Burning questions for the NRL trials
With the first round of trials to get underway this weekend, NRL.com takes a look at the burning question for each club's fans that will impact how their side lines up for Round 1.
The departures of Peter Wallace (Penrith), Corey Norman (Parramatta) and Scott Prince (retired) have created a crisis in the playmaker ranks at Brisbane. Will Ben Hunt, as the incumbent, start at halfback? Will recruit Ben Barba find himself in the halves (with Josh Hoffman to retain the custodian role) or will he take the number 1 jersey? If so, will it be the likes of Ashley Taylor (who only turns 19 shortly after the season commences and may still be some way off an NRL debut) or utility Jordan Kahu who gets the five-eighth spot?
We get our first look when the Broncos take on the Cowboys at Dolphin Oval at Redcliffe at 7.15pm this Saturday.
Despite the club being relatively quiet on the player market, the wealth of quality juniors flooding through ensures plenty of competition for spots. The most hotly contested is surely the number 7 – with utility playmaker Josh McCrone moving to hooker, will young gun Mitch Cornish get first crack to partner skipper and five-eighth Terry Campese in the halves? Could his fellow Junior Kangaroo Jack Ahearn or utility Jack Wighton force themselves into the mix?
How will coach Ricky Stuart elect to use 2013 breakout star Anthony Milford? He seems likely to take the number 1 jersey but could also find himself at 7 if Stuart elects to use Reece Robinson at fullback. The picture will get clearer when the Raiders meet the Storm at AAMI Park in Melbourne at 5.30pm on Saturday.
The departure of Ben Barba has cast a huge question over who will wear the blue and white number 1 jersey in 2014. Josh Morris is capable but is a huge asset – especially defensively – at centre. Will Hasler risk moving him and creating another gap to fill there?
Sam Perrett has reportedly been training at fullback and had a huge game there against the Eels last year when Barba was injured early – will he get first crack as the "safe" option? Or will highly rated youngster Pat Templeman jump to the front of the queue? Krisnan Inu has also spent plenty of time at the back while Drury Low and Mitch Brown are outsiders but not out of the equation – will they be considered options? Hasler's plans will begin to reveal themselves when the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs return to Belmore on Sunday at 5pm.
Have the Sharks done enough to cover for the departures of impact forwards Ben Ross, Jayson Bukuya, Tyrone Peachey, Jon Green and Mark Taufua? Do they have the depth coming through to fill the void? Can Michael Lichaa live up to the huge raps he earned in the Under-20s and put pressure on the hooker rotation of Isaac De Gois and veteran John Morris? How will Eric Grothe Jr shape up in his first game since 2010? And can ex-Tiger Blake Ayshford impress in his first outing in the black, white and blue?
We get our first look at the Sharks when they contest their first 'Battle of the Beaches' for 2014 up against the Sea Eagles at Remondis Stadium on Friday night.
The departure of larger-than-life personality Jamal Idris has left coach John Cartwright with a sizeable hole to fill at right centre and having recruited another left centre in Brad Tighe it might take some juggling before he find the right combination. Tighe and Siuatonga Likiliki have been named in the centres for Sunday's trial against the Warriors in Auckland with Maurice Blair – another predominantly left centre – to also get plenty of game-time from the bench.
Brad Takairangi played 18 games at left centre last year and Cowboys recruit Kalifa Faifai Loa has been touted as an option so Cartwright's greatest challenge over the next three weeks will be determining who is his best option on the right.
With most of their grand final squad intact Manly will look very familiar across the park, but a stack of departures in the front row have thrown up some questions. Will Jason King – who played just four games in 2013, underwent a shoulder reconstruction in the off-season and turns 33 in March – return to his best to lead an inexperienced pack?
Will 19-year-old Jake Trbojevic force his way into the top squad? Who from Rabbitohs recruit Josh Starling, Broncos recruit Dunamis Lui and Irish World Cup player James Hasson impress coach Geoff Toovey enough to make the Round 1 bench? The young props get their first chance to strut their stuff in a match situation when the Sea Eagles visit the Sharks home ground Remondis Stadium on Friday night at 7.30pm.
England Test player Gareth Widdop will be tough to replace, and his 2013 backup Brett Finch has retired. Coach Craig Bellamy needs to trim down a number of options to find a partner for Cooper Cronk in the halves. Will 2013 debutant Ben Hampton retain his billing as front-runner for the role? Will Queensland Cup star Cody Walker's trip down to Victoria be in vain or will he earn a taste of NRL footy? Will eleventh-hour recruits Joel Romelo and Ben Roberts throw a spanner in the mix or are they purely on board as rep-season coverage for the Storm's Origin stars?
With Cronk out injured until at least Round 1 the auditions start against the Raiders at AAMI Park in Melbourne at 5.30pm on Saturday.
With Kurt Gidley earmarked for the No.9 jersey in 2014 the biggest question lies with who will don the halfback jersey; will it be incumbent Tyrone Roberts, or can new signing Michael Dobson do enough to register on coach Wayne Bennett's radar?
Can Korbin Sims show he has matured enough to stake his claim for a regular spot in the 17, week in, week out? And will former city favourite Clint Newton emerge as a long-term proposition or merely stop-gap value? Both Dobson and Roberts will get to showcase their wares when the Knights take on the First Nation Goannas at Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.
Rookie coach Paul Green has said that he has got a "fair idea" of who will be in his starting team for Round 1 against the Raiders but getting the rotation right for the hooking position will be determined during the trials. Anthony Mitchell has been named to start in the No.9 on Saturday night against the Broncos with interchange players Cameron King and Rory Kostjasyn both expected to spend time at dummy-half in the first hit-out of the year.
Which leaves Ray Thompson. He helped to spark the Cowboys' six-game winning streak heading into the finals, had his jaw broken in Round 24 and made it back in time to represent Papua New Guinea at the World Cup. Thompson is without question the front-runner at this stage but the balance of his bench will be one of Green's primary concerns.
The new-look squad contains plenty of subplots but as usual it's the somewhat cursed blue and gold number 7 jersey causing all the headaches. Will big-money flop Chris Sandow cast off his off-field dramas to return to the form that led to his high-profile recruitment and lead the Eels back into finals contention? Will Luke Kelly build on his 2013 performances and keep Sandow running around for Wentworthville? Will an in-form Jarryd Hayne at 1, Corey Norman at 6 and Nathan Peats at 9 turn any candidate into a matchwinner?
The three-quarter line has its own set of challenges with eight first graders in genuine competition for four spots. How will coach Brad Arthur fit eight into four? We get our first glimpse when the Eels take on Wests Tigers at ANZAC Oval in Alice Springs at 7.40pm on Saturday.
The big questions here are fullback, wing and hooker. Courtesy of one of their biggest recruitment drives in years, the Panthers have put together one of their deepest squads in recent memory. Coach Ivan Cleary will have a particularly difficult time choosing between the playmaking skills of Matt Moylan and the raw power of Kevin Naiqama at fullback.
One solution would be putting Naiqama on the wing, but that leaves him with one spot for last year's equal top try-scorer David Simmons, metre-eater Josh Mansour, injured speed demon James Roberts and NSW Cup top try-scorer Eto Nabuli. Lastly, will hooker James Segeyaro's obvious talent relegate incumbent captain Kevin Kingston to the bench for good?
The side has seen a mini-exodus from its three-quarter line but the big question is: how is coach Michael Maguire going to use former NYC sensation Luke Keary? Will he move incumbent five-eighth John Sutton into the back row, where his size and offloading ability could make him just as effective as he was at pivot in 2013? If so will Keary get a start in the number 6? Or will club junior Dylan Walker, who has spent time in the halves over the off season, force himself into contention? And will the recruitments of Lote Tuqiri and Joel Reddy help offset the loss of the experienced Matt King, as well as Andrew Everingham and Dylan Farrell?
Sneak a look at the Reynolds/Keary halves combo at Belmore this Sunday at 5pm when the Rabbitohs meet the Bulldogs.
St George Illawarra
It's a time of rejuvenation at the Dragons, with player movement and retirements drastically reducing the average age of their squad members. The biggest uncertainty hovers over their halves and centres. How will new buys Sam Williams and Gareth Widdop gel around the scrum base? With Matt Cooper and Chase Stanley gone, who will form their centres combination? How will Gerard Beale – bought from Brisbane at the end of 2012 – handle having to audition for a centres spot?
Elsewhere, who will put up their hand to play a lead role on the Dragons' prop rotation? Will highly touted but injury-prone ex-Tiger Matt Groat stamp his class early on? The first pieces of the puzzle will be revealed when they take on the combined Mudgee/Illawarra Cutters combination at Win Jubilee Oval on Friday night.
It's been a long time since any club won back-to-back competitions in rugby league – will the Roosters be able to get themselves up for the challenge? They won't have too many steep personnel dilemmas to confront with much of their premiership squad intact but the questions lie in the front row.
How will they handle the losses of Marty Kennedy and Luke O'Donnell? Is the promising Sam Moa ready to become one of the top two props at the club alongside Jared Waerea-Hargreaves? Will the damaging Dylan Napa reach his potential in 2014? Will Fijian World Cup prop Kane Evans leapfrog a few players to entrench himself in the top 17? We'll have to wait until the club's February 22 World Club Challenge match against Wigan to get a better idea.
How do you fit two incumbent Test fullbacks into the one club side? That seems to be the biggest dilemma facing Warriors coach Matt Elliott. Will Sam Tomkins oust Kevin Locke at the back? If so does Locke move to the wing, and will he be happy with what he will no doubt view as a demotion? Or could Tomkins partner Shaun Johnson in the halves? If so what does that mean for the NRL career of Thomas Leuluai?
And wherever he plays, will the English Test custodian be able to help one of the NRL's most enigmatic sides find consistency? The experimenting begins, minus Tomkins, against the Titans at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland on Sunday at 4pm.
For a side that struggled mightily last season, Mick Potter's only real dilemmas fall on the wing and in the poor fella wearing Benji Marshall's famed 6 jumper. 2005 premiership hero Pat Richards returns, but with incumbents David Nofoaluma and Marika Koroibete entrenched, three (four, if you include man mountain Taqele Naiyaravoro) into two doesn't go.
Then there's the issue of who will partner rookie sensation Luke Brooks in the halves, with Braith Anasta and impressive summer trainer Blake Austin both getting their shot this weekend with Brooks out injured. Astute signings in Dene Halatau, Martin Taupau and Cory Paterson means only quality – not depth – will be problematic in his forward pack.