1. North Queensland CowboysMany experts wrote off the Cowboys for the 2017 season once their maestro Johnathan Thurston was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury. Instead of falling apart, the Cowboys were galvanised to prove the critics wrong and charged through the final series after finishing the regular season in eighth spot. Michael Morgan was sensational through the final series and proved his worth in Thurston’s absence. Only a red-hot Melbourne Storm side stopped the Cowboys from a fairy-tale grand final victory. The Wolf is expecting the Cowboys to go one better this year on the condition that JT plays the full season. They’ve lost young gun Kalyn Ponga to the Knights, but Lachlan Coote is a handy player on his day. The signing of Jordan McLean from the Storm gives the forward pack a massive boost, while the return of Matt Scott from injury cannot be understated. Then you throw in the wrecking ball that is Jason Taumalolo, and Coen Hess off the bench, and it’s hard to see the Cowboys not being there on grand final day. It will also be Thurston’s final season in the NRL, and you can bet that the Cowboys will be doing everything in their power to send this champion of the game off in the best possible style.
North Queensland – Premiership ($6) North Queensland – Make Grand Final ($3.25) North Queensland – Top Queensland Team ($1.70)
2. Sydney RoostersThe Roosters should be quick out of the blocks with a favourable draw to start the 2018 NRL season. They will only face three teams in the first 12 rounds who played finals football last season. They’ve had some massive names head over to Bondi in the off-season, with Origin stars Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco joining the tri-colours. The team looks scintillating on paper from No.1 through to No.17 and it’s hard to see them not featuring when the whips are cracking at the end of the season.
Sydney – Top 4 ($1.60) Sydney – Top NSW Team ($2.75) Sydney – NRL Halfway Leader ($4.25)
3. Melbourne StormThe Storm will find it tough to top 2017 after taking out the NRL Premiership with a 34-6 thumping of the North Queensland Cowboys in the grand final. Craig Bellamy’s men have lost some big names in the off-season, but none bigger than Cooper Cronk, who has been the rock of the Melbourne Storm alongside Cameron Smith and Billy Slater for numerous years. Brodie Croft looks to be a Cronk-clone, and showed some promising signs in the recent World Club Challenge win over Leeds Rhinos. Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean will be hard to replace, although the returning Ryan Hoffman, and former Bulldog Sam Kasiano will look to fill the void. They’ll have plenty of size coming off their bench this year, with both Kasiano and Nelson Asofa-Solomona the equivalent of man mountains. The Storm are the best-coached side in the competition, and despite the loss of Cronk, it’s hard to see them not fighting out a Top 4 spot.
Melbourne Storm – Top 4 ($1.85) BuildABet – Storm over 13.5 wins x Roosters top 4 x Eels top 8 x Cowboys top QLD team ($6)
4. Parramatta EelsThe Eels pushed the Storm all the way in Week 1 of last year’s finals series, eventually going down 18-16. They were given another bite of the cherry after their Top 4 finish, but were bailed out in straight sets by the giant-killing Cowboys. The return of Jarryd Hayne could be the x-factor or he could undo all of Brad Arthur’s hard work last season if he turns up with a poor attitude. The combination of Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman in the halves will go from strength-to-strength, while the return of Clint Gutherson from injury in the early rounds of the season which create some selection headaches for Arthur. The Eels are the dark horses of the competition according to The Wolf.
Parramatta – Premiership ($13) Parramatta – Top 4 ($3)
5. Cronulla SharksThe Sharks were knocked out in Week 1 of the finals last year by the Cowboys, and The Wolf is expecting a similar fate this season. They’re a notch below the Top 4 teams already previewed in terms of attack, but will win plenty of matches on the back of their defence. They need Paul Gallen to stay injury-free for the season, while new recruits Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan will need to prove that they deserve the big dollars that they’re on. Chad Townsend is the unsung hero of the side and his kicking game will be pivotal in building pressure and letting the Sharks grind teams into the ground. Should have a Top 8 spot locked in, but not sure they have the firepower to take on the likes of the Cowboys and Roosters in September.
Cronulla – Top 8 ($1.50)BuildABet – Sydney, Parramatta, Melbourne Top 4, Cronulla Top 8 ($13)
6. St George Illawarra Dragons
The pressure will be on Dragons coach Paul McGregor from the get-go with the side at his disposal this season. James Graham and Ben Hunt have the potential to be the signings of the year, while the Red V looks to have unearthed a star in young fullback Matt Dufty. Five-eighth Gareth Widdop will be given a license to run, allowing Ben Hunt to direct the ship around the park. Meanwhile, the forward pack is one of the best in the competition, with Graham and Paul Vaughan leading the charge in the engine room, while the likes of Tyson Frizell and Jack De Belin provide plenty of starch in the backrow. Anything less than a Top 8 spot will be seen as a failed season, and it could spell the end for Mary as well.
St George Illawarra – Top 8 ($1.85)
7. Penrith PanthersIt’s been a turbulent off-season for the Panthers, with Bryce Cartwright (Titans) following Matt Moylan (Sharks) out of the club. The rumours won’t go away that Anthony Griffin has lost the support of the players, while the recent trial loss against a second-string Bulldogs by all reports had Phil Gould fuming. The Wolf doesn’t read much into trial form and is still a big fan of the talent on their books. Nathan Cleary and Dylan Edwards are two of the best young players in the game, while the signing of veteran James Maloney should take some pressure off Cleary. They’ve got a very underrated pack led by James Tamou and Trent Merrin, and a finals berth should be a formality if the off-field dramas don’t bring the club undone.
Penrith – Top 8 ($1.50)
8. Canberra RaidersThe Raiders look to have a favourable draw to the start the season, with matches against the Titans, Knights, Warriors, Sea Eagles and Bulldogs in the first five rounds. The query around the Raiders is the hooking position, with first choice rake Josh Hodgson not expected to return from a knee injury until later in the season. The pressure is also on first-choice halves pairing Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer to have a better season than 2017. The Wolf thinks they’ll do enough early in the season to scrape into the finals.
Recommended BetsCanberra – Top 8 ($2.10)
9. Brisbane BroncosThere’s a lot of question marks around the Broncos team this season after falling one game short of the grand final last year. How will Andrew McCullough recover from his knee injury? Will Kodi Nikorima be able to fill Ben Hunt’s boots? The Wolf found the Broncos one of the hardest teams to get a gauge on and is going out on a ledge and saying they’ll miss the finals for the first time since 2013.
Brisbane Broncos – Miss Top 8 ($2.70)
10. South Sydney RabbitohsThe Rabbitohs finished 12th in 2017 and will see a slight improvement this year. New coach Anthony Seibold is unproven at this level, while halfback Adam Reynolds cannot stay on the field for any extended period of time. Sam Burgess and Angus Crichton need to receive strong support from other members of the forward pack if they’re to force their way into the Top 8. Happy to risk them.
South Sydney – Miss Top 8 ($1.95)
11. Manly Sea EaglesThe Wolf was left with egg on his face after he tipped the Sea Eagles to fight out the wooden spoon in 2017, instead they went on the play finals football. He’s going to take Trent Barrett’s men on again. The depth is a concern if they get some injuries, while outside of Tom Trbojevic, and the injured Dylan Walker, the backline would be one of the weakest in the competition. The Wolf is expecting to hear from some angry Manly fans.
Manly – Miss Top 8 ($1.90)
12. Wests TigersThe Tigers will be hoping a new roster and less off-field drama will bring about a change in fortunes for the Tigers on the football field. James Tedesco is irreplaceable, but the signings of Ben Matulino and Russell Packer should help stiffen up the forward pack. Ivan Cleary is an underrated coach, who can bring the best out of his players, but until Luke Brooks reaches his potential, the Tigers will linger towards the bottom of the competition ladder,
13. Canterbury BulldogsThe Bulldogs made some big signings in the off-season, with the additions of Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran, but it looks to be rebuilding year for the proud Canterbury club. There’s a new board and new coach in place, and it remains to be seen whether the Bulldogs will be able to put points on the board this season. The jury is still out on Foran and if he can help the Bulldogs find their attacking flair.
14. Newcastle KnightsThe only way is up for the Newcastle Knights after taking out the wooden spoon in 2017. They’ve been very active in the player market and have made some very smart signings. Mitchell Pearce, Connor Watson, Kalyn Ponga, Aiden Guerra, Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese immediately make the Knights a stronger side than last season and they’ll surprise a few teams this year. Consistently will be the issue and the reason they won’t make the finals this season.
15. New Zealand WarriorsThe Warriors promise so much and deliver very little, and it’s been happening year on year! Tohu Harris and Blake Green are strong signings, while Shaun Johnson is one of the best players in the game. How can anyone be brave enough to trust these perennial underachievers?
New Zealand – Most Losses ($9)
16. Gold Coast TitansLook the clear cut favourites for the wooden spoon according to The Wolf. They’ve got an unproven coach at NRL level in Garth Brennan and have a side consisting of players who would struggle the make the Top 17 in most of the other NRL sides. It will be up to the spine of Gordon, Elgey, Taylor and Peats to get them enough wins to avoid the dreaded spoon this season.