtains for the former Penrith and Broncos mentor.
I don’t like what the Dragons bring to the table in 2023 and I honestly believe they’ll finish last.
Sorry Dragons fans, it’s time to sharpen your wooden spoons.
Dolphins, Bulldogs to be in the hunt
Many are predicting newcomers the Dolphins to finish towards the bottom of the ladder this year but never under-estimate Wayne Bennett.
While I disagree with the NRL’s move to not call this club Redcliffe given rugby league is built on tribalism and geography, I have no doubt Bennett would have already created a strong culture at the club.
The squad looks better in 2024 than it does in 2023 and I don’t believe the Dolphins will be playing Finals football this year, but they’ll give their fans plenty to cheer about.
I expect Canterbury fans will also have more to celebrate this year but without a top tier halfback, I can see Cameron Ciraldo having a rare September holiday.
The Bulldogs remain in a re-building phase, which will take time. They’ll be in the hunt towards the business end but I think a finish around 9th or 10th is more likely.
Get those calculators out, because you’ll be talking “mathematical chances” for these clubs around round 20.
Write off the Storm at your peril
Has there been a club talked about less than Melbourne this off-season?
Craig Bellamy has had his troops in the rugby league bubble down south, chipping away in the pre-season while everyone in Sydney and Queensland worried about anything but them.
Some believe Melbourne’s time has finally come, but how many times have we heard that?
It’s true Melbourne don’t look as strong as they have in previous seasons, but we’ve been there before, too.
Any suggestion Melbourne will miss the Finals is ludicrous. I don’t think they’ll be in the Minor Premiership race, and they may miss the top four, but I can’t see them falling any lower than fifth or sixth on the ladder.
Bellamy always has his sides well prepared and fine-tuned for the season ahead. There is no question in my mind that Melbourne continue to pose a threat.
Keep those umbrellas up.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.