The Premiership window
The ultimate goal for all NRL teams is to be competitive enough to compete for, and hopefully win, the Premiership. However, the reality is, for most great teams, their best shot at premiership glory can last for only a few years, enough time for teams to build and sustain a strong roster, playing style and culture, and bank on a little bit of luck.
The NRL’s most recent premiers, Melbourne, Cronulla and Nth QLD respectively, all are examples of teams who successfully claimed a premiership in their window, on the back of teams balanced with high profile stars at the peak of their game, bolstered with strong supporting players. The 2018 season has been unpredictable to say the least and many teams have found themselves in vastly different places than expected on their hunt for premiership glory.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cows, for the last few years, have been a team with a sustained premiership window. After a 2015 Premiership and 2016 Preliminary Final appearance, the Cowboys made a dream run to the Grand Final in 2017 without stars Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott. In 2017, little turnover from winning squads of previous years allowed the depleted team to rise to the high intensity of finals footy. Add a high profile signing of gun Melbourne forward Jordan McLean in the offseason and the Cows seemed rightful premiership favourites in 2018.
So what has gone wrong? North Queensland has slumped to a shocking two wins from eight games played, with embarrassing defeats at home to Penrith, Canberra and the Bulldogs. Their once electric attack has dipped to the third worst in the league, and perhaps some blame has to be put on recently-re-signed coach Paul Green for a failure to adapt the Cowboy’s attacking game plan and make the changes needed to remain competitive.
Teams seem to have figured out the Cowboys’ flat attacking structure at the line. Coming into the season it looked like the Cowboys had taken all the correct steps to sustaining their premiership window, retaining a winning team and structures and adding new, strong talent. An inability to adapt these structures and a failure of senior players to step up has resulted in one of the most disappointing NRL starts for a favourite in recent memory.
It’s no secret that 2018 is premiership or bust for the Roosters. Smart team management and culture has allowed the Roosters to stay competitive with the top teams of the competition for several years, but three preliminary final defeats in four years had the Bondi team looking for answers.
Marquee signings of Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco seemed a sure bet to assert the Roosters as the powerhouse team of the competition. Four wins and four losses later and, while certainly not panic time for Roosters fans this early in the season, there are some areas of concern if they want to seriously compete for the premiership. The Roosters attack in seasons past has been one of the more structured in the competition, built to simplify playing styles for talented but more one-dimensional players. However, in the hands of new, dynamic recruits Cronk and Tedesco, the chooks have looked stilted and predictable. It’s still early, but it can be frustrating watching the Roosters play a safe style of footy. Any attacking success they have had has come off the back of Luke Keary and Latrell Mitchell.
While the key to continued success in the NRL is often player retention, some recently resigned Roosters players have struggled early this season. Jake Friend and Jared-Warea Hargreaves haven’t regained their best form and young centre Joseph Manu is still a defensive liability.
There is a reason the Melbourne Storm are constantly one of the premier teams of the league. Yes, they had three generational players for over a decade, boast incredible team culture and yes, they cheated. But it has been the willingness of coach Craig Bellamy and the Melbourne club to constantly evolve their playing style that allows them to constantly survive after losing players and bring in new players to compete at a high level.
The Storm lost three critical members of the premiership winning squad in Cronk, McLean and Tohu Harris during the offseason, and, after a shaky 2018 start featuring two shock losses to the emerging Wests Tigers, have bounced back to dominant wins over the Knights, Broncos and Warriors.
To say that the wrestle in the play the ball completely embodies the Storm is reductive. Their recent attacking displays show they are nowhere near done yet, and should still be seriously feared by all premiership hopefuls in 2018.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons have all the signs of a team seizing their premiership window with two hands and sticking their head through it. After consecutive years of lurking as a finals threat, the Dragons made the right signings of marquee players (Ben Hunt) and proven senior players (James Graham) to bolster their already strong roster and assert themselves as a genuine premiership threat.
Strong early season form is nothing new for Dragons fans, but this year’s team seems hungrier than the underperforming Dragons teams of past seasons. They’ve proven that they can win games in different ways, like the grind it out win against the Roosters on Anzac Day and the back and forth try fest against Cronulla, a sign of a strong and versatile team.
In a year that lacks clear-cut Premiership contenders, this may be the Dragons’ best chance to win it. If they don’t, they may look back on 2018 in years to come as the season they missed their window.