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Captains of the 2018 NRL season

NRL 2018: Is your team a contender or pretender?

1. North Queensland Cowboys - NRL champions?

Cowboys Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston

Cowboys halves Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston

Who is going to deny Johnathan Thurston his fairytale NRL finale? No one, according to us. The biggest, meanest forward pack in the game, the (now former) Queensland halves pairing, a scheming and fast hooker and a seasoned backline augmented by the sheer brilliance of Kyle Feldt. Good luck stopping that.

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2. Parramatta Eels

Jarryd Hayne has returned to Parramatta

Jarryd Hayne in action for Parramatta against Newcastle

The Eels got a bit of stage fright last year in the NRL finals, but the roster has only improved with the addition of Jarryd Hayne and a full pre-season under the belt of Mitchell Moses. Strike power everywhere with the likes of Bevan French and Clint Gutherson, while Corey Norman is being talked up as an Origin bolter. A real smokey.

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3. Sydney Roosters

Roosters new recruit Cooper Cronk

Cooper Cronk of the Sydney Roosters

Uncle Nick has really opened the chequebook this time around. Cooper Cronk, James Tedesco, Frank-Paul Nu'uausala and Kurt Baptiste all join this already glittering roster. Oh, and those SBW rumours refuse to go away. Will take time to gel, but when they do - look out NRL.

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4. Penrith Panthers

Penrith Panthers half Nathan Cleary

Penrith Panthers half Nathan Cleary is the future of the club

We think crafty old Gus Gould is playing a few tricks on us. Forget the rift rumours, utter nonsense. They are clearing the decks to secure the long-term futures of Nathan Cleary and Dylan Edwards - two players very capable of leading this club to an NRL premiership or two. James Maloney is the rent-a-premiership half that can help get them there.

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5. Melbourne Storm

Brodie Croft will replace Cooper Cronk at the Melbourne Storm

Brodie Croft has huge boots to fill at the Melbourne Storm

Oh no, the Storm have lost Cooper Cronk. It's the end of an era. Ha, anyone who believes that will get a rude shock when their club plays the Storm this year. Ready-made replacement Brodie Croft is already shredding and the Bellamy NRL juggernaut continues to roll on.

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6. Brisbane Broncos

Anthony Milford of the Brisbane Broncos

Anthony Milford will be the key player for the Brisbane Broncos in 2018

An NRL glamour club is on shaky ground with a halves pairing that is makeshift at best and a forward pack depleted by a talent drain that took the likes of Adam Blair. They will get to the finals, but how much damage can this roster do?

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7. Newcastle Knights

Mitchell Pearce trains with the Newcastle Knights

Mitchell Pearce is poised to be a leader at the rebuilding Newcastle Knights

It's a new look Knights pieced together by experience (Mitchell Pearce), rising stars (Kalyn Ponga) and those drinking at the last chance salloon (Aiden Guerra). It's a rebuild that should reap rewards sooner, rather than later.

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8. St. George Illawarra Dragons

Ben Hunt in his St. George Illawarra strip

Ben Hunt is one of St. George Illawarra's marquee signings

They missed the 2017 finals by the cruellest margin, but they should go one better this time around. The recruitment of Ben Hunt is the perfect foil they need for Gareth Widdop and they will threaten either side of the ruck, especially with a hulking forward pack bolstered by James Graham.

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9. Cronulla Sharks

Matt Moylan of the Cronulla Sharks

Matt Moylan is the gun new recruit for the Cronulla Sharks

The 2016 premiers took a mighty gamble by shuffling off a proven half and recruiting two fullbacks - with no intention of playing either of them in the No.1 jersey. Then you have possibly the world's best winger in Val Holmes playing in a position where he is all at sea. Might be a rough NRL season for the Sharkies.

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10. New Zealand Warriors

Shaun Johnson of the New Zealand Warriors

Shaun Johnson of the New Zealand Warriors face sums up their 2017 season

Well, it can't much worse than last season. Many predict the Warriors will get the NRL wooden spoon this year, but the additions of Blake Green in the halves and Tohu Harris in the forwards should provide some stability. Maybe not quite a top eight side, but will improve.

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11. Canberra Raiders

Canberra Raiders half Blake Austin

The Canberra Raiders will be hoping Blake Austin finds his best form in 2018

The loss of Josh Hodgson to injury for most of the season will cut deep, and the form of the incumbent halves has not been irresistible. This is a side that just loves to lose by six points or less, which is obviously a major concern. Going to be hard for the Green Machine to turn all of that around.

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12. Canterbury Bulldogs

Kieran Foran is now with the Canterbury Bulldogs

Kieran Foran will be critical to the Canterbury Bulldogs success

A new coach, a new halfback, a new board, a new beginning? Maybe, but probably not overnight. Still big questions over Keiran Foran's fitness and Will Hopoate's ability in the No.1 jersey. The Morris brothers aren't getting any younger, either.

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13. Wests Tigers

Wests Tigers player Benji Marshall

Benji Marshall returns to the Wests Tigers

Ivan Cleary's bus is choc full of new talent including Josh Reynolds and returning son Benji Marshall. They had probably the upset of the year in round one by beating the Roosters, but that might be as good as it gets for this posse of battlers.

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14. South Sydney Rabbitohs

Rabbitohs players Greg Inglis, Tom Burgess and Sam Burgess

Rabbitohs players Greg Inglis, Tom Burgess and Sam Burgess will be the key to their success in 2018

So many questions. Can Greg Inglis find fitness and form? Can Adam Reynolds string two consecutive games together without getting injured? Do they have the depth? The ability? The answer to all of those questions is - probably not.

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15. Manly Sea Eagles

Daly Cherry-Evans of the Manly Sea Eagles

Much of the Manly Sea Eagle's fortunes rests on the shoulders of Daly Cherry-Evans

A salary cap scandal that remains unresolved crippled the club's ability to recruit, meaning they lost out on chances to get Mitchell Pearce and Trent Hodkinson. DCE is a decent player, but he can't steer this ship on its own. It will likely be a tough year for the Sea Eagles.

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16. Gold Coast Titans

Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey of the Gold Coast Titans

Halves Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey could hold the key for the Gold Coast Titans. Image: Gold Coast Bulletin

Rebuilding from the ashes of the terrible recruitment of Hayne and also near-extinction at the financial end will be a tough assignment for the Titans. At least they managed to retain Ash Taylor, who they can built a club around. The first year of that rebuild may be long and hard.

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About the Author Josh Alston

Josh Alston is a hack with over 12 years industry experience, covering sport across all codes for newspapers and online agencies. Known to frequent grade matches because of their cheap tinnies. Eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism and a Masters in sitting on the hill when the local cricket side was playing. Softball premiership winner, rugby league legend in Year 10 and no stranger to Doomben Racecourse.

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