Paul Crawley's guide to your NRL club's key positions.
Paul Crawley's guide to your NRL club's key positions.

How your NRL club’s spine stacks up against the rest

FOR more than a decade the Melbourne Storm dominated the rugby league landscape because they owned the game's best spine. But following Billy Slater's retirement, Cameron Smith finally appears vulnerable, while his new arch rival Cooper Cronk has helped make the Sydney Roosters the new benchmark.

PAUL CRAWLEY delivers his verdict on the all-important positions for every NRL team heading into 2019.




The Broncos have an intriguing mix in their squad. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
The Broncos have an intriguing mix in their squad. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)



Look at the Broncos' draw to start next season. They face Storm, Cowboys, Dragons and Roosters in the opening four rounds. That's one hell of an initiation for Anthony Seibold, who is under enormous pressure to kick off with a bang.

While there's no question Brisbane has the game's best crop of youngsters overall, if the club is lacking in one department it is experience. Because of this, Seibold needs Darius Boyd, Anthony Milford, Kodi Nikorima and Andrew McCullough to take ownership. But in particular Milford, who is approaching 25.

Crawley's rating: B


Before Jack Wighton got himself in strife he was the Raiders' best in 2018. And when Josh Hodgson returned from injury, well, you don't have to talk Hodgson up. But the big question still hangs over halves, Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams.

If the Raiders were satisfied they wouldn't have chased Shaun Johnson. Williams always gives his best but the onus here is on Sezer. We know what the Raiders can do when they're on. But Sezer needs to show he can close out games when things aren't going Canberra's way.

Crawley's rating: C+


Can Kieran Foran finally rediscover his best form? (Brett Costello)
Can Kieran Foran finally rediscover his best form? (Brett Costello)



Dean Pay put his kahunas on the line back in September when he declared the Bulldogs had showed enough improvement in the final six weeks of the regular season to suggest a finals return in 2019.

Let's be fair dinkum, if Canterbury is any hope of living up to Pay's prediction than it comes down to one man, Kieran Foran.

This young fullback from Newcastle Nick Meenay has the potential to be something pretty good, as Lachlan Lewis showed in 2018. Michael Lichaa needs a big season, but not as big as Foran.

Crawley's rating: D


You lose Valentine Holmes and you pick up Shaun Johnson. Not exactly a like for like but close enough to make me think the Sharks will still be thereabouts in 2019.

Matt Moylan really improved in the five-eighth role but he will be equally good at fullback if Johnson wears six, while Chad Townsend for mine is up with the most underrated players in the comp.

The internal battle I'm really looking forward to is between the Brailey brothers. As good as Jayden has shown he is, the raps on his kid brother Blayke are huge.

Crawley's rating: B+


Manly have some great talent — but is it enough? (AAP Image/Craig Golding)
Manly have some great talent — but is it enough? (AAP Image/Craig Golding)



Tom Turbo at fullback, Kane Elgey and Daly-Cherry-Evans in the halves, and Api Koroisau at hooker. I know the big issue at Manly relates to overall depth but this is a top eight spine. In fact, it's almost as good as there is.

They just need a bit of luck and some Des Hasler magic dust.

Elgey has the game to complement Cherry-Evans and there aren't too many smarter or tougher dummy halves than Koroisau.

As for Tom Trbojevic, he'll only get better.

Crawley's rating: B+


I'm thinking Mal Meninga's presence at Gold Coast will be the making of Ash Taylor. And if Taylor takes the next step in his career, I'm tipping the Titans could be 2019's big surprise.

They have an outstanding pack and have added quality centres in Tyrone Peachey and Brian Kelly. Nathan Peats is a top notch hooker and AJ Brimson promises to be a sensation at fullback.

Depending on whether Tyrone Roberts or Ryley Jacks partners Taylor, this spine is more than capable of fighting for a finals finish.

Crawley's rating: C



Melbourne will be relying on their two Cams. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Melbourne will be relying on their two Cams. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)



You don't lose Cronk and Billy Slater in consecutive seasons and expect everything to be as it once was.

The other issue is where Cameron Munster will play. The talk is he wants to play fullback. It would be a huge gamble given the Storm's lack of experience in the halves.

Brodie Croft is a good young player but he is no Cronk yet, while Jahrome Hughes and Scott Drinkwater are outstanding talents but with it all still ahead of them.

The pressure is on Smith. This will be his toughest challenge.

Crawley's rating: B+


Nathan Brown has made a gutsy call moving Kalyn Ponga into the halves to partner Mitchell Pearce, with Connor Watson to get first crack at fullback. Don't get me wrong, Ponga will be outstanding no matter what number is on his back. But given the Knights also signed Mason Lino, I just wonder why Ponga needed to move.

With Slade Griffin injured, Danny Levi is a super talent. Good enough to play for New Zealand previously. But that still didn't stop Brown chasing Kurt Mann to play hooker.

The bottom line is if Ponga and Pearce stay fit the Knights are contenders.

Crawley's rating: B


There will be hiding places for Pattamatta this season. (Mark Evans)
There will be hiding places for Pattamatta this season. (Mark Evans)



Corey Norman is a huge loss to a spine that lacks experience. You can't fault Clint Gutherson at fullback, and both Kaysa Pritchard and Reed Mahoney are solid dummy halves. But the pressure here is going to be on Mitchell Moses. He needs to own the team and allow young partners Jaeman Salmon and Dylan Brown time to develop. Brown is said to be an exceptional talent but he is a teenager. It could be the making of Moses if he rises to the challenge.

Crawley's rating: C


The Warriors gave Shaun Johnson a fair serve on his way out the door. Now they get the chance to find out what life is like without him. This line in the sand could be the making of the game's perennial underachievers. It could also be their undoing.

Because how many games has Johnson won for them over the years just through his sheer brilliance? But then you go back to their finals loss to Penrith when he just went missing. Even without Johnson, this is still an exceptional spine with the likes of Roger Tuivasa Sheck, Issac Luke and Blake Green.

Crawley's rating: B




Penrith will be looking to Nathan Cleary with James Maloney. (Brett Costello)
Penrith will be looking to Nathan Cleary with James Maloney. (Brett Costello)



The big call Ivan Cleary has to make here is who wears the No.1 jumper with Dylan Edwards returning from injury. In his absence Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was phenomenal at fullback. The Panthers also have rising star Caleb Aekins banging down the door.

As for the halves, James Maloney and Nathan Cleary are the reigning NSW halves.

If there is a weakness it's a lack of experience at dummy half. Both Sione Katoa and Wayde Egan are terrific talents but still have a bit to prove.

Crawley's rating: B+


As sad as it was to say goodbye to Johnathan Thurston, I can't wait to see how Michael Morgan handles taking back control of this team. On the Cowboys' run to the 2017 grand final Morgan was playing without peer. Throw in Ben Barba at fullback, young Jake Clifford most likely as Morgan's halves partner with Te Maire Martin the back up, and Jake Granville at dummy half. Not too shabby at all. Young Clifford is a super talent, was man of the match for the Junior Kangaroos after getting a start at halfback ahead of Cronulla's boom boy Kyle Flanagan.

Crawley's rating: B+



What will Wayne Bennett do with this mob? (Brett Costello)
What will Wayne Bennett do with this mob? (Brett Costello)



Greg Inglis turns 32 in 2019 and naturally there is some concern a return to fullback will put too much of a workload on the ageing superstar.

But like Justin Hodges and Mal Meninga said a few weeks back, if GI says he can do it than get out of his way.

You can't fault halves Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds who both had fantastic seasons in 2018, and Damien Cook went from a battling first grader to Cam Smith's Australian successor.

Wayne Bennett will have a field day working with these blokes providing the Burgess brothers keep steamrollering the opposition.

Crawley's rating: A


It is potentially as good as any spine in the comp. Widdop is a world class number one or six, as is Corey Norman. Ben Hunt copped plenty last year but would have gained confidence by selection in the Australian Test team and now comes to his second year at the Dragons. And as for the battle for No 9, Cam McInnes has young gun Reece Robson biting at his heels. It will bring the best out in McInnes who went close to NSW selection last year.

Crawley's rating: A


Tedesco and Cronk have set the bar high. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Tedesco and Cronk have set the bar high. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)



Move over Melbourne, the Sydney Roosters now own rugby league's best spine. James Tedesco is the game's premier fullback and Luke Keary and Cooper Cronk are the premier halves combination.

As for Jake Friend, credit where credit is due.

After all Friend copped throughout 2018 he was close to best on ground in the grand final with an energy and commitment that was just inspirational.

While recent history suggests it is close to impossible to win back-to-back titles, I reckon the Roosters can get better.

Crawley's rating: A+


If everything goes their way the Tigers could push for a top eight finish. But they'll need some luck in running.

Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah are still good footballers but they're going to be another year older. Luke Brooks is coming off his best season with his future settled. And knowing the competitive fire that burns inside Josh Reynolds, he will return in 2019 with a massive point to prove.

As for Moses Mbye, I'm not sure he's a fullback but he is a quality player, regardless of what position he is playing.

Crawley's rating: C


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