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Soward's 2022 ladder prediction: Part 2

After predicting the bottom eight teams for 2022, NRL.com expert Jamie Soward has switched his attention to who he believes will reach the finals next season.

Soward says

1. Penrith Panthers 

2021 finish: 2nd

After having the 2020 grand final loss to drive them to a championship this year, the Panthers will become the hunted. We'll see how that sits with them. It's a lot different when you're the champs because you know you're going to get everyone's best game. 

For Ivan Cleary, it's all about selling the story. Penrith will lose Kurt Capewell and Matt Burton, so there are going to be some adjustments.

Being a premiership winner myself in 2010, I know how tough it is to chase back-to-back titles. Individually, you think, 'We know our best is better than eight teams, so we're going to be in the top eight'.

And you know your best is better than the bottom half of the top eight, too, so your yardstick is against the top couple of teams or maybe the team you defeated in the grand final.

But if you wait for the finals to come around, you're not going to be ready. We waited 26 years for the Roosters to become the most recent back-to-back premiers, so it won't happen easily.

Penrith have been up for two years and this season they looked more like the Roosters in their second championship versus their first with how out of gas they were when September rolled around.

The key for the Panthers is how they manage injuries and the State of Origin period. They were battered this year and still got it done.

2. Melbourne Storm

2021 finish: 1st

Whenever Craig Bellamy is at the helm, the Storm will remain competitive. I expect they'll just keep rolling in 2022.

They worked out how to use Brandon Smith and Harry Grant this year to devastating effect and I think Jahrome Hughes, Cameron Munster and Ryan Papenhuyzen will have big pre-seasons.

It's one of the best spines in the comp, but their understanding of how to make each other better will probably be their focus.

Hughes was outstanding at game management, but they probably need Munster to be a little bit more aware of that at times.

Nicho Hynes is a big loss because he was their Mr Fix It throughout the year. But they'll likely find a couple of unknown guys who will come into the team and end up being really good players.

Melbourne beat themselves on a bad day in the prelim final.

3. Manly Sea Eagles 

2021 finish: 4th

Manly's challenge is for guys that weren't necessarily on the radar of opposing teams – your Brad Parkers, Josh Schusters, Haumole Olakau'atus – to take the next step.

Because at times in the finals, the team was waiting for Tom Trbojevic to do something. And when that didn't work, they looked around and wondered who was going to win the game.

The Sea Eagles were the only team in the top four that never proved they could win a low-scoring game. They had to have everything to go right for them and need to work out ways to win without the ball.

It's a hard task for Trbojevic to reach the heights he did to win the Dally M Medal, but the preliminary final loss will keep him motivated.

My career-best individual season was 2009 and I remained hungry because we didn't win the championship that year. I think it will be the same for Tommy, his brother Jake and the like.

4. Sydney Roosters

2021 finish: 5th

A healthy Roosters team will go right back to being championship contenders. Luke Keary's return from a knee injury is a huge boost.

I think they'll go with Keary and Drew Hutchison in the halves to start the season and take a steady, cautious approach with Sam Walker.

Walker had a great rookie season but he's still got some errors in his game that I think Trent Robinson would like to remove.

The thing with the Roosters is they're never far away. Keary is among the best five-eighths in the game with Cam Munster and Jarome Luai. I'm a massive fan – he's a three-time premiership winner.

You think about James Tedesco and what he did this year – if you put Keary in that team, they probably win another three or four games.

It's a changing of the guard, and I do have a bit of a question mark over their hooking position, but I won't be surprised if the Roosters find themselves in a big game next September.

5. South Sydney Rabbitohs 

2021 finish: 3rd

A lot of big changes for the grand finalists including a question mark over who will replace Adam Reynolds in the halves.

The Rabbitohs will lose Dane Gagai, Jaydn Su'A, Benji Marshall – a lot of their leaders. It really is a changing of the guard. I think they might struggle a bit early to work that out.

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Don't underestimate the impact of Wayne Bennett's departure.

This is no disrespect at all to Jason Demetriou because he might be a great coach, but Wayne's just got that knack of providing comfort and security to people when they aren't playing well.

Wayne has close relationships with stars like Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker, so it'll be interesting to see how they handle a little down period when all the talk is, 'You should have kept Reynolds'.

I know first-hand how hard it is as a player when Wayne moves on from your team. It was tough when he left the Dragons for the Knights in 2012 and Steve Price took over as a rookie coach.

I really struggled with the fact that I'd won a comp and been successful under Wayne for three years and then was coming to training and trying new things that just weren't working.

I wanted to run it back. Maybe that's me being arrogant, and to a certain extent it was, but when you've tasted success, you don't usually change too much. I don't think Demetriou will change much.

He's been under Wayne for a long time now. He has to come in and assert himself because as an assistant, you're the guy who jokes around and comes up with all the cool game plans and stuff like that.

But as the head coach, you've got to worry about a lot more.

6. Cronulla Sharks

2021 finish: 9th

Under Craig Fitzgibbon, I see the Sharks being massive improvers.

There's still some stuff to work around, but it looked to me like their young forwards needed a Paul Gallen-type leader this year.

Cronulla get two of those in Cam McInnes and Dale Finucane – just professional on and off the field. They'll show how to prepare for a game and fill the void they've had over the past couple of years.

Some of the pieces to the puzzle include whether McInnes plays lock with Finucane in the front row and if Nicho Hynes plays five-eighth.

In the halves, I liked what Braydon Trindall did at the back-end of the year. He could partner Hynes with Matt Moylan pushing for the No.14 position. Connor Tracey could play there as well.

Hooker Blayke Brailey needs to have a big off-season and get his body right – he looked beaten up a lot this season.

7. St George Illawarra Dragons

2021 finish: 11th

I'm really impressed with the recruitment.

Obviously, it's close to home for me, but I see a similar mould to a young Penrith where a lot of experienced guys are being brought in to complement some elite home-grown talent.

A lot of those emerging players like Junior Amone, Bud Sullivan and Tyrell Sloan would have learned a lot about themselves in 2021 and need to have another big pre-season.

Your first pre-season is exciting because you want to play first grade but you're not expected to play a lot. The second and third pre-seasons are where leaps are taken and some people get left behind.

I see the Dragons improving in their second year under Anthony Griffin, but they need to do it for 25 rounds.

Amone has shown enough to get that starting halves spot alongside captain Ben Hunt. The great thing for Bud is that he showed his versatility, so he doesn't have to play in the number seven or six.

Junior needs to take the next step now and understand the game a little bit more. Hunt will help him with that. They haven't played as a halves pairing yet – I'm excited about that combination.

8. Parramatta Eels

2021 finish: 6th

Parramatta regress for me. They've got mostly the same squad with no big-name players on the way. The Eels pay a lot of money to guys who aren't the best players in their position in the comp.

I don't know if they can keep pace with the top sides, especially if the Roosters are fit and with the way Manly finished the season.

While Parramatta missed Reed Mahoney at the end of the year, they haven't been able to adapt on the run in big games. They probably should have won the semi-final against the Panthers.

If Brad Arthur can understand what went into getting that semi-final performance, he's still the coach to take the team forward.

But they need to figure out their attack and defensively they were poor in 2021. It's alright to be on for one game, but Penrith and South Sydney showed you've got to do it for long periods to get it right.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.