As coaches fine-tune their game plans for the 2015 NRL season, what will your club be hoping to get this Christmas?
A long-term solution to their five-eighth issues – and a short-term solution at fullback – will be on the top of their letter to Santa this year. All their Christmases appeared to have come at once when Darius Boyd followed Wayne Bennett back to Red Hill but his unfortunate achilles injury now raises more questions regarding the make-up of their backline. Will No.6 elect Anthony Milford be shifted back to the position where he made his name at Canberra or will Jordan Kahu or English import Greg Eden be given a crack at it? Or will Justin Hodges shift to the back and force a reshuffle in the three-quarter line? Milford may be a proven NRL fullback but apart from him the club's halves options are limited, and halfback Ben Hunt desperately needs a halves partner capable of attracting their share of attention from the defending team. Once that happens we can stop looking for 'the next Darren Lockyer'.
A settled spine. Ricky Stuart finally got his big-name signing when the club welcomed Roosters forward and 15-Test Kiwis veteran Frank-Paul Nuuausala, following on from the recruitment of English Test hooker Josh Hodgson. With time running out that will likely be it for big names ahead of 2015, so with a raft of talented three-quarters and the bones of a good forward pack coming through, the number one wish for Ricky's Raiders will be a solution to the vexed 1-6-7-9 combination. It's Stuart's second year back in Canberra and he's had a say in recruitment; now he needs to make it stick. If he gives Jack Wighton first crack at fullback with Mitch Cornish and Blake Austin in the halves and Hodgson starting at dummy half, he'll be hoping they click early and save him from another season in the doldrums fiddling with combinations.
How about we start with a bag-full of Michael Ennis blood to boil in every Bulldog's veins? At tad over the top, maybe, but 'Menace' was the undoubted soul of Belmore and the absence of both his mouth and heart will be a big one. Or what about a pre-season crash-course in custodianship from Luke Patten even? Imagine Brett Morris with a buzz cut and positioning! Maybe even a third set of brothers at the joint? Add them to the Morris twins and Perrett boys and it'd give the term 'family club' a whole new meaning. But you know what would just be the best, Santa? Yeah, scrap the rest. The Bulldogs just want a grand final win for Christmas, delivered next October.
The Sharks surely would be keen to get absolutely anything other than a wooden spoon. With their hellacious season ending with a last-place finish in 2014, any present that's not a kitchen utensil would be welcomed at Cronulla. In fact, they've already snapped up a couple of handy gifts in Ben Barba and Michael Ennis, who add class and grit to a squad that managed to finish fifth just a couple of years ago, so a relatively low-key 12 months for a club that's recently struggled on and off the field is all they need.
Gold Coast Titans
The faith of the Gold Coast public cannot be bought and must be earned but the Titans may still ask Santa for a Christmas miracle ahead of a crucial year for the club. Founding fathers Michael Searle and John Cartwright stepped aside towards the end of last season in order to give the club something of a clean slate but repeated off-field indiscretions by some players won't help in winning back local support. A positive sign is that membership is already up 10 per cent on this time last year and when the side runs out for their first game at home in 2015 they need to know they have the locals at their back.
Manly Sea Eagles
Manly officials will be the most eager of autograph hunters in the new year, but it's not memorabilia they want signed. There are two things they want for Christmas – and they won't come cheap – the signatures of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran. Arguably the best halves combination in the NRL, the two youngsters have already won premierships, Clive Churchill Medals, a World Cup and Four Nations crowns with their respective nations. They are the hottest commodities in the NRL and the Sea Eagles may struggle to keep both. But they'll be doing everything in their power to ensure Santa delivers.
Melbourne's forward stocks are severely depleted. They definitely need a few extra big men before the season begins, which may prove difficult considering the lack of uncontracted players available. With club legend Ryan Hoffman as well as George Rose, Bryan Norrie, Mitch Garbutt and Junior Moors all departing the club, Craig Bellamy's squad is struggling for big men. Former NSW and Kangaroos prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs has moved to Melbourne, but they'll need a few more big fellas if they are to be successful in 2015.
A bit of luck wouldn't go astray in the Hunter. In a year embroiled in ownership, player and coaching issues, a couple of ASADA bans and the tragic spinal injury to Alex McKinnon, the Knights will be looking to bounce back in a big way. With Rick Stone at the helm once again and the focus back on rebuilding the club's ties with the community, a little bit of luck could be the secret to a successful 2015 season.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys might need a double-sided coin, so that one day a 50/50 call in a finals match is more likely to go their way. The tap-on pass by Robert Lui for Johnathan Thurston's disallowed try in their semi-final against the Roosters was correctly ruled forward – except if you were viewing it anywhere north of Bundaberg. It was the third year in succession the Cowboys had been bundled out in controversial circumstances and had fans rightfully questioning, 'Why us?' JT better send the letter to Santa though because coach Paul Green will be hammering home the age-old mantra that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Forget a wishlist, the Eels have an extra long shopping list with an extra large budget. Only thing is they can't use it until Jarryd Hayne decides how long he wants to give this gridiron thing a crack. The wallet gets thicker if the off-contract Chris Sandow doesn't prove his worth as a half-a-million dollar star, and there are a couple of off-contract halves at Manly that would fit right into next year's Christmas sock. But in the meantime, and this might be wishful thinking, Santa, but it's been five years long years since Parramatta have had to wash their jerseys in September. They'll leave out a few extra cookies for you this year.
Judging from their lack of trips to the free agent market in recent months, Penrith aren't exactly in short supply of anything roster-wise at the moment, although their season-turning depth has been trimmed big time over the past couple of months. But they're actually overstocked with a couple of things in the greater west, and not just with talented juniors. If anyone is interested in fixing any or all of their ACL injuries, it'd be enough to get Phil Gould out of bed, into a red suit and down your chimney on Christmas morning. If anything, despite being rather misbehaved this year – fifth in penalties conceded – the Panthers would love a repeat of the past season and another crack at a grand final spot.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
We all know how hard it is to go back-to-back in the modern salary cap era – even if you retain most of your premiership squad, like the Roosters did after winning in 2013 going into 2014. Michael Maguire has lost one of the world's best players in Sam Burgess, and the departure of hard-hitting Origin forward Ben Te'o will also sting. Centre Kirisome Auva'a is gone for most or all of the year due to suspension and winger Lote Tuqiri has retired, meaning the back row and centre/wing positions are already creating headaches. So, top of the Christmas wish list (aside from being able to dodge the notorious second-year syndrome) is for former Sea Eagle Glenn Stewart and former Panther Tim Grant to help fill the huge gulf in the forward pack, and for a couple of youngsters to step up – a la Dylan Walker and Alex Johnston last year – to plug the gaps in the backline.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Hardly a secret here. The Dragons will be asking Santa for the NRL to be kind and register a contract for ex-Warriors prop Russell Packer when he is released from jail in the new year. Packer will have done his time for stomping on a man's head in a drunken altercation in the eyes of the law, but not necessarily in the eyes of the NRL's top brass, who have taken a strong stance regarding off-field misbehaviour of late. The Dragons were criticised for lacking punch and size in the forwards in 2014. They've gone partway to remedying that by picking up George Rose, Rulon Nutira and Rory O'Brien, but a hulking Test prop like Packer could be exactly what they need to provide a platform for star halves pairing Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall.
Blake Ferguson to be registered by the NRL. The Roosters have spent a lot of time with Ferguson, rehabilitating the troubled outside back and trying to prepare him for the rigors of life both on and off the field. There is no doubting the Roosters could use the star centre in their line-up as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck moves to fullback to replace retired stalwart Anthony Minichiello. A three-quarter line containing Michael Jennings on one side and Ferguson on the other could be devastating. But the NRL need to be satisfied that Ferguson is ready to return.
Shaun Johnson to emerge as the game's next great halfback. While Johnson has been a star at the Warriors, his performances for New Zealand in the Four Nations demonstrated the potential for Johnson to become the game's next great halfback. He's always had the dazzling footwork and speed of a bullet, but his ability to control a game has often been questioned. If Johnson can realise his full potential, the Warriors will have a genuine shot to win it all.
On the first day of pre-season, Jason Taylor said to me: 20,000 at Campbelltown, 10 more at Homebush, 13 Robbie Farahs tackling, four Leichhardt suns shining, three (maybe seven) new back-row signings, and no more injuries shaken out of that wretched Concord pear tree. OK, there probably isn't a pear tree, but you get the hint: The new clipboard holder – did they pass on the old one? – has a long list for the bearded miracle man. But if Jason Taylor gets them all, then he might just prove that his school of kids really are a once-in-a-generation talent pool and get them to their first Finals Series in four long years.