Three aces on top of the pack March 2, 2008 http://www.leaguehq.com.au/news/news/three-aces-on-top-of-the-pack/2008/03/01/1204227050942.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1 Phil Gould gazes into his crystal ball and sees the Storm, Sea Eagles and Eels very clearly. In all honesty now, can your team win the 2008 NRL competition? Before you answer, consider this. In trying to predict the premiers, a number of factors must be taken into account. The No.1 consideration is undoubtedly the quality of the playing roster, particularly the experience and talent of the key positions. You can't win a comp without quality halves, hookers, front-rowers and experienced centres. The teams that win competitions almost always contain representative players at the peak of their careers. There is a sense of chemistry and timing about winning a competition. Success comes in cycles and you can generally feel when certain teams are on the rise - or on the decline. Changes to the playing roster are a significant factor. You cannot underestimate the loss or gain of quality individuals. Depth is important but then again any team experiencing a lot of injuries will soon fall behind the healthier sides. Having said that, the ability to cover injuries or rotate the starting side during a long campaign to rest key personnel is certainly a luxury. Melbourne showed this last season when they rested a number of players coming into the finals while other teams were flat out trying to qualify. They timed their preparation to perfection and the 34-8 thumping of second-placed Manly was as emphatic a victory as you will ever see in a grand final. The coach is a factor. Someone has to plan and manage all of the above - it doesn't happen by fluke. I also rate last year's form: how they started the season, consistency, intensity, ability to score tries, defensive commitment and technique, and how they finished regardless of where they finished. Teams performing poorly or running out of steam at the back-end of the year generally repeat the dose. Some sides that finished strongly in the previous season carry that enthusiasm and confidence into their off-season training and begin well the following year - but can they maintain the rage? For the sake of this exercise we will assume factors like the draw, bounce of the ball, bad luck, refereeing blunders, home-ground advantage, injuries and suspensions are in the lap of the football gods. We can't worry about trying to quantify their effects before we have a bet. Now, how do you think your team rates? Does your team have a quality roster with plenty of depth to get through the tough times? Are you happy with the changes to your roster? Did your team lose or gain a valuable player? Does it feel like your team is on the rise or on the decline? Is your coach a hard worker, a planner, a schemer, a winner? Are you looking at last year's results through rose-coloured glasses or hoping against hope that 2007's poor form was too bad to be true? Or was there something your team did last year that lit a fire in your gut and suggested big things ahead? Are you betting with your heart or your head? I will ask the question again - can your team win the competition? If I applied a blowtorch to your stomach to get the honest-to-god truth, what would your answer be? Ha, ha, ha - I thought so! I can see all the Melbourne, Manly and Parramatta fans with their hands in the air - they think they can win it. The Cowboys, Roosters and Broncos fans are not quite sure but are not without some justification for hope. South Sydney fans are yelling, "What about us?" Tigers fans are still a little deluded about past glory and whether they can repeat the fairytale. They still think they have the team to win it. I don't. Bulldogs fans are confused and still shaking their heads. Dragons fans suffer from a wicked combination of false optimism battered by their now-programmed pessimism. They certainly have something, but generally come up with nothing. The porch light is still shining brightly down at Cronulla in the hope Harold Holt will walk ashore. The Warriors are still trying to work out why they got flogged in the semi-finals last season. They showed so much promise. The rest just hope they don't run last - anything above that will be a real bonus and by halfway through this season they will again set their sights on the next year. GENUINE CONTENDERS For mine, only three teams can win the 2008 competition - Melbourne, Manly and Parramatta. I have a slight leaning towards Melbourne but as the days go by I am getting keener and keener on Parramatta. The Storm have lost some players and the salary-cap pressure that accompanies winning a premiership means they have not been able to buy established players to fill their spots. They will again have to promote and improve their youngsters to complement the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and Billy Slater. Now that Andrew Johns has joined the Eels' coaching staff I think they could be the ones. He will give them the smarts, direction and control they have lacked. Their best players are approaching a good age and they have some tremendous kids coming through. The Sea Eagles will win a lot of games again this year courtesy of their discipline, intensity, fitness, strength and desire. Not all NRL teams are endowed with all these important qualities. The loss of Michael Monaghan could be critical. I don't know if Manly rated Monaghan as highly as they should have. They're about to find out just how valuable he really was. PROBABLE TOP EIGHT BUT NO PREMIERSHIP The Cowboys, Sharks, Broncos and Roosters will all be competitive for a top-eight finish but fall short of premiership material for this season. Maybe one of them will jump out of the pack at the back-end of the season but the top three I mentioned will all have to falter badly to be overtaken. The Cowboys have Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen. Without them I reckon they run closer to last - but if these two great playmakers remain healthy, the Cowboys are capable of some big upsets. The Sharks lost a lot of games by narrow margins last year, leaving their fans the luxury of saying they were very unlucky. If you lose a couple of close ones you are unlucky. If you lose seven close ones, you have to take a good look at yourself. They are a tough, no-nonsense team and will win enough games to make the finals, but I see no premiership. Can the Broncos do it one more time for Wayne? They will be competitive as usual but I believe they're a few forwards short. The Roosters have bought very well and at the back-end of last season showed a lot of promise. Hooker James Aubusson and halfback Mitchell Pearce are real players of the future. But to have such young and inexperienced players in these two key positions does suggest they could need a season or two together to learn the ropes. MIDDLE OF THE ROAD The Warriors, Tigers, Rabbitohs and Dragons will all be knocking on the door of the top eight. All are capable of qualifying but all will need to improve on last year. The Warriors looked shattered after their drubbing at the hands of the Cowboys in last year's finals. They might take a real confidence hit from that. Coach Ivan Cleary has a real repair job on his hands there. I don't envy his task. The Tigers are exciting to watch at their best but they have lost their defensive resolve. The Rabbitohs' glory was all so fleeting last year - but they have signed Craig Wing. The Dragons? Your guess is as good as mine. I just need to see them do something before I go backing them again. Not yet - but maybe next year! MAKING UP THE NUMBERS I AM writing off the Bulldogs. Mind you, they always love a challenge and nothing would overly surprise. Hopefully they can get the front office in order so the workers can go back to what they do best. Newcastle and the Gold Coast are already working towards next season and I reckon both are doing a good job of it. They will both play well this year and give their fans something to look forward to in 2009. The Panthers have been bitterly disappointing and I see little to suggest they have the answers to turn it all around in 2008. The Raiders? Well, they can't make the top eight but they will probably beat a lot of teams who think they can. Until they learn to win away from home I can't back them to figure prominently in this competition.