The 2018 NRL campaign is entering a key stage of the season, with Australasia’s finest looking to finish the season as minor premiers; with a view to pressing-on and winning the Grand Final after the finals series.
The race to secure silverware is fierce, with a number of clubs well in contention to knock the Melbourne Storm off their perch, at the top of Australian Rugby League competition.
Craig Bellamy’s side won the Grand Final last year, and in 2018 are of course, in contention again. Cameron Smith and Billy Slater continue to lead the charge for their club, with the Australian duo continuing to ‘roll back the years’ even in the absence of Cooper Cronk – who is now with the Sydney Roosters.
With Cronk in their ranks, the Roosters will be confident of knocking Melbourne from their perch, but other rivals have made a fast start to their 2018 campaign, and maintained that level of form, heading into the final few rounds.
— South Sydney Rabbitohs 🐰 (@SSFCRABBITOHS) July 31, 2018
South Sydney Rabbitohs, who were champions back in 2014, look back to their best. With Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis, amongst a number of potential match-winners within Anthony Seibold’s squad, they could be readying for another attempt to steal away the 2018 NRL title.
Currently, the Rabbitohs are favourites to win the 2018 Grand Final, with Oddschecker pricing the South Sydney outfit alongside Melbourne at $6.00.
Odds for 2018 NRL League-leaders show plenty ‘still to play for’
That is only based on the current league standings, though, with still a long way to go in the 2018 campaign. Many twists and turns will be expected between now and the Grand Final. Not least, with an intriguing playoff campaign on the horizon.
With that in mind, and with so much rugby league still left to play in 2018, here is a look at some of the league-leaders to become 2018 NRL premiers;
2017 Premiers – Melbourne Storm
There isn’t really anywhere else to start. Last season, Craig Bellamy’s side were comfortable Grand Final winners in the end. Melbourne’s impressive ‘Holy Trinity’ leading them to success; Smith, Slater and Cronk.
Melbourne have been involved in the last two Grand Finals and many are expecting them to be competing for silverware right at the end of the season, which is understandable. They sit at the top-of-the-table, equal on competition points, but with points-differential advantage over the chasers.
— Sports Tonight (@SportsTonight) July 29, 2018
Of course, the loss of Cooper Cronk is a blow, with the legendary half-back now looking to knock Melbourne off their perch with the Sydney Roosters. However, in Smith and Slater, Bellamy’s side still possess two of the game’s standout players. They know how to deliver on the big stage.
Added to that, there is a good mix of youth coming through, with Melbourne’s side containing some explosive wingers in Josh Addo-Carr (see main picture) and Suliasi Vunivalu, who have been prolific during their time in Bellamy’s side.
Their big game experience, saw Melbourne shine in the World Club Challenge earlier in the season, when a poor Leeds Rhinos side were put to the sword. They recently traveled away to successful wins, as their home ground is also seen as a fortress – few weaknesses appear in the Storm armour.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Since 2014, South Sydney have struggled to compete at the right end of the NRL ladder, with their 30-6 grand Final triumph over Canterbury Bulldogs, the last time they were premiers. However, under Anthony Seibold, the Rabbitohs look refreshed and ready to get back amongst Australia’s elite.
They started 2018 in superb fashion, and by late July, they are beginning to look more like a champion side once again. There are still plenty of players from their 2014 squad on board, with Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis two senior players who can turn a game with a moment of brilliance from anywhere on the pitch.
The latter missed the bulk of last season through a sickening injury, but is looking to make up for lost time in 2018. ‘GI’ is a likeable character, who on the field has so many attributes that can be admired. He’s quick, powerful and has a knack of scoring big tries on the big stage.
In fact, the ‘Bunnies’ are league-leading in stats; South Sydney have the most tries, the most line breaks, the most try assists, the most line-break assists and the most running metres of the season.
If the Rabbitohs can maintain impressive form heading into the playoffs, then there is every chance that they could emulate what the class of 2014 achieved under Michael Maguire.
Serious credit has to go to Seibold for his impact on the 2018 nrl squad.
Unlike Melbourne and South Sydney, Trent Robinson’s Roosters didn’t make such a fast start to the 2018 campaign.
A first premiership since 2013 looked unlikely, however, they have been slowly getting their act together. After 20 rounds, they are amongst the favourites to be ‘there or thereabouts’ at a latter stage of the 2018 NRL competition.
In Cooper Cronk, Robinson’s side have an X-factor, with the half-back having so much quality and big match experience. Even without Smith and Slater alongside him, Cronk is more than capable of delivering silverware. His kicking game is probably his best attribute at this stage of his career, and when it comes down to the big occasion, he could be so influential.
NRL expert Kevin Walters has been a big fan of the @sydneyroosters this season, especially young centre Latrell Mitchell @KevyWalters #bigsportsbrekkyhttps://t.co/bGuEsiEwFk pic.twitter.com/H9GJKgp0zS
— Big Sports Breakfast (@BigSportsBrekky) July 30, 2018
Add in Latrell Mitchell – who is in scintillating form – then you have James Tedesco, and the Roosters may be seen as the ‘outside bet’ team to place your money on!
St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons could well be dark horses in the 2018 NRL, with Paul McGregor’s side on the verge of something very special for a number of years now.
In Gareth Widdop they have an exceptionally talented player, who has been amongst the best in the NRL for some time now. The Englishman has a great skill set and is so influential in attack. His 165 competition points had come by mid-July, with Widdop well clear of his competitors in that department.
It wasn’t an easy decision but Gareth Widdop and his Dragons 🐉 teammates won Try of the Week 🏆 with this skillful team effort. pic.twitter.com/ZuoZo4aTUM
— FOX LEAGUE (@FOXNRL) May 21, 2018
He might not be as prolific in the try scoring department as he would like to, but that’s not stopped him setting up his teammates regularly. The 29-year-old is one of the most dangerous players in the NRL, with the ball in two hands, he can set-up his outside centers or rampaging props.
For so long, it has been Widdop who has led the Dragons’ charge, but in 2018, he has been assisted brilliantly by his fellow countryman, James Graham.
Graham has been making a name for himself in the NRL for some time now, with the prop amongst the most respected front-rowers in the world. Graham’s 2018 numbers aren’t amongst the best in the competition, but he brings incredible leadership alongside Widdop. A shrewd addition in the off season. Graham will never stop, and often brings his fellow team mates along with him [in a Wally Lewis fashion].
2018 could be the ‘Year of the Dragon’ finally become premiers for the first time since 2010. Particularly if Widdop and Graham can continue to drive the ‘red and whites’.
2018 NRL contenders
There are others who are going to be in contention too.
Penrith Panthers and Cronulla Sharks have enjoyed good starts to the season, and if either of that duo can keep a level of consistency in the coming weeks, they are sure to be in contention heading into the playoffs. In fact, the Panthers ‘shattered’ the SeaEagles with a blitz of tries to put every team on their toes!
— FOX LEAGUE (@FOXNRL) July 28, 2018
The Broncos are still present. If things go the way for Wayne Bennett’s men, he could enter his final season  with the Broncos, as the Premiers.
Holding the hopes of New Zealand, the Warriors should not be counted-out. With their women’s team about the join the first ever NRL Women’s Premiership, if the Auckland team are inspired, they might reach a first Grand Final since 2011.
Of course, calling the 2018 NRL Premiers is difficult. And with playoff rugby sure to throw up a number of surprises, fans will look at the odds, form and be prepared to back their favourite teams.
So far, South Sydney and Melbourne have really stood out but, with plenty of rugby league still to play between now and the end of the season, the 2018 NRL trophy could really be heading anywhere.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images