NRL: Ladder predictions for the 2022 season

Opinion: @Hayward_AdamK

It is that time of year again… LADDER PREDICTIONS!

Trying to predict how the season will unfold and where teams will finish is one of the most polarizing conversations during the preseason, which often leads to healthy, and not so healthy debate. Here are my own crystal-ball musings for the 2022 NRL season.

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16. Wests Tigers

It is difficult to see how they improve in 2022. Michael Maguire is arguably the coach who is most under pressure heading into the new season. Their best player, Adam Doueihi is not expected to return from injury until round 10 at the earliest.

Jackson Hastings and Tyrone Peachy are welcome additions to invigorate their attack, but questions remain as to whether Luke Brooks has what it takes to guide his team to the finals, which he has never been able to achieve in the past eight seasons. I believe he is an out-and-out five-eighth, but the club inexplicably continues to try and manufacture him into a game managing halfback, a role he has never succeeded or been comfortable with.

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15. Newcastle Knights

One of my bold predictions is the Knights freefall down the ladder. The loss of Mitchell Pearce as a leader and halfback at the club should not be understated. Jake Clifford is a quality talent but is yet to fully find his feet at NRL level. There is the question as to whether he is better at six or seven, and who his halves partner is going to be. The safe bet is Adam Clune, but he himself has only ever been a fringe first grader.

The other concern is the pressure on Kalyn Ponga, who has been prone to injury for the past couple of seasons. The club needs him to stay fit, live up to the lofty expectation of being a match winner and do it without his combination with Pearce.  

The Knights have a well-balanced roster and a quality forward pack, but they have consistently underperformed, especially when the pressure is on in ‘must win’ games.

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14. Canberra Raiders

The Raiders may be the toughest team to predict but judging by their issues on and off the field last season, it comes down to attitude and whether the playing group is still buying in to Ricky Stuart’s coaching philosophies.

New recruit Jamal Fogarty would have complimented Jack Wighton nicely in the halves, but a knee injury has him ruled out for four months which is a huge blow. Josh Hodgson has not been anywhere near his best since the new rules were introduced two years ago.

The Raiders showed promise during the trials, and they have some promising youngsters coming through, but last season they looked stale and uninterested. I am not convinced as to whether Stuart is still the right man to get the best out of his players.

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13. North Queensland Cowboys

In the eyes of many, the Cowboys will be favourites to collect this season’s wooden spoon, but I genuinely believe the young talent on their roster is shockingly underrated.

Chad Townsend was a polarizing signing, but if he delivers a strong kicking game and manages the team well, the Cowboys will have some points in them to shock a few sides. Questions remain as to whether Scott Drinkwater or Tom Dearden will partner Townsend in the halves.

Their weakness in recent seasons has been their brittle defence, but they showed plenty of grit during the trials.

The key for coach Todd Payten is getting the best out of his million-dollar men, Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes. If those two produce their best form, the Cowboys may be the surprise packets this season.

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12. St George Illawarra Dragons  

Coach Anthony Griffin has recruited a few ‘old heads’ to compliment the very talented youngsters coming through their system. On paper, they have a well-balanced side, but it is a side that simply does not look as strong as most of the teams I have ahead of them.

Ben Hunt is consistently inconsistent. Talatau Amone is a future superstar of the game but is still very raw at NRL level. Moses Suli is a special talent but needs to mature and play smarter than what we have seen from him in the past. We are still yet to see Jack de Belin get back to his best football.

I believe the Dragons will challenge for a finals spot and I also think their fans should feel confident about their competing well this season, but it is hard for me to see them succeed in the areas which they have failed in recent seasons.

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11. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

There will be plenty of expectation on the Bulldogs to progress rather quickly from wooden spooners to finals contenders after their very impressive recruitment drive.

Star recruits Matt Burton, Matt Dufty, Josh Addo-Carr, Tevita Pangai Jr, Brent Naden and Paul Vaughan will lift this club off the canvas and give their long-suffering fans some optimism in 2022, but their inclusion does not guarantee success.

Coach Trent Barrett continues to insist Jake Averillo is the right man to lead the team around the park as halfback. Personally, I have not seen anything to suggest he is the right man for that job. A naturally gifted footballer but in my opinion, he is better suited as a centre/five-eighth. So, I think the halfback position is still going to be a major issue for them.

Jeremy Marshall-King is one man who needs to step up and start fulfilling all that potential he has at dummy-half. He cannot sit back expecting the new recruits to make his job easier, it is he who needs to help guide them around the park.

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10. Brisbane Broncos

The Broncos have recruited well with premiership winners Adam Reynolds and Kurt Capewell coming into the side. They have arguably the best crop of young players coming through and the return of strike centre Kotoni Staggs will give them plenty of X-factor.  

However, there are still too many unanswered questions around their spine, with the fullback, five-eighth and hooker positions still up for grabs.

Despite those unanswered questions, if Adam Reynolds stays fit, I expect him to deliver results on the back of the platform he will be provided by their forwards lead by Payne Haas, and they will challenge for a finals spot.  

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9. New Zealand Warriors

I really like the makeup of the Warriors team this season and have no doubt they will challenge for a finals spot. They have a solid forward pack, strike on the edges and I expect young gun Reece Walsh to continue developing his game.

There are issues surrounding the halves combination and the fact they do not have high quality options at dummy half. Shaun Johnson is expected to take up one halves spot, but the battle between Chanel Harris-Tevita, Cody Nikorima and Ash Taylor for the other halves spot will be intriguing. I believe Ash Taylor is the most skilful out of the three, but he is likely last in that pecking order.

I would like to see the Warriors make the finals, but they are not in my top eight because… it is the Warriors. They also have the disadvantage of likely having to play the entire season away from home again.

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8. South Sydney Rabbitohs

Another bold prediction, last years grand finalists slipping to eighth. Letting Adam Reynolds go could prove to be costly for the Bunnies, meaning extra pressure on Cody Walker to guide the team around the park in a game management role, which could be a detriment to his strengths as a running five-eighth.

There is no doubt Latrell Mitchell will play a major role if the Rabbitohs are to be successful this season, but there is also the question as to whether new head coach Jason Demetriou’s mentorship will have the same influence on Latrell as Wayne Bennett did.

On paper, the Rabbitohs are simply not as strong as they were last season.

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7. Gold Coast Titans

Plenty has been said around the inexperience of the Titans spine, but on potential alone, it is hard not to be excited about Jayden Campbell, AJ Brimson, Toby Sexton and Tanah Boyd.

They have plenty of strike in their outside backs and a formidable forward pack lead by new captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, David Fifita and Moe Fotuaika.

The Titans defensive resolve was a real problem for them last season, but in attack they are slick, flamboyant and dangerous. I expect them to rack up some big scores this season, including against some of the top teams.

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6. Parramatta Eels

The Eels performed well in the trials and are looking good for another tilt at the premiership. Reed Mahoney was a huge loss at the backend of last season and will be looking to make the most of his final year at the club.

The challenge for coach Brad Arthur is keeping his side up for the entire season, as they have become notorious for their late season fade outs and finals failures. I expect the Eels to start fast, but I would not read too much into it until the club figures out a way to enter the finals (if they make it) with some momentum.

Mitch Moses needs to continue improving his game and nail those clutch moments when his team needs him. His halves partner, Dylan Brown needs to improve dramatically and take on more responsibility after a lacklustre 2021 season.

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5. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

The Sharks have managed to secure the most sought-after head coach-in-waiting, Craig Fitzgibbon from the Roosters, signed an ‘old pro’ in Dale Finucane and highly regarded young half Nicho Hynes from the Storm and former Dragons captain and workhorse Cam McInnes.  

Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita return. Matt Moylan is fit. Will Kennedy had a breakout season last year and will improve. They have a well-balanced side and quality depth on their roster. Everything seems to be falling in place for the Sharks.

I expect them to be a real dark horse for this year’s premiership.

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4. Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Manly were the surprise packets of 2021, but this year there will be a high level of expectation on them to challenge for the premiership. We all knew Tom Trbojevic was a special talent, but I do not think anybody dreamed he could be as good as he was last season.

The challenge for him is to continue to improve, but the same can be said for the rest of the team. With DCE leading them around the park, Kieran Foran showing signs of his best form, strike in their outside backs and a strong forward pack, I fully expect them to finish in the top four and make a run through the finals.

Their only issue is the lack of quality in depth outside of their best 17. It will be interesting to see how the go if they suffer injury setbacks to key players, but they do have one of the best coaches in the business.

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3. Melbourne Storm

The Storm will lose a handful of key players for 2023, but this season I fully expect them to finish comfortably in the top four and be one of the top contenders once again.

Cameron Munster looks physically and mental fresh after a relatively inconsistent season in 2021 which he also had some off-field troubles. Ryan Papenhuyzen will be determined to have a big season after concussion issues sidelined him for much of last season.

What else can you say about the Storm? They are still one of the best run clubs and have arguably the best system in Australian sport, one of the best coaches and mentors in Australian sport and success is part of their DNA. I do not see anything changing.

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2. Penrith Panthers

The defending premiers have lost a few quality players but still pose a formable line-up with the best halfback in the world, Nathan Cleary along with Jarome Luai, forming the best halves combination in the world.

The difference for the Panthers this season, is they will have a target on their back, and they better believe the rest of the competition will be out to get them. But they are still a young side who will be hungry for more success, and this will be a challenge they will certainly be up for.

They are the premiership favourites, and rightfully so. Every other side dreaming of winning the premiership, will likely have to go through the Panthers first.

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  1. 1. Sydney Roosters

The Roosters suffered one of the worst injury ravaged seasons in recent memory, yet they still managed scrape through to the second week of the finals. It just shows why they, along with the Storm, have been a benchmark club for the past decade.

Although they have lost co-captains Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend to concussion-forced retirement, they welcome back world-class half Luke Keary and Origin forward Lindsay Collins from season-ending injuries, and utility Connor Watson.

Young halfback Sam Walker will only get better. James Tedesco will be primed for another big season. Then you add the likes of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Joey Manu, Angus Crichton and Victor Radley to their top 17, it just seems unfair how good their roster is.

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Dally M medal: Cameron Munster

I get the feeling Cam Munster has a lot to prove – mainly to himself – that he is still one of the elite players of the NRL. Last season he was relatively inconsistent. He did not have a great origin series. Some even suggested he was bored and saving himself for the big games.

He looks happier and healthier this preseason and I believe he will be motivated to lead the Melbourne Storm back to the grand final after being outplayed and outclassed by the Panthers in last year’s preliminary finals loss.

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Premiers: Melbourne Storm

I do not think there is any other club in the competition who has more reasons to be motivated than the Storm.

Four club legends; the Bromwich brothers, Brandon Smith and Felise Kaufusi will be moving on in 2023 and they will want to send them off on the best possible note.

I also believe they will be hurting, and perhaps fuming about the way their 2021 season ended against the eventual premiers, the Penrith Panthers.