It’s fair to say Punta Del Diablo is hardly a rugby league hotbed, although there are worse places you could be writing a preview of the imminent NRL season than a hammock on the Uruguayan seaside. A lack of recent posts can be attributed to my recent move to Buenos Aires for a year of university exchange – two football games have already been sampled and will be described in this blog soon – but with Souths and the Roosters set to ignite the 2013 premiership on Thursday night, it’s worth having a look at the greatest game of all from an admittedly obscure corner of the rugby league globe.

The Storm are defending their first legitimate premiership since they were exposed for rorting the salary cap in 2010, and with Messrs. Smith, Slater and Cronk still steering a ship serviced by an honest support cast and expertly marshalled by Craig Bellamy, it’s hard to see the men in purple veering too far off course.

Melbourne’s 2012 grand final opponents, Canterbury, face a tougher task. The Ben Barba question mark is yet to resolve itself and even if he returns to the playing field he might struggle to return to his sparkling best, just like the headline acts from previous grand final bolters (think Jarryd Hayne post-2009, Todd Carney’s axing by the Roosters in 2011, and Shaun Johnson being dropped to reserve grade last season). Des Hasler and some shrewd signings will make sure the Bulldogs don’t suffer a similar dip but they might find it difficult to repeat their near-fairytale 2012.

Souths are an interesting proposition, theoretically primed to improve in their second year under Michael Maguire. But so much of their 2012 mojo relied on Adam Reynolds, and like the aforementioned breakouts, could be prone to a bout of sophomore syndrome.

September specialists Manly will be primed for another tilt at the trophy after exiting the 2012 comp with a whimper, derailed at the last moment by injury and unlucky scheduling; there was just nothing left in the tank when they travelled to Melbourne to get pumped in the prelim. Their roster has peerless top-end quality – Lyon, Foran, Cherry-Evans, Stewart and Stewart are all Rolls Royces – but a thin B-Grade bracket of supporting players might keep the Silvertails out of the really pointy end of the season.

Cronulla – barring an ASADA-induced catastrophe – will be looking to take Manly’s place deep in the top four. Shane Flanagan has recruited deftly, adding starch to the pack with Chris Heighington and Luke Lewis, and some silk to the backs with Michael Gordon and Beau Ryan. Purchasing a raft of mature-age players means the Sharkies will be targeting immediate success and they’d be disappointed with anything less than a preliminary final.

Every single preseason the Raiders are tipped to improve and they almost invariably disappoint. Canberra’s final position in 2012 – sixth, and a dignified exit from week two of the finals at the hands of a strong Souths side – disguised a seriously patchy campaign, during which David Furner somehow extracted his neck from the board’s guillotine after an early season riddled with inconsistency. If Terry Campese and Josh Dugan stay fit and manage to fire, the Raiders will be explosive, but that would be a bold prediction indeed.

North Queensland are the smokeys for the 2013 title. The world’s best half. The world’s best prop. Tariq Sims returning to a pack already boasting Scott, Taumalolo and Tamou. A distinct home ground advantage to complement an ingredient discovered in 2012 that had been missing from so many previous Cowboys teams: an ability to win on the road. Last year, the Cows orchestrated raids on Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Newcastle, Melbourne, Wollongong and Sydney and if they continue to prosper away from the tropics they will secure a top four finish, then it will be very hard for interstate teams to jump on a Qantas jet and win in Townsville.

Their cousins from the Queensland capital probably won’t fare so well. The Broncos scraped into the finals despite a dreadful end to 2012, and with Petero Civoniceva’s retirement plus the peculiar signing of an ageing Scott Prince – who appears a bandaid solution in the halves if he forces out either Peter Wallace or Corey Norman – the roster doesn’t look to have improved. In their favour is a history of success, a pronounced home ground advantage and a sensible coach, which all serves to guarantee a certain number of victories.

The Tigers are usually right along the Raiders as everyone’s preseason good things but the Balmain Boys are most pundits’ tip to be this year’s big dippers. I suspect they’ll find it hard to make the finals but the Black-and-Golds will surprise those people who expect them to fall off the map completely. Benji Marshall with something to prove, a healthy Robbie Farah, the development of James Tedesco and Curtis Sironen, and a reserve of players who qualified for both of last year’s lower-grade deciders (NSW Cup and Toyota Cup) will make Wests more than competitive.

It’s easy to mount positive arguments for virtually every side in the NRL – the incumbent top eight teams are likely to challenge again, clubs like Newcastle and the Roosters have serious cause for optimism and for the likes of Parra, Penrith and the Warriors the only way is up. That’s why it’s so difficult to find a place for the Dragons in the top half of the ladder. There’s no glaring deficiency (besides maybe their ability to score points, having averaged a competition-low 16.88 in 2012), they’re just an average footy team that will work hard, defend well, struggle to score and likely finish in the lower segment of the ladder. ‘Rebuilding’ will be the buzzword but a decorated club like St George might lack patience if Steve Price can’t put points on the board.

Similar story with the Gold Coast. John Cartwright is a very good coach and in their six seasons since inception the Titans have always put up a good fight, and 2013 won’t be any different. Recruits like Jamal Idris and Dave Taylor are head-scratchers though; both are valuable players but would be more effective as icing-on-the-cake additions to high-flying sides, rather than a Titans team that needs a bit more meat and veg.

After the buildup to the 2012 season was fixated on Wayne Bennett’s move to the Steel City, Newcastle will be happy to have flown under the radar this summer. Buderus, Mason, Boyd and now Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith all complement a roster that was good enough to make the 2011 semis, and has had another 12 months to absorb the Bennett Bible.

The Roosters are most people’s fancy to be the other big movers, and it’s hard to resist the hype when you look at their list of imports. Sonny Bill Williams is the standout but the signings of James Maloney – who can shoulder some of the playmaking burden that Mitchell Pearce has struggled with post-Carney – as well as Michael Jennings and Luke O’Donnell could prove just as valuable. New coach Trent Robinson should also be optimistic about the blossoming of young charges like Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Boyd Cordner, two guys with representative honours tattooed all over their foreheads.

The Warriors – like the Panthers and Eels – fall into the it-can’t-get-any-worse bracket. It’s hardly worth anyone trying to predict how the Aucklanders will go in any given year; their last two seasons – a grand final appearance followed by the unseemly sacking of a coach – typifying that. 2013 is no exception, with another enviable crop of Kiwis graduating from another dominant NYC outfit to join another painfully inconsistent NRL squad.

At the foot of the Mountains, Ivan Cleary has recruited the sort of players to Penrith that the Titans should have brought to the Glitter Strip, and that will result in those two clubs moving in opposite directions on the table this season. Guys like Lewis Brown, James Segeyaro and Sika Manu toiling alongside an honest, well-coached pack of forwards provides a solid platform for future improvement, if not immediate results.

Parramatta‘s main source of optimism comes from the movement in the coach’s box, rather than a threadbare playing list that no longer has Nathan Hindmarsh to rely on. Ricky Stuart is expected to get the best out of Jarryd Hayne and his under-performing team-mates but he might end up feeling a bit like Michael Clarke on his harrowing tour of India, abjectly let down by his lack of cattle. Maybe the Eels can take hope from their Parramatta Stadium co-tenants the Western Sydney Wanderers, who were written off by all and sundry prior to this A-League campaign and now sit atop the summit.

Every year, all 16 clubs look like world beaters before a ball is kicked because they’re all undefeated. Every coach could sincerely pose a compelling case as to why their men will compete in September. But I think in 2013 those claims have more substance than usual. None of the incumbent top eight teams are expected to slide dramatically. The Roosters and Knights have genuine ambitions to force their way in. Last year’s bottom teams are bound to improve and even the anticipated big sliders – the Dragons and Tigers, specifically – are proud clubs that won’t wallow at the bottom. Add to that the inherent unpredictability of the NRL, which ceaselessly throws up huge surprises year on year, and these predictions are little more than an exercise in navel-gazing. Regardless, here’s my pick for the final ladder.

1. North Queensland Cowboys

2. Melbourne Storm

3. Cronulla Sharks

4. Manly Sea Eagles

5. South Sydney Rabbitohs

6. Canterbury Bulldogs

7. Sydney Roosters

8. Wests Tigers

9. Newcastle Knights

10. Canberra Raiders

11. Brisbane Broncos

12. New Zealand Warriors

13. Penrith Panthers

14. St George Illawarra Dragons

15. Parramatta Eels

16. Gold Coast Titans

The NRL has chosen Jessica Mauboy to front an energetic campaign to launch the 2013 season (incidentally, a slick promo that will prove attractive to women and children; the only people who seem to be complaining are rusted on league fans swilling middies of Tooheys Old at Harbord Diggers, the type of flanno-wearing tragics who might prefer to hear Acca Dacca fronting the league’s adverts but who have turned up to games for decades regardless of advertisements), and I suspect it might be her North Queensland compadres who might feature in the highlights later this year. With two home games in 2013, NSW is likely to wrest the Origin trophy from Queensland’s vice-like grip and the Cane Toads’ chief playmaker Johnathan Thurston might seek gratification on the club scene, especially if he plans to move on at the end of the season. An interstate team finishing in the top two gifts them a near-automatic passage to the decider, making a Storm-Cows GF a realistic possibility.

I reckon 2013 might be the year of the wily old pro; Melbourne, North Queensland, Cronulla and Manly are all home to grizzled veterans who know their way around an arduous NRL campaign. That backbone, that thick skin, that starch should provide these sides with an advantage over younger fancies like the Roosters or Knights, or 2012 breakouts like Souths and Canterbury. My predicted bottom four simply lack the cattle to drive their clubs any higher and good sides are certain to miss the eight; there are just too many good teams with clever coaches knocking at the door. It’s just a shame that Uruguayan TV hasn’t caught on to the NRL fad, yet.

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