The 2014 NRL season gets underway this week when Premiers Sydney Roosters take on rivals South Sydney Rabbitohs at the ANZ Stadium. Here’s how we think each side in the league will fare in 2014. To see the round one fixtures, click here.
Home Ground: Suncorp Stadium, Milton (Brisbane)
Coach: Anthony Griffin
2013 finish: 12th
2013 top pointscorer: Scott Prince, 120
2013 top tryscorer: Josh Hoffman, 15
Gains: Ben Barba (Bulldogs), Martin Kennedy (Roosters), Todd Lowrie (Warriors), Stewart Mills (Sharks), Daniel Vidot (Dragons).
Losses: Scott Anderson (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats), Kurt Baptiste (Raiders), Dunamis Lui (Sea Eagles), Corey Norman (Eels), Scott Prince (retired), Lama Tasi (Salford Red Devils), Peter Wallace (Panthers).
One can only wonder why the Brisbane Broncos are still at the odds of 20-1 to win the Premiership, especially after the mother of all hidings inflicted on them by the Warriors in the last weekend of the pre-season trials.
Last year they finished in front of only four other clubs, their worst spot on the ladder since joining the big league back in 1988. And there is a big question mark over their halves after Scott Prince retired, Peter Wallace, thinking he was unwanted, departed to Penrith, and Corey Norman joined Parramatta. Ben Hunt will undoubtedly wear the No.7 shirt. But with the Raiders refusing to release Anthony Milford and Jordan Kahu suffering his third crippling knee injury in four seasons it looks as though the Broncos will have to blood youngster Kodi Nikorima at stand-off.
A lot falls on the shoulders of fullback Ben Barba, who defected from the Bulldogs. England Test centre Jack Reed looks ready for action after his return from the injury that forced him to miss the World Cup. Kiwis World Cup representative Josh Hoffman has patched up his differences with the club. And former Canberra and Dragons winger Daniel Vidot seems to have settled in well.
The job of coach Anthony Griffin will hang in the balance unless he can get some early wins on the scoreboard.
Home Ground: GIO Stadium, Bruce (formerly named Canberra Stadium)
Coach: Ricky Stuart
2013 finish: 13th
2013 top pointscorer: Jarrod Croker, 136
2013 top tryscorer: Blake Ferguson, 10
Gains: Kurt Baptiste (Broncos), Lagi Setu (Storm).
Losses: Shaun Berrigan (retired), Sandor Earl (suspended), Blake Ferguson (released), Joe Picker (Rabbitohs), Joel Thompson (Dragons), Sam Williams (Dragons).
Coach Ricky Stuart failed to lift Parramatta off the bottom of the ladder.
Now he’s gone back to the club where he made a name as a player. A case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, perhaps! But the Raiders could hardly be expected to face another disruptive season such as they did in 2013, with the sacking of Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson and a guilty plea by Sandor Earl on drugs charges which saw him banned. No wonder the likes of Joe Picker and Joel Thompson sought greener pastures elsewhere.
A lot will depend on fullback Anthony Milford, even though he was disappointed at not being allowed to head for Brisbane for family reasons. His two Man of the Match awards for Samoa during the World Cup (against PNG and France) showed what an immensely talented player he is. Winger Edrick Lee burst on the scene last year, scoring seven tries in nine appearances. And he looks certain to be joined in the senior ranks by his gifted young cousin Brenko Lee. Captain Terry Campese predicts Brenko will be one of the great stars of the future.
Home Ground: ANZ Stadium, Homebush (Sydney)
Coach: Des Hasler
2013 finish: 7th
2013 top pointscorer: Trent Hodkinson, 147
2013 top tryscorer: Sam Perrett, 18
Gains: Damien Cook (Dragons), Reni Maitua (Eels), Pat O’Hanlon (Eels), Chase Stanley (Dragons).
Losses: Ben Barba (Broncos), Danny Galea (Widnes Vikings), Dene Halatau (Tigers), Kris Keating (Hull KR), Martin Taupau (Tigers).
The question on everybody’s lips – how will the Bulldogs replace the will-o’-the-wisp Ben Barba, who has departed for Brisbane? They have plenty of options including three internationals each of whom have played elsewhere in the backline but would not be out of place with the No.1 on their back – Sam Perrett, Krisnan Inu and Josh Morris.
At least this year the Bulldogs will have their full complement of top forwards in action from the kick-off. Twelve months ago they had to make do without Test stars James Graham (England) and Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard (both New Zealand) and lost five of their first six matches. To the players’ credit they still managed to make the play-offs.
After a disappointing 2013, Tony Williams must be keen to make amends. A rampaging ‘T-Rex’ would be the icing on the cake for Canterbury.
An interesting signing is Reni Maitua, a Premiership winner with the Bulldogs (in 2004). He is back after stints with Cronulla and Parramatta (which also included a two-year suspension for testing positive to a banned substance). He could prove to be a great back-up should their clever stand-off Josh Reynolds suffer any injury.
Home Ground: Remondis Stadium, Cronulla
Interim coach: Peter Sharp
2013 finish: 6th
2013 top pointscorer: Michael Gordon, 112
2013 top tryscorer: Andrew Fifita, 9
Gains: Blake Ayshford (Tigers), Eric Grothe (out of retirement), Daniel Holdsworth (Hull FC), Matt Prior (Dragons), Siosaia Vave (Storm).
Losses: Jason Bukuya (Warriors), Jon Green (Redcliffe, Queensland Cup), Stewart Mills (Broncos), Tyrone Peachey (Panthers), Ben Pomeroy (Catalan Dragons), Ben Ross (retired), Mark Tafua (retired), Chad Townsend (Warriors).
The Sharks were the overachievers of 2013. When they became the subject of a major Federal Government drugs investigation everyone expected them to crumble under the pressure. But even though there have still yet to be any charges laid, the Cronulla players produced a sterling performance to make the finals. They beat the Cowboys in Week One of the play-offs (albeit through a refereeing mistake) and then gave Manly a fright the following weekend.
The drug inquiry is continuing, with the NRL already fining the club over their handling of the affair and suspending coach Shane Flanagan for the 2014 season. Both the club and Flanagan are fighting the ruling. Interim coach Peter Sharp expects his lads will again shrug off the continuing saga. Once more the Cronulla hopes centre around their internationals – especially World Cup stars Andrew Fifita, Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis. Fifita comes off contract at the end of the season and is already being chased by South Sydney, the Roosters and rugby union’s Wallabies.
Daniel Holdsworth will add some experience on his return from Hull FC while Blake Ayshford will provide some flair in the three-quarters with a new lease-of-life after switching from the Tigers.
GOLD COAST TITANS
Home Ground: Robina Stadium, Gold Coast
Coach: John Cartwright
2013 finish: 9th
2013 top pointscorer: Aiden Sezer, 156
2013 top tryscorer: Kevin Gordon, 15
Gains: Maurice Blair (Storm), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Cowboys), Brad Tighe (Panthers).
Losses: Jamal Idris (Panthers), Hymel Hunt (Storm), Luke O’Dwyer (retired).
Who was best buy of the off-season? If past results are anything to by, the appointment of Neil Henry as assistant coach to John Cartwright could make all the difference to the Titans, who have missed the finals for the past three seasons. It was Henry who helped devise many of the tactics for Queensland during first few seasons of Mal Meninga’s record breaking run of eight Origin series successes. The Cowboys’ board members were left with egg on their collective face when they sacked him before the late run to the finals last season. As well as his technical expertise, Henry is also known for his communication skills. He will be a real boon for young halves Albert Kelly and Aidan Sezer.
A change in the front office will also help, with Graham Annesley, former chief operating officer at the NRL, taking over the reins after a frustrating spell as a Member of Parliament.
The Titans lost Jamal Idris to Penrith. But he never really fitted it on the Gold Coast and, in the swap, the Titans may have got themselves a winner in Brad Tighe. Fellow-centre Maurice Blair from the Storm will be a more than handy acquisition. And surely the time has come for the monster prop Dave Taylor to finally play to his obvious potential. That’s where Henry will surely come into the picture. A few words in Taylor’s ear, perhaps!
MANLY SEA EAGLES
Home Ground: Brookvale Oval
Coach: Geoff Toovey
2013 finish: 2nd
2013 top pointscorer: Jamie Lyon, 242
2013 top tryscorer: Jorge Tafua, 20
Gains: Cheyse Blair (Eels), Jayden Hodges (Cowboys), Dumanis Lui (Broncos), Josh Starling (Rabbitohs).
Losses: Richie Fa’aoso (retired), Joe Galuvao (retired), Brent Kite (Panthers), George Rose (Storm), David Gower (Eels).
Among the Manly fans and players alike, the loss in last year’s Grand Final is still hurting. The Sea Eagles had led by 10 points in the second half, only to be run down by the Roosters and lose by eight. No one talks about it at Brookvale. But it is still in everyone’s mind.
Can they reverse the result 12 months later? For one, the task hasn’t been made any easier by the loss of four experienced props. Three of them have been internationals – Brent Kite (Australia and Tonga), Joe Galuvao (New Zealand and Samoa) and Richie Fa’soso (Tonga). The fourth is, of course, cult figure George Rose who will be finishing his career in Melbourne.
To be fair, an ex-Origin prop Jason King will be back after serious injury and the then 28-year-old Brenton Lawrence proved to be one of the real buys of last season after moving south from the Gold Coast.
A lot is also expected from Brisbane recruit Dunamis Lui and 20-year-old rookie Jake Trbojevic, who made his senior debut in the final round of the home-and-away games last year. Internationals Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart will make their presence felt in the back row.
It is in the backs that Manly will certainly shine again. Captain Jamie Lyon won’t play representative rugby these days. But the former Man of Steel was still good enough in 2013 to earn a spot in the centres with Greg Inglis in the World XIII chosen by Rugby League World’s experts.
Wingers David ‘Wolfman’ Williams and Jorge Taufua were the Sea Eagles’ leading tryscorers in 2013, with 20 apiece. Injury kept Steve Matai out of the World Cup, while Keiran Foran was the Kiwis stand-off.
Daly Cherry-Evans, while unable to displace either Golden Boot winner Jonathan Thurston, or Cooper Cronk, who was short-listed for the trophy, for a place in Australia’s side which won the final, still managed a Man of the Match award against Ireland. With Andrew Johns as his personal coach at Brookvale he can only get better.
Home Ground: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Coach: Craig Bellamy
2013 finish: 5th
2013 top pointscorer: Cameron Smith, 256
2013 top tryscorer: Billy Slater, 18
Gains: Hymel Hunt (Titans), Travis Robinson (Panthers), George Rose (Sea Eagles), Dane Weston (Panthers).
Losses: Maurice Blair (Titans), Brent Finch (retired), Matt McGahan (North Harbour, NZ rugby union), Junior Sa’u (Salford Red Devils), Lagi Setu (Raiders), Gareth Widdop (Dragons), Siosaia Vave (Sharks).
Any side with ‘The Three Musketeers’, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, must be treated with the utmost respect. That’s why the bookmakers are not giving punters any favours with the short odds of Premiership success on offer. This is despite the big question mark that hangs over the stand-off spot.
Coach Craig Bellamy seemed unperturbed when England World Cup star Gareth Widdop departed to try his luck with the Dragons and former Wigan guest Brett Finch decided to hang up his boots. Bellamy always seems to find a satisfactory answer, be it giving experienced players unwanted at other clubs a new lease of life or unearthing a youngster with real talent.
In this case it is the latter.
Keen judges suggest the man to take over the No.6 role permanently is Ben Hampton, with two senior appearances under his belt, making his senior NRL debut when the Storm were depleted by players on Origin duty. His great footwork and speed had already won him spots in the Queensland sides for Under-15s, Under-16s and Under-18s. And he was captain of the Maroons in the inaugural Under-20s State of Origin clash in 2012. He looks a likely lad.
An interesting signing is George Rose, for so long a cult figure at Manly. He has already trimmed down a bit and is eager to show he is not yet ready for the scrap-heap. Fijian winger Sisa Waqa is also expected to build on his World Cup experience.
Home Ground: Hunter Stadium, Broadmeadow (Newcastle)
Coach: Wayne Bennett
2013 finish: 4th
2013 top pointscorer: Tyrone Roberts, 122
2013 top tryscorer: Akuila Uate, 15
Gains: Michael Dobson (Hull KR), Clint Newton (Panthers),
Losses: Danny Buderus (retired), Neville Costigan (Hull KR), Craig Gower (retired), Siuatonga Likiliki (Titans), Peter Mata’utia (Dragons), Kevin Naiqama (Panthers).
Some sections of the media last year sneeringly called the Knights ‘Dad’s Army’ because of the number of the players in their thirties. But the oldest coach in the NRL, Wayne Bennett, had the last laugh as Newcastle made it through to the penultimate weekend of the Premiership.
Captain Kurt Gidley is recovered after yet another season plagued by injury. And his presence will prove vital after the injury suffered by former Origin stand-off Jarrod Mullen in the Auckland Nines. Will Gidley, known for his utility value, take over from the retired Danny Buderus at hooker or he will fill in for Mullen.
Bennett unveiled another option in the Knights’ final trial (friendly) when he switched Darius Boyd, who plays fullback for the Knights and on the wing for Queensland and Australia, into the stand-off role.
The backline looks solid. Winger James McManus had a great 2013 season but missed the World Cup through injury. On the opposite flank Akuila Uate came good late in the season and managed a hat-trick of tries against Ireland in the World Cup. And centres Dane Gagai and Joseph (BJ) Leilua look like again repaying Bennett’s faith in them.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
Home Ground: Mt Smart Stadium, Penrose (Auckland)
Coach: Matt Elliott
2013 finish: 11th
2013 top pointscorer: Shaun Johnson, 177
2013 top tryscorer: Manu Vatuvei, 16
Gains: Jayson Bukuya (Sharks), Sam Tomkins (Wigan Warriors), Chad Townsend (Sharks).
Losses: Todd Lowrie (Broncos), Russell Packer (in prison), Steve Rapira (Salford Red Devils), Elijah Taylor (Panthers).
The Warriors may not have won the inaugural Auckland Nines, but their displays in the abbreviated game certainly had the critics raving. And when they put the cleaners through Brisbane the following weekend their odds with the bookmakers dropped dramatically.
Before the Nines you would have believed the Auckland side was a one-man outfit, with almost every media story focusing on the recruit from Wigan, Sam Tomkins. Would he make a massive impact like fellow-Englishmen Gareth Ellis, James Graham and the Burgess brothers have in recent years?
After just one game in the Nines the answer seemed a definite ‘yes’. He combined with Kiwis World Cup scrum-half Shaun Johnson with an ease that made one think they had been playing together for all their careers. Johnson, of course, was Man of the Tournament in the Nines. It may have been only a trial against the Broncos, but Tomkins made the match his own, having a hand in almost all of the Warriors’ nine tries. No wonder so many Wigan fans are staying on after the World Club Challenge to see him turn out against Parramatta next Sunday.
We still don’t know what will happen to Kevin Locke. What a luxury for coach Matt Elliott to have two current Test fullbacks in his side. Elliott has noted: “If they are both playing their best footy, they’re both in the team.”
The two other major signings, Fijian World Cup backrower Jayson Bukuya and former Junior Kangaroo half Chad Townsend (both ex-Cronulla) will figure prominently.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
Home Ground: 1300SMILES Stadium, Kirwan (Townsville).
Coach: Paul Green
2013 finish: 8th
2013 top pointscorer: Johnathan Thurston, 151
2013 top tryscorer: Antonio Winterstein, 13
Gains: Lachlan Coote (Panthers), Cameron King (Dragons)
Losses: Matt Bowen (Wigan Warriors), Dallas Johnson (retired), Ashley Graham (retired), Jayden Hodges (Sea Eagles), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Titans)
Most critics agree that the board of the North Queensland Cowboys acted prematurely last year when they told coach Neil Henry he would not be reappointed for the 2014 season. The news precipitated a resurgence of the Cowboys who came home like a runaway train to snatch a berth in the play-offs, something that looked highly improbable midway through the season. They should have gone further but for a disgraceful refereeing decision to allow a Cronulla try on the seventh tackle.
New coach Paul Green is therefore on a hiding to nothing. The former Super League Test half coached Queensland residents in 2012 and was assistant coach to Trent Robinson in the Sydney Roosters run to Premiership success. And he had back-to-back Queensland Cup successes with Wynum-Manly.
He hasn’t been helped by the serious injury in the pre-season to fullback recruit Lachlan Coote, bought from Penrith as a replacement for Matt Bowen, the Wigan signing.
But as long as Johnathan Thurston stays fit to direct the Cowboys around the paddock they will be a danger to any side. And there is plenty of experience with World Cup representatives – props Matt Scott and James Tamou, centre Brent Tate and Antonio Winterstein, who scored a hat-trick of tries for Samoa against Papua New Guinea.
Home Ground: Pirtek Stadium (formerly named Parramatta Stadium)
Coach: Brad Arthur
2013 finish: Last (16th)
2013 top pointscorer: Chris Sandow, 74
2013 top tryscorer: Ken Sio, 10
Gains: Liam Foran (Salford Red Devils), William Hopoate (Back from religious mission), Justin Hunt (Rabbitohs), Lee Mossop (Wigan Warriors), Corey Norman (Broncos), Nathan Peats (Rabbitohs), David Gower (Sea Eagles).
Losses: Cheyse Blair (Sea Eagles), Matt Keating (Burleigh Bears, Queensland Cup), Reni Maitua (Bulldogs), Jake Mullaney (Salford Red Devils), Pat O’Hanlon (Bulldogs), Ben Roberts (Storm), Taulima Tautai (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats).
The less said about the Parramatta Eels in the past couple of years, the better. They have been appalling. And the second straight wooden spoon saw former Australian Test coach Ricky Stuart quickly take to the lifeboats and head south to Canberra. Stuart is an intelligent man and could see no reason for subjecting himself to another season of hell.
New coach Brad Arthur is also a clever thinker, so why should he pick up the poisoned chalice?
For a start there is the return of the wonderfully-talented Will Hopoate after two years out of the game working as a Mormon missionary. Yes, he’ll be rusty. But his professionalism has already impressed Arthur and his coaching staff as well as team-mates.
There is also England prop Lee Mossop, although shoulder surgery after the World Cup means he won’t play his first match until late May. Winger Ken Sio is expected to continue his good form of last season, in which he was the Eels’ top tryscorer. And, of course, so much will rest on the shoulders of World Cup star Jarryd Hayne.
Home Ground: Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith (renamed by William Hill from Centrebet Stadium)
Coach: Ivan Cleary
2013 finish: 10th
2013 top pointscorer: Luke Walsh, 159
2013 top tryscorer: David Simmons, 19
Gains: Jamal Idris (Titans), Brent Kite (Sea Eagles), Kevin Naiqama (Knights), Tyrone Peachey (Sharks), Jamie Soward (London Broncos), Shaun Spence (Tigers), Elijah Taylor (Warriors), Peter Wallace (Broncos).
Losses: Blake Austin (Tigers), Cameron Ciraldo (retired), Lachlan Coote (Cowboys), Danny Galea (Widnes Vikings), Mose Masoe (St Helens), Clint Newton (Knights), Kyle O’Donnell (Raiders), Travis Robinson (Storm), Brad Tighe (Titans), Luke Walsh (St Helens).
With each new Penrith signing for 2014, the name Phil Gould loomed large. He was given the credit for trying to make his old club a real force again. But the man who was drawing the players to the foot of the Blue Mountains was former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary, and he has been more than happy to stay below the radar.
While the Panthers will benefit from the arrival of halves Peter Wallace (from Brisbane) and Jamie Soward (from the Dragons via London), perhaps the most significant buy was Kiwis World Cup utility Elijah Taylor, lured across the Tasman Sea by his former mentor Cleary.
Jamal Idris is another great signing. He’s been in the doldrums since his lone Test appearance in 2011.
And what about Tyrone Peachey? The Sharks couldn’t fit the youngster under the salary cap.
Expect a big season from Dean Whare after his great World Cup performances for the Kiwis, which earned him the rating as the game’s third best centre in the Rugby League World annual poll.
Cleary will also look to some of the Penrith youngsters, who took out the Under-20s Holden Cup last year, to come of age.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Home Grounds: Jubilee Oval, Kogarah; WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Coach: Steve Price
2013 finish: 14th
2013 top pointscorer: Jamie Soward, 58
2013 top tryscorers: Brett Morris, Jason Nightingale & Daniel Vidot, 9
Gains: Mike Cooper (Warrington Wolves), Dylan Farrell (Rabbitohs), Matt Groat (Tigers), Peter Mata’utia (Knights), Joel Thompson (Raiders), Gareth Widdop (Storm), Michael Witt (London Broncos), Sam Williams (Raiders).
Losses: Damien Cook (Bulldogs), Matt Cooper (retired), Nathan Fien (retired), Michael Henderson (retired), Cameron King (Cowboys), Josh Miller (retired), Matt Prior (Sharks), Chase Stanley (Bulldogs), Daniel Vidot (Broncos), Michael Weyman (Hull KR).
Bookmakers have Steve Price as the hot favourite to be the first NRL coach to be sacked in 2014. Stories abound that he has five rounds for the Dragons to make an impact or he will be shown the door.
His chances don’t look good, especially after the 38-20 thrashing handed out by South Sydney in the annual Charity Shield clash.
During the match, their star fullback Josh Dugan suffered a serious injury. He will have knee surgery today (Monday) and will not return until the so-called ‘deadline’ for Price has passed.
However, on the positive side, the arrival of England stand-off Gareth Widdop from Melbourne has boosted morale. He has been the Dragons’ most impressive player in the pre-season games.
Who will be his halfback partner? Price seemed originally to favour the recruit from Canberra Sam Williams. But some impressive work on the pitch by Michael Witt, back in Australia from the London Broncos, may have changed his opinion.
Mike Cooper (from Warrington) could very well become yet another English forward to stamp his authority on the NRL.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
Home Ground: ANZ Stadium, Homebush (Sydney)
Coach: Michael Maguire
2013 finish: 3rd
2013 top pointscorer: Adam Reynolds, 218
2013 top tryscorer: Nathan Merritt, 15
Gains: Joe Picker (Raiders), Joel Reddy (Tigers), Lote Tuqiri (Tigers)
Losses: Roy Asotasi (Warrington Wolves), Michael Crocker (retired), Andrew Everingham (Fukuoka Sanix Blues, Japanese rugby union), Dylan Farrell (Dragons), Justin Hunt (Eels), Matt King (retired), Jeff Lima (Catalan Dragons), Nathan Peats (Eels), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles).
All the pre-season talk has centred on the news that England Test forward Sam Burgess will have only one more season with South Sydney before defecting to ‘the dark side’.
However, it should have been about whether the Rabbitohs can stand up and be counted once they reach the play-offs. They have one of the best coaches around in Michael Maguire, a player roster to die for and a supporter base that other clubs can but envy. Yet for two straight seasons they have faltered when the chips are down.
They certainly looked the goods in their demolition of the Dragons in the recent annual Charity Shield – and that was without their slick halfback pairing of point-scoring wiz Adam Reynolds and exciting young stand-off Luke Keary, the latter suffering a serious injury in the Auckland Nines. But captain and star utility John Sutton, earmarked for a season at loose-forward, switched to half and turned in a five-star display in the Charity Shield.
And any club that can boast the world’s best centre (and second-best fullback) in Greg Inglis must have a lot going for it. Sam Burgess and his three brothers will terrorise many an opposition. And it will be interesting to see how the two old stagers, Lote Tuqiri and Eric Grothe Jnr, perform.
Home Ground: Allianz Stadium, Moore Park (Sydney)
Coach: Trent Robinson
2013 finish: Premiers
2013 top pointscorer: James Maloney, 252
2013 top tryscorer: Michael Jennings, 20
Gains: Remi Casty (Catalan Dragons), Heath L’Estrange (Bradford Bulls)
Losses: Martin Kennedy (Broncos), Luke O’Donnell (retired), Michael Oldfield (Catalan Dragons), Nafe Seluini (Burleigh Bears, Queensland Cup)
Betting: 4-1 favourites
The odds are against the Roosters. It is 21 seasons since Brisbane became the most recent club to win back-to-back Premierships. Although the Broncos did manage two in a row in 1997 and 1998, the former was when the competitions were split by the Super League war.
But the Roosters showed they have the side to do it with their solid victory over Wigan in the World Club Challenge. They have lost just one of the side that won the Grand Final last season – Luke O’Donnell, who has retired.
And they have plenty of depth, with no less than 10 of their players involved in last year’s World Cup. Among the star-studded senior line-up are their evergreen captain Anthony Minichiello, the world’s best winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the number one second-rower Sonny Bill Williams, and Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Rémi Casty and Boyd Cordner, who all received votes in Rugby League World’s annual poll for the top XIII.
Winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall would have been World Cup bound, too, but for suffering a hairline jaw fracture in the Grand Final. And hooker Jake Friend must be close to breaking into the representative ranks.
A boost for Dally M Coach of the Year Trent Robinson is the addition to his backroom staff of Steve McNamara, England’s Test coach.
Home Grounds: Campbelltown Sports Stadium; Leichhardt Oval; and ANZ Stadium, Homebush (Sydney)
Coach: Michael Potter
2013 finish: 15th
2013 top pointscorer: Benji Marshall, 111
2013 top tryscorer: Tim Simona, 12
Gains: Blake Austin (Panthers), Dean Halatua (Bulldogs), Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls), Corey Paterson (Hull KR), Pat Richards (Wigan Warriors), Martin Taupau (Bulldogs).
Losses: Blake Ayshford (Sharks), Matthew Bell ( Burleigh Bears, Queensland Cup), Matt Groat (Dragons), Benji Marshall (Auckland Blues rugby union), Eddy Pettybourne (Wigan Warriors), Joel Reddy (Rabbitohs), Shaun Spence (Panthers), Lote Tuqiri (Rabbitohs).
The Tigers are hot favourites to take out the wooden spoon, and their hopes were hardly helped by serious pre-season injuries to boom youngster Curtis Sironen, utility star Tim Moltzen and veteran recruit Dene Halatau.
But their hopes will depend on whether a host of rookies, blooded before their time last season because of a horrendous injury toll in the senior squad, can fulfil their obvious promise.
The focus will be on 19-year-old scrum-half Luke Brooks, whose lone first-grade appearance late last year was one of the most impressive seen in decades. Fullback James Tedesco is hoping for a rare injury-free season to show off his razzle-dazzle. Wingers Marika Koroibete and David Nofoaluma are terrifying in build and speed, centre Tim Simona has already come of age and there are several young forwards ready to make a mark.
Then there is the X Factor. Former Man of Steel Pat Richards is back to his old club from his extended stint at Wigan. His kicking, both tactical and for goal, will be vital. Michael Potter’s career as coach could very well depend on it!