There’s been some fierce debate at NRL.com HQ over the past few weeks about which teams will plot a course for the finals in 2011… and which teams will crash and burn. Sorry folks, but no correspondence will be entered into!

1st – Dragons

Yes we know it’s the obvious choice, but with good reason. St George Illawarra has been the dominant force of the past two seasons – a slick, exceptionally well-drilled unit that has finally lived up to its potential under the tutelage of supercoach Wayne Bennett. Last year the Dragons topped the NRL in almost every defensive category there is – fewest points conceded, line-breaks conceded, tries conceded and missed tackles – and there is no reason why they should be any easier to break down in 2011. Although they have lost some depth in the forwards with the departures of Neville Costigan, Jeremy Smith and Jarrod Saffy, the crux of the side still remains. And Mark Gasnier can only improve. They are the team to beat.

2nd – Tigers

For years Wests Tigers exhibited a soft underbelly when it came to the crunch but that all changed in 2010 as the NRL’s most exciting attacking team stormed into the top four. The difference has been in the forwards, where the arrival of big men Keith Galloway and Gareth Ellis over the past two seasons has given them a much-needed hard edge. No longer can opponents run over this group. Still, it is the scintillating playmaking combination of hooker Robbie Farah and five-eighth Benji Marshall that makes the Tigers so dangerous. The return from injury of halfback/fullback Tim Moltzen and fullback Wade McKinnon in 2011 has them looking good for another shot at the title.

3rd – Roosters

Consistency will determine the fate of the Sydney Roosters in 2011 after they stormed home at the back end of the year last season to reach the grand final. That said, few sides can boast the ‘X-Factor’ that the boys from Bondi have nestled in their classy backline. Todd Carney is the man that can do it again for the Roosters – his game-breaking abilities and combination with halfback Mitchell Pearce being the envy of the league. In fact, it is likely that these two will also partner one another for NSW in 2011 and the Blues will be more confident than ever that they can snap Queensland’s five-series winning streak as a result. The Roosters remain solid in all key positions and coach Brian Smith will be aiming high again.

4th – Warriors

They’ve barely been mentioned in premiership calculations but the Warriors should be quietly confident of giving the comp a real shake this season. Unlucky to be knocked out in Week One of the finals last year after finishing the regular season in fifth, they have been big movers in the player market with Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu adding more strike and former Queensland utility Shaun Berrigan returning to the NRL to bolster the club’s playmaking depth. More importantly, local products Manu Vatuvei, Russell Packer, Sam Rapira, Jerome Ropati and captain Simon Mannering continue to improve and give the side a much more settled look than in previous years. One thing is for sure – no trip across the Tasman will be easy in 2011.

5th – Raiders

Canberra stunned pretty much everyone – probably even themselves – when they charged into the finals last season with eight wins from nine games but it also proved that this squad will be a real force in the coming years. In 2011 the Raiders’ already monstrous forward pack has been bolstered by the arrival of former Melbourne enforcer Brett White – who joins the likes of David Shillington, Dane Tilse and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – while veteran, wily halfback Matt Orford could be the man to provide the final piece of the puzzle. His combination with five-eighth Terry Campese promises plenty and although Campese will miss more than half of the season with a knee injury, he will be raring to go come finals time. However, it is fullback Josh Dugan who looms largest of all – the dynamic youngster set to push for higher honours this year. This could be the year Canberra are once again an NRL powerhouse.

6th – Storm

All eyes will be on Melbourne in 2011 as they start afresh following last season’s shocking salary cap bombshell. Now under the cap and, therefore, back in the premiership race, the Storm won’t be lacking in motivation although they will field a vastly different outfit this time around. Gone is superstar centre Greg Inglis, whose move to South Sydney dominated headlines over the summer, while Jeff Lima, Aiden Tolman, Ryan Hoffman, Brett Finch and Brett White have also departed. Crucially though, Melbourne have retained their key trio of hooker Cameron Smith, halfback Cooper Cronk and fullback Billy Slater and have some intriguing additions to the squad in the shape of former Rabbitohs centre Beau Champion, Penrith’s Maurice Blair and Canberra veteran Troy Thompson. While making up for the two premierships they were stripped of this time last year might just be a bridge too far in 2011, they should still feature come September.

7th – Broncos

Time will tell whether or not Brisbane’s traumatic pre-season – in which player power ultimately ended the reign of coach Ivan Henjak before a ball had been kicked in anger – has the desired effect on this once-mighty outfit.  It’s been a tough time for the Broncos, who not only missed the finals in 2010 for the first time in 19 years but also saw Greg Inglis renege on a handshake deal with former CEO Bruno Cullen. However the year ahead represents a fresh start. Crucially, they welcome back Queensland and Australian prop Ben Hannant to bolster a forward pack that lacked depth last year, while the return from injury of centre Justin Hodges will ease the blow of missing out on Inglis. Youngsters Josh Hoffman, Matt Gillett and Jharal Yow Yeh will also benefit from having another season under their belts. Captain Darren Lockyer remains the key man for this club and they can ill-afford to lose him to injury, but while he is on the field they will always be a chance.

8th – Bulldogs

After the unmitigated and completely unexpected disaster that was the 2010 season, Canterbury have wasted no time in trying to right the wrongs of the immediate past. Arguably the most active club in the player market over the past six months, the Bulldogs have a new-look halves combination this year with young guns Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating arriving from Manly and Parramatta respectively. The forward pack has also received a much-needed boost with the big-name signings of Panthers back-rower Frank Pritchard, Melbourne’s Aiden Tolman and Grant Millington from Cronulla, while Greg Eastwood returns to the club after a stint in England. The Bulldogs showed signs of a recovery late last season – largely on the back of exciting utility Ben Barba (who will play as starting fullback this year) – and the fresh blood arriving in 2011 look certain to get them back on track.

Why Some Big Guns Might Misfire…

Rabbitohs – There is no doubt that South Sydney have the talent to go all the way, but then that’s been the case for the past two years as well. Inglis is a huge signing but until they can find more consistency and some bottle in defence, they won’t figure in premiership calculations.

Panthers – Penrith finished the regular season in second place last season but have lost some strike power in Frank Pritchard and also look to have lost some ground to the chasing pack. Their success could again rely on the boot of halfback Luke Walsh – and that could be a bridge too far in 2011.

Titans – The Gold Coast have been one of the NRL’s most consistent sides over the past two seasons but will their struggles come finals time weigh them down this time around? The retirement of Mat Rogers is a big loss although Scott Prince remains their central figure.

Sea Eagles – The return from injury of Brett Stewart has Manly fans eagerly anticipating the season ahead and there is no doubt they have missed his influence in attack, but whether he alone can lift them above last year’s eighth-place finish is doubtful. The loss of halfback Trent Hodkinson is a debilitating blow after he and Kieran Foran had just begun to forge a solid partnership in 2010. Their current ‘siege mentality’ in the media is a cause for concern – it may galvanise the side but it could also have the opposite effect. Time will tell.

See the full team lists for the opening round