Johnathan Thurston is back after missing much of 2017 due to injury.
Johnathan Thurston is back after missing much of 2017 due to injury. Bradley Kanaris

Cowboys ready to reign supreme

SEASON 2018 has arrived and the banter about NRL premiership contenders and pretenders has reached fever pitch.

Every good rugby league tragic has a theory about how the season will play out and why, and I'm no different.

Here's my NRL premiership preview for 2018.

1. Cowboys

The Cowboys made a grand final last year without Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott, so when you put them back in the team this year, throw in Jordan McLean, and account for the improvement in Michael Morgan, I can't see how they don't go all the way.

North Queensland Cowboys media day from Cowboys HQ. Co-captains Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston. Picture: Zak Simmonds MUST CONTACT TOWNSVILLE BULLETIN SPORTS DESK BEFORE USE
Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston are back for the Cowboys. Zak Simmonds

Paul Green has established himself as one of the best coaches in the game, and I'm sure he'll be subtly leveraging the farewell season for Thurston as extra motivation.

2. Storm

The 'Big 2' just doesn't have the same ring about it, but even without Cooper Cronk, this is a roster that is dripping with talent. How Cronk's replacement, Brodie Croft, performs is the only question mark but with a bulletproof system managed by the best coach and senior players in the NRL, Melbourne remain well and truly in the mix.

3. Roosters

Two big-name recruits, James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk, have been added to an already impressive list.

GOSFORD, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24:  Cooper Cronk of the Roosters looks on during the NRL Trial match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Sydney Roosters at Central Coast Stadium on February 24, 2018 in Gosford, Australia.  (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
Cooper Cronk adds plenty to the Roosters. Ashley Feder

How fast Cronk and Tedesco can adapt to new teammates, playing style and culture will determine how deep the tri colours go into the finals.

4. Eels

The Eels possess two things I love in footy teams; a hard edge and genuine x-factor. Parramatta have one of the more fearsome forward packs in the competition and a backline chock full of players who can produce something from nothing. And if Brad Arthur can get Jarryd Hayne back to his best, the Parramatta premiership drought might finally be over.

5. Sharks

Some astute buying in the form of Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan will certainly add some class and big game experience to the Sharks.

Cronulla sharks trained against Wigan at Shark Park this evening. Pictured is Matt Moylan. Picture: David Swift.
Matt Moylan will need to find his feet quickly at the Sharks. David Swift

This is a team who can beat you both ways; tough and dour or fast and clinical. And with a critical mass of players who know how to go all the way, the Sharks will be thereabouts again.

6. Broncos

There are many questions around the Broncos in 2018. Will Matt Lodge be the front-row force many tip? Can Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima prove themselves a first-class halves combination? Andrew McCullough's comeback? Darius Boyd's body? Jack Bird's change of clubs? If these questions are answered in the positive, the Broncos are a force, if not, they could miss finals. I've got them in my eight for one reason; Wayne Bennett.

7. Panthers

The truth of what's happening out at Penrith will never fully be known, but it's safe to say something ain't right. But here's the thing; this list at the Panthers is talented enough to go on a run almost in spite of any off-field drama that may or may not be happening.

A supplied image obtained Monday, December 4, 2017 of Panthers' new signing James Maloney. Penrith Panthers have confirmed the signing of NSW and Kangaroos five-eighth James Maloney until at least the end of the 2020 NRL season. (AAP Image/Penrith Panthers Media, Jeff Lambert) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
James Maloney will partner Nathan Cleary in the halves at the Panthers. JEFF LAMBERT

The arrival of James Maloney should help if the past is anything to go by, and I'm particularly excited about the continued evolution of Nathan Cleary ... what a player.

8. Raiders

This is my speculative buy in 2018 and you all know why; the difference between the Raiders' best and worst is too great. I think this is largely due to an underlying mentality that their ability to score points quick will cover for any flaws in defence and discipline. If Ricky Stuart can teach his players to stay in the grind and play the long game, there's much upside in Canberra.

The Best of the Rest

Sea Eagles - need to find a way to cover for the loss of Blake Green who has gone to the Warriors.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 17:  Ben Hunt of the Dragons catches the ball during the NRL trial match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and Hull  at ANZ Stadium on February 17, 2018 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
Ben Hunt lines up against his former Broncos teammates in the opening round. Jason McCawley

Dragons - Ben Hunt must handle the pressure of the franchise player tag.

Knights - impressive recruitment drive but a lot of change in a short period.

Wooden Spoon

I had a few contenders here but eventually landed on the Titans. With a rookie coach, a relatively inexperienced halves pairing, and limited depth, the Titans' best years lie beyond 2018.