Kent: Only five teams can win the title

THE tarot cards say North Queensland.

Take last year's grand final team, add Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, Jordan McLean and a pinch of salt and suddenly a Four of Wands springs from the deck and everybody assumes success is to follow.

It was a formline that held true last year when Melbourne took a losing grand final team from the season before and had the luxury of adding Billy Slater, after he missed most of 2016 with injury, and off they went to premiership glory.

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But do the tarot cards know anything about premiership hunger and five day turnarounds? What happens to the middle forwards of the back five aren't up to the job?

Or do we all follow the smart money again? And all get trousered. Again.

Since premiership betting began at the TAB in 1999 only Melbourne - in 2007 - have begun the season as favourites and carried through to win the premiership. And that was later taken off them after it was proved they cheated the salary cap.

Can the Cowboys buck history?
Can the Cowboys buck history?

For all the talk about this being one of the most even competitions ever, three teams dominate the expert tips. North Queensland, Melbourne and Sydney Roosters.

Everybody else will need luck.

The experts threw their darts at the board and almost all settled on North Queensland, Melbourne or the Roosters. Some came up with Newcastle and Gold Coast making the eight, and they really should learn the darts must be thrown with the pointy end first.

Hope and optimism don't win premierships or get you to the top eight. Players do.

When Jimmy Johnson took the head coaching role at the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 he called in his players to tell them he had good news and bad news.

The good news, he said, was in a few years they were going to win the Super Bowl.

The bad news was not everyone was going to be around to celebrate it.

Johnson knew there were players in the squad never capable of winning a Super Bowl and that he had to get them out and replace them with players that could, and so he went on a tear, trading players and drafting others.

The good NRL clubs follow a similar philosophy.

Some players are capable of winning consistently over a season and some simply don't have it in them. Some can influence a big game, some can't.

The Roosters heavy recruitment drive has them among the top contenders.
The Roosters heavy recruitment drive has them among the top contenders.

Bad coaches might be able to win with good players but good coaches can never win with bad players.

And so the roster is where it's at.

There are only two teams premiership hardened right now.

The Cowboys and Storm are primed. The past two premiers, they each retain enough of those rosters that, with some astute additions, have them ready to win again.

The trick for Paul Green is to find a way for Michael Morgan to be as effective as he was last season, when he filled the space left by Johnathan Thurston, now that Thurston is back.

Morgan's rise in form came when he filled Thurston's absence and went from about 40 touches a game to about 70 - which was Thurston's domain. But both can't demand 70 touches in the same team, so what gives?

No team has gone back to back since Brisbane in 1997-98. Despite every team promising to stay hungry after a premiership, every team that failed has later looked back and recognised a drop in the little one percenters they were so strong on the season before.

Even Melbourne has failed to go back to back.

The Roosters aren't the pure contenders everybody believes and sit on the next rung with Parramatta, Cronulla and Brisbane.

Cronulla are battle-hardened.
Cronulla are battle-hardened.

Expected to fight for the remaining two finals positions are Penrith, Manly, St George Illawarra, Canterbury and Canberra with Gold Coast, Warriors, South Sydney, Newcastle and Wests Tigers playing for luck.

Only five teams can win it, though. The rest are playing to save their coach.

When most of us look to choose our premiers we go the usual route and sift through the spine to identify what team has the best combination of hooker, half, five-eighth and fullback.

But is the Roosters outstanding spine - Jake Friend, Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary and James Tedesco - going to be given the platform from their middle forwards to get the job done?

The four squads in every team are the spine, the middle forwards, the back five and the bench.

A weakness in one squad puts stress on the others.

There was a time when the greatest differential in win percentage at the Roosters came not when Mitch Pearce or Jake Friend or Boyd Cordner was in or out, but whether Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was in or out.

Yet Waerea-Hargreaves challenged Jason Taumolo before last year's preliminary final and came up short, throwing up the question. Can Cronk do what is needed if his side is struggling to roll through the middle?

The Roosters seemed to acknowledge a deficiency when they announced Tuesday Frank-Paul Nuuausala was back on a one-year deal.

Souths Sydney's middle is formidable enough if the Burgess boys get rolling but, with no Greg Inglis at fullback, will they get the early momentum in each set to capitalise?

Will we see the best of Greg Inglis?
Will we see the best of Greg Inglis?

For the spine to be effective it needs the middle forwards rolling forward. For the middle to get that momentum it needs the back five to get the set off to a good start and put the defence on the backfoot.

The bench must be of a quality that when the interchange is used they either maintain momentum or kickstart it.

After his team got easily handled last week Newcastle coach Nathan Brown said Parramatta would go close to winning it all.

The Eels are this season's omen bet.

They are two years past the salary cap scandal which, mid-season, catapulted them from the top eight to the cellar after the NRL deducted 12 premiership points.

This two-year lag is not a coincidence. It seems to be the magical number.

Canterbury got busted cheating the cap in 2002 and won it in 2004. Melbourne got busted cheating the cap in 2010 and won it in 2012.

Like the Bulldogs and Storm, Parramatta might have paid an acceptable price to provide what could be the ultimate success.

Does it prove the risk was worth it?

The Eels have a formidable roster and their only deficiency is probably the lack of a truly dominant forward - a Taumololo, a Sam Burgess - who can change the game through his will.

Elsewhere, tough forwards, X-factor throughout the backline, a strong spine, they tick every box.

Cronulla is tough and hardened but their success will depend on the resiliency of their spine. Brisbane must stiffen up through the middle, which explains why the Broncos are prepared to wear the criticism for signing Matt Lodge.

The rest of them have too many of those players similar to what Jimmy Johnson identified in Dallas. Their team might be on the road to a premiership, but they won't be there when they get there.

But he got the Cowboys home. Just like our Cowboys.


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