BY Andrew Johns
I was really impressed with the quality of the footy in Round One of the NRL last week. We saw the top teams flex their muscles but we also saw the teams that might struggle a bit in 2013.

Manly’s win over the Broncos in Brisbane on Friday night was a really tough victory. After going behind early the Sea Eagles held their nerve, especially considering the players they have out. Jason King and Glenn Stewart were missing and Brett Stewart was playing on one leg so it was a big win.

I was at Melbourne’s clash with St George Illawarra on Sunday and I think the Storm could win back-to-back titles this season. They will be thereabouts throughout the season and should definitely finish in the top four, pending injuries to their big three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.

The Storm were good but not great in attack. They weren’t as clinical as they usually are, making some silly errors, but defensively they are so well organised and that is what makes them so hard to beat.

The Knights were very impressive on Monday night but it was difficult to gauge as Wests Tigers were quite poor. The Tigers just dropped too much ball and Newcastle outplayed them in every facet of the game. Wayne Bennett looks like he has the Knights firing. Their off-season buys of Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott have toughened up the middle of the field and their outside backs Darius Boyd, Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate looked fit and quick. They had a mountain of possession against the Tigers which made it a lot easier, but they looked very sharp.

The Tigers have a new coach in Mick Potter but there weren’t many changes in the way they played. They need to improve drastically, starting with a clash against the in-form Panthers this Sunday.

Round two has already thrown up some great match-ups early in the season. I think the Eels will beat the Bulldogs in the clash of Sydney’s west on Thursday night. I like the Eels, not necessarily what they will do in attack but what they will do in defence. With the way Ricky Stuart coaches his teams to defend, the Eels should get up in the faces of the Dogs and make life very difficult for them.

The Saturday night clash between the Cowboys and Storm in Townsville will be a tight one but I’m leaning towards the Cowboys. All this recent travel has got to take it out of the Storm eventually. They have been over to London for the World Club Challenge where they played in temperatures close to zero. Then they played in 35-degree heat against the Dragons on Sunday and now they travel up to Townsville. It is a short turnaround for the Storm so they may only do one or two training sessions in a limited preparation. I wouldn’t be surprised if coach Craig Bellamy rests some of his players against North Queensland, and I think the Cowboys, when fully fit, are the team to beat this season.

Sunday evening sees the Sea Eagles and Knights clash at Brookvale Oval. It should be a great match as we relive a bit of that old rivalry from the mid ’90s when Newcastle and Manly really went at each other for a few years. I’m leaning towards Manly at home at their fortress Brookvale but it will go down to the wire.

It’s great to hear that Ben Barba has come out of rehab and is on his way back to the NRL for Canterbury. If his head is in a good spot then being at training around his teammates is the best thing for him. Ultimately you are at your happiest when you’re playing footy. I always found that it didn’t matter what distractions were happening in my life, once I got onto the field they were all gone. Barba will be itching to play and he will give the Bulldogs a huge lift.

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