Predicting the 2024 NRL season – Panthers’ era over, Dragons to get spoon, Cowboys rising – and the stars under most pressure
Rugby league kicking off in Las Vegas. The New Zealand Warriors finishing in the top four. Luke Brooks lining up for the Manly Sea Eagles. It’s enough to give Nostradamus a headache.
And with another NRL season fast approaching, here’s how things will play out in 2024.
Premiers: Melbourne Storm
History would suggest Penrith. Strength of roster would suggest the Roosters. Form would suggest the Broncos. My burning hatred of all three teams precludes me from picking any of them.
Just as it was in the late 2010s, it’s become fashionable to write off the Storm again. Back then it was common wisdom that Billy Slater was too injured, Cameron Smith too old, and Cooper Cronk too … boring. These days their pack is too soft.
The three-headed monster of Tui Kamikamica, Christian Welch and Nelson Asofa-Solomona is as strong as any prop rotation. Harry Grant is the game’s premier hooker, and Eliesa Katoa will be damaging on the edge in year two in the Storm system.
It’s easy to point fingers at the likes of Trent Loiero, Josh King and Alec MacDonald and label them no-names and journeymen, but Bellamy has done more with less before (see Norrie, Bryan). Add in the return of Ryan Papenhuyzen and addition of Sua Fa’alogo, and the Storm have more strike power than Jason Belmonte.
Wooden Spoon: St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons had the third-worst attack in the competition last season, ahead of only the Tigers and the Bulldogs. They had the third-worst defense, ahead of only the Tigers and the Bulldogs. Unsurprisingly they also featured in the third highest number of James Hooper tirades, behind only the Tigers and the Bulldogs.
But while the Tigers and the Bulldogs have been busy signing players, the Dragons seem allergic to prosperity. New recruit Corey Allan was lost for the season after busting his ACL during his first training session, and young half Talatau Amone has been stood down due to a criminal assault.
Potential signing Ronald Volkman almost put pen to paper with the Red V, but so terrified was his subconscious that it managed to loosen a few screws in his shoulder, forcing him to fail the medical.
As has been the case for several seasons, the Dragons’ hopes rest on the shoulders of captain Ben Hunt, the same bloke who has requested a release on multiple occasions. It’s going to be a long first season for new coach Shane Flanagan.
Team on the rise: North Queensland Cowboys
North Queensland coach Todd Payten learnt plenty from the 2023 season. Widely tipped to qualify for the Grand Final, the Cowboys stumbled out of the gate. Winners of five of their first 12, rock bottom was a 66-12 drubbing at the hands of the moribund Wests Tigers.
The reasons behind North Queensland’s failure to feature in the finals were a hot topic all year. Some blamed the World Cup, others a drop in training intensity, while some pointed to the fact that Chad Townsend was their halfback.
Townsend aside, Payten won’t make those same mistakes again. With a full off-season under their belts, a settled roster and a relatively soft opening six rounds, expect the Cowboys to explode out of the blocks. A top four finish is possible.
Team on the slide: Newcastle Knights
Of the sides that qualified for last year’s finals, Newcastle’s route to the post-season will be the most difficult to replicate. From rounds 1-17, they had the 14th-ranked attack in the NRL, scoring 20.5 points per game. From rounds 19-27, they were the best in the competition, posting a staggering 35.4ppg.
Newcastle’s offensive metamorphosis was fueled by Kalyn Ponga hitting a purple patch of form not dissimilar to Tom Trbojevic in 2021 and Jarryd Hayne in 2009. But reproducing this level of performance is rare. Parramatta went from playing in the Grand Final in 2009 to finishing 12th the following year, while Manly dropped from fourth in 2021 to 11th in 2022.
The Knights have a roster capable of playing finals football again, but with the likes of Parramatta, Manly, North Queensland and South Sydney all on the outside looking in, competition will be fierce. Their success will once again hinge on Ponga’s ability to stay on the park.
State of Origin: New South Wales
Queensland were deserved winners of the 2023 series, but the doom and gloom surrounding the Blues is unwarranted. To put things in perspective: the ghost of Tom Trbojevic played two games, Nathan Cleary played only one game, and Latrell Mitchell didn’t feature at all. In contrast, Queensland’s entire spine was available all series, save for Reece Walsh missing game three for gobbing off at the officials.
The health of key players has been an ongoing concern for the Blues. The last time NSW had the trio of Trbojevic, Cleary and Mitchell on the field at the same time was the first two games of the 2021 series. They won both games by a combined score of 76-6.
Yes, Origin is about passion and resilience and Queensland and all that. But if the Blues are healthy, the Maroons might struggle to win a game.
Coach under the most pressure: Trent Robinson
He is at no risk of losing his job. Nor should he be. As a three-time premiership-winning coach, he will be a Rooster for life. But with the roster at his disposal year after year, it’s arguable that Robinson has underachieved during his time in charge.
The Roosters treat roster building like a wedding gift registry – they simply browse the team lists of opposing clubs and scan in the players they want. Sam Walker is being hyped as a generational prospect – BEEP. Brandon Smith is the hottest name on the market – BEEP. Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco are looking to get some sun – BEEP BEEP.
The 2024 off-season for the Roosters has been no exception. Dominic Young and Spencer Leniu were brought in to replace departing veterans Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Daniel Tupou, only neither of them left. If only my tax accountant operated with such creativity.
Once again Robinson enters the season with a roster oozing representative talent. They have three world-class fullbacks, an elite halves pairing and more edges than a dodecahedron. Anything but a fourth premiership under his watch should be seen as a failure.
First coach fired: None
For the first time in the NRL era, no coach will be fired during or after the 2024 season. To provide some context, an eye-watering total of 69 full-time and interim coaches have been moved on since 1998, with an average turnover of 2.76 per season.
So why the drought in 2024? Traditional coaching graveyards like the Titans, Tigers and Dragons all have coaches entering their first season in charge, while Cameron Ciraldo looks likely to be given at least another year to turn the Bulldogs around.
Brad Arthur and Jason Demetriou’s names have been thrown around, but Parramatta look poised to bounce back into the top eight while Demetriou recently inked a new deal. The one smokey: Manly. The Sea Eagles have premiership aspirations, so a Brisbane-style implosion might leave Anthony Seibold on shaky ground.
Dally M Medal: Mitchell Moses
Parramatta were awful last season. A combination of injuries, scheduling and off-field atrocities conspired to knock them out of the finals for the first time since 2018. But despite the sky falling around him, Moses had one of his better seasons.
With much of his supporting cast watching on from the sidelines, Moses did the one thing that Andrew Johns has been begging for since Channel 9 first gave him a microphone – he ran the ball more. A lot more. From 2019-2022 Moses averaged 67 running metres per game, but last season that number increased to 96 metres.
When Moses commits to the run, he becomes a nightmare to defend. His speed forces you to account for the run, yet his deft kicking game and vision give him multiple options at the point of attack. Now entering his playmaking prime, the ink still drying on a fat new contract and his family life settled, 2024 shapes up as a big season for Moses.
Player Under Pressure: Reece Walsh
What an incredible year 2023 was for Reece Walsh. With the explosive speed of a young Billy Slater, the piercing eyes of a movie star and the universal popularity of garlic bread, Walsh is undoubtedly the face of the NRL.
His fearless play helped Queensland retain the Origin shield and his confident brand of footy carried Brisbane to within 16 minutes of breaking their premiership drought. Kids love him. Sponsors love him. Hell, even Tom Brady loves him!
He’ll be a key marketing tool in the NRL’s quest to break into the US market and the focal point of the local season launch. Walsh will be the centerpiece of Brisbane’s attack and carries the hopes of a city and a state on his shoulders. No pressure.
Best Buy: Stephen Crichton
From the long list of departed Panthers, the loss of Crichton might be felt the most. At the tender age of 23, the two-time Dally M Centre of the Year has developed into the complete player. Blessed with blinding speed and soft hands, Crichton plays a punishing defensive style which has allowed him to excel at Origin level.
Whether the Bulldogs view him as a centre or a fullback remains unclear. Nor does it really matter. He’ll be a massive upgrade at either position. At 193cm and pushing 100kgs, he might even find himself on an edge down the road, following a similar path to Ben Creagh. Whatever position he plays, the Bulldogs have bought themselves an elite player.
Worst Buy: Luke Brooks
Brooks is the poster child to all of us out there that are merely average at our jobs. Brooks has enjoyed a fine rugby league career. He doesn’t dominate the game but he’s rarely the worst player on the field.
His play sits right in that meaty part of the curve and his failure to meet external expectations has taught a generation that it’s OK just to be Clark Kent. Because after 12 seasons, that’s who he is. The hope that his shift to the Sea Eagles will unlock his true potential is just that – hope. He’ll have some good games and he’ll have some bad games. But he won’t be a difference-maker at Manly.
Big Improver: Sam Walker
After bursting onto the scene in 2021, Walker’s career hit a bit of a snag last season. Like many of his Roosters teammates, form and confidence eluded him. Robinson eventually dropped his halfback prior to round eight, and Walker promptly sprained his ACL, possibly out of spite.
Halves consultant Cooper Cronk took the majority of the heat for Walker’s inept performances, most of which originated from Walker’s family. Who knew that being mentored by Cronk could make you robotic and devoid of creativity?
But with his knee fully recovered, a full off-season under his belt and a stacked roster surrounding him, Walker is poised for a massive year. I can almost see him sailing harbour bridge passes to a towering Dom Young. Good luck defending that.
Drop in Form: Cody Walker
Cody Walker’s form in 2023 was emblematic of South Sydney’s season. From rounds 6-14, Walker was on. He averaged 2 try assists and 2.1 line break assists per game, missed only 2.7 tackles, while conceding 0.1 penalties and committing 0.8 errors per game. During this period, the Bunnies won 78% of their matches.
In the back half of the season, Walker’s play fell off a cliff. From rounds 15-27, his try assists (0.6) and line break assists (1.4) plummeted, his missed tackles almost doubled to 4.9 per game, and both his error count (2) and penalties conceded (0.6) were up. His drop in play coincided with South Sydney winning only 4 of their last 11 games.
At 34, Walker is facing his rugby league mortality. Much has been made of the fact that he was a late bloomer, not debuting in the game until age 26, meaning he has plenty of tread left on his tyres. By this logic, at age 39 and with zero NRL appearances to my name, it could be my time to replace him.