For eight of the 16 NRL clubs, 2018 will go down as yet another season without silverware or success and while some will be happy with their steps in the right direction and where they find themselves after rebuilds or roster overhauls, others will be bitterly disappointed with the campaign as a whole and planning end-of-year trips to Bali rather than competing in the NRL finals series.
That said, rugby league, like most sports, thrives on belief and faith and each of the eight sides who finished on the bottom half of the ladder this year have one or more bright spots on their immediate horizon in 2019.
Here, we plot out what fans of the Tigers, Raiders, Knights, Titans, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Eels can hold tight to over the long off-season.
Another season ends with the Wests Tigers agonizingly close to an elusive finals appearance. The joint-venture club hasn’t played sudden-death footy since playing in the semi-final way back in 2011 but there were enough signs throughout this year that the long wait may be over this time next year.
Ivan Cleary has come out and declared he’s not seeking a release from his contract and that remains a key for the club given the work he’s put into turning things around at Concord. The Tigers underwent a massive overhaul of their playing group and the guys that came in fit Cleary’s style and approach to the game, so keeping him around and adding one or two more key weapons to a squad that is moving in the right direction should get the Tigers over the finals hump.
Locking down Luke Brooks was important at the time he penned his new deal, but his growth over the course of the season stands as a huge talking point given the reported interest in coach Cleary’s son Nathan from 2020 onward, but with another good season from their current playmaker, Cleary junior might not be a worthwhile investment at all.
Guess what?! The Raiders managed to put together a handful of decent results at the back end of the year when the pressure was off and single-handedly raise the hopes and dreams of a fan-base so often taunted and let down by unfulfilled potential once again.
If we’re to take a more positive view, however, maybe Ricky Stuart and his coaching staff managed to find the key to kicking their green machine into gear at the end of the year and they’ll be in the right place to start things on the right foot in 2019.
I’m not entirely convinced, but we’re here to look at the positives right, so let’s go glass-half-full and expect big things out of the Raiders next season.
With John Bateman and Ryan Sutton both coming over from the Wigan Warriors for next season, the Raiders have had a quiet recruitment period, which is somewhat concerning given they’ve lost Blake Austin, Shannon Boyd, Charlie Gubb and Junior Paulo from their current crop of players.
Once again the green machine will rely on developing their own young players, so putting faith in kids like Nick Cotric to take things to the next level will hold the key to 2019 success.
For the first time since 2015, the Knights will head into a season without a wooden spoon in their rearview mirror and the progress made under Nathan Brown in 2018 stands alone as a huge step in the right direction for a group of fans who have been let down consistently for a long time.
2019 is shaping as the year of the Knights and the loyal fanbase has every right to start dreaming their four-year finals drought is about to come to an end.
In Kalyn Ponga, they boast one of the most exciting young talents in the game while halfback Mitchell Pearce provides a great footy brain and plenty of experience and control allowing the likes of Ponga to play their best off-the-cuff football.
In terms of recruitment, Sharks pair Jesse Ramien and Edrick Lee will add plenty of talent to an exciting backline while Tim Glasby is the sort of hard-working forward that quality teams like Melbourne are built on, so he’ll be a fine addition in his own right.
We can also be hopeful that 2019 sees a strong return for Tautau Moga after his 2018 campaign was cut brutally short through injury. The hulking centre has all the ability in the world and will be like a new signing himself when he drops back into the playing group next season.
Gold Coast Titans
Two words. Garth Brennan.
2018 wasn’t the ideal year for first-year head coach Garth Brennan but there is a reason he is held in such high regard around rugby league circles, he knows his stuff and he’s the right man to preside over a dramatic rebuild on the beautiful Gold Coast.
Having been let down by some of his recruits this year, Brennan will have worked out by the end of the season which players fit his mould and want to stay and fight to turn things around on the Gold Coast and who is expendable and things should take a step in the right direction over the coming off-season.
Tyrone Peachey has reportedly had second thoughts about his move north but the Titans appear set to stick to their guns and if he manages to settle in and earn a regular starting gig somewhere in the 13, the New South Wales utility could grow and become an even better player while Shannon Boyd and Tyrone Roberts are both solid additions to the roster.
Star halfback Ash Taylor will be another year wiser and I still believe he’s capable of dragging average players to the next level, so keeping him fit and getting the best out of him will be Garth Brennan’s number one priority in 2019.
Another first-year head coach, Dean Pay has not had an easy introduction to life as an NRL gaffer, but the back-end of the 2018 season offered a few glimpses into the style of footy he’s trying to introduce at Belmore and an exciting crop of young players keen to make their mark on the competition.
Late season wins over the Tigers, Broncos, Warriors and Dragons provided some highlight reel moments of their own, but did show an upturn in fortunes for the struggling club once they’d begun to finally adapt to Pay’s style of play and several big-name players who didn’t fit the mould were either shipped out or unavailable through injury.
The squad will go through a major renovation over the off-season and given the club’s salary cap dramas, high-profile recruits will be few and far between but with some solid first grade players like Nick Meaney and Sauaso Sue joining current youngsters like Lachlan Lewis, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Jeremy Marshall-King and Reimis Smith, the expectations will slowly begin to rise once again at the famous old club.
North Queensland Cowboys
2019 is going to be a very different year for the North Queensland Cowboys who will be without the legendary Johnathan Thurston for the first time since the champion halfback moved there back in 2005.
Farewelling JT this season has been a long, emotionally drawn-out saga for the Cowboys and their results have proved that given they’ve spent much of the season amongst the two or three worst clubs in the league but coach Paul Green will be hopeful of leading his side through a significant transition period and onto greener pastures.
The Cowboys are reportedly still chasing Cronulla’s Valentine Holmes as a marquee signing but as of right now, they’ve not signed anyone for the 2019 season and have only lost Antonio Winterstein officially though there are reports senior guys like Kane Linnett and Lachlan Coote have been told they’re unwanted.
Most exciting for the Cowboys, however, will be the chance to start fresh and build a new legacy for both Paul Green and the new playing group without a pinup star like Thurston. Yes, they’ve got superstars like Jason Taumalolo, but how the squad comes together now is a fascinating prospect.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Where do I start?
Things look pretty bleak on the northern beaches right now as the spat between soon-to-be-former coach Trent Barrett and the club’s ownership group reaches boiling point and with fresh rumours that Barrett will be sacked before the end of the season, it’s hard to see where the bright spots are for the Sea Eagles right now.
Overall, there has been a perception that Barrett hasn’t been successful enough at the club in his three seasons there, so moving on will give the club the chance to find the right fit coaching wise but the concerns around facilities and the playing group will dampen any positive vibes.
Kane Elgey looms as an interesting addition to the squad and could be the first man since Blake Green to build a strong halves partnership with Daly Cherry-Evans while those that have moved on are not irreplaceable.
Whoever comes in to replace Trent Barrett will have their work cut out for them. With any luck, the very public breakdown in the relationship between the owners and Barrett will force them to up their investment in the club and provide better facilities but even if players are still getting changed in their cars at the training facility next season, on-field results still have to improve regardless of who is holding the clipboard.
There’s nowhere else to go for the Eels but up.
I know it’s possible to win back-to-back wooden spoons, but the Eels will bank on the stability of retaining under-fire head coach Brad Arthur over the unknown of re-entering the coaching market once again and with any luck, that will pay dividends.
2018 has been an unmitigated disaster for the proud old club and reports of further salary cap breaches surfacing at the back-end of the year have done no favours for the Eels.
Blake Ferguson and Junior Paulo both look to be solid first-grade standard additions to the squad, but both have likely been paid a little over their value and the Eels will find themselves once again trying to balance books and, in all likelihood, moving on a chunk of their current roster.
Reports abound that three or four established first team players are being actively shopped around, but Eels fans can look forward to 2019 for what it should be, the last stand for Brad Arthur and the current management structure to get it right or else.
What are you most looking forward to from your club in 2019? Let us know in the comments below.
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