Footy foresight: Predictions for Australia's football codes in 2018

Every year features myriad sporting storylines that surprise, captivate and inspire us, and 2017 was no different.

But what will 2018 bring for Australia's four major winter codes and, where applicable, those teams from across the Tasman? Our writers investigate.

Soccer

What will change from 2017? FIFA and the AFC will land in Sydney early in 2018 to finally settle the congress quagmire that has brought football in Australia to a shuddering halt.

What will remain constant? Football's ability to shoot itself in the foot. In what should be a boom year with the Socceroos' participation at the World Cup, FFA power struggles and in-fighting threaten to derail the sport for years to come.

What will define the season? The appointment of the next Socceroos manager. Will they be a stop-gap solution? Can they unite a team that clearly yearns Ange Postecoglou to still be in charge? With no clear front-runner for the job, this appointment will be a fascinating insight into the vision that the "new" FFA has for Australia's future.

Who will be the major award winner? That's an easy one. Sam Kerr to win World Player of the Year after leading the Matildas to Asian Cup glory.

Who is in the firing line? Take your pick. Steven Lowy, David Gallop, Kevin Muscat, Kenny Lowe and Darije Kalezic could all be out of a job by March, let alone the end of 2018.

Who will be the biggest riser and slider of the year? With the Algarve Cup in February, followed by the Asian Cup in April, the Matildas' epic rise is sure to continue. As for sliders, the longer Tim Cahill goes without a club, the less likely a spot in Russia will be for the 38-year-old. It would be an ignominious end to an otherwise legendary Socceroos career.

Who will win the A-League premiership? Sydney FC remains the team to beat, with Graham Arnold on the brink of a dynasty - but only if the Sky Blues can keep him away from the Socceroos helm!

What will be the headline of the year? Les Miserables: Socceroos slump to World Cup shocker vs. France

-Mike Wise

AFL

What will change from 2017? After Richmond's stunning 'small-ball' gamble that paid such incredible dividends -- not to mention the Western Bulldogs' similar strategy in 2016 -- rival clubs will increasingly look to stack their front halves with small and medium-sized forwards who focus on pressure and tackling. Key position forwards are still a long way from extinction but they may be edging closer to the endangered species list if this trend continues.

What will remain constant? The pressure on Nathan Buckley. Love him or loathe him, Buckley's record in charge of the Pies has been lukewarm at best, with the Magpies not making the finals since 2013. However, Collingwood bosses backed him in during the offseason, giving him two more years to finally reward their loyalty. With a favourable fixture, re-jigged line-up and renewed hope, the Magpies should enter the new season with confidence, but the blowtorch will certainly be applied if they don't fight their way up the ladder.

What will define the season? As much as the on-field action captivates us all, the off-field chase for 2018's bumper crop of free agents will have fans, the media, club staff and player managers in a heightened state through next season, just as the Dustin Martin decision enthralled the football world in 2017. While the will-he-won't-he Dusty drama eventually had a happy ending for the Tigers this year, the likes of Tom Lynch, Andrew Gaff, Rory Sloane, Marc Murphy, Ben Reid and Luke Dahlhaus will command much attention throughout next season.

Who will win the premiership? Sydney. The Swans' 2017 failure -- and any year sans silverware while Lance Franklin is part of the team can only be viewed as a failure -- will burn in Sydney's collective guts all summer long after their tardy start to the season proved insurmountable. The Swans boast a flag-quality list featuring elite talent and a bevy of young stars that should have them in the mix come the business end of the season.

Who will win the Brownlow Medal? Nat Fyfe. Injuries have prevented the star Docker from reaching the spellbinding heights he reached in the first half of his Brownlow Medal-winning season of 2015, but Fyfe looks set to again push for the mantle of the game's No. 1 player. The 26-year-old's efforts during Australia's International Rules series against Ireland were eyecatching to say the least. With Fremantle likely to emerge from the lower rungs of the ladder this year, Fyfe should earn plenty of votes, and he will also have less internal competition than Patrick Dangerfield, Dustin Martin and co.

Who is in the firing line? Brendon Bolton. The Carlton coach and his list management staff have overseen a Philadelphia 76ers-style 'process' of shedding senior players and adding plenty of young talent. But in this results-driven industry, his finishes of 14th and 16th, plus his lack of a long-term contract, should be cause for concern. The Blues have lost arguably their two best players for the season -- Bryce Gibbs to Adelaide and Sam Docherty (ACL injury) -- meaning the losses may continue to pile up. Will the Blues stay patient with Bolton?

Who will be the biggest riser and slider of the year? We're backing Ross Lyon's notoriously terse frown to be turned upside down this year with Fremantle every chance to push for finals after an impressive off-season. Bringing in Nathan Wilson, Brandon Matera and ready-to-go No. 2 draft pick Andrew Brayshaw is a huge fillip for the club, as is the return to full fitness of Nat Fyfe and Aaron Sandilands. Adding to Freo fans' joy should be the demise of their fierce cross-town rivals, with West Coast set to tumble down the ladder. The Eagles won a final last year but that performance papered over several gaping gaps in their list which are yet to be repaired. With Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell retired, a dearth of elite young talent and Nic Naitanui still on the comeback trail from his ACL injury, West Coast may be forced to watch Fremantle claim the WA bragging rights.

What will be the headline of the year? Northern Exposure: AFL under pressure as Queensland clubs hit rock bottom

-Niall Seewang

Rugby

What will change from 2017? Super Rugby will begin to make sense again. After two years of cross-conference confusion, a warped finals ranking system and scoreboard blowouts, the 2018 15-team version will slowly start to win back the fans. The home-and-away local derbies are back, which is great news for everyone - except those players involved in the five Kiwi franchises - while four consolidated Australian teams should be more competitive against international opposition. Spare a thought for those Western Force fans, though, who have every right to feel aggrieved by an expansion move SANZAAR got horribly wrong.

What will remain constant? The Bledisloe Cup eluding Australia. With Game III likely to be played in Japan, 2018 would seemingly offer the Wallabies a chance at reclaiming the oversized piece of silverware. But such have been Australia's pathetic performances in their last two Bledisloe openers in Sydney, and the fact that almost certain defeat awaits at their Eden Park graveyard a week later, that Wallabies fans may as well look to 2019, or even 2020.

What will define the season? In what will the final inbound June series, Australia's three-Test showdown with Ireland takes on extra significance just over a year out from the World Cup. The Irish are a team on the rise, themselves the owners of a victory over the All Blacks in 2016, with a squad boasting a nice mix of experience and rising talent. They are also very well coached by Joe Schmidt. After a disjointed June series this season, and then back-to-back losses to finish 2017, the Wallabies must hit the ground running. Lose the series to Ireland and coach Michael Cheika can expect to come under increased pressure.

Who will be the John Eales medallist? With Israel Folau missing the start of the voting period in November, and Michael Hooper earning a couple of yellow cards through the same timeframe, Will Genia looks to be in a good position to win his first John Eales Medal. The Wallabies scrum-half got better with each game in the Rugby Championship to re-establish himself in the conversation about the world's premier No. 9. If the Wallabies are to beat Ireland, have any semblance of Bledisloe hope and be in the Rugby Championship running, Genia will need to be at his very best.

Who is in the firing line? Daryl Gibson. After two poor seasons at the helm of the Waratahs, Gibson is tip-toeing down the touchline knowing unemployment could be just a few defeats away. The Kiwi was a key part of Michael Cheika's overhaul of the once-soft franchise, but has so far failed to stamp his mark as a head coach. Fortunately, he should have a full squad to work with from the outset that includes a refreshed Folau. The Wallabies superstar, skipper Michael Hooper and fly-half Bernard Foley are the key cogs at both provincial and Test level; Gibson will be hoping the hunger is there to perform in blue as it is gold.

Who will be the biggest riser and slider of the year? Having picked up the lion's share of the now-defunct Western Force's talent, and Wallabies halfback Will Genia, Melbourne Rebels are well placed to climb up the Super Rugby ladder. But after finishing 2017 in last place, they've only got one way to go, right? The highly-rated Dave Wessels has taken the reins at the Rebels having led the Force to second in the Aussie conference in 2017, impressing in his approach and the fashion in which he conducted himself. Meanwhile, it's certainly going to be a changing of the guard at the Chiefs with coach Dave Rennie and the likes of Aaron Cruden, Stephen Donald, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and James Lowe having all departed for Europe. The pressure will be on coach Colin Cooper, while All Blacks fullback Damian McKenzie could be set for a move to fly-half. Will he have the same devastating impact with less space on offer in the front line? Possibly not.

Who will win the premiership? Did someone mention the word dynasty? It's a noun the Crusaders know well, having dominated Super Rugby around the turn of the millennium, and then again midway through the noughties. And after what they did in 2017, it would be a brave person to suggest they can't go back-to-back under Scott Robertson. "Razor" as he's known, certainly appears to have a touch of magic about him and was able to connect on a personal level the more serious Todd Blackadder could not. They look the team to beat again in 2018, though the loss of Kieran Read for three months to injury is a setback.

What will be the headline of the year? Eddie's England take down ABs at first attempt

-Sam Bruce

NRL

What will change from 2017? Almost every halves combination in the competition will change in 2018. In an unprecedented set of moves, 10 top-level halves have relocated ahead of the 2018 season. James Maloney moving from the Sharks to the Panthers in exchange for Matt Moylan would have been huge news, if not overshadowed by Cooper Cronk joining the Roosters and sending Mitchell Pearce packing to the Knights. If Josh Reynolds leaving the Bulldogs for the Tigers, to be replaced by Kieran Foran from the Warriors seems a distant memory, Ben Hunt's multi-million dollar move from the Broncos to the Dragons feels like ancient history. Once fans get used to all the key players running around in the wrong jerseys, it will make for very interesting viewing.

What will remain constant? Referees and the video review bunker will continue to come under constant criticism from coaches, fans and the media. Some things will never change - officiating mistakes will still be made, despite all the best intentions. The NRL does need to crack down on coaches tearing into officials in post-game media rants. The current fines system clearly isn't stopping them and it is a terrible look for the game. Match officials need to be accountable, but trial by angry coach is not the way to do it.

What will define the season? The decline of Queensland's dominance. The 2017 grand final was the first in NRL history that didn't feature a single current or former New South Wales State of Origin player. Queensland once again won the State of Origin series in 2017, but the cracks began to appear, giving hope to long-suffering Blues fans. The World Cup-winning Kangaroos pack was largely composed of New South Welshmen and in Nathan Cleary lies the hope of a halfback who will cement his place in the team and dominate the Origin arena. The superstars of Queensland are coming to the end of their club careers, and Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk have already called time on their representative stints. The 2017 season will see more Sydney clubs fight their way into the finals, led by the Panthers, Roosters, Sharks, Bulldogs and even the Dragons.

Who will win the premiership? Penrith - the Panthers have been improving under CEO Phil Gould's five-or-so year plan, making the finals in three of the plast four seasons. In 2017 they were disrupted by internal rumblings, and quickly moved to end those issues by sending Matt Moylan off to the Sharks. In his place they will welcome seasoned representative five-eighth and premiership ring magnet James Maloney. Maloney won a premiership with the Roosters in 2013 and another with the Sharks in 2016. He will take his place in the Panthers' No.6 jersey alongside rising superstar Nathan Cleary and together they could steer the club to its third premiership. If not the Panthers, then the Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm can't be ruled out of contention.

Who will win the Dally M Medal? James Tedesco - he featured in the 2017 Dally M count while playing for the struggling Wests Tigers. In 2018 he will not only be playing for the Roosters, he'll be running off the slick passes and chasing the brilliant kicks of Cooper Cronk. The Roosters finished 2017 one win away from the grand final, and they'll be hoping these two attacking stars will make the difference and lift them to their 14th premiership. If he can remain injury-free, Tedesco will pop up all over the field for the Roosters and will be very hard to stop.

Who is in the firing line? Warriors coach Stephen Kearney - the Warriors took to the field in 2017 with one of the best teams in the NRL competition - on paper. They once again failed to deliver on that enormous potential, winning only seven games. In their 22-year history, the Warriors have been through 11 coaches, and Kearney will have to lift them to greater heights in 2018 to beat the average coaching tenure at the club.

Who will be the biggest riser and slider of the year? The Bulldogs will be the biggest riser of 2018, now they are free of Des Hasler's attacking shackles. Hasler had the Bulldogs playing a style of football that was low on mistakes, low on excitement and ultimately low on points. Dean Pay takes over and he'll have at his disposal the World Cup-winning Kangaroos front row combination and a revitalised Kieran Foran steering the side around the paddock. They will travel deep into the finals series in 2018. Mitchell Pearce will be the biggest slider of 2018 having left the Sydney Roosters to join perennial wooden spooners Newcastle. Knights coach Nathan Brown will be hoping Pearce can lift his young team from the bottom of the ladder, but any improvement they manage will still be a long way from second where Pearce and the Roosters finished the 2017 regular season. Pearce also risks losing his New South Wales jersey while he battles away in relative obscurity with the Knights.

What will be the headline of the year? Disgruntled Hayne leads to Arthur sacking

-Darren Arthur