Coach: Wayne Bennett
Ins: Jack Bird (Sharks), Matt Lodge (deregistered), Patrick Mago (Cowboys), Andre Savelio (Warrington Wolves), Sam Tagataese (Sharks)
Outs: Jai Arrow (Titans), Adam Blair (Warriors), Herman Ese’ese (Knights), Ben Hunt (Dragons), Benji Marshall (Tigers), Tautau Moga (Knights)
The future of Wayne Bennett hangs in the balance. With the supercoach now 69 years old, the critics are poised to put in the knife. And there are rumours that the Broncos are already eying up the Cowboys’ Paul Green as a replacement once the Brisbane icon decides to call it a day.
The Broncos’ major off-season signing, Jack Bird, will miss the first month of the Premiership as he recovers from shoulder surgery. And the early preparation has been put back as World Cup stars Darius Boyd, Kodi Nikorima, Josh McGuire, Matt Gillett, Joe Ofahengaue and Tevita Pangai Junior all had time off to rest their overworked bodies.
All eyes will be on former Tigers prop Matt Lodge, thrown a lifeline by Bennett when the former Tiger was deregistered by the NRL after his arrest in New York for harassment and assault and spending three years on the sideline.
The Broncos will have plenty of replacements to call upon come Origin time, boasting five feeder clubs in the Queensland Cup and the new Under-20s competition.
Coach: Ricky Stuart
Ins: Craig Garvey (Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (Warriors), Siliva Havili (Dragons), Sitiveni Moceidreke (Rabbitohs), Sam Williams (Wakefield Trinity)
Outs: Kurt Baptiste (Sydney Roosters), Adam Clydesdale (retired), Lachlan Croker (Sea Eagles), Clay Priest (Bulldogs), Scott Sorensen (Sharks), Dave Taylor (Central Queensland Capras), Jordan Turner (Huddersfield Giants)
The Raiders suffered a body blow when England hooker Josh Hodgson suffered a severe knee injury during the World Cup – and will miss most the 2018 season. In his absence, Craig Garvey (ex-Bulldogs) and Siliva Havili (recruited from the Dragons) will have to step up a notch. They are fine senior players but nowhere near the class of “Hodgo”.
Members of The Green Machine are hoping for a bit of luck to go their way after losing eight matches by six points or less last season. There is no shortage of points in their attacking arsenal, scoring the third most in the NRL in 2017.
Coach Ricky Stuart is hoping for another stellar season from young winger Nick Cotric, who scored 16 tries from 24 appearances in his debut season, and Kiwi World Cup star Jordan Rapana, who touched down for 21 in 23 games on the opposite flank. The Raiders have a favourable draw, facing each of last year’s top four clubs (Storm, Roosters, Broncos and Eels) only once.
Coach: Dean Pay
Ins: Fa’amanu Brown (Sharks), Kieran Foran (Warriors), Jeremy Marshall-King (Tigers), Clay Priest (Raiders), Aaron Woods (Tigers)
Outs: Craig Garvey (Raiders), James Graham (Dragons), Sam Kasiano (Storm), Richie Kennar (Rabbitohs), Brenko Lee (Titans), Josh Reynolds (Wests Tigers)
It’s a new-look Bulldogs club; from the wholesale changes in the board to a new coach, former Canterbury stalwart Dean Pay. The credentials of Pay are impeccable having been on the coaching staff under some classy mentors at Catalans Dragons, Melbourne Storm, Parramatta Eels and Canberra Raiders.
The playing roster is very different, too, with the experienced James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano leaving but newcomers, who include World Cup prop Aaron Woods and Kiwi international stand-off Keiran Foran, arriving.
Pay is set to switch scrum-half Moses Mbye to fullback to give him more room to move without the burden of a playmaker’s role that gave opposing teams a chance to shut down his flair. And heaven knows they need some creativity, having scored fewer points than any other club in 2017.
Coach: Shane Flanagan
Ins: Josh Dugan (Dragons), Aaron Gray (Rabbitohs), Trent Hodkinson (Knights), Matt Moylan (Panthers), Ava Seumanufagai (Tigers), Scott Sorensen (Raiders), Braden Uele (Cowboys).
Outs: Gerard Beale (Warriors), Jack Bird (Broncos), Fa’amnanu Brown (Bulldogs), Manaia Cherrington (Warriors), Chris Heighington (Knights), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), James Maloney (Panthers), Daniel Mortimer (Leigh Centurions), Sam Tagataese (Broncos), Tony Williams (Eels)
Cronulla Sharks disappointed their fans last year after snaring the first Premiership in their half-century in the big league in 2016. They bowed out to the eighth-placed Cowboys in the first week of the finals series. As veteran Luke Lewis explained, it hurt and they are determined they will lift this season: “We’ve all got that burning feeling inside of us because we didn’t finish last year the way we wanted.”
While they have lost some important cogs in their attacking machine in stand-off James Maloney and Jack Bird, the Sharks have signed some high-profile stars including World Cup centre Josh Dugan and former international Matt Moylan. Both are capable fullbacks but if the trial matches are anything to go by, that role will be filled by Aussie World Cup winger Valentine Holmes.
The pack has a really solid look about it with the likes of Lewis, Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita, and Matt Prior.
There will be a ‘Battle Royale” for the No 9 shirt. Jayden Brailey was outstanding in his debut season. But he faces a challenge from his brother Blayke Brailey, himself a rare talent, and Kumuls World Cup hooker James Segeyaro. Coach Shane Flanagan has been quick to point out: “At 22, Jayden is still only young and he is going to get better as time goes on.”
GOLD COAST TITANS
Coach: Garth Brennan
Ins: Jai Arrow (Broncos), Bryce Cartwright (Panthers), Brendan Elliot (Knights), Michael Gordon (Roosters), Leilani Latu (Panthers), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Mitch Rein (Panthers), Jack Stockwell (Knights)
Outs: Tyler Cornish (released), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Jarryd Hayne (Eels), Chris McQueen (Tigers), Ben Nakubuwai (Salford Red Devils), Agnatius Paasi (Warriors), Nathaniel Peteru (Leeds Rhinos), Leivaha Pulu (Warriors), Tyrone Roberts (Warrington Wolves), Dan Sarginson (Wigan Warriors), Paterika Vaivai (Leigh Centurions), Daniel Vidot (retired), William Zillman (released)
After a disappointing 2017 season which culminated in the sacking of coach Neil Henry and the departure of media darling Jarryd Hayne to his former club Parramatta, few critics expect much improvement in the Titans this time around.
Bookmakers reckon they will run a long last on the Premiership table. But new coach Garth Brennan has other ideas. He has tasted lower-grade success at both Newcastle and Penrith, guiding the Panthers to grand final success in the NSW Cup in 2014 and the NSW Cup-NRL State Championship double last year.
Several Penrith players have followed him to the Gold Coast including promising young stars Bryce Cartwright, Tongan Test prop Leilani Latu and veteran hooker Mitch Rein.
And Brennan is a former mentor of the exciting Titans scrum half Ash Taylor. Brennan noted about Taylor: “He needs to own this team [on the pitch]. Everything he does shows me he’s embracing that.” Will Brennan succeed? “We’re not going to win every game,” he said.”
“But I want the teams that beat us to know they’ve had a torrid encounter. I want the fans to be proud and to see we’re having a crack. I’m confident we will surprise a few teams.”
MANLY SEA EAGLES
Coach: Trent Barrett
Ins: Lachlan Croker (Raiders), Jack Gosiewski (Rabbitohs), Toafofoa Sipley (Warriors), Joel Thompson (Dragons)
Outs: Pita Godinet (Tigers), Blake Green (Warriors), Brenton Lawrence (retired), Steve Matai (retired), Brett Stewart (retired)
The Sea Eagles still have salary cap problems hanging over their every move.
This meant they couldn’t sign either Mitchell Pearce or Trent Hodkinson as a replacement for former Super League half Blake Green who headed across the Tasman Sea to Auckland. This has opened the door for Lachlan Croker, the latest member of the famous Raiders’ family.
But they still have a solid look about them. This is especially the case in the forwards with Joel Thompson joining from the Dragons (just before the salary cap scandal broke), linking with the tough World Cup hardman Marty Tapau and equally fearsome Jake Trbojevic. Look forward to a big season from Curtis Sironen, now content after being snubbed by Wests Tigers.
Of course, all depends on whether skipper Daly Cherry-Evans can rise to the occasion. It is a case of Carpe Diem. Now that Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk have announced they won’t be playing State of Origin for Queensland, it is the time for Cherry-Evans to “Seize the Day’.
And the way to do that is to steer Manly to greater heights. Some could even say: “Daly, justify that enormous salary you are being paid at Brookvale.’ It will be a tough year for coach Trent Barrett, especially if he can’t tighten up the Manly defensive line.
Coach: Craig Bellamy
Ins: Sandor Earl (drugs suspension), Ryan Hoffman (Warriors), Sam Kasiano (Bulldogs), Patrick Kaufusi (Cowboys), Billy Walters (Brisbane Easts Tigers)
Outs: Cooper Cronk (Roosters), Slade Griffin (Knights), Tohu Harris (Warriors), Jordan McLean (Cowboys), Nate Myles (retired), Robbie Rochow (Tigers),
What can you say? It would be a brave man or woman who would bet against the Storm after their stellar year in 2017. Okay, they have lost Cooper Cronk, one of “The Big Three”.
Nevertheless they still have the other pair Billy Slater and Cameron Smith. The latter made a clean sweep of all individual awards last season, with good reason. He proved he is one of the greatest players ever to grace a Rugby League pitch anywhere in the world. A rugby genius!
But, as the World Club Challenge showed quite clearly, the 20-year-old Junior Kangaroo Brodie Croft is ready to step into his shoes. Melbourne has arguably the finest couple of club wingers in the world – Suliasi Vunivalau and Josh Addo-Carr who managed 46 tries between them last season. Don’t forget they are each only 22 years old. What a feast we have in store!
But the lineup is superb from 1 to 17. The Kiwi Bromwich brothers, Jesse and Kenny. Will Chambers and Cameron Munster out in the backs. Dale Funicane. Ryan Hoffman is back to his spiritual home.
And let’s not forget who is the man whose hand is on the tiller? Many Down Under suggest Craig Bellamy is the finest contemporary coach in the world. Bellyache may be his nickname. But Bellygood would be apter. His contract is up for renewal at the end of the season. What better incentive for success!
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
Coach: Stephen Kearney
Ins: Gerard Beale (Sharks), Adam Blair (Broncos), Manaia Cherrington (Sharks), Anthony Gelling (Wigan Warriors), Blake Green (Sea Eagles), Tohu Harris (Storm), Peta Hiku (Warrington Wolves), Agnatius Paasi (Titans), Leivaha Pulu (Titans)
Outs: Kieran Foran (Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (Raiders), Ryan Hoffman (Storm), Jacob Lillyman (Knights), Ben Matulino (Tigers), Bodene Thompson (Leigh Centurions), Manu Vatuvei (Salford Red Devils)
Members of the Australian media keep asking why the NRL bothers with the New Zealand Warriors. After all, in recent years they have kept underachieving.
As a result a succession of coaches have paid the price. Daniel Anderson, Ivan Cleary, Brian McClellan, Tony Iro, Matt Elliot and Andrew McFadden. Now Stephen Kearney is in the firing line. In his debut season in Auckland his side managed just seven wins. It won’t be good enough if he cannot lift that winning percentage. And don’t forget his very average record at Parramatta.
There has been a host of departures, not the least important forwards such as Ben Matulino, Charlie Gubb, Ryan Hoffman, Jacob Lillyman and Bodene Thompson and the clever half Keiran Foran.
There has been few players of note brought in to replace the gaps, except for former Super League stand-off Blake Green and Kiwi Test stalwarts Adam Blair and Tohu Harris.
Kearney stresses the importance of Blair: “He is not just someone who will help us on the field and help young players grow their games. But he will be someone who will help from a cultural perspective. He will make a real contribution to the team.”
There will be some extra strike-power in the backline with the inclusion of Wigan’s Anthony Gelling as well as Kiwis World Cup three-quarters Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale.
Coach: Nathan Brown
Ins: Herman Ese’ese (Broncos), Aidan Guerra (Roosters), Chris Heighington (Sharks), Jacob Lillyman (Warriors), Tautau Moga (Broncos), Mitchell Pearce (Roosters), Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys), Mitchell Pearce (Roosters), Connor Watson (Roosters)
Outs: Brendan Elliot (Titans), Dane Gagai (Rabbitohs), Trent Hodkinson (Sharks), Rory Kostjasyn (retired), Peter Mata’utia (Leigh Centurions), Sam Mataora (retired), Jarrod Mullen (released), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Pauli Pauli (Wakefield Trinity), Tyler Randell (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Starling (retired), Jack Stockwell (Titans), Anthony Tupou (retired), Joe Wardle (Castleford Tigers)
Will this be the end of the saddest period in the Knights’ history? Three wooden spoons for finishing last in as many years!
It is unlikely, although there is an enthusiasm in Newcastle not seen since the club’s inaugural season way back in 1988. Coach Nathan Brown said: “Our aim is to get better.” Fair enough, the Knights can’t get much worse. The fans’ support never wavered and many of the other clubs would love to enjoy such support.
Brown has signed nine players with senior experience, but that is probably not enough. Mitchell Pearce from the Roosters is an important recruit. He will be there to direct play. However, the most important newcomer is possibly fullback Kalyn Ponga from the Cowboys. He is a youngster who could help shape the Knights’ future. Roosters half Connor Watson is another important cog. His combination with Pearce could very well provide the spark that gets the Knights charging at full gallop.
There does seem to be a brittleness about the top squad, but Brown is confident: “A player of Mitchel’s age  and experience doesn’t come onto the market every day.” Another experienced recruit who will help is England World Cup forward Chris Heighington with 317 senior games with Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks. But it will definitely be the fans who count said another of the stars Jamie Buhrer: “ We want them to be excited. It motivates us to get the club back to where it has been.”
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
Coach: Paul Green
Ins: Jordan McLean (Storm)
Outs: Patrick Kaufusi (Storm), Kalyn Ponga (Knights), Ray Thompson (retired), Braden Uele (Sharks)
Anyone who thought the North Queensland Cowboys era was coming to an end would have experienced a rude awakening when Johnathan Thurston pulled off some of his magic to snatch a last-minute victory over Melbourne in the recent Brisbane encounter that served as a testimonial for him and his old Test and Origin mate Cameron Smith.
A banana kick that will live in the memory of all of the fans who were lucky enough to be there on the night. JT was back after nine months on the sideline injured. And it was as if he had never left the pitch.
However, where does that put Te Maire Martin, his replacement for the second half of the 2017 season? We suspect Martin will be on the bench. What an excitement that will be, with the fans waiting for his injection into the action.
JT’s co-captain, prop Matt Scott is also back after a long lay-off and the Cowboys one major recruit, Jordan McLean from the Storm, will also be looking good in North Queensland’s strip. Michael Morgan, Jason Taumalolo, Justin O’Neill, Kyle Feldt, Coen Hess, Ethan Lowe, Jake Granville. The list of stars goes on and on. Don’t forget the most important name of all.
There are few coaches in the world better than Paul Green. No wonder his agent is fending off offers, left, right and centre.
Coach: Brad Arthur
Ins: Kane Evans (Roosters), Jarryd Hayne (Titans), Tony Williams (Sharks)
Outs: Isaac De Gois (retired), Bureta Faraimo (Hull FC), Frank Pritchard (retired), Semi Radradra (Rugby Union), Jeff Robson (retired), Alex Twal (Wests Tigers)
One can only wonder about the Eels. They offer so much. However, when the chips are down they fail at the final hurdle. If it was the Grand National, the odds are they would tumble at Becher’s Brook.
The talking point this season is the return of the prodigal son, Jarryd Hayne. After his dispute with Gold Coast coach Neil Henry, which saw the latter shown the door, he is back at Parramatta. One can only wonder why the “Hayne Plane” is so often grounded after alleged conflicts with coaches. Seven were at Parramatta – Brian Smith, Jason Taylor, Michael Hagan, Daniel Anderson, Stephen Kearney, Ricky Stuart and Brad Arthur. Now he is back with Arthur again. Best of luck, Brad!
The Eels have one thing in their favour: They will take on the three fellow top-four sides from 2017 only once this season.
In addition to Hayne, they have a wealth of attacking players across the backline including halves Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman, and the likes of Michael Jennings, Clint Gutherson and Bevan French. The last-mentioned was Man of the Match in Parramatta’s 26-6 trial victory over Newcastle two weeks ago. But there seems to be a lack of depth in the pack.
Coach: Anthony Griffin
Ins: James Maloney (Sharks)
Outs: Sitaleki Akauola (Warrington Wolves), Bryce Cartwright (Titans), Zach Dockar-Clay (Hull KR), Leilani Latu (Titans), Matt Moylan (Sharks), Mitch Rein (Titans),
PENRITH Panthers must be wondering about their 2018 Premiership chances after falling to a second-string Canterbury side in their recent friendly encounter.
They were woeful as the team of “no names” put them to the sword at Belmore. Clever tactical kicking from the new Panthers halfback pairing of James Maloney and Nathan Cleary had the Panthers looking good early in the evening. The Panthers led 10-0. But that was as good as it got. They were beaten to the tune of 24-10 prompting a scathing dressing down by football manager and former Origin coach Phil Gould.
Much will depend on the form of Maloney, the club’s only major off-season recruit. He knows how to win Premierships, having done so with the Roosters in 2013 and the Sharks in 2016.
But the Panthers have lost a host of fine young players, many of whom followed lower-grade coach Garth Brennan to the Gold Coast for his debut in the senior ranks. Current Penrith coach Anthony Griffin will have to be watching his back.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
Coach: Anthony Seibold
Ins: Dane Gagai (Knights), Richie Kennar (Bulldogs)
Outs: Anthony Cherrington (retired), Bryson Goodwin (Warrington Wolves), Jack Gosiewski (Sea Eagles), Aaron Gray (Sharks), Gabriel Hamlin (Wigan Warriors), Dane Nielsen (released), David Tyrrell (released)
All eyes will be on Souths skipper Greg Inglis. Will he reproduce the world-class form that made him one of the feared attacking players in the world? He ruptured knee ligaments in round one of last year’s Premiership and spent the rest of the season on the sidelines.
Inglis made a brief appearance in the Rabbitohs’ victory over the Dragons in the Charity Shield. He was on the pitch for just 19 minutes but he only wanted to test out the knee ahead of Souths’ first NRL match, against the Warriors in Saturday’s doubleheader blockbuster at the new Perth Stadium. Will he play fullback or centre? That is anyone’s guess as new coach Anthony Seibold plans his first season in the big league.
Fans will also be watching closely the displays of 22-year-old second-rower Angus Crichton in his last year with Souths before switching to the Roosters in 2019. He had the middle finger of his left hand amputated in an off-season operation following repeated dislocations.
A shrewd signing is World Cup three-quarter Dane Gagai from Newcastle. Last year he was the first winger in history to win the Wally Lewis Medal as the Origin Man of the Series.
Seibold also expects a big year from the English twins George and Tom Burgess after a somewhat subdued 2017 season: “Both boys have great attitudes and I love working with them.” And he is in awe of their brother Sam, too.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Coach: Paul McGregor
Ins: Mitch Allgood (Wakefield Trinity), James Graham (Bulldogs), Ben Hunt (Broncos), Jeremy Latimore (Sharks)
Outs: Josh Dugan (Sharks), Siliva Havili (Canberra Raiders), Drew Hutchison (Leigh Centurions), Mose Masoe (Hull KR), Will Matthews (Titans), Tyrone McCarthy (Salford Red Devils), Josh McCrone (Toronto Wolfpack), Taane Milne (Tigers), Russell Packer (Tigers), Joel Thompson (Sea Eagles)
For the first time in several years the Dragons will have two classy halves to direct their attack. Ben Hunt, the so-called $6 million man, arrived on a five-year contract to link with England stand-off Gareth Widdop. Hunt will get a baptism of fire when he lines up against his old club, Brisbane, in the opening match of the season on Thursday.
Coach Paul McGregor couldn’t be more pleased with the pre-season efforts of Hunt and Widdop, believing the three-quarters will thrive on the clean ball they will get from the pair.
So, too, will talented 22-year-old fullback Matt Dufty who made his senior debut at the end of last season with some exciting displays in his seven appearances. But perhaps the most important recruit is England prop James Graham, with a record of 43 Tests, 224 Super League appearances for St Helens and 135 matches for Canterbury. “His work ethic, passion, leadership, and enthusiasm immediately rubbed off on the squad. His great attitude has been contagious,” said head coach McGregor.
The evergreen Kiwis World Cup winger Jason Nightingale, with 33 Tests and 245 NRL appearances to his credit, backs up for his 12th NRL season and showed great form in the Charity Shield; unlucky to have had two tries disallowed. A useful signing is prop Jeremy Latimore, with 139 games for six NRL clubs on his CV.
Coach: Trent Robinson
Ins: Cooper Cronk (Storm), Frank-Paul Nu’uausala (Wigan Warriors), Reece Robinson (rugby union), James Tedesco (Tigers)
Outs: Paul Carter (released), Kane Evans (Eels), Michael Gordon (Titans), Aidan Guerra (Knights), Mitchell Pearce (Knights), Connor Watson (Knights)
Betting: 4-1 fav
Fans from opposition clubs wonder how the Roosters can keep signing superstars and stay under the salary cap. The club’s financial advisers must be real wizards!
After 38 Tests, 22 State of Origin appearances and 323 NRL games for Melbourne, Cooper Cronk has moved to Sydney to be with his fiancé with the Roosters quickly outbid several other clubs for his services.
The accountants also found heaps of money to sign captain Boyd Cordner to a mammoth five-year deal believed to be more than $850,000 a season. All that came after snapping up exciting Tigers fullback James Tedesco for an estimated $4 million.
The bookmakers reckon the outlay will be worth it, installing the Roosters as 4-1 favourites to win the Premiership.
Perhaps the only flaw in the plans of coach Trent Robinson is the lack of a proven top-class goalkicker following the departure of Michael Gordon to the Gold Coast.
Gordon boasts a career success rate of 81.3 percent (596 goals from 733 attempts), well ahead of his possible successors – Sio Siua Taukeiaho (77 percent), Blake Ferguson (70), Latrell Mitchell (62) and Reece Robinson (48).
Coach: Ivan Cleary
Ins: Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), Pita Godinet (Sea Eagles), Benji Marshall (Broncos), Ben Matulino (Warriors), Chris McQueen (Titans), Taane Milne (Dragons), Russell Packer (Dragons), Josh Reynolds (Bulldogs), Robbie Rochow (Storm), Corey Thompson (Widnes Vikings)
Outs: Matt Ballin (retired), Jamal Idris (retired), Jack Littlejohn (Salford Red Devils), Kyle Lovett (Leigh Centurions), Jordan Rankin (Huddersfield Giants), Ava Seumanufagai (Sharks), James Tedesco (Roosters), Aaron Woods (Bulldogs)
This will be the supreme test of the ability of Ivan Cleary as a coach. The makeup of the 2018 Wests Tigers’ squad must be having the fans scratching their heads. But something had to be done.
Some of the Tigers who had played together from their teenage days have gone. Mitchell Moses, James Tedesco and Aaron Woods. They were all players of the future.
Nevertheless, after their departure for what they see as greener pastures, Cleary needed some hard heads to drive the Tigers forward.
The Bulldogs snubbed the Canterbury fans’ favourite son Josh Reynolds and he is with the Tigers to use his experience wisely. He will provide plenty of class in the backline.
The most interesting signing is Benji Marshall, back after a stint in Rugby Union and with the Dragons and Broncos. He is no certainty to be in the top 17 every week, but he will have a big influence on the young players. Cleary hopes Benji’s enthusiasm rubs off.