Raiders playmaker Terry Campese is coming off his first full pre-season in years. Copyright: Robb Cox/NRL Photos. Credit: Robb Cox/NRL Photos Copyright: Robb Cox/NRL Photos
Each week Canberra assistant coach Matt Parish delves into the tactical issues that will determine who emerges the 2014 NRL Telstra Premiers in his Talking Tactics column.
If last season was anything to go on, the combinations of this year's halfbacks and five-eighths hold the keys to not only their teams' success again this year, but in some cases the careers of their club coaches.
A quick look of the halves combinations selected for the first round of the NRL sees an intriguing mix of youth and inexperience at one end of the spectrum, with experience and age at the other - often in the same halves pairing.
It's hard to throw two rookie halves into the firing line together early in the season. The days of chucking them in the deep end and seeing if they can swim are almost gone, with most coaches giving new halves a lifeguard in a seasoned halves partner to help him put his life jacket on if things get tough.
In fact it's almost a case of the old and the new right across the NRL, with only Manly (Cherry-Evans and Foran) and the Roosters (Pearce and Maloney), boasting a halves combination that is settled and reasonably experienced playing together.
It is no fluke that the two grand final teams in 2013 had the most stable and well skilled halves combinations in the competition. The Roosters' NSW Origin pairing of Pearce and Maloney were heavily criticised after another narrow lost to the Maroons last year in Origin and they certainly went out to prove a point, as they dominated late in the season to help the Roosters win the 2013 Premiership.
In the big games towards the end of last season the Sea Eagles' terrific pairing of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran continue to show maturity and class beyond their years and while Manly have these two players consistently testing opposition defensive lines, the team from the northern beaches will always be there about come finals time.
Consistency is also key in a halves pairing; you need to make sure you get as many games out of a chosen combination as possible. Once again it's no coincidence that these four players only missed five games between them all season, creating a lot of stability in their line-ups and a reason why their teams were so prominent all season.
Teams need their best players touching the ball as many times as possible - and Johnathan Thurston does this better than anyone else in the game for the Cowboys. North Queensland are desperate to find someone who can partner Thurston and create the same stability as the Roosters and Sea Eagles and they need Robert Lui to step up and take some much needed pressure off him as they search for their inaugural premiership.
Same applies for Cooper Cronk at the Melbourne Storm after the departure of Gareth Widdop and two players get their chance this week with Cronk out injured. On one hand there's the youthful exuberance of the rising star in Ben Hampton, with coach Craig Bellamy deciding on the charismatic Ben Roberts to get the first chance to start the season directing traffic.
The Rabbitohs have selected two potential future Origin players in their halves. Dylan Walker is a dynamic ball runner who played a lot of junior football at five-eighth, while Adam Reynolds now has 50 NRL games under his belt and is in charge of steering the team around the park. And didn't they do a great job in their win over a Roosters side boasting the incumbent NSW Origin halves!
Reynolds possesses the best short-kicking game in the competition and the Burrow is desperate for these two young men to step up and help break that 43-year drought.
The Bulldogs have two reliable and consistent halves that understand and execute their well-structured offensive patterns that suit their massive forward pack and ball movement. Both Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson are smart players who play off the back of their big men and will be a key factor in any success at Belmore this year.
The Gold Coast's performances over the past two seasons have been very inconsistent and in my opinion it has reflected somewhat in the performances of their halves, Albert Kelly and Aidan Sezer. Both can be lethal on their day but they need to step up if the Titans are to experience semi -final football this season.
The Warriors are the most inconsistent team in the competition and you never know which team is going to show up on the day and their half Shaun Johnson is either rocks or diamonds. At his best there is no more skilled player in the NRL and he needs to continue his outstanding Auckland Nines form and take that into 13-a-side footy. (Interestingly coach Elliott is selected new recruit Chad Townsend from the Sharks to partner Johnson in the first game this season.)
There is a lot of confidence and growling coming from the foot of the mountains as the Panthers pin a lot of their hope in two high-profile former Origin halves in Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, with both featuring very contrasting styles of play. It is essential that they combine immediately for the Panthers to fulfil there much- anticipated resurrection.
The Dragons also have recruited a new combination and it's very interesting that under-the-pump coach Steve Price has chosen the experienced and much-travelled Michael Witt to partner Gareth Widdop in the halves over their other new recruit Sam Williams, who featured for the Dragons during the trial match period at halfback.
The Sharks have also pinned their hopes in another journeyman in Daniel Holdsworth to partner Origin hopeful Todd Carney in the halves. Much of their success this season could be determined by how well these two players combine, and what role Jeff Robson plays.
The Tigers move into the post-Benji era with big raps on Luke Brooks who will partner the experienced Braith Anasta in the hope that this may end the misery of the last two seasons at the joint venture. With Benji Marshall so dominant for the Tigers for many seasons, Brooks needs to be as good as his raps suggest if the Tigers are to climb the ladder in 2014.
The Raiders have made similar changes to the Tigers with the Terry Campese / Jack Wighton combination. I expect both these combinations to improve throughout the year as they both get more game time under their belts.
Already after just one game in the season the stakes have been raised in the halves department, with the Rabbitohs pair of Reynolds and Walker outpointing the premiership-winning combination of Pearce and Maloney.
Time will tell if this new combination at South Sydney will prevail in 2014, but if one thing is for certain: the team that finishes on top of the pile in 2014 will boast a halves pairing that people will be talking about in similar conversations this time next season.