PAUL CRAWLEY breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of every NRL squad.
PAUL CRAWLEY breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of every NRL squad.

Power rankings: The backline to challenge the premiers

PARRAMATTA fans it is time to get excited because here is a very good reason to look forward to next season. But St George Illawarra and Penrith fans might not be so thrilled with what we have to say about your team's chances looking forward.

In the countdown to the 2020 NRL season, we break down the strengths and weaknesses of every NRL squad.

While we have already delivered our verdict on the all-important spines, here we run the rule over every likely starting backline, ranking all 16 teams from best to worst.

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1st SYDNEY ROOSTERS

1 James Tedesco

2 Daniel Tupou

3 Billy Smith

4 Joseph Manu

5 Brett Morris

6 Luke Keary

7 Kyle Flanagan

Luke Keary still has so much football ahead of him. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins
Luke Keary still has so much football ahead of him. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

CRAWLEY SAYS: Even without Latrell Mitchell and Cooper Cronk the Roosters remain the NRL's most complete backline for mine - and it's as much about attitude as talent. Daniel Tupou is a great example. At 28, took his game to another level in 2019, while Joey Manu went straight past Latrell. Looking forward, all the hype is that Billy Smith will develop into something special but if Trent Robinson has to play Brett Morris in the centres for the meantime it hardly presents a problem.

While Tedesco is already the game's best, his best is probably still to come given he only turns 27 in January. Likewise Keary who is 28 in February. Think back to the careers of superstar playmakers Cronk, Johnathan Thurston and even Darren Lockyer as a five-eighth, all played their best football beyond the age where Keary is now. That's not ignoring Keary already has three premierships in the bag.

Could this be Waqa Blake‘s season? Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled
Could this be Waqa Blake‘s season? Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled

2nd PARRAMATTA EELS

1 Clint Gutherson

2 Maika Sivo

3 Michael Jennings

4 Waqa Blake

5 Blake Ferguson

6 Dylan Brown

7 Mitchell Moses

CRAWLEY SAYS: Just behind the Roosters but Parra's is arguably the most explosive backline. Gutherson's energy is what drives this team but it helps having big boppers like Sivo and Ferguson to get your sets rolling. These two giants give the Eels phenomenal power and strike at both ends of the field. And while Jennings is a proven pro who had an outstanding 2019, I reckon Waqa Blake at 25 should be ready to produce his best season so far. Throw in the most exciting young halves combination in the game and there is a lot to look forward to in 2020 for Parramatta fans.

Curtis Scott’s arrival will shake-up Canberra’s backline. Photo: Canberra Raiders
Curtis Scott’s arrival will shake-up Canberra’s backline. Photo: Canberra Raiders

3rd CANBERRA RAIDERS

1 Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad

2 Nick Cotric

3 Curtis Scott

4 Jarrod Croker

5 Bailey Simonsson

6 Jack Wighton

7 George Williams

CRAWLEY SAYS: For several seasons now the Raiders have possessed the NRL's most dangerous attack but some big changes are coming in 2020. George Williams replaces Aidan Sezer at halfback while the 'don't-die-wondering' Jordan Rapana/Joey Leilua right edge combination has been blown to smithereens.

Rapana has gone Japanese rugby while Leilua is fighting for his survival after the Raiders bought Curtis Scott from Melbourne. I don't imagine Ricky Stuart signed Scott to play reserve grade, which means Leilua is going to need a huge preseason to convince his coach that his selection is non-negotiable. It wouldn't surprise me to see Leilua end up at the Tigers playing alongside his younger brother Luciano early in the season. Canberra will still be a force in 2020.

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Does Matt Moylan still have the fire? Photo: Phil Hillyard
Does Matt Moylan still have the fire? Photo: Phil Hillyard

4th CRONULLA SHARKS

1 Matt Moylan

2 Josh Morris

3 Jesse Ramien

4 Bronson Xerri

5 Josh Dugan

6 Shaun Johnson

7 Chad Townsend

CRAWLEY SAYS: This is a backline at the crossroads. On paper they hold their own against the best in the game but a few injury-prone individuals leave a huge question mark hanging over the Sharks moving forward. I'm talking Moylan, Dugan and Johnson in particular.

There is also no denying a few little rifts emerged last year when players were forced to play out of their preferred positions, and that is not going to be helped by the return of Jesse Ramien. Still, if they leave that behind and get on with playing football the Sharks could be in for a good season. They certainly shouldn't struggle to score points.

Darius Boyd’s trajectory will be one of the season’s big stories. Photo: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt
Darius Boyd’s trajectory will be one of the season’s big stories. Photo: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt

5th BRISBANE BRONCOS

1 Jamayne Isaako

2 Corey Oates

3 Jack Bird

4 Kotoni Staggs

5 Darius Boyd

6 Anthony Milford

7 Brodie Croft

CRAWLEY SAYS: While I don't rate the Broncos' spine in my top dozen because of a lack of direction there is certainly no shortage of wow factor in this backline. I just wonder how the whole Darius Boyd situation is going to impact team harmony given young stars Xavier Coates and Herbie Farnworth are exceptional talents and already banging on the door.

Boyd has made his intentions clear that he won't be going down without a fight. But from what I'm told the competition coming from Coates and Farnworth at some point will be irresistible. Anthony Seibold is going to have some big selection decisions to make and how he handles this will be crucial.

Souths should see the best of James Roberts this year. Photo: Damian Shaw
Souths should see the best of James Roberts this year. Photo: Damian Shaw

6th SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

1 Adam Doueihi

2 Dane Gagai

3 Braidon Burns

4 James Roberts

5 Campbell Graham

6 Cody Walker

7 Adam Reynolds

CRAWLEY SAYS: This is a quality backline with or without Latrell Mitchell. Genuine speed, skill and flair in abundance. One bloke I'm really looking forward to seeing in 2020 is James Roberts. After the early setbacks he had last season while butting heads with Anthony Seibold in Brisbane, I'm expecting Roberts will be back pushing for State of Origin selection, while Adam Doueihi, Campbell Graham and Braidon Burns are genuine stars on the rise. Doueihi also gives good cover if there happens to be an injury in the halves, with Alex Johnston and Corey Allan waiting in the wings.

Moses Suli could be Manly’s x-factor. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images
Moses Suli could be Manly’s x-factor. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

7th MANLY SEA EAGLES

1 Tom Trbojevic

2 Jorge Taufua

3 Moses Suli

4 Brad Parker

5 Reuben Garrick

6 Dylan Walker

7 Daly Cherry-Evans

CRAWLEY SAYS: Des Hasler unlocked the key to some tremendous potential in 2019 and I don't expect Manly to go backwards. Of course the Sea Eagles need Tom Trbojevic and DCE to stay fit but the likes of Moses Suli, Reuben Garrick and Brad Parker showed enough last season to suggest they are up for any challenge the coach presents them.

Suli in particular has the potential to be a genuine superstar if he gets his fitness to where it needs to be. If Des keeps them as hungry as they were last season anything is possible with a spine and a forward pack as formidable as Manly's now is.

Will those Foxx rumours come to fruition? Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
Will those Foxx rumours come to fruition? Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

8th MELBOURNE STORM

1 Ryan Papenhuyzen

2 Suliasi Vunivalu

3 Justin Olam

4 Marion Seve

5 Josh Addo-Carr

6 Cameron Munster

7 Jahrome Hughes

CRAWLEY SAYS: Not up with some of the great Melbourne Storm backlines we've seen over the years. But here's the thing to always remember: any time we start questioning if this will be the year Melbourne crash down the NRL ladder, Craig Bellamy just finds a way to prove us wrong. One crucial ingredient not lacking is speed, although experience could be an issue in the centre spots after the loss of Will Chambers and Curtis Scott. Also, all this speculation about Josh Addo-Carr wanting to return to Sydney would have to have the Storm a little nervous.

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RTS will be the Warriors’ main man again. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images
RTS will be the Warriors’ main man again. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

9th NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

2 Ken Maumalo

3 Peta Hiku

4 Patrick Herbert

5 David Fusitu'a

6 Kodi Nikorima

7 Blake Green

CRAWLEY SAYS: It's a broken record talking about the Warriors. Year after year we look at the squad and think there can't be any excuses this time. Talent won't be the issue again in 2020. As good a back three as there is in the NRL with Tuivasa-Sheck, Maumalo and Fusitu'a. They also have experienced halves and handy centres. While you couldn't pin what went wrong in 2019 on Tuivasa-Sheck who was outstanding, the fact is they always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot. When Shaun Johnson was sent packing it was sold as the message that every player was on notice. A fat lot of good that did. Instead the Warriors delivered another terribly disappointing year.

The expectations on Valentine Holmes will be huge. Photo: Evan Morgan
The expectations on Valentine Holmes will be huge. Photo: Evan Morgan

10th NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

1 Valentine Holmes

2 Kyle Feldt

3 Esan Marsters

4 Tom Opacic

5 Justin O'Neill

6 Scott Drinkwater

7 Michael Morgan

CRAWLEY SAYS: Esan Marsters is a good pick up for the Cowboys but will it be enough? I still think this backline is a superstar centre short of being a fair dinkum premiership force. It's not too late to fix that and I reckon that's what Paul Green will be chasing between now and round one. Val Holmes and Morgan are both world class and Drinkwater has the potential to be a sensation in the halves. Drinkwater actually wore the seven in the same Australian Schoolboy team that featured Nathan Cleary at five-eighth and Drinkwater was the standout.

Penrith are Nathan Cleary’s team now. Photo: Brett Costello
Penrith are Nathan Cleary’s team now. Photo: Brett Costello

11th PENRITH PANTHERS

1 Dylan Edwards

2 Josh Mansour

3 Brent Naden

4 Dean Whare

5 Brian To'o

6 Jarome Luai

7 Nathan Cleary

CRAWLEY SAYS: Penrith's hopes in 2020 are going to live and die with Nathan Cleary. That's the reality. Brent Naden and Brian To'o arrived with a bang in 2019 and you'd expect they will improve. Naden scored eight tries from 12 games while To'o finished with nine from 15. Mansour and Whare are proven quality performers while Dylan Edwards at his best is a ball of energy.

But with no more James Maloney to fall back on the ownership of this team rests on Cleary's 22-year-old shoulders. While fellow 22-year-old Luai is expected to start the season at five-eighth, 19-year-old Matt Burton is the wildcard. Burton showed in his one NRL game what an enormous future he has in front of him. But this will again be a young halves combination burdened with huge expectation.

Phoenix Crossland is one to watch. Photo: Ashley Feder/Getty Images
Phoenix Crossland is one to watch. Photo: Ashley Feder/Getty Images

12th NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

1 Kalyn Ponga

2 Edrick Lee

3 Tautau Moga

4 Bradman Best

5 Hymel Hunt

6 Mason Lino

7 Mitchell Pearce

CRAWLEY SAYS: This has the potential to be a really memorable period coming up in Newcastle's proud history. That's because the hype around this crop of youngsters coming through is huge. We've seen in Bradman Best's three NRL games so far that he could be anything, while young Starford Toa has only had one NRL appearance but is said to be equally exciting. Also, the mail is Phoenix Crossland could be a genuine NRL star in time playing in the halves. New coach Adam O'Brien has certainly arrived at the right time with Ponga and Pearce also sure to be playing with a point to prove after the shocking way Newcastle's season fell apart in 2019.

The Dragons will be relying on Zac Lomax. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
The Dragons will be relying on Zac Lomax. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

13th ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

1 Zac Lomax

2 Jordan Pereira

3 Euan Aitken

4 Tim Lafai

5 Jason Saab

6 Corey Norman

7 Ben Hunt

CRAWLEY SAYS: Will need to be at their absolute best to be a top eight contender and I'm not sure the Dragons have the strike power to do it. While I rate their spine in my top eight I have their overall backline way down the list. I believe the drama surrounding Jack de Belin these last 12 months has only masked some glaring deficiencies in this squad, and especially in the outside backs. But it is too easy just to pin the blame on Paul McGregor, which you just know will happen if things continue to go bad. On a positive note Zac Lomax will get first crack at fullback and long term he could be a sensation in the position, while young Jason Saab has also shown he has huge potential.

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Morgan Harper looks set for a big future. Photo: AAP Image/Craig Golding
Morgan Harper looks set for a big future. Photo: AAP Image/Craig Golding

14th CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak

2 Reimis Smith

3 Will Hopoate

4 Morgan Harper

5 Nick Meaney

6 Jack Cogger

7 Lachlan Lewis

CRAWLEY SAYS: Any team that loses a marquee playmaker to injury before the season even kicks off is facing a huge challenge. But there was still enough to like about the Dogs finish to 2019 to suggest 2020 will be even better. There is tremendous expectation around this highly rated Junior Kiwi Morgan Harper who made his NRL debut in the final round, while Brandon Wakeham showed in his three NRL appearances so far he also has enormous potential. I reckon Harper will almost get to start the season in the centres while Wakeham will be pushing Jack Cogger.

Still, you just can't hide from the fact Kieran Foran's knee injury is a crushing blow because when Foran played in 2019 he made a huge difference. At best he is likely to miss half the season and that will make it incredibly hard for the Dogs who just lack experience in those key halves positions.

Corey Thompson sums up Wests Tigers graft but lack of star power. Photo: Phil Hillyard
Corey Thompson sums up Wests Tigers graft but lack of star power. Photo: Phil Hillyard

15th WESTS TIGERS

1 Corey Thompson

2 David Nofoaluma

3 Moses Mbye

4 Tommy Talau

5 Paul Momirovski

6 Benji Marshall

7 Luke Brooks

CRAWLEY SAYS: Michael Maguire did a fabulous job just getting the Tigers to compete like they did in 2019. But the harsh reality is he just doesn't have the star power on this roster to consistently match it with the top teams. That is not having a crack at the current players. That is just the truth. For example, there are not too many players in the NRL who work or try harder than Corey Thompson.

But that doesn't change the fact the Tigers were willing to pay Latrell Mitchell $1 million a season to come and wear the No 1 jumper ahead of Thompson. And even when Mitchell spurned their advances, they still wanted to break bread. It's the same reason why the Tigers were also chasing Josh Addo-Carr and Zac Lomax among others. They need match winners. On a positive note I'm looking forward to seeing more of young Tommy Talua who is said to be a future representative player.

AJ Brimson is one of the bright spots for Titans fans. Photo: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
AJ Brimson is one of the bright spots for Titans fans. Photo: AAP Image/Dave Hunt

16th GOLD COAST TITANS

1 AJ Brimson

2 Phillip Sami

3 Brian Kelly

4 Kallum Watkins

5 Anthony Don

6 Tyrone Roberts

7 Ash Taylor

CRAWLEY SAYS: There are some good players on this Gold Coast roster and for that reason it would not surprise me to see them up in finals contention next season if everything goes right for new coach Justin Holbrook. AJ Brimson has showed he is a genuine star and so is Brian Kelly. But we can beat around the bush all we want, ultimately it is going to all come back on one man - Ash Taylor. If the halfback fires the Titans can challenge most teams. If not, they don't stand a hope. I fear it is going to be another long year for Gold Coast fans.