2011 NRL season preview

The 2011 National Rugby League season gets underway on Friday morning and Love Rugby League’s Jim Green has been casting his eye over the contenders.

1st – St. George-Illawarra Dragons

The Dragons were deserved premiers in 2010 and they look likely to be strong contenders to retain their crown this season.

Hard-working forwards Jeremy Smith and Neville Costigan have departed but the emerging Trent Merrin will help fill the void. Try machine Brett Morris is part of a back-line that is awash with talent and the halves combo of Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward keep the Saints ticking.

With master coach Wayne Bennett at the helm, the Dragons are capable of topping the pile once again.

2nd – Canberra Raiders

The Raiders have shown great improvement under coach David Furner and they are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the competition.

Bronson Harrison and Thom Learoyd-Lahrs will be joined by new signing Brett White in a tough looking pack while Matt Orford’s arrival will offset the absence of the injured Terry Campese. However the undoubted star of this Raiders outfit is the hugely talented Josh Dugan, a player who has to be in the New South Wales team come State of Origin time.

The squad looks to have all of the ingredients required tomount a challenge.

3rd – Sydney Roosters

The Roosters dramatic transformation over the course of 2010 surprised many but coach Brian Smith is no stranger to such situations. However he can struggle to take a club to the next level and that is the challenge he now faces.

New signings Justin Carney and Mark Riddell provide added depth but much depends on Todd Carney’s ability to stay out of trouble. His partnership with Mitchell Pearce has the makings of a Premiership winning combination.

The supporting cast includes the likes of Braith Anasta, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Anthony Minichiello, and that could ensure that the Roosters will be in the mix once more.

4th – Wests Tigers

Arguably the most entertaining side in the competition, Wests will probably feel they should have achieved more last season.

The combination of Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall can unlock any defence and Gareth Ellis is part of a much toughened pack. Wade McKinnon could be a shrewd addition and there are high hopes for young forwards Simon Dwyer and Andrew Fifita.

However Marshall’s recent run in with the law threatens to upset the apple cart. Tim Sheens will be hoping that situation is resolved sooner rather than later or Wests could be in for a tough campaign.

5th – Gold Coast Titans

There hasn’t been a great deal of activity on the Gold Coast during the close season but that’s not surprising. The Titans are one of the most consistent sides in the competition and expect them to be in the hunt again this year.

Coach John Cartwright has brought in Luke Capewell and his ability to forge a partnership with the classy Scott Prince could be the key. The Titans experienced pack is a year older but retains plenty of ability while wingers Kevin Gordon and David Mead are capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.

Likely to fall just short of mounting a serious challenge but don’t rule them out.

6th – Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs were hugely disappointing in 2010 and a repeat performance will spell the end for coach Kevin Moore.

The off-season has seen plenty of comings and goings in Cantebury and there is much to like about the Doggies roster. The signings of Aiden Tolman, Greg Eastwood and Frank Pritchard give the Bulldogs pack a menacing look and there are high hopes for Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating.

Any team with Josh Morris and Jamal Idris will be a threat in attack while Ben Barba is tipped to excel at fullback. The Bulldogs could be dark-horses for the top four. 

7th – New Zealand Warriors

The Warriors have become a solid outfit under the stewardship of Ivan Cleary and, with a couple of good additions during the off-season, they will be targeting a repeat of last years fifth placed finish at the very least.

New signings Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu are talented if inconsistent while Shaun Berrigan’s versatility makes him a smart capture.

With the world class Manu Vatuvei on the wing and a young, powerful group of forwards who continue to improve, the Warriors will prove a difficult side to overcome. 

8th – South Sydney Rabbitohs

The Rabbitohs have a squad brimming with talent and their high profile capture of Greg Inglis is the latest piece in Russell Crowe’s jigsaw.

However doubts remain over coach John Lang’s long term prospects and the ability of Chris Sandow to guide the team around the park. Premiership winning teams have good halves and the Rabbitohs don’t tick that box but they do have an imposing pack, led by young powerhouses Dave Taylor and Sam Burgess.

The biggest worry is whether the Rabbitohs have sacrificed too much depth to secure Inglis. Time will tell.

9th – Brisbane Broncos

The shock departure of Ivan Henjak  means the Broncos will start the season with a new coach in Anthony Griffin.

Henjak’s relationship with his senior players was far from perfect and his departure could breathe new life into the club. However much depends on how quickly the Broncos younger players can develop.

The returning Ben Hannant and Dane Carlaw add much needed beef to the pack but the failure to land Greg Inglis and the departure of Israel Folau coupled with Justin Hodges’ injury troubles leave more questions than answers.

10th – Penrith Panthers

Few expected Penrith to finish so high last season but the club continues to improve under coach Matthew Elliott.

Luke Lewis provides the grunt that allows the exciting pair of Michael Jennings and Lachlan Coote to showcase their skills. The departure of Frank Pritchard is a blow, although the Panthers are well used to coping without the rampaging Kiwi.

Given they are no longer the surprise package, the Panthers could struggle to repeat last year’s success but a play-off spot is well within their reach.

11th – Manly Sea Eagles

The squeeze of the salary cap led to Manly parting company with a number of first grade regulars at the end of 2010 and a repeat of last year’s eight placed finish would be a good achievement.

However coach Des Hasler is probably aiming a little higher, particularly if Brett Stewart can recover his best form. Depth is a worry but with the likes of Jamie Lyon, Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough on board the Sea Eagles have plenty of quality.

If Manly can keep their key men fit then they are capable of securing a finals berth once again. 

12th – Melbourne Storm

Last season was one to forget for Melbourne and the effects of the salary cap scandal mean that the Storm roster will be much changed in 2011.

While a host of big names have departed, the club managed to retain Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith. The Storm also have a clutch of talented youngsters who will be eager to seize their opportunity including England’s Gareth Widdop.

It would be foolish to write off any side coached by Craig Bellamy and it would no surprise to see Melbourne making up for lost time after the disappointments of 2010.

13th – North Queensland Cowboys

The Cowboys had a pretty disastrous campaign last time around and will be much changed in 2011. A raft of new faces have arrived in Townsville including the hugely promising young duo of Tariq Sims and Kalifa Fai Fai Loa.

Dallas Johnson is a good capture and don’t bet against him regaining his place in the Queensland side for State of Origin. Coach Neil Henry will be demanding more from star man Jonathan Thurston while a return to form and fitness for Matt Bowen would be most welcome.

A decent outside bet for the top eight if things click into place early on.

14th – Newcastle Knights

The Knights will be eager to make amends after a disappointing season in 2010. However wranglings over the ownership of the club threaten to cause an unwelcome distractions.

Coach Rick Stone welcomes back Chris Houston after his off-field distractions and has also added Neville Costigan to his squad.

Speedster Akuila Uate, Kurt Gidley and Jarrod Mullen will be looking to combine on attack but whether the Knights have enough grunt up front to give those three a platform remains to be seen. 

15th – Parramatta Eels

After a year to forget in 2010 the Eels have a new coach in the shape of Stephen Kearney and a host of new players.

Most of the new signings have something to prove and the retirements of Nathan Cayless and Eric Grothe mean that Parramatta is very much a club in transition. Much will depend on the form of Jarryd Hayne and the ability of Kearney to inspire his troops in the same way he did with New Zealand. 

It could be a frustrating year for Parramatta supporters.

16th – Cronulla Sharks

The Sharks have been on a downward spiral for the past few seasons and its hard to see too much changing in 2011.

The already impressive forward pack is further bolstered by the signing of Jeremy Smith but Cronulla lack depth and quality in the backs. Wade Graham has talent but coach Shane Flanagan will need to find a partner for him quickly.

The Sharks and Paul Gallen in particular will make life difficult for the opposition but a lack of strike power means it is likely to be another tough season in Cronulla.

We want to know your opinions on the 2011 NRL season. Do you agree that St George are likely to come out on top of the pile? Are the Sharks going to end up with the wooden spoon? Let us know your thoughts below.

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