After last season’s ground-breaking all-Queensland NRL decider, 2016 Premiership calculations are again centred on the powerhouse state.
Who could forget North Queensland Cowboys’ stunning last-gasp raid on the silverware? Certainly not arch rivals Brisbane Broncos, who betfair have at $3.04 to make the final again and $5.09 to win it.
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After the return of legendary coach Wayne Bennett in 2015, the Broncos set the bar high. The addition of the speedy James Roberts, who scored 16 tries in 24 games for Gold Coast last season, is also handy for this new campaign. But their biggest challenge this season could be keeping a lid on expectations.
Further north, the Cowboys are again tipped to challenge for the title. There was plenty of romance surrounding last season’s breakthrough triumph and captain Johnathan Thurston finally got a Premiership to go with his four Dally M medals. Luxbet have North Queensland at $4 to make the final while Sportsbet is quoting $8 for the Cowboys to go back to back.
The Sydney Roosters have won three straight minor Premierships but they could be the big sliders this year. Mitchell Pearce’s Australia Day debacle ensured the club’s 2016 campaign got off to the worst possible start while the departure of key trio James Maloney (Cronulla), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand Warriors) and Michael Jennings (Parramatta) also hurts. Sportsbet has the Roosters at $1.72 to make the eight. Centrebet and Unibet have them at $3.50 to get a double chance.
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If the Roosters do slide out of contention, Cronulla could be the team to replace them in the top four. The arrival of Chad Townsend (New Zealand Warriors) and Maloney, means Cronulla have a damaging halves combination. Centrebet, Luxbet and Unibet are offering $3.50 for the Sharks to make the top four.
Perennial heavyweights Melbourne Storm face a squeeze at full-back as they aim to compete this season. After battling injury last season, veteran Billy Slater is under pressure to keep the No.1 jersey from rising rookie Cameron Munster. However, the 21-year-old will miss the early rounds with a knee injury. The Storm are expected to be there at the business end of the season and a Melbourne flag is attracting $15 from bet365 but only $11 at Luxbet.
However, one of the biggest talking points for the league is the return of Sam Burgess, who will give South Sydney Rabbitohs extra potency this season. On paper, the Rabbitohs should be able to challenge and Unibet is quoting $6.50 for them to make the decider. Superstar skipper Greg Inglis and rock-solid halves pairing Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary are a force, but the loss of Kiwi international hooker Issac Luke to the New Zealand Warriors is a blow.
After missing the top four on percentage in 2015, and with a squad brimming with internationals, Canterbury-Bankstown have a point to prove this year. However, halves combo Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye have to answer their critics. The duo were underwhelming in the latter stages of last season when Trent Hodkinson was injured and he has since joined Newcastle. Centrebet has the Bulldogs at $3.25 to make the top four, but Unibet’s quote of $4 is where the action is. Betfair is offering $17.10 for them to go all the way.
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Manly and Canberra are two teams who are expected to stake top-eight claims in 2016. The Sea Eagles fell short of the finals for the first time in a decade in 2015 and new coach Trent Barrett will bring a fresh blueprint. Centrebet and Luxbet are offering only $1.50 for Manly to make the eight.
But there is plenty to like about the Raiders, who are at $2.20 with Luxbet to play finals. Second-rower Elliott Whitehead joins the club from Catalan Dragons while Aidan Sezer’s arrival from Gold Coast should also be a shot in the arm and help them at that price. Blake Austin was a revelation in the nation’s capital last season and how he teams with Sezer in the halves will be crucial to Canberra’s hopes.
It’s hard to make a case for the Wests Tigers ($4.50), Newcastle ($5) or Gold Coast ($2.50) to make the eight as they head Luxbet’s fewest wins market. The latter’s loss of Roberts and Nate Myles (Manly) does not help, while half-back Kane Elgey’s season-ending knee injury also hurts.
For Newcastle, who were slapped with the wooden spoon last season, the only way is up. There is an experience vacuum at the club in 2016 with Kurt Gidley (Super League), Beau Scott (Parramatta) and Chris Houston (Super League) out, and Clint Newton and David Fa’alogo hanging up their boots.
The West Tigers’ offseason has been overshadowed by the Robbie Farah/Jason Taylor soap opera and they will need to tighten their leaky defence to improve on last year’s 15th-placed finish.
Back to the teams who are eyeing success and there is a range of potential among Penrith, St George Illawarra and the New Zealand Warriors. Penrith, for example, have a good squad. Provided they have better luck with injuries in 2016, they have the firepower to compete against most sides. The top four ($4.75 with Unibet) is not beyond them.
St George Illawarra also have expectations and they must build on last season’s eighth-placed finish. The loss of Trent Merrin to the Panthers leaves a hole, but the Dragons have plenty of depth and Sportsbet’s $2.75 for them to make the top eight is hard to ignore.
If Parramatta’s big-name recruits like Kieran Foran and Michael Jennings fire, a return to the top eight for the first time since 2009 is a major possibility. Luxbet’s $1.95 is the best on offer for the Eels to play finals. Sportsbet’s $1.85 is the worst.
The New Zealand Warriors, meanwhile, slipped out of finals contention with a disastrous eight-match losing streak last season. But buoyed by the return of Kiwi internationals Tuivasa-Sheck and Luke, the top eight is back on the agenda. The $1.60 Centrebet is quoting is the most generous available for a Warriors finals finish.
It promises to be a fascinating season but it is not solely the teams who are competing for honours. The player of the year awards are also worth considering as we prepare to get the campaign under way.
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Thurston is the early Dally M favourite and Unibet’s $6 is the best price. Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans is on the second line of betting, with William Hill, Centrebet and Unibet all offering $13. If you’ve got your eye on Broncos stars, Anthony Milford is paying $17 with Sportsbet, which trumps everything else available, including Luxbet’s $12. You’ll be able to back Ben Hunt with betfair at $22, but only $11 with Luxbet.