It is the NRL off-season and it is nearly impossible to accurately predict where teams will finish in the 2016 NRL premiership.
Some players will gel quicker or better with new teams while others may not. Some teams will have a good run with injuries while others will be struck down by them. Some young rookies will make an immediate impact while others will have to go through some pain before reaching the top. All of those things will greatly impact on how well a team does but we can at least look at how each of the 16 clubs shapes up on paper.
I’ve broken the field down into three categories – those that have a realistic chance of winning the premiership, those that will be scrapping out for a place in the finals and those that will be battling to avoid the wooden spoon.
I see a maximum of six teams fighting for the 2016 premiership. That’s not to say these teams will be the top six teams come September it is just that they are the sides that have the depth and talent to win it all next season.
North Queensland Cowboys
It is impossible to ignore what the Cowboys did in 2015 and the majority of the side will remain together as they aim to become the first team since the Broncos in 1992-93 to go back-to-back. The return from injury of centre Tautau Moga could have an impact as will the emergence of impressive rookie second rower Coen Hess. They have lost very little and still have a beast of a forward pack and the best player on the planet pulling the strings.
Wayne Bennett’s side were 30 seconds away from the title when the Cowboys cruelly found a way to score on the buzzer. Justin Hodges has gone and so too has a bit of the depth from last year but some of the younger Broncos will be that little bit more seasoned and they’ll be smarting from the way their 2015 season finished. The nucleus of the side is still intact and the Broncos will be one of the heavyweights once again.
The Roosters fell over in the finals for the second season in a row in 2015 but they still have a roster that every other club envies. They lose exciting fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to the Warriors but will counter that by moving Blake Ferguson to the back, where he promises to be a real threat. Injuries to prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and halfback Mitchell Pearce derailed their finish in 2015. There will be some pressure on the tri-colours to win a second title under coach Trent Robinson with a roster that should have bagged at least a couple by now.
The Bulldogs have finally settled on a halves combination and will be banking on Moses Mbye to continue to develop into one of the game’s elite playmakers. The forward pack is as big as ever and rookie Shaun Lane will have a bigger role in his second NRL season, easily making up for the departure of Frank Pritchard. In James Graham, Aiden Tolman, David Klemmer and Sam Kasiano, the Dogs will get plenty of go-forward. If NSW back Will Hopoate makes the expected move to the Bulldogs, coach Des Hasler will have some strike power out wide to capitalise on the big pack.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sam Burgess’ return to Redfern after a year away playing rugby union should be the catalyst to re-ignite their championship charge. They lacked punch up front last season and Burgess will give them that as well as inspiring those around him to play better. Losing Issac Luke to the Warriors will hurt but Cam McInnes is highly touted albeit a different type of hooker to the Kiwi test star. The expected departure of centre Dylan Walker will hurt as will the loss of impressive second rower Chris Grevsmuhl if they need to be offloaded to fit Burgess into their cap.
No club has added more to their 2015 roster than the Warriors. In Roger Tuivasa-Sheck they possess the best young fullback in the code and in Luke they have the direction at hooker they’ve been looking for on attack. Those two weapons will help returning playmaker Shaun Johnson no end and the former golden boot winner should enjoy a better season. Questions remain about the depth of the side up front should they run into injury concerns and around the defensive qualities of their centres. A premiership in 2016 might be wee bit optimistic but the potential is there. They should certainly be in the mix and come finals time no-one will want to run into that x-factor.
The chasing bunch.
This group consists of sides capable of playing finals football but not ready to make a push for a premiership just yet. Some teams are on the up while others are hanging around for one more crack at playing in September.
Manly Sea Eagles
The disaster of 2015 is behind them but so too are the days of star five-eighth Kieran Foran and veteran hooker Matt Ballin in their spine. Incoming coach Trent Barrett will have franchise player Daly Cherry-Evans concentrating solely on playing footy rather than his next contract and welcomes some grunt up front in Kiwi test star Martin Taupau, Lewis Brown and Australian workhorse Nate Myles. The continued development of boom rookies Tom and Jake Trbojevic as well as the arrival of promising Queensland junior Matt Parcell should be a major boost.
How quickly coach Shane Flanagan can settle on his spine and how they gel in 2016 could well determine how far the Sharks can go. They played finals footy in 2015 and will be expecting to improve on that as their roster continues to look better. But making such huge change in the halves will surely take some time to iron itself out. Chad Townsend, James Maloney, Jack Bird, Valentine Holmes and Ben Barba will all be fighting for a spot in the halves or at fullback – some are going to be disappointed. How they react, how those that are chosen adjust to the new side will determine success or failure. The forward pack remains the same though father time will be catching up to Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Chris Heighington and Michael Ennis at some point soon.
The Storm have lost the services of experience forward Ryan Hinchcliffe as well as backs Matt Duffie and Mahe Fonua but will get superstar fullback Billy Slater back from injury in 2016. Where they decide to play Cameron Munster will be interesting – the youngster impressed filling in for Slater in his rookie season in 2015. The old heads of Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and Slater are getting towards the end of their glittering careers – they should still have enough in the tank to take the Storm to another finals series but the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Will Chambers will need to do more to help out. Another premiership might be a stretch this season but one last finals fling for the ‘big three’ isn’t.
The end of season departure of coach Ivan Cleary is strange. The former Warriors mentor seemed the coach for the long haul for the Panthers. Former Broncos boss Anthony Griffin takes over a side that has had their past two seasons ruined by injury. Griffin has an aging halves pairing of Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward and could be tempted to reach to promising rookies Te Maire Martin or Zach Dockar-Clay if things aren’t off to a good start. Trent Merrin will add punch to a the Panthers pack while exciting backs Matt Moylan and Dallin Watene-Zeleniack have unlimited potential. The Panthers should move back up the ladder in 2016.
The Raiders showed some promising signs in 2015 but lacked the ability to close out games as their finals chances fell away late in the year. With Aiden Sezer linking up from the Titans and the continued development of a young spine that includes Jack Wighton, Josh Hodgson and Blake Austin, the Raiders are a team on the up. Young forwards Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd will be boosted by the signing of experience prop Jeff Lima and English international second rower Elliot Whitehead. Throw in the experience of Sia Soliola, Jarrod Croker, Sisa Waqa, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala, Josh Papali’i and Shaun Fensom and the Raiders have a side capable of playing finals footy in 2016.
The Eels should be significantly better in 2016. Kieran Foran’s arrival provides the Eels with a top halfback and a guy that will be a real leader at the club. NSW hard man Beau Scott adds some real steel to an already impressive pack while veteran fullback Michael Gordon and impressive youngster Clint Gutherson will improve the back-line. The Eels will need hooker Nathan Peats to have a season free of injury – his form has seen him knocking on the door of Origin selection whenever he has been healthy of late. In Semi Radradra the Eels have the best strike weapon in the NRL and with Foran there to orchestrate things, he looks like he’ll be even more effective next season.
These are the teams that will be doing well to be in the race late in the season. More than likely they will be the sides battling to avoid the wooden spoon in 2016.
St George Illawarra Dragons
I know the Dragons played finals footy in 2015 but they just don’t have the depth to match-it with the teams above. The Russell Packer saga won’t help as no-one seems to know if their biggest off-season recruit will be playing for them come round one. In Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop the Dragons have a sound halves combination but coach Paul McGregor isn’t sure where to play his best player Josh Dugan. Primarily a fullback, Dugan has been used at centre before and McGregor is toying with that idea again. The loss of Merrin to Penrith hasn’t really been covered and the Dragons will be doing well to get close to repeating their 2015 performance.
The Knights are a club that has gone through significant change in the past 12 months. Wayne Bennett left as coach while Rick Stone came and went in his second stint at the helm of the club. Nathan Brown returns to the NRL as head coach and has already made some change by cutting away some deadwood. Tyrone Roberts and one of Newcastle’s favourite sons Kurt Gidley are gone. Brown will have the exciting Mata’utia brothers, rookie hooker David Levi, as well as youngsters Joseph Tapine and Jake Mamo to work with but they will take time to become fully fledged NRL stars. He will rely heavily on oft-injured five-eighth Jarrod Mullen, NSW halfback and new recruit Trent Hodkinson, centre Dane Gagai and the Sims brothers – Korbin and Tariq. It is hard to see them really battling for a finals spot.
Gold Coast Titans
Surely 2016 can’t be any worse than 2015 for the Titans. They had half their squad arrested at the start of the year for cocaine use, they had Daly Cherry-Evans back flip on them after announcing his signing and they have continued to be kept afloat by the NRL. They have welcomed promising halfback Ash Taylor to their roster and he will fight it out with fellow youngster Kane Elgey and recruit Tyrone Roberts for a starting spot. The Titans have some very talented youngsters but you feel they will need a season or two to get used to the NRL. If injury was to strike it could be a long season for the Titans.
The Tigers are a mess and it is hard to see how they can turn it around within a year. Their highest paid player isn’t wanted at the club and has had a very public falling out with coach Jason Taylor. The club has, until recently, been warring internally at front office and board level and there has been a major drain of talent leaving the Tigers – Pat Richards, Keith Galloway, Martin Taupau to name a few. There have been value-for-money replacements brought in but none are likely to have a major impact immediately. If the Farah saga lingers into the start of the season, it could be a hurdle the club can’t overcome.