2022 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Eels
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 02: The Panthers celebrate with the NRL Premiership Trophy after victory in the 2022 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at Accor Stadium on October 02, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The NRL season is still a tick over three months ago, but players who aren't at the Rugby League World Cup are just weeks away from returning, and rosters are slowly approaching their capacities across all 17 clubs.

The draw will be released in the coming weeks, and as the Dolphins prepare for their first competitive games, fans will be left to ponder how the expansion to 17 teams, as well as plenty of movement in playing personnel across the competition, will impact their teams.

Plenty of questions will remain heading into the 2023 season, with the Panthers looking to do the three-peat, the Eels out to fly in the face of adversity again, the Storm and Roosters aiming to improve and other clubs in the Sharks and Cowboys gunning to prove that 2022 was no fluke.

Then there are the teams at the bottom looking to improve, with the fight to make changes in the top eight to be on from Round 1, combined with the questions around how the Dolphins will perform following a recruitment period since November 1 last year that has somewhat missed the general public's expectations.

We might be three months away from a ball being kicked in anger, but here is Zero Tackle's way too early NRL ladder prediction for the 2023 season.

1. Sydney Roosters

The Roosters were one of the big underperforming sides in 2022, despite the fact they ultimately finished with a finals appearance.

A slow start cost them a final spot in the top four, but with Luke Keary and James Tedesco having more than a two-week preparation this time around, as well as the continued improvement of their young guns, this is a side who are going to be tough to beat.

Maybe the biggest question is around the number nine jersey with Brandon Smith's arrival at the club, but if he performs, then Trent Robinson's side are the favourites.

2. Penrith Panthers

The Panthers have won two premierships on the hop, and it's not out of the question that they will become the first team to win three in a row for decades.

Their biggest issue will be the loss of Apisai Koroisau, but even that won't be enough to slow down the Penrith juggernaut entirely, with most of the New South Wales Blues' spine still with the side, and the duo of Soni Luke and Mitch Kenny to take over at hooker.

2022 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Eels

3. Melbourne Storm

The Storm, like the Roosters, were one of the big disappointments of the 2022 campaign, with injuries derailing their run time and time again before they were ultimately brought down in the first week of the finals by the Canberra Raiders.

That said, the Storm are far better than shown, and with a spine at full strength, combined with an evolution in the forwards - watch for Eliesa Katoa to be the buy of the year - they should be back in premiership contention.

We have them third in this prediction, but they could very easily challenge for the premiership, as they tend to do more often than not.

Craig Bellamy's (likely) final year might also have plenty to say.

4. North Queensland Cowboys

The Cowboys will be strong again in 2023. They found their mojo last year under Todd Payten, and that is unlikely to change.

Chad Townsend was the calming influence the side needed, Scott Drinkwater will never again play reserve grade, and Jason Taumalolo was used effectively. Add to that the impact of Reuben Cotter, and it's clear to see why the Cowboys were one of the surprise packets.

They haven't done a great deal in the recruitment space, but they didn't have to.

5. South Sydney Rabbitohs

The Rabbitohs' single biggest question for 2023 poses around the fitness of Latrell Mitchell. Jason Demetriou's side were two different football teams with and without him on the park.

Sure, other things need to go right, including Cody Walker and Damien Cook's form, but it's hard to not like what the men from Redfern served up at the back end of 2022 with Mitchell on the park.

Lachlan Ilias' improvement after being hooked in a game against the Dragons mid-season was phenomenal, while a tough pack of forwards will hold their own again.

6. Parramatta Eels

The Eels finally broke the second-week curse in the finals, before eventually falling to the Penrith Panthers in the grand final at Homebush.

Contrary to popular belief, I don't believe their premiership window is over, and despite placing them sixth in this early prediction, they are one team who could finish substantially higher.

They do lose some players, but the signings of J'maine Hopgood and Jack Murchie are good ones. Josh Hodgson feels sideways at best to replace Reed Mahoney, but will be serviceable, and the key weapons - Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown, Clint Gutherson, Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson - aren't changing.

The big concern is the lack of replacement for Isaiah Papali'i, but the blue and gold will still be there and abouts.

NRL Rd 6 - Raiders v Eels

7. Cronulla Sharks

This is going to seem somewhat harsh on the surface given the Sharks were a top-four side in 2022, but there are plenty of reasons to suggest 2023 won't be quite as much fun.

The club were, realistically, a one-man band in 2022. Nicho Hynes took out the Dally M Medal in a canter despite his side finishing second, before ultimately being bundled out in the second week of the finals.

Their forwards will get better, but have lost depth with the retirement of Aiden Tolman and Andrew Fifita, which is offset by the arrival of Oregon Kaufusi.

However, this is a side that needs more pieces to the puzzle in a hurry, with another star to support Hynes of the utmost priority. They will make the top eight, and could be higher than seventh, but it's tough to place them ahead of any of the sides above them in this prediction at this early stage.

8. Brisbane Broncos

The Broncos certainly fell away at the back end of the 2022 season, but there was always a train of thought that said they outperformed expectations early on.

They should improve, but the problem is, most of those sides around them are only going to get better too.

The only signing of note is Reece Walsh, and it's debatable how much of a help that will actually be, while their depth has taken a little bit of a beating in certain areas, with Tyson Gamble, Zac Hosking and Te Maire Martin among the names to depart.

9. Canberra Raiders

The Raiders haven't made any signings for the 2023 season outside of fringe Knights prop Pasami Saulo, but they have lost some names, with Adam Elliott and Ryan Sutton leaving a substantial hole in their forward pack.

The Raiders snuck into the finals in 2022, but that seemingly might only paper over the cracks.

Ricky Stuart's side will certainly be in the mix again, but the combination behind the clipboard of Ricky Stuart and Michael Maguire is also alarm bells.

10. Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are slowly building, and Cameron Ciraldo's arrival needs to be the moment where the entire club changes.

They are an incredibly difficult club to place on this prediction given the immense change that will occur at the club in 2023, both on and off the field as their roster revamp continues.

Reed Mahoney and Viliame Kikau headline the arrivals, while others will continue to improve. That may not be enough to get them into the top eight, but they will be another side who will challenge.

NRL Rd 8 - Eels v Cowboys

11. Gold Coast Titans

The Titans should rise a handful of spots in 2023, although it still won't realistically be enough for the club to make the finals.

Kieran Foran's arrival is a good boost, as is that of Sam Verrills, and both players will provide handy upgrades to what they had in 2022.

Both are also winners and will bring plenty of mentality to the club, but they still have plenty of issues, and shouldn't challenge the sides ahead.

12. Manly Sea Eagles

The Sea Eagles come into the 2023 season under an absolute cloud.

Des Hasler is gone, Anthony Seibold is likely to be in, the pride jersey issue still surrounds the club and they finished 2022 on a horrid losing streak that they will want to snap in a hurry come the start of the new campaign.

Without any great signings, but with the loss of Kieran Foran, Dylan Walker and Martin Taupau, the club have also arguably gone backwards on their roster.

They are better than what they showed throughout 2022, but it's hard to see much coming from 2023 at this stage.

13. Wests Tigers

The Tigers are a side who should show some signs of improvement in 2023, even if marginal.

"Can Tim Sheens still coach?" will be the big question to follow them around throughout the season, but that isn't all.

Apisai Koroisau and Isaiah Papali'i's arrivals should be enough to win them a couple of games off their own bat, and while the situation regarding Luke Brooks' future still exists, there is enough to like about the Tigers that says they should get away from a second straight wooden spoon.

14. St George Illawarra Dragons

The Dragons are a club in turmoil at this point, and while there is still time to turn things around ahead of the season, it's hard to see that happening anytime soon.

Anthony Griffin appears to have lost the dressing room, and while Jayden Sullivan and Tyrell Sloan have rescinded their release requests at this time, they may be left disappointed by first-grade opportunities again.

This is a side who were so reliant on Ben Hunt last year, and it's tough to see that changing. If he isn't perfect, the Dragons are going to be in the fight for the wooden spoon.

15. The Dolphins

The Dolphins are, without doubt, the hardest team to predict for 2023 as they prepare for their inaugural season in the NRL.

This realistically all comes down to the Wayne Bennett factor. The Dolphins have signed plenty of experienced forwards, some talented young ones and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, but on paper, they are still going to be outmatched by most sides.

If Wayne Bennett can get the absolute best out of the likes of Sean O'Sullivan, Anthony Milford and Jeremy Marshall-King though, things could change in a hurry for the Redcliffe-based operation.

Can they make the finals? It's hard to say no with Bennett in charge, but this could really be anything.

Dolphins Media Opportunity

16. New Zealand Warriors

The Warriors will have the advantage of playing games back in Auckland on a permanent basis for their home fixtures in 2023, but that won't be enough to lift them away from the bottom of the table.

They have had a big roster overhaul, but a lot of it feels like a sideways shuffle rather than a step in the right direction. Luke Metcalf has plenty of potential, but will be stuck behind Shaun Johnson, while Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Marata Niukore and Dylan Walker can bring plenty to the side at their best.

That won't be enough to get them away from the bottom echelons though.

17. Newcastle Knights

The Knights had a horror show in 2022, and if I was taking bets on the first coach to be sacked in 2023, Adam O'Brien would be the short-priced favourite.

The club's recruitment has been poor at best, and while there is talk Luke Brooks will yet join for the 2023 season with Kalyn Ponga making the shift to five-eighth, it's arguable that may not improve anything all that much.

They could yet pull off a late signing or two to change the overall opinion, but right now, the Knights seem the surest bet to finish at the bottom of the pile.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Scott, Dan Nichols is going to be filthy with you!
    However, I agree with you.

    Oregon Kaufusi is neither a big-impact player nor a big-minutes player. He will offer depth, nothing more. On his record, I can see no reason why the Sharks would have bought him.

    Coach Fitzgibbon is seemingly agonizing over re-signing Wade Graham. That looks like a classic “I don’t want to disappoint anyone” attitude ie “I want to be loved like I was as an Assistant coach, and I don’t want to make the hard calls that I have to make as a Head coach”. (Like Mal Meninga dithering in England, right now). Re-signing Mawene Hiroti for 2023 is a classic example. That player hasn’t looked like breaking into the first team for the last two seasons, so why tie up a spot with him?

    He has got a couple of good junior backs – Iro and Dykes – plus a couple of good junior forwards – Colquhoun and Hazleton. He has got a potential star in Lachlan Miller. If the coach uses him at 1 or 6 he will alienate either Kennedy or Moyland, but if he does not then Nicho will be left to do it all on his own again.

    2023 will be a tough season for Craig Fitzgibbon. There was no pressure on him last year, but after finishing second, realistically, the only way the Sharks can go is down, and he needs to show the fans he isn’t just standing there watching it happen.

  2. Judging from the joiners and the leavers,
    – Warriors and Knights seem to have been shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic
    – Wests and Dogs have a ray of hope. Dogs are my roughie for the eight.
    – Dunno about the Dolphins but 15 sounds about right.
    – Manly – depends on Turbo and DCE. If they miss games or lose form Manly will be closer to the spoon than the eight.
    – Dragons. My tip for the double: spoon and first coach sacked.

    Overall, there is little I’d disagree with in your assessment.

    PS it’s good to talk about some _real_ league, not embarrassing blow outs in the WC (double entendre pun intended !)

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