League: Shorn of Barba, Sharks could slide

The NRL starts on Thursday with the defending champion Sharks hosting the Broncos. We asked our league experts nine of the biggest questions heading into the season.
The Sharks could struggle to repeat last season's heroics, especially with Ben Barba having moved on. Photo / photosport.nz
The Sharks could struggle to repeat last season's heroics, especially with Ben Barba having moved on. Photo / photosport.nz

1. Who will win the NRL?

David Skipwith (NZ Herald journalist): Melbourne, because of Craig Bellamy's masterful coaching and the reliable work of The Big Three - Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater - along with Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris and young gun Cameron Munster.

Michael Burgess (NZ Herald journalist): North Queensland. They didn't cope with the pressure of being premiers last season, but will be rejuvenated in 2017 and Kalyn Ponga gives another dimension to their attack.

Dale Budge (Radio Sport commentator): Penrith. They have an absolutely stacked roster and have been to the playoffs two of the past three seasons, so they have finals experience. Their pack is as strong as any in the comp, they have a good backline and a number of key role-players.

Kent Johns (Radio Sport Breakfast host): Brisbane. Wayne Bennett would have figured out why they faltered last year and they have excellent players in key positions.

D'Arcy Waldegrave (Radio Sport Drive host): North Queensland. The spinal quality, the monsters in the pack, both young and old, and Thurston's genius realised sets up this side for a massive 2017.


2. Where will the Warriors finish?

David Skipwith: Fourth. If the Warriors can keep their big-name players fit, particularly Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Simon Mannering and Shaun Johnson, and play to their potential, they will be right in the mix come playoff time.

Michael Burgess: Fifth to eighth. They are due - surely - to fulfil their potential but won't be consistent enough to nail a top four spot.

Dale Budge: I think they are a fifth to eighth team. They should be better than last season but still lack the power up front to be true contenders. There is an upside with some young players coming through but an early finals exit is most realistic.

Kent Johns: I have them fifth-eighth. They're not a top four side in a tight field this season but they should be a playoff team with that roster.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Fifth-eighth. Expect top four but the Warriors' phenomenal ability to bottle it looms large, regardless of their quality roster. They'll threaten top four but a lack of finals experience may see them succumb in the final dash.


3. Who will be this season's dark horse?

David Skipwith: The Gold Coast Titans. If they can get the likes of Jarryd Hayne, Kevin Proctor, Konrad Hurrell and Dan Sarginson on the field together, they have a big forward pack and classy playmakers in Ashley Taylor and Kane Elgey to trouble the strongest sides.

Michael Burgess: Penrith. James Tamou is a good signing and Nathan Cleary is the best young player in the competition.

Dale Budge: The Sydney Roosters. They had a poor year in 2016 but won three straight minor premierships prior to that. Their farm system is as strong as any in the league and there is enough talent in their roster to be surprise contenders this year.

Kent Johns: The Tigers don't have the Robbie Farah distraction any more and although they have been flaky in recent seasons, don't discount their youngsters pushing on to better things in 2017.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Penrith. They showed huge potential last season, Cleary will go from strength to strength, the experience in the pack and the old school Kiwi connections out back will make them a handful.


4. Who will be the biggest underachievers?

David Skipwith: St George Illawarra. Pre-season form indicates little has changed for Paul McGregor's team to improve on last year's 14th place finish and they could well go backwards.

Michael Burgess: Cronulla. The loss of Ben Barba and Michael Ennis will hurt, as will the weight of expectation. They might even miss the top eight.

Dale Budge: The Bulldogs. I just don't see them being a playoff team this year. They have question marks at hooker and in the halves and have lost a lot of backline talent. Des Hasler might well be looking for a new job this season.

Kent Johns: The Sharks. It is so hard to win consecutive titles and they won't be riding any emotional wave this time. I could see them missing the top four, and losing Ben Barba is significant.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Cronulla. They'll lose their shit and not be able to cope with the defending premiers tag. No more titles for another 50 years.


5. Name a likely Dally M Player of the Year winner?

David Skipwith: Cooper Cronk.

Michael Burgess: Johnathan Thurston.

Dale Budge: Nathan Cleary. Yes, boom rookies generally go through a cooling off period in year two but this guy has the calm demeanour his father demonstrated but with more natural talent. Cleary is destined to be a future Origin star and his chance might come sooner than expected.

Kent Johns: Anthony Milford. Halves are often favoured and I'm picking him for a big season for the Broncos.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Here's hoping Foran's comeback year is astonishing. It's more likely to be Thurston, as he shoulders Cowboys' journey to the title.

Queensland may again leave NSW marooned in State of Origin. Photo / photosport.nz
Queensland may again leave NSW marooned in State of Origin. Photo / photosport.nz

6. How will Kieran Foran go with the Warriors?

David Skipwith: He will be a success. Foran will give the Warriors what they need from him - toughness, direction and consistency.

Michael Burgess: It's an almost impossible question to answer now, with so many unknowns. There is no reason why he won't be a success but so much depends on the Warriors forward pack. Foran will bring much needed direction and a winner's mentality but isn't the silver bullet.

Dale Budge: I'll stay in the middle on this one because I just don't know but I really think it will be one extreme or other. He could well be the missing piece of the puzzle but it could wind up a disaster if the off-field issues aren't completely behind him.

Kent Johns: Gee, it's hard to know. It's difficult for me to think we will see him at his best consistently, given his well-publicised story. But if that combination with buddy Shaun Johnson fires, then all bets are off.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: He'll be huge. But not big enough for the Warriors' hopes of a title. I obviously hope I'm wrong.


7. Who will be the first coach sacked this season?

David Skipwith: Paul McGregor.

Michael Burgess: Laurie Daley. In the NRL, Paul McGregor and Trent Barrett are under the most pressure.

Dale Budge: Des Hasler. Yes, Paul McGregor, Jason Taylor or Trent Barrett are the popular choices but the Dogs have very high and unrealistic expectations with their current roster. I wouldn't be surprised to see it coincide with a change elsewhere, like at the Dragons or Sea Eagles. where he would be a likely replacement.

Kent Johns: Paul McGregor. He is skating on thin ice to start this season and that is never good. A poor start, and his job is in real jeopardy.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Paul McGregor. I don't think his Dragons will do enough to give the board any faith to re-sign him for 2018, so they'll roll him when the Dragons falter mid-season.


8. Who will win State of Origin?

David Skipwith: New South Wales.

Michael Burgess: Easy. The Maroons will continue their dominance, helped by two matches being played at Suncorp Stadium.

Dale Budge: New South Wales. I think it finally happens and we start to see a changing of the guard. If New South Wales can pick the right side, I think we see a new Blue dynasty with names such as Tom Trbojevic, Nathan Cleary, James Tedesco and Matt Moylan at the forefront.

Kent Johns: Queensland - Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Boyd ... now that's the best spine in the game.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: Queensland.


9. Who will win the World Cup at the end of the year?

David Skipwith: New Zealand.

Michael Burgess: The head says Australia. The heart says "remember 2008".

Dale Budge: Australia. They are clearly back to being the best in the world and unlike under previous regimes, I think Mal Meninga is picking on form rather than reputation. The Kiwis are always a chance but are back to winning two or three out of 10 rather than the one for one they were achieving a couple of years ago.

Kent Johns: Australia. They are back to being the world's best team and it'll take something special to beat them in Brisbane in the final. The Kiwis are always a puncher's chance but the Kangaroos should dominate the tournament.

D'Arcy Waldegrave: World Cup? Let me look at the available players closer to the time, but I feel Aussie are back at the top of the world.

- NZ Herald

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