2019 Most Improved Award: Sea Eagles
It was a close call between the Sea Eagles and Canberra Raiders who went from eleventh place last year to being a six-again call away from finishing 2019 premiers. The Raiders looked good in 2018, but failed to finish off a lot of games they seemingly had in the bag. The Sea Eagles finished second last in 2018 and never really looked like being a threat to anyone all year.
Enter the Des. Punted by the Bulldogs, coach Des Hasler agreed to return to Manly where Trent Barrett was having all sorts of trouble with player unrest and poor performances. It was expected that Hasler would bring discipline back to the club and eventually turn things around. It came as a surprise to see them challenging for a Top 4 spot late in the season. Who knows how far they could have gone if not for the loss of star fullback Tom Trbojevic at the back end of the season.
2019 Biggest Disappointment Award: Dragons
After sneaking into the finals in 2018 it was hoped the Dragons would be heading towards a 2019 finish more befitting the amount of talent at the club. Paul McGregor had at his disposal a top-class forward pack, one of the best paid halfbacks in rugby league and a Test five-eighth/fullback.
In the offseason they picked up Corey Norman from the Eels, which to outsiders looked to cause some disruption as Gareth Widdop was moved to fullback and Mathew Dufty was squeezed out. Injury to Widdop for a large chunk of the season certainly didn't help. Then there was the whole Jack de Belin mess that knocked the players and staff off their feet at the beginning of the year. The Dragons limped home in second last with only the awful Titans keeping them from the wooden spoon.
2019 Biggest Mess Award: Newcastle Knights
Newcastle Knights started the season with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga in the halves and lost five of their first six games, which prompted coach Nathan Brown to move Ponga back to fullback. They won their next six games including convincing victories over the Dragons, Roosters and Rabbitohs. Their run was stopped by a Storm thumping which was the start of a run of eight games when they could manage only a solitary win over the Broncos. In their last four games they beat the Titans and Cowboys and were soundly beaten by the Tigers and Panthers, summing up a horror season with no real logic.
They finished the year in 11th place without Brown, who walked out, despite having the backing of the club. Something went horribly wrong in the dressing sheds with Brown "losing the playing group".
New coach Adam O'Brien has walked into a complete mess. He has been part of the Storm and Roosters set-ups so would be familiar with what it takes to win games consistently. It might take him a bit of time to establish himself at the club, but with the talent they have assembled, they should be aiming at a Top 4 finish in 2020.
2019 Buy of the Year Award: John Bateman
The Raiders were so happy with the performances of hooker Josh Hodgson that Ricky Stuart asked his recruitment team to start scouring the English Super League for others like him. They found and signed John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead.
The English back-rowers have been a revelation in Canberra this year. Bateman in particular stood out with his hard-running, high work-rate and tough-as-nails approach; he troubles defences whether running up the middle or creating havoc on the edges and is tireless in defence. Harder than a cat's head, he and his compatriots have been a huge part of the Raiders' success this year.
Having struck gold three times, the Raiders have gone back to the mine to sign halfback George Williams. Stuart and fans will be hoping the English connection can take them one better next year.
2020 Dally M Medal Winner
It would be easy to predict that James Tedesco can win back-to-back awards for being the league's number one player. He is a such a standout performer that in a team full of high quality players he still managed to collect enough points to claim the title this season.
Fullbacks and halves have always had an advantage when it comes to eye-catching performances. For that reason we are going with two other fullbacks who could threaten Tedesco's crown in 2020. Tom Trbojevic only has to remain fit for the entire season and he'll be right up there in the voting. He was a standout for the Sea Eagles in 2019, despite sharing votes with his brother and half Daly Cherry-Evans.
The other fullback who could come from the clouds to claim plenty of votes in 2020 is Ryan Papenhuyzen. The Storm flyer started the year as their third-string fullback and by the end of the year had cemented his place in Billy Slater's vacated No.1 jersey with some incredible performances. With a full season up the back for the Storm he can pilfer enough points from teammate Cameron Munster to challenge for the medal.
2020 Surprise Packets: Titans
The Gold Coast Titans are seen as a bit of a basket case team. Talented players accept big money contracts to go there before turning into disgruntled strugglers looking to get out of their contracts as soon as possible. A lot of that has to be the responsibility of the coaching staff and the Titans have been through some over the years.
In 2020 they welcome Justin Holbrook to the head coach role. Holbrook, a former NRL first grader, has been through the coaching ranks at the Bulldogs, Eels and Roosters before accepting the head coach role at St Helens in 2017. He has a very impressive 80 percent win rate in his two seasons at the club and won the 2019 minor premiership finishing 16 points clear of the next best. It might take him some time to settle in, but you can expect the Titans to be much-improved in 2020.
2020 First Coach to be Under the Hammer: Paul McGregor
You can't assemble the on-paper talent that the St George Illawarra Dragons have had for the past few seasons, finish second last and expect the coach to escape intense scrutiny. Sure the players are the ones not performing, but the buck always stops with the bloke carrying the clipboard.
The Dragons shocked fans and observers by offering Paul McGregor a two-year contract extension just weeks into the 2019 season. Whether it was done to give him the full support of the club or shake the playing group out of any thoughts of potential change, it didn't work. The Dragons spluttered through the season and only narrowly avoided the wooden spoon. If they start 2020 poorly, that two-year extension could quickly turn into a compensation package.
So winning back-to-back premierships has been proven possible again by the Sydney Roosters, following their brilliant defensive display against the Raiders. What about the hat-trick? To find the last one we have to go back to the magnificent Eels teams of the early 1980s. Parramatta's glory days saw them collect the 1981, 1982 and 1983 hat-trick of premiership titles. The Bulldogs were stopped by the Eels from winning the next three, then the Raiders had a shot at the hat-trick in 1991, but fell to the Panthers. Can the Roosters do it?
They lose Cooper Cronk of course, but already have plans to replace him with Kyle Flanagan, with youngster Sam Walker on his way to the club as well. Luke Keary was their main playmaker during the Grand Final, so Cronk's departure might not be too painful.
Which other clubs will rise to challenge them?
The Raiders look set to have a few good years ahead of them, and welcome another Englishman in halfback George Williams, replacing departing half Aidan Sezer. The Storm will always be there or thereabouts, but they face the possibility of Cameron Smith retiring. South Sydney look to be coming to the end of their premiership window, even with Wayne Bennett cracking the whip. The Sea Eagles won't surprise anyone next year, but they will be more settled under coach Des Hasler and will hope to have Tom Trbojevic fit for the whole season.
If the Eels can find some consistency they'll be playing finals football again. The Broncos continue their search for a playmaker and the Sharks appear to be on the decline as well. It's hard to see a real threat emerging from outside this year's top eight, unless the Dragons, Panthers, Knights or Warriors somehow play up to and beyond their potential.
So who will win the 2020 title? If not the Roosters then Manly Warringah Sea Eagles.