NRL 2023 club-by-club season preview & predictions

2023 NRL Betting Predictions | Panthers | Sharks | Cowboys

NRL 2023 club-by-club season preview & predictions

With beaten grand finalists Parramatta to kick off the 2023 NRL season against Melbourne at CommBank Stadium in five weeks, now is the perfect time for our resident rugby league expert Wayne ‘Ticker’ Heming to run his eye over the 17 teams that will do battle this season.

We will begin rolling out the clubs in their 2022 finishing order in a four-part series looking at each team’s major gains and losses, their strengths and weaknesses, impact players, possible Achilles heel, betting odds and finally our 2023 predictions.

Panthers Logo

Penrith Panthers

2022 record
24-20 – 42pts – 1st

Coach
Ivan Cleary

The first cab off the rank is the Penrith Panthers, who will be shooting for a rare premiership hat-trick after going back-to-back in 2021 and 2022.

You have to go back over 40 years to find the last club to claim three premierships in a row when the great Parramatta sides of the early 1980s –coached by the master Jack Gibson and including champions like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Ray Price, the Zip-Zip man Steve Ella and Michael Cronin — took the Eels to titles in 1981, ’82 and ’83.

It is yet to be achieved in the modern era, but many believe with the brilliant Nathan Cleary leading them, the Panthers can create history.

Penrith Panthers PremiersAfter back-to-back trophies in 2021 and 2022, Penrith will be going for a rare premiership hat-trick in ’23.

Coach Ivan Cleary’s first mission of 2023 will be to win the World Club Challenge against English Super League champions St Helens at home on February 20, before hosting the Brisbane Broncos in the opening round of the premiership — again at their home ground, BlueBet Stadium.

It’s an ideal way for the father-and-son Clearys to examine the team which has lost two very valuable players in destructive forward giant Villiame Kikau (Bulldogs) and crafty hooker Api Koroisau (Tigers), both leaving the bottom of the mountain to become the enemy in 2023.

It would be foolish to think losing those two Fijian-born stars won’t impact on the Panthers.

How do you replace a 195cm, 116kg juggernaut like Kikau who is virtually unstoppable close to the try line?

You don’t.

You make adjustments, which is exactly what Cleary will do this year.

The massive Fijian international forward has proven to be an extremely difficult player to control when he plays on the edge and he was fifth (45) in offloads last season, adding to his potency.

His defence at times is overlooked because of his work with the ball in hand.

Koroisau is simply a winner.

He already has three premiership rings with Souths and Penrith (twice), which is a credit to him and how he plays the game.

He will be running out for his fifth NRL club since 2014 and his role at the Panthers will be filled by the talented Mitch Kenny this season.

Mitch Kenny panthersApi Koroisau’s role at the Panthers will be filled by Mitch Kenny (pictured) in the coming 2023 season.

Cleary still has four spots on his 30-man roster to fill, but as usual, he has been very active in the marketplace.

He also has the best talent pool in the premiership to find some future stars with the Panthers sweeping all before them in all grades in a spectacular 2022 season.

They lost Cleary’s invaluable back-up Sean O’Sullivan, who gets his big opportunity as an NRL starter with the league’s newest franchise — the Dolphins.

But Panthers fans should be happy with his replacement.

While Cleary is away on representative duty, off-season recruit Jack Cogger — who played 28 games in two seasons for Huddersfield in the Super League and has a 42-game NRL resume with Newcastle (20) and Canterbury (22) — will fill-in.

International winger Tylan May will not be seen until round four — the grand final replay against Parramatta — after serving a two-game suspension left over from 2022, with the Panthers having a bye in round three.

Nothing much will change for the Panthers in 2023 with Cleary, Jerome Luai, winger Brian To’o and fullback Dylan Edwards — who enjoyed a breakout season last year culminating in the Clive Churchill Medal — calling the shots.

Even without man monster Kikau, the Panthers pack is still intimidating with the likes of James Fisher-Harris, Liam Martin, Moses Leota and Isaah Yeo providing the brawn and brains.

Again, Penrith will try and build their season on their defence, which was impenetrable last season and the best in the premiership by a mile.

Playing Roster: Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton, Tylan May, Izack Tago, Sunia Turuva, Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary, Moses Leota, Mitch Kenny, James Fisher-Harris, Scott Sorensen, Liam Martin, Isaah Yeo, Tyrone Peachey, Luke Garner, Spencer Leniu, Jaeman Salmon, Eddie Blacker, Jack Cogger, Chris Smith, Lindsay Smith, Matt Eisenhuth, Soni Luke, Tom Jenkins, Zac Hoskin.

2023 Penrith Panthers predictions:

Premiership
$4

Top 4:
$1.40

Top 8:
$1.08

Wooden spoon:
$201

PREDICTION:
Top 2

Sharks Logo

Cronulla Sharks

2022 record
24-18 – 38pts – 2nd

Coach
Craig Fitzgibbon

The Cronulla Sharks will take the field this year without Andrew Fifita in the middle for the first time in over a decade, but don’t expect his absence to change the tough way the Sharks like to play.

The Tongan international was the club’s enforcer for 213 of his 252 NRL games and will always be remembered for that try which clinched the club’s historic maiden premiership in 2016.

But the Sharks will move on and Craig Fitzgibbon would have learned a great deal from his first season as head coach after nine seasons learning his craft at the Sydney Roosters.

Fitzgibbon did a superb job chasing home tearaway minor premiers Penrith last year but, along with his players, would have been disappointed about not going deeper into the finals.

It’s that disappointment and pain that will drive the players for redemption in 2023 and their grinding style won’t change too much even without retired workhorses Fifita and veteran Aiden Tolman, who will join him on the sidelines after a magnificent career of more than 300 NRL games.

While Penrith’s scrum-base duo get most of the accolades tossed around, Cronulla’s pairing of Nicho Hynes and Matt Moylan are no slouches and are more than capable of igniting quality outside backs like Ronaldo Mulitalo, Siosifa Talakai, and Jesse Ramien, all of whom were dangermen last season.

Mulitalo should be back for round one following a knee injury; otherwise, the club has a pretty clean injury sheet.

Hynes will again be the point of difference with his game taking off last season.

The former Melbourne Storm utility grabbed his opportunity to be a leader with a breakout season last year culminating in Dally M Player of the Year honours.

He relished his new playmaker responsibilities with 17 try assists and a season-best 24 line-break assists, and will no doubt be keen to build on that despite knowing he will join the ranks of one of the NRL’s most targeted playmakers in 2023.

Nicho Hynes sharksAfter a cracking ’22 season, former Melbourne Storm utility Nicho Hynes will be one to watch in 2023.

Moylan also found his mojo in 2022.

He is exceptionally dangerous with the ball in hand and in broken play, and Hynes gives him enough space and time to utilise his brilliant running game.

Fitzgibbon has a few selection issues to confront before the season kicks off, including how to best use ageing skipper Wade Graham with 25-year-old Teigh Wilton putting pressure on to start.

Wilton, a 186cm, 99kg mobile back-rower, is the man identified to eventually replace the 273-game, 32-year-old veteran, and Fitzgibbon may yet opt to play Graham off the bench more this season.

Graham’s support play, leadership and football intellect are far from past their use-by date and he will be a valuable asset.

Cronulla’s biggest task will be trying to compete on a level footing with the big guns in attack.

There’s no question they can play tough up front and that they have the strike power from fullback Will Kennedy to halfback Hynes to be a serious threat in 2023.

But they got found out in last year’s finals series when it mattered, and just how much they learned from that experience and how hungry they should be to go further in 2023 will be the key.

The addition of Oregon Kaufusi from the Eels will help bolster an already strong Sharks pack with Toby Rudolf and Royce Hunt the likely starting props and Blayke Brailey the No.9.

All-in-all it is a solid squad for Fitzgibbon to work with, possessing a set of quality halves and enough strike out wide through Mulitalo, Sione Katoa, Talakai, Ramien and Kennedy to play off the back of a forward pack that will be hard to get over.

Playing roster: Will Kennedy, Sione Katoa, Jesse Ramien, Siosifa Talakai, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Matt Moylan, Nicho Hynes, Toby Rudolf, Blayke Brailey, Royce Hunt, Briton Nikora, Wade Graham, Dale Finucane, Cameron McInnes, Teig Wilson, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Oregon Kaufusi, Connor Tracey, Jayden Berrell, Jesse Colquhoun, Kade Dykes, Lachlan Miller, Matt Ikuvalu, Braydon Trindall, Jack Williams, Mawene Hiroti, Siteni Taukamo, Tom Hazelton.

2023 Cronulla Sharks predictions:

Premiership
$10.

Top 4:
$2.50

Top 8:
$1.36

Wooden spoon:
$46.

PREDICTION:
Top 8

North Queensland Cowboys

North Queensland Cowboys

2022 record
24-17 – 36pts – 3nd

Coach
Todd Payten

Make no mistake — the North Queensland Cowboys have the players and the coach to give season 2023 a real shake and any team venturing to the far north this season can expect a tough time.

Coach Todd Payten made critics eat their words last season and ended up as the Dally M Coach of the Year.

He took the struggling Cowboys from 15th to third in the minor premiership before falling one game short of playing in the grand final, losing 24-20 to Parramatta in the prelims.

It was a heartbreaking loss for all concerned and an end to a fairytale season for the Cowboys.

However, it proved to be a productive season for Payten with the North Queenslanders unearthing some special talent which they could ride all the way to the title in 2023.

Payten made some unpopular decisions along the way — the most notable cutting back the playing time of destructive forward Jason Taumalolo, which brought a wave of criticism and concerns of a potential player-coach rift.

He also made some innovative selection calls that drew criticism but proved to be masterstrokes in the end.

By the end of the season, the Cowboys had a number of new stars and rugby league had discovered more rich talent.

Where do you start?

Young five-eighth Tom Dearden, struggling to find his identity at the Broncos for a few seasons, returns home and plays his way into a State of Origin jumper for a series decider.

The kid has it all and will only continue to improve under Payten and with a richly talented team of players around him.

His attack blossomed and his defence… well, his defence has never been in question — just ask a few of the bigger players who he buried into the turf last year.

He and former Cronulla recruit Chad Townsend worked brilliantly in the halves with Townsend proving one of the best off-season buys of the year.

And what about Scott Drinkwater?

It looked like he was going to be a utility, shuffled around before settling in at five-eighth and then being pitched into the fullback role by Payten after an injury to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.

But Drinkwater is a natural footballer first and foremost, an instinctive runner who plays what is in front of him, and he warmed to his new role and by the end of the season was top five in the voting for the Dally M Player of the Year.

He finished 2022 with 11 tries and 15 try assists to go with 70 tackle breaks, a terrific season for a player who early in the year could not tie down a starting position.

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They were all stars along with the likes of Reuben Cotter, Tom Gilbert and Jeremiah Nanai, who all graduated to Origin rookies.

Nanai was a standout, though.

This kid can sniff out a try like a bloodhound can find a bone in the desert.

He grabbed a forward-record 17 tries last season in all different ways.

He was exceptional in the air, taking kicks from high above the pack, he pounced on grubber kicks and he always seemed to be there in support to take the final pass.

When you look at the Cowboys roster, it is hard not to be impressed.

Sure, they have a few old dogs like Kyle Feldt and Peta Hiku backing up, but they simply add quality and experience to Payten’s young side.

Apart from the players already mentioned, you can toss in proven big-match player Valentine Holmes and another Origin member in Murray Taulagi who knows his way to the try line.

Payten has taken a punt on veteran prop James Tamou, bringing the 34-year-old back home to the club he led to a historic premiership in 2015.

Tamou will be great insurance with the Cowboys pack certain to provide some Origin players again this year.

On the downside, the Cowboys have lost inspiring forward Gilbert and the flying Tabuai-Fidow, both recruited by Wayne Bennett to the new Dolphins franchise for 2023.

Still, Payten retains the nucleus of his side that stormed into the finals last year, and given many of them were relative newcomers, the improvement and experience they take could spur them into this year’s grand final.

The Cowboys were 9-3 at their new home ground last year, and if they can deposit a few more premiership points at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, they will be finals bound for sure.

Playing roster: Scott Drinkwater, Kyle Feldt, Peta Hiku, Valentine Holmes, Murray Taulagi, Tom Dearden, Chad Townsend, Jordan McLean, Reece Robson, Reuben Cotter, Coen Hess, Jeremiah Nanai, Jason Taumalolo, Jake Granville, Griffith Neame, Jack Gosiewski, James Tamou, Luciano Leilua, Helium Luki, Mitch Dunn, Ben Hampton, Brendan Elliott, Gehamat Shibasaki, Jake Bourke, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Jordan Lipp, Laitia Moceidreke, Riley Price, Taniela Sadrugu, Jai Hansen. Development players: Jodeci Baker-Tiraha, Regarive Wavik.

2023 North Queensland Cowboys predictions:

Premiership
$12

Top 4:
$2.50

Top 8:
$1.40

Wooden spoon:
$36

PREDICTION:
Top 2

Parramatta Eels

Parramatta Eels

2022 record
24-16 – 34pts – 4th

Coach
Brad Arthur

It was a massively deflating end to the season for the Parramatta Eels and their long-suffering fans with the Eels failing to deliver them the premiership they have been waiting for since their 1986 success.

Parramatta had a chance to end the agony and suffering for its blue and yellow army but sadly the grand final was all over by half time with the Panthers racing to an 18-0 lead and in total control.

The big question in 2023 is will such a public flogging make the Eels hungrier and more determined, or will the scars and wounds open up again around September if they again find themselves in contention?

The gut feeling is the loss will have knocked the confidence of some players, and combined with the loss of hooker Reed Mahoney and the go-forward of Isaiah Papali’i, the Eels may battle at times during a very demanding season.

Coach Brad Arthur has work to do to restore some confidence in his playing ranks, and much will depend on how quickly England international Josh Hodgson can slot into Mahoney’s crucial dummy-half role.

Hodgson was a sensation when he first joined the Canberra Raiders in 2015, but he is now 33 and coming off a string of injuries, including recent ACL surgery.

Does he still have that dash? Is he at the end of the road? Can he deliver for the Eels?

Parramatta’s spine is solid enough with Clint Gutherson at fullback, Dylan Brown, Mitchell Moses and Hodgson all quality players.

That’s a lot of experience in key positions.

The Eels almost sold the farm to keep Brown, who has the most unusual NRL contract running until 2025 with a six-year option after that until 2031 should he want to extend and become a one-club player for Parramatta.

At 22, Brown’s best football is still ahead of him and he already is one of the game’s best attacking players.

Dylan Brown ParramattaDylan Brown has a bright future with the Eels.

With Moses, who averaged a try assist in every game he played last season, also agreeing to a contract extension until the end of 2024, the Eels have a scrum-base pairing that has the quality to win a lot of games.

Not a lot has changed for Arthur, who is close to filling his 30-man squad, and youngster J’maine Hopgood looks like a good inclusion after being identified by a number of clubs, including North Queensland, as a future top-line player.

Hopgood is a strong chance to start for Parramatta with lock Ryan Matterson expected to miss at least the first three rounds of the premiership.

He was captain of the Penrith side that won last season’s NSW Cup and captured the NRL State Championship with a 44-10 win over Brisbane’s North Devils, and was also named NSW Cup Player of the Year for 2022.

If everything works for Arthur, who will again have a difficult time settling on his best 13, then Parramatta will threaten again.

They have a very strong pack of forwards with offloading skills led by Shaun Lane, whose ability to slip a pass in heavy traffic is unmatched.

Reagan Campbell-Gillard will again lead the way along with robust Junior Paulo in the go-forward stakes ensuring Parramatta’s engine room is firing on all cylinders.

The Eels don’t have the easiest of draws as they play five top sides early, starting off with the generally fast-starting Melbourne Storm.

But if Moses and Brown fire, they will win more than they lose.

Playing roster: Clint Gutherson, Maiko Siva, Will Pinisini, Waqa Blake, Bailey Simonsson, Dylan Brown, Mitchell Moses, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Josh Hodgson, Junior Paulo, Shaun Lane, Bryce Cartwright, J’maine Hopgood, Jakob Arthur, Nathan Brown, Jack Murchie, Makahesi Makatoa, Ryan Matterson, Jaria Momoisea, Haze Dunster, Sean Russell, Ky Rodwell, Daejarn Asi, Mitch Rein, Ofahiki Ogden, Sam Loizou, Wiremu Greig.

2023 Parramatta Eels prediction:

Premiership
$14

Top 4:
$3.75

Top 8:
$1.72

Wooden spoon:
$34

PREDICTION:
Top 8

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Author: Zachary Davis