Mid Season report Written by: League Correspondent 9/06/2005 Views: 144 Find the original at: http://www.leagueunlimited.com/article/articletemp.asp?num=8457 The NRL season has reached the halfway point and the competition also seems to have been split into two clear categories - contenders and also-rans. The Sea Eagles and Eels are this years movers and shakers while the Cowboys from Nth Queensland are realising the potential a lot of us knew they had. The Bulldogs and Panthers - winners of the past two premierships - look to be amongst the also-rans and almost certainly out of finals contention. Finals contenders: Broncos (1st, 22 points, 10 wins, 2 losses) Easily the most consistent team this season, with a 50-point loss against Melbourne its only bad performance to date. The Broncos have won eight straight since that game, which obviously served as a wake-up call, and deserve their outright premiership favouritism. Darren Lockyer has taken his game to a new level in his second season as five-eighth and chief playmaker, while the forward pack, led by Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva, are still the most respected in the game. And even though they aren't as strongly represented this season, it's a myth the Broncos have a poor record while having their stars unavailable during the State of Origin series, having won their last seven games following interstate matches and, since 2001, have won five from six before Origin. Predicted finish: minor premiers. Player to impress - Leon Bott. Sea Eagles (2nd, 20 pts, 9 wins, 3 losses) The competition's biggest improvers in 2005, with the recruitment of classy forwards Ben Kennedy and Brent Kite, the vintage form of Steve Menzies and the blossoming of Anthony Watmough not only giving the Eagles the best back row in the business but also a forward pack to envy. A simple game plan of largely one-out running from dummy-half followed by a long kicking game and then hopefully an error from the opposition has been good enough so far but unlikely to yield a premiership. May well need to beat Canberra away in the last round to retain position in all-important top four. Predicted finish: 6th. Player to impress Steve Menzies. Cowboys (3rd, 18 pts, 8 wins, 4 losses) Seemingly every fan's second choice team has hit a mid-season purple patch to confirm itself as a genuine title contender. The Cowboys have racked up 104 points, including 18 tries, playing sublime football in past two games against the Bulldogs and Cronulla to prove last year's surge to within one win of the grand final was anything but a fluke. Should win just about every home game, have all the key ingredients of a premiership-winning outfit and in off-the-cuff dynamos like Matt Bowen, Brenton Bowen, Ty Williams and Johnathan Thurston are capable of scoring tries from anywhere on the park. Predicted finish: 2nd. Player to impress - Matt Bowen. Eels (4th, 18 pts, 8 wins, 4 losses) After three tough years, the Eels have finally given their long-suffering supporters something to get excited about. Four successive wins, a pre-season focused on getting their defence in order and the emergence of Tim Smith as one of the most influential halfbacks in the league have propelled Brian Smith's team from mid-table mediocrity to top-four aspirants. Are the flavour of the month and impressive victories over Cowboys, Sea Eagles, Sharks and Storm show they have the ability if they can maintain their newfound consistency. Predicted finish: 3rd. Player to impress - Glenn Morrison Sharks (5th, 18 pts, 8 wins, 4 losses) Gone off the boil after great start to year and it all comes down to tackling, or lack thereof. Much was made of the Sharks' improved defence as they surged to a share of the premiership lead on the back of the stingiest defence in the competition over the first 11 rounds. But, after conceding an average of just 16 points a game for their first eight matches, they have leaked an average of exactly double that in five outings since. The gradual decline culminated in the Sharks having 56 points put past them at the weekend. But a friendly draw, including the bye and six matches against lowly-rated Wests Tigers, Souths and Newcastle, and no players on Origin duty should still ensure a top-eight finish. Predicted finish: 7th. Player to impress - Michael Sullivan Storm (6th, 16 pts, 7 wins, 5 draws) As in seasons past, the Storm have been much like the Melbourne weather - unpredictable. Were all the rage after a series of thumping early-season wins but once again find themselves in a familiar position smack bang in the middle of the bottom half of the eight at the halfway point - despite statistically owning the best attacking and defensive records in the league. That's probably more indicative of their ability to destroy teams off with potent runners like Matt Orford, Billy Slater, Matt Geyer and Matt King than anything else. Doubts still remain over their ability to beat the big teams in big, tight matches. Predicted finish: 5th. Player to impress - Matt Orford Raiders (7th, 16 pts, 6 wins, 5 losses) Two byes and a relatively easy early-season draw have the Raiders well-placed in the eight but it's hard to see them staying there come finals time, especially with silky-skilled playmaker Jason Smith sidelined with a long-term knee injury. Will need to make chilly Canberra Stadium in the winter an unhappy hunting ground for rival teams to have realistic hope of making the playoffs. Predicted finish: 11th. Player to impress - Matt Adamson Roosters (8th, 14 pts, 6 wins, 6 draws) The Roosters have struggled without the class and leadership of Brad Fittler so far this year, with Ricky Stuart still to settle on a regular halves pairing and now - along with a clutch of stars - also preoccupied by Origin. Still, Stuart always said his side wouldn't hit its straps until after the halfway point and who can argue with a man who has guided the Bondi club to three GFs in three years at the helm. Predicted finish: 4th. Player to impress - Amos Roberts Dragons (9th, 16 pts, 7 wins, 6 losses) The club has overcome its worst-ever start to a season to be well-positioned heading towards the business end of the competition. With two byes still to come, the Dragons can surge into the top four if they continue stringing wins together. That will be largely dependant on having their so-called Big Five of Jason Ryles, Luke Bailey, Trent Barrett, Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier on the paddock and that will involve getting through the demanding Origin series unscathed. Predicted finish: 8th. Player to impress Ben Creagh The Also-rans: Warriors (10th, 12 pts, 5 wins, 7 losses) Have been far too inconsistent, especially at home where they've won just two from six, to have any more than a hope of squeezing into the finals. A lot hinges on the next two weeks with games in New Zealand against the Storm and Eels. Wins there will go along way to sealing a playoff spot, anything other than that could spell the end. Player to impress - Todd Byrne Predicted finish: 9th. Tigers (11th, 12 pts, 5 wins, 7 losses) Current position is a fair reflection of Tigers' ability. An honest team of triers but lack the all-round talent to trouble the heavyweights. Player to impress - Brett Hodgeson Predicted finish: 13th. Bulldogs (12th, 11 pts, 4 wins, 7 losses, 1 draw) The salary-cap squeeze and injuries, particularly to key forwards, have cruelled the Bulldogs' title defence. Even with the return of stars like Mark O'Meley and Willie Mason and the now unlikely return of Sonny Bill Williams will make it difficult to retain the ground they've given. Player to impress - Roy Asotasi Predicted finish: 10th. Panthers (13th, 8 pts, 4 wins, 9 losses) Have never got going and badly missed the go-forward and strikepower of injured back-rowers Tony Puletua and Joe Galavao early in the campaign. Down on confidence and even two byes won't be enough to get the Panthers out of this hole. Player to impress - Frank Pritchard Predicted finish: 12th. Rabbitohs (14th, 7 pts, 2 wins, 9 losses, 1 draw) It's pretty sad for Rabbitohs fans when their team is second-last yet still travelling better than widely expected pre-season. Injuries and suspensions to too many key players have left the perennial wooden-spooners barely competitive in 2005. Player to impress - Ashley Harrison Predicted finish: 14th. Knights (15th, 4 pts, 0 wins, 11 losses) Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong for the Knights, who are halfway towards completing the most unsuccessful season by any premiership team in four decades. Not since Eastern Suburbs in 1966 has a side gone through an entire campaign winless. The return of superstar half Andrew Johns, among a stack of others from injury or suspension, should ensure at least one win, but not too many more. Player to impress - Andrew Johns ( by his abscence) Predicted finish: last.