ESPN's 2018 NRL season review awards and predictions

Wests Tigers players congratulate Moses Mbye after he scored a try against Manly. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Having had time to sit back and digest the Roosters' dominant Grand Final victory, it is time to cast an eye back over the 2018 season and look ahead to what lies in store in 2019.

Biggest Improvers' Award: Wests Tigers

In the space of six months the Tigers lost Mitchell Moses, Aaron Woods and James Tedesco as new coach Ivan Cleary kicked them all off the team bus. They finished the 2017 season second last, just ahead of the wooden spoon-hoarding Knights. Cleary brought in some new players, notably Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye and brought back some old faces in Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah. Matulino and Packer added some much-needed starch to the Tigers pack.

While Reynolds missed most of the season through injury, Marshall and Farah combined with Mbye and Luke Brooks to form one of the most effective spines in the competition. They just failed in their attempt to make the finals and the disruption caused by the speculation surrounding Cleary's future couldn't have helped. They now await the outcome of the great coach debacle, with rumours circulating that Wayne Bennett could be in charge as soon as next month, as Cleary clears out to join the Panthers.

Biggest Disappointment Award: The Cowboys

This was a close one, with the Cowboys and Eels both putting in exceptionally disappointing seasons. Fans of both clubs were left scratching their heads after they tumbled down the ladder despite adding star quality players to their squads following successful 2017 seasons. For the Eels the biggest addition was Jarryd Hayne, whose presence played a part in taking them from a Top 4 team to the wooden spoon.

The Cowboys win this category though, as they fell from grand finalists to 13th position despite having Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston return after missing most of 2017 through injury. There was some speculation coach Paul Green was being wooed by the Broncos, but it's hard to blame their horror season on that.

Biggest Mess Award: Panthers

The Sea Eagles were strong contenders in this category, after all the dramas they had through the year with coach Trent Barrett and the lack of support he felt he was receiving from the Manly board. The Bulldogs started the season well and truly in this category but progressively sorted themselves out with a few key personal changes.

The Panthers claim the win though, through the sheer audacity of general manager Phil Gould. It's doubtful in the history of any sport that a coach has been sacked just weeks from taking his team into the finals. The Panthers put up a brave fight, beating the Warriors, but crashed out the following week to the Sharks. Who is to say how far they could have gone had Anthony Griffin been allowed to finish the job?

As things currently sit, they have no head coach for next year, as rumours circulate Ivan Cleary is on his way. Cleary, the same coach Phil Gould sacked to hire Griffin - what a mess.

Buy of the Year Award: James Tedesco

Roosters signings Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco lead the way in this category, simply because the proof is in the pudding. The Roosters identified two weaknesses in their team and filled them with the best two players available. Initially there were question marks over the decision, as they struggled to combine effectively in their new surroundings. Once they clicked, the pair became two of the Roosters best and were both instrumental in bringing the premiership trophy to Bondi.

James Maloney also rates a mention in this category and was right up there with the two Roosters until his wheels fell off in the semifinal against the Sharks. Kalyn Ponga was another signing worthy of mention, his contribution to the Knights helped lift them off the bottom of the ladder for the first time in four years.

Player You Really Didn't Want to Lose Award: Angus Crichton

When it was announced Crichton would be leaving the Rabbitohs at the end of the 2018 season, their fans were bitterly disappointed. When it became clear he was going to the Roosters, they were absolutely distraught. No fan likes to see a young developing star of the game leave their club, less so to strengthen their most bitter rival. The Roosters have worked some salary cap magic and will strengthen their premiership-winning squad with one of the hardest running, most destructive edge running forwards in the game. Crichton made his Origin debut this year for New South Wales and only looks like getting better with greater maturity.

Other contenders in this category were Panthers utility Tyrone Peachey, who is reluctantly moving to the Titans and star Sharks centre Jesse Ramien who is heading up the highway to further strengthen an exciting Knights backline. The Bulldogs also have a long list in this category thanks to their salary cap woes, but the Morris twins must sit pretty high for them.

Thorn in the Side Award: Officiating consistency

Every season sees its fair share of disgruntled fans and coaches crying "we was robbed" but 2018 seemed to be more frustrating than ever. The season started with an excessive crackdown on minor infringements in and around the ruck. The idea was to clean up that area of the game and consequently allow play to be quicker and more attacking. The problem was we spent far too much of the game watching the referees blow the pea out of their whistles.

State of Origin rolled around and the referees put their whistles away and let the game flow and we all witnessed the sport we love in its full glory. It was so noticeably better that the crackdown was ended and some normality returned to club games. Now if they can just sort out what an obstruction looks like and what constitutes a shoulder charge before the 2019 season kicks off, we might be set for a better year.

The 2019 premiers: Roosters

It was a bit risky to tip the Roosters to win the premiership at the start of 2018, mainly because of the uncertainty over how Cooper Cronk would fit into their side. Having seen how well he and Tedesco went for the Chooks and knowing Angus Crichton is joining them for 2019, it is hard to look past them to go back to back. But we all know how hard it is to win back-to-back premierships in any code.

Winning a premiership takes a lot of ingredients but one of the biggest is luck. Injuries are a huge part of the game and they can cruel a season, just when it looks like everything is going well. If the Chooks don't have everything go their way in 2019, then the Sharks, Panthers and Storm could be their biggest threats.

The 2019 surprise packets: Knights

Newcastle started the year exceptionally well with Mitchell Pearce steering the ship and new signing Kalyn Ponga tearing the game apart from the fullback position. The loss of Pearce through injury threw their season off the rails and they never really recovered. Next season they add Tim Glasby to the pack, Jesse Ramien to the backs and Mason Lino to the halves. Nathan Brown is starting to assemble a very competitive team and if things go their way they should make the top 8.

Look also for the Bulldogs to continue the improvement they showed towards the back of 2018. They have lost some big names, but have signed some promising players including Sauaso Sue, Corey Harawira-Naera and Knights back Nick Meaney as coach Dean Pay starts to assemble his own post-Hasler team.