NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 03: Knights players celebrate a try from Aidan Guerra of the Knights during the round 21 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Wests Tigers at McDonald Jones Stadium on August 3, 2018 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The minds of eight NRL playing rosters will, as we speak, be drifting to a well-deserved break from the game and an end of season trip.

The grind of preparing physically and emotionally for one of the toughest sports on the planet takes its toll and there wouldn’t be a regular first-grade player free of pain and discomfort right now.

Looking at some of the mummified players, laden in tape and strapping as they take the field, is a timely reminder of just how brutal and debilitating the game can be.

The bottom eight clubs will start fresh in a few short months. Some young talent will have been blooded late in the year and planning for 2019 will be well and truly underway.

Ideally, there will have been indications that things will get better. New signings, improved late season form and players returning from long term injuries can add weight to the hope for better things to come.

As it stands, two clubs have that hope in spades whilst six others appear in danger of a deja vu defined 2019. I am finding it hard to mount a logical argument as to where those six will make their improvements.

Parramatta is one such example. From front office to on-field performance, the Eels were a rabble in 2018 and look certain to add another wooden spoon to their collection. It is hard to see the arrivals of Blake Ferguson and Junior Paulo providing a magic cure, with off-field issues still lingering around a club screaming for leadership and direction.

The Manly Sea Eagles also look somewhat dishevelled and frantic. Tension in off-field relationships and the inevitable parting of the ways with Trent Barrett, will set the club back further.

Manly fans must be wondering when they will start to see the three steps forward that should follow the two steps back. Alarmingly, the squad is gifted but its seven wins to this point is well below par. The arrival of Kane Elgey is promising yet that won’t be enough to right the ship on its own.

Also sitting on seven wins, North Queensland farewells its legend Johnathan Thurston at seasons end. With the joint captain playing his final season, Matt Scott back from injury and Michael Morgan coming off a brilliant finals series in 2017, the Cowboys were favourites to many.

Now with an adjustment period ahead, that billing looks unlikely next season. Valentine Holmes would make waves if he does head north but the Cowboys will need far more than that in what looks to be a challenging year ahead.

Entertaining the idea of the Gold Coast Titans playing in the finals next season is a challenging state of mind to assume. There were, typically, moments of brilliance this season and others of absolute embarrassment.

Some considerable acquisitions are on the way in the form of Tyrone Peachey and Shannon Boyd yet Garth Brennan appears to have a side destined to battle around the fringes of the eight, at best.

Ricky Stuart has not been able to convert the employment of monster forwards and a somewhat improved defensive attitude into a consistent top eight team in Canberra and it is hard to see where the Raiders improve.

John Bateman and Ryan Sutton arrive from the Wigan Warriors once again, as the men from the nation’s capital will lack the half and five-eighth combination required to become a top level side. To me it looks a case of more of the same.

The Wests Tigers have been re-energised by Ivan Cleary, however, if he was to depart it could buy the Tigers a ticket on the all too familiar, coaching merry-go-round. The black and gold cannot afford it. Moses Mbye has brought something new to the side yet they were again frustratingly inconsistent this season.

Personally, I don’t see Benji Marshall or Robbie Farah, as symbolic and loved as they are, igniting the spark required. With minimal new signings at this stage, Luke Brooks will continue to shoulder an unreasonable level of expectation in attack and despite an improved defence, their inability to put teams away on the scoreboard will continue to hold them back.

However, there are two clubs that buck the trend in terms of a potential upswing in 2019. Newcastle have been building under Nathan Brown and finally showed some much needed defensive intensity on their line. Despite a poor final month, nine wins is creditable in context and the arrivals of Jesse Ramien and Tim Glasby look shrewd buys.

Leading the pack in terms of a potentially vastly improved season is Canterbury-Bankstown. The Bulldogs swept the joint clean and by seasons end had a host of rookies performing superbly. They look to have found stars in Reimis Smith and Lachlan Lewis, and despite farewelling Brett and Josh Morris, Matt Frawley and Greg Eastwood, they look to have recruited well.

Christian Chrichton will claim one of the backline spots, with Jack Cogger and Nick Meaney fighting for positions in the spine.

For the Dogs and the Knights, things look bright. For the other six, it looks like more of the same.

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