Ranking the 2018 NRL cellar dwellers

Joey Riordan

Our tips for the NRL clubs to fill the dreaded bottom eight come September.

Penrith Panthers

Predicted finish: 9th. The Panthers look great on paper but the rumours of player unrest are a real worry. They'll falter later in the year as the wheels slowly come off.

The star: Nathan Cleary. Still only 20, Cleary set the comp on fire with incredible 2017 form. He looks more like a 10-year veteran when he takes to the pitch, and has a handy knack of converting tries too, kicking at 90% last season on his way to being crowned top point scorer. Only headache for the Panthers is locking him down long-term.

SEASON PREVIEW: Ranking the NRL top eight

James Maloney forms one of the best halves combos in the NRL with Nathan Cleary. Pic: Getty

Who needs to step up: Trent Merrin. Was disappointing in 2017, recently blaming a couple of extra kilos for his lack of form. The former Kangaroo is set for a big 2018.

The young gun: Jed Cartwright. Looking to add to the proud list of Cartwrights who have paved their way in the NRL. The 21-year-old back-rower impressed in Penrith's NSW Cup-winning side last year.

The weakness: Anthony Griffin? Rumours of player unrest aren't going away and the list of departing local juniors continues to grow. Is the coach the problem? The players will reveal the answer in their early-season efforts.

The quote: Anthony Griffin - "To our credit, we haven't started well the last couple of years, but we got down to the last six through a lot of determination and resilience and belief. There's plenty of that within the group. We just need to get our football better early on in the year and I think that consistency of position and bringing (Maloney) in will help with that. Even though we're starting this year with a different halves combination, I think it'll help us be consistent, the two guys we've got there now."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 7th, semi-finals, 2016 - 6th, semi-finals, 2015 - 11th

Coach: Anthony Griffin. Captain: Peter Wallace

Gains: James Maloney (Sharks), Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs)

Losses: Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington), Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu, Mitch Rein (Titans), Matt Moylan (Sharks).

Best team: 1. Dylan Edwards, 2. Josh Mansour, 3. Dean Whare, 4. Waqa Blake, 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 6. James Maloney, 7. Nathan Cleary, 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard, 9. Peter Wallace (c), 10. James Tamou, 11. Isaah Yeo, 12. Corey Harawira-Naera, 13. Trent Merrin. Bench: 14. Tyrone Peachey, 15. Sam McKendry, 16. James Fisher-Harris, 17. Viliame Kikau.

Off contract: Oliver Clark, Viliame Kikau, Josh Mansour, Peter Wallace, Tyrone Phillips, Soni Luke, Jayden Walker, Mitchell Revell, Joe Peato, Samuel Martin-Savage, Adam Keighran, Stefano Hala, Allan Fitzgibbon, James Conroy, Chad O'Donnell, Joey Peato, Tom Skinner

Betting: $15

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Jake Trbojevic could use some more support in the forwards. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 10th. Missing a few big boppers in the forwards. An injury or two could decimate their pack. They'll start strong but eventually fall victim to depth and the salary cap saga.

The star: Daly Cherry-Evans. One of the most skilful players in the competition, with an incredible ability to play both sides of the field and kick off both feet. Will need to step up his organising game in the absence of Blake Green.

Who needs to step up: Martin Taupau. Big Marty has been hot and cold in his time on the Northern Beaches but really ramped it up in 2017. He'll need to lift his game even further this season, with the Sea Eagles looking a little stretched in the middle of the field.

The young gun: Lachlan Croker. The Canberra-junior looks set to partner DCE in the halves this year after impressing Trent Barrett with his application to pre-season. The tough 21-year-old has one forgettable 2016 NRL appearance to his name, but looks set for big things in 2018.

The weakness: The forwards. Manly look stretched in the forwards this season, with the salary cap mess restricting their ability to create depth in the pack. The pre-season injury to Darcy Lussick doesn't help matters.

The quote: Trent Barrett - "We've got some really good young kids coming through and we won the under-20s last year. There will be sceptics who won't have us in the eight but it's OK. They didn't have us there last year either."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 6th, 2016 - 13th, 2015 - 9th

Coach: Trent Barrett. Captain: Daly Cherry-Evans

Gains: Lachlan Croker (Canberra), Jack Gosiewaski (South Sydney), Toafoa Sipley (Warriors), Kelepi Tangino (Parramatta), Joel Thompson (St George Illawarra), Moses Suli (TBC, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

Losses: Brenton Lawrence, Steve Matai, Brett Stewart (all retired), Blake Green (Warriors)

Best team: 1. Tom Trbojevic, 2. Jorge Taufua, 3. Dylan Walker, 4. Brian Kelly, 5. Akuila Uate, 6. Lachlan Croker, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans, 8. Martin Taupau, 9. Apisai Koroisau, 10. Darcy Lussick, 11. Joel Thompson, 12. Curtis Sironen, 13. Jake Trbojevic, 14. Lewis Brown, 15. Addin Fonua-Blake, 16. Frank Winterstein, 17. Lloyd Perrett

Off contract: Cade Cust, Jackson Hastings, Jack Gosiewski, Lewis Brown, Cameron Cullen, Lachlan Croker, Brian Kelly, Apisai Koroisau, Shaun Lane, Darcy Lussick, Curtis Sironen, Akuila Uate, Jonathan Wright

Betting: $23

Canberra Raiders

It all went wrong for the Raiders in 2017. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 11th. With most of the roster off contract and hurting off the back of a sorry 2017 campaign, the Raiders will come out harder and more disciplined in 2017. The loss of Josh Hodgson, and a lack of creativity in the halves will cripple them however.

The star: Jordan Rapana. An electrifying, game-breaking weapon on the wing, whose form in 2017 covered up some disastrous performances by his teammates. The 2017 Dally M winger of the year is set for big things again this season, Raiders fans will just be praying his teammates come along for the ride.

Who needs to step up: Joey Leilua. The other half of Leipana needs to get back to his monstrous best in 2018 after a nightmare 2017 season, in which dropped balls and silly penalties proved costly for the team on more than a few occasions.

The young gun: Nick Cotric. The Dally M Rookie of the Year lit up the league in 2017 with his incredible combination of size, speed and power. Remarkably still only 19, Cotric has already been mentioned as a State of Origin bolter this season.

The weakness: Hooker. No other team in the NRL has a more obvious sore spot than the Raiders do at number nine. The loss of Josh Hodgson to an ACL injury is disastrous for the club, and as yet there is no obvious solution to fill in, with Siliva Havili, Craig Garvey and Aidan Sezer all potential replacements.

The quote: Jarrod Croker - "We're disappointed with our season last year, so we've definitely been working on a few things. It's such a tight comp there is probably going to be only be about two to six points between missing and making the top-four, so you've got to close out every game you can. It's hard to narrow it (the close losses) down to one thing but we had our chances in all those games, a few lapses in concentration cost us and if you rectify that it can really turn a season around."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 10th, 2016 - 2nd (preliminary finals), 2015 - 10th

Coach: Ricky Stuart. Captain: Jarrod Croker

Gains: Craig Garvey, Brad Abbey (Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (Warriors), Stefano Hala, Michael Oldfield (Panthers), Liam Knight (Roosters), Siliva Havill (Dragons), Sam Williams (Wakefield), Sitiveni Moceidreke (Rabbitohs), Ata Hingano (Warriors)

Losses: Scott Sorensen (Sharks), Dave Taylor (released by Toronto), Jeff Lima, Adam Clydsdale (retired), Kurt Baptiste (Leigh Centurions), Lachlan Croker (Sea Eagles), Clay Priest (Bulldogs), Brent Naden (Knights), Eddie Aiono (Wentworthville), Erin Clark (released)

Best team: 1. Jack Wighton, 2. Jordan Rapana, 3. Jarrod Croker, 4. Joey Leilua, 5. Nick Cotric, 6. Blake Austin, 7. Aidan Sezer, 8. Junior Paulo, 9. Siliva Havili, 10. Shannon Boyd, 11. Josh Papalii, 12. Elliott Whitehead, 13. Sia Soliola, Bench: 14. Craig Garvey, 15. Joseph Tapine, 16. Luke Bateman, 17. Charlie Gubb

Off contract: Masivesi Dakuwaqa, Blake Austin, Luke Bateman, Jarrett Bolland, Cooper Bambling, Shannon Boyd, Bill Cullen, Dunamis Lui, Jack Murchie, Siliva Havili, Michael Oldfield, Daniel Keir, Jacob McGrath, Josh Papalii, Junior Paulo, Aidan Sezer, Iosia Soliola, Craig Garvey, Charlie Gubb (club option for 2019)

Betting: $21

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Greg Eastwood carts the ball up in a pre-season clash. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 12th. Could go either way with a number of high-profile off-season signings holding the key to their 2018 fortunes. Teams will once again fear coming up against them, but they'll lack the points to make it into the top eight.

The star: Josh Jackson. Epitomises the Bulldogs spirit with his hard-as-nails, unrelenting style.

Who needs to step up: Kieran Foran. Years of off-field instability and injuries have derailed the former superstar's career. Now, behind a powerful forward pack, it's Foran's time to make his mark again. The Dogs need him to shine.

The young gun: Marcelo Montoya. The Fijian international impressed in his first season of NRL last year, scoring 12 tries. At only 22, 2018 is shaping up to be a huge year for the big winger.

The weakness: Outside backs. The Bulldogs appear to be missing some potency in the outside backs, with an untested fullback in Moses Mbye linking up with a few experienced heads who've struggled in attack under Des Hasler. Bulldogs fans will be hoping Dean Pay turns things around, but at the moment the backs scream lack of points.

The quote: Josh Jackson on Dean Pay - "He (Pay) wants us to play aggressive. Every coach wants their team to play aggressive. Looking back at the way the Dogs were in the past, they had a pretty aggressive team. But the best thing for us is he's really simplified things. We have worked hard on basic skills, basic catching and passing and things like that because last year they let us down a hell of a lot."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 11th, 2016 - 7th, 2015 - 5th

Coach: Dean Pay. Captain: Josh Jackson

Gains: Aaron Woods (Wests Tigers), Kieran Foran (Warriors), Moses Suli (Wests Tigers), Fa'amanu Brown (Cronulla), John Olive (Gold Coast), Clay Priest (Canberra)

Losses: James Graham (St George Illawarra), Josh Reynolds (Wests Tigers), Brad Abbey (Canberra), Craig Garvey (Canberra), Sam Kasiano (Melbourne), Brenko Lee (Gold Coast), Tyrone Phillips (Penrith)

Best team: 1. Moses Mbye, 2. Brett Morris, 3. Josh Morris, 4. Will Hopoate, 5. Marcelo Montoya, 6. Kieran Foran, 7. Matt Frawley, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Michael Lichaa, 10. Aiden Tolman, 11. Josh Jackson, 12. Adam Elliott, 13. David Klemmer. Bench: 14. Fa'amanu Brown, 15. Greg Eastwood, 16. Raymond Faitala-Mariner, 17. Danny Fualalo
Off contract: Clay Priest, Tom Carr, Josh Cleeland, Greg Eastwood, Asipeli Fine, Matt Frawley, Kayne Kalache, Elie El-Zakhem, Brenko Lee, Lachlan Lewis, Rhyse Martin, Brett Morris, Josh Morris, Zac Woolford, Jeremy Marshall-King, Mason Cerruto (club option for 2019)

Betting: $34

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Sam Burgess will lead the Bunnies pack from the front. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 13th. Too much pressure on Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis to get the Bunnies out of their rut. Will struggle.

The star: Sam Burgess. One of the game's great leaders, Burgess will have a big task on his hands to turn the Bunnies' fortunes around in 2018. Leads by example, now just needs to get his brothers to follow suit.

Who needs to step up: George Burgess. From the highs of 2014, few players have experienced such an on-field decline. Still has all the tools to be one of the premier props in the game.

The young gun: Cameron Murray. Showed enough in nine 2017 games to prove he will be one of the NRL's stars in years to come. A big effort player.

The weakness: The wingers. Robert Jennings, Richard Kennar and Campbell Graham all loom as wing options this season, but none standout as game-breakers. Thankfully names like Inglis, Gagai and Johnston fill out the rest of outside backs.

The quote: Anthony Seibold - "There's a saying that winning starts in the locker room, and I'm a big believer in that. And I've said from the start, one of my key triggers as a coach is building positive relationships with both staff and players. It's got to be our priority. The players need to know each other. So we've spent a lot of time investing in relationships and that's been worthwhile for us. We're a long way down the ladder and I'm a realist in knowing how far we have to climb."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 12th, 2016 - 12th, 2015 - 7th

Coach: Anthony Seibold. Captain: Greg Inglis

Gains: Jesse Arthars, Dean Britt, Vincent Leuluai, Mark Nicholls (Melbourne), Billy Brittain (Queensland Cup), Dane Gagai, Jacob Gagan (Newcastle), Richard Kennar (Canterbury), Jesse Martin (Manly), Junior Tatola (Wests Tigers)

Losses: Anthony Cherrington (retired), Bryson Goodwin (Super League), Jack Gosiewski (Manly), Aaron Gray (Cronulla), Luke Kelly, Dane Nielsen, David Tyrell (released), Robbie Rochow (Wests Tigers)

Best team: 1. Alex Johnston, 2. Campbell Graham, 3. Greg Inglis, 4. Dane Gagai, 5. Richard Kennar, 6. Cody Walker, 7. Adam Reynolds, 8. Tom Burgess, 9. Damien Cook, 10. Zane Musgrove, 11. John Sutton, 12. Angus Crichton, 13. Sam Burgess. Bench: 14. Cameron Murray, 15. Kyle Turner, 16. Jason Clark, 17. George Burgess

Off contract: Braidon Burns, Billy Brittain, Jason Clark, Robbie Farah, Tyrell Fuimaono, Hymel Hunt, Robert Jennings, John Sutton, Adam Doueihi, Connor Tracey, Mark Nicholls, Jesse Martin, Jacob Gagan, Junior Tatola, Vincent Leulua

Betting: $17

Wests Tigers

Josh Reynolds is a great addition for the Tigers. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 14th. Are moving in the right direction under Ivan Cleary, but the Tigers need another couple of years of building before they push for finals footy.

The star: Josh Reynolds. The heart and soul of Belmore, Reynolds is a great addition for the Wests Tigers. Unpredictable and dangerous in attack, fearless and aggressive in defence, Reynolds brings a great attitude to Concord.

Who needs to step up: Tui Lolohea. Came into the Tigers setup carrying a bit too much weight around in 2017. With a big pre-season under his belt, Tigers fans will be hoping Lolohea reaches the great heights we all know he's capable of. Needs to make the fullback jersey his own.

The young gun: Esan Marsters. The 21-year-old impressed in 113 games at right centre in 2017, bursting onto the scene and scoring five tries.

The weakness: The spine. Reynolds is a bright spot in a spine that looks like it may struggle to create points. Matt McIlwrick, Luke Brooks and Lolohea need to improve in attack if the Tigers are to make the finals.

The quote: Ivan Cleary - "Pre-season is important every year but there is a bit of new direction. All the new guys have turned up motivated and looking to train hard and looking to add value. Not just on the training field and in the gym but also just in and around the place."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 15th, 2016 - 9th, 2015 - 14th

Coach: Ivan Cleary. Captains: Russell Packer, Josh Reynolds, Chris Lawrence, Elijah Taylor, Benji Marshall.

Gains: Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), Pita Godinet (Manly), Benji Marshall (Brisbane), Ben Matulino, Tuimoala Lolohea (Warriors), Chris McQueen (Gold Coast), Taane Milne, Russell Packer (St George Illawarra), Josh Reynolds (Canterbury), Robbie Rochow (Melbourne), Corey Thompson (Widness), Alex Twal (Parramatta)

Losses: Matt Ballin, Jamal Idris (retired), Kyle Lovett (Leigh), Jeremy Marshall-King (Canterbury), Mitchell Moses (Parramatta), Jordan Rankin (Huddersfield), Ava Seumanufagai (Cronulla), James Tedesco (Sydney Roosters), Aaron Woods (Canterbury)

Best team: 1. Tuimoala Lolohea, 2. David Nofoaluma, 3. Taane Milne, 4. Kevin Naiqama, 5. Mahe Fonua, 6. Josh Reynolds, 7. Luke Brooks, 8. Ben Matulino, 9. Jacob Liddle, 10. Russell Packer, 11. Chris Lawrence, 12. Chris McQueen, 13. Elijah Taylor, 14. Benji Marshall, 15. Alex Twal, 16. Robbie Rochow, 17. Sauaso Sue

Off contract: Benji Marshall, Esan Marsters, JJ Felise, Tim Grant, Kevin Naiqama, Sauaso Sue, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Bayley Sironen, Pita Godinet

Betting: $67

New Zealand Warriors

Can Blake Green turn the Warriors fortunes around? Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 15th. Could do anything, but if history is anything to go by, probably won't. Optimists have pointed to the addition of Blake Green as crucial to turning the club's fortunes around, but with largely the same team that lost nine-straight to close out the 2017 season, the Warriors attitude problems will cruel them again.

The star: Shaun Johnson. The Warriors will once again rely on their brilliant halfback to provide the spark and create the points this season. With a smart operator in Blake Green by his side, SJ is set for big things, again.

Who needs to step up: Adam Blair. Brought in as a leader of the pack, so much of the Warriors success will rest on Blair, and more importantly his mindset. Throughout his career the fiery prop has been inconsistent, and was accused of not giving it his all in an often-dominated Tigers pack. The Warriors will be need him to step up in the good, and bad times in 2018.

The young gun: Isaiah Papali'i. The 19-year-old has been compared to Simon Mannering due to his incredible work rate and leadership qualities. Was named Warriors u-20s Player of the Year in 2016, and has seven NRL appearances to his name.

The weakness: Attitude. For too long the Warriors have underachieved, leaving their passionate fans scratching their heads as to how it so often goes so wrong. This pre-season the club has spoken of a shift in culture, with a brutal conditioning regime whipping them into shape both mentally and physically. At this stage, we'll believe it when we see it.

The quote: Stephen Kearney - "We want to play finals footy and I don't think it's beyond our capabilities - that's the reality, every team does. I feel confident (in) the guys we've got and recruited in terms of players and staff, that it's a process where we're walking in the right direction."

Ladder finishes in past three seasons: 2017 - 13th, 2016 - 10th, 2015 - 13th.

Coach: Stephen Kearney. Captain: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

Key gains: Adam Blair (Broncos), Tohu Harris (Storm), Blake Green (Manly), Peta Hiku (Warrington), Gerard Beale (Sharks), Agnatius Paasi (Titans), Leivaha Pulu (Titans), Anthony Gelling (Wigan), Matiu Love-Henry (Broncos), Karl Lawton (Titans)

Key losses: Kieran Foran (Bulldogs), Ryan Hoffman (Storm), Jacob Lillyman (Knights), Ben Matulino (Tigers), Charlie Gubb (Raiders), Bodene Thompson (Leigh), Manu Vatuvei (Salford, mid-2017), Ata Hingano (Raiders)

Best team: 1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), 2. David Fusitu'a, 3. Gerard Beale, 4. Solomone Kata, 5. Peta Hiku, 6. Blake Green, 7. Shaun Johnson, 8. Adam Blair, 9. Issac Luke, 10. James Gavet, 11. Leivaha Pulu, 12. Tohu Harris, 13. Simon Mannering. Interchange: Karl Lawton, Agnatius Paasi, Albert Vete, Bunty Afoa.

Off contract: Manaia Cherrington, Matiu Love-Henry, Issac Luke, Simon Mannering, Anthony Gelling, Ken Maumalo, Junior Pauga, Nathaniel Roache, Zac Santo, Patrick Sipley, Jazz Tevaga

Betting: $34

Gold Coast Titans

Garth Brennan faces an uphill battle on the Gold Coast. Pic: Getty

Predicted finish: 16th. Garth Brennan has inherited a sorry situation on the glitter strip. They'll fight hard, but with so much pressure on the shoulders of young halves, they'll struggle. Big time.

The star: Ashley Taylor. A wonderful youngster who could become one of the greats of the game. Garth Brennan has loaded the pressure on his 22-year-old halfback for the season ahead, saying he needs to justify his big price tag and become a leader.

Who needs to step up: Kane Elgey. Was a star in 2015, before a torn ACL threw his career off course. Couldn't get back to his best in 2017. This season is huge for his career. Taylor needs the help.

The young gun: Jair Arrow. The 22-year-old is looking to make the lock position his own in his first year at the Titans. A tough, hard-working forward.

The weakness: The bench. While the top 13 looks solid, the Titans could be in trouble if they cop a few injuries, after enduring a player drain over the off-season. The bench could use some backup.

The quote: Garth Brennan - "If you wanted someone to bat for your life, Steve (Waugh) was maybe not as talented as brother Mark, but you knew when the big moment came he would deliver, We've got some talent in our football team as well, but Steve had that mental toughness you look for and that's what I want in my team; if we have to grind a win out and do it tough we can."

Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 15th, 2016 - 8th, 2015 - 14th

Coach: Garth Brennan. Captain: Ryan James

Gains: Jai Arrow (Broncos), Mitch Rein, Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu (Panthers), Will Matthews (Dragons), Michael Gordon, Kiah Cooper (Roosters), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Brendan Elliot (Knights)

Losses: Jarryd Hayne (Eels), Brenton Lawrence (retired) Chris McQueen (Tigers), Nathanial Peteru (Leeds), Leivahu Pulu, Agnatius Passi (Warriors), Tyrone Roberts (Wolves), Daniel Vidot (retired), Pat Vaivai (Leigh), Ben Nakubuwai (Salford), Dan Sarginson (Wigan), Eddy Pettybourne (Toulouse), John Olive (Bulldogs), Karl Lawton (Warriors)

Best team: 1. Michael Gordon, 2. Anthony Don, 3. Konrad Hurrell, 4. Brenko Lee, 5. Dale Copley, 6. Kane Elgey, 7. Ashley Taylor, 8. Jarrod Wallace, 9. Nathan Peats, 10. Leilani Latu, 11. Ryan James, 12.Kevin Proctor, 13. Bryce Cartwright. Bench: 14. Mitch Rein, 15. Morgan Boyle, 16. Jai Arrow, 17. Will Matthews

Off contract: Dale Copley, Anthony Don, Kane Elgey, Keegan Hipgrave, John Olive, Paterika Vaivai, Brendan Elliot, Ryan Simpkins, Jack Stockwell, Kiah Cooper, Mitch Rein (player option for 2019), Will Matthews

Betting: $67

With AAP