With the 2015 season drawing ever closer, NRL.com takes a look at some of the big unanswered questions that are yet to be resolved.
10. Have the Warriors found the right mix?
The Warriors have always had talent, but they've never managed to find genuine consistency. Since 2002 they've finished as runners-up twice, reached the final four two more times, scraped into the eight twice, and missed the finals seven times – including three 14th-placed finishes. But now the Kiwis are Four Nations champions, Shaun Johnson is a bona fide superstar, Sam Tomkins is well on his way after an impressive first season in the NRL, a host of former under-20s stars are now making their presence known in the NRL, and in Ryan Hoffman they've recruited a class act in the back row who can complement inspirational skipper Simon Mannering. They're also playing under Andrew McFadden, the first Warriors mentor with a positive win-loss record since the departure of Ivan Cleary in 2011. If he lasts the full season he'll also be the longest-serving of the four coaches to have followed in Cleary's footsteps. The mix looks good, but can it make them a premiership force?
9. Can the Eels cope without Jarryd Hayne?
Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess may be gone, but surely no player's absence will be felt by their team more keenly than Jarryd Hayne's at the Eels. The USA-bound fullback was unstoppable at times last season, earning a second Dally M medal as Parramatta fell one win short of the finals. If they couldn't make the eight with a career-best Hayne in their side, what chance are they to play deep into September without him?
Fear not, Parra fans, there are still positives. If Will Hopoate returns to the form he showed in his time at Manly then Parramatta have a very capable replacement at fullback on their books, although after one comeback season Hopoate still seems to be off the pace he showed in his first stint in the NRL. But Anthony Watmough has joined the club, Semi Radradra is the reigning Dally M Winger of the Year, Manu Ma'u was a rookie sensation in 2014, Nathan Peats was a revelation at hooker last season, and Chris Sandow is in the final year of his contract, so anything can happen. If nothing else, Parramatta can no longer fall back on a "leave it to Hayne" mentality to get themselves out of tough situations, and that could bring out the best in the rest of the team.
8. Will the Knights bring back the razzle dazzle?
When Wayne Bennett arrived at Newcastle he brought with him the no-frills, safety-first gameplan that had worked wonders for St George Illawarra, carrying the Dragons to two minor premierships and the 2010 NRL title. That strategy may have cut down Newcastle's error counts, but it hardly translated to success – the club finished 12th, seventh and 12th again in Bennett's time at the club. In truth, the strategy always seemed an ill fit for a team that had embraced attacking flair since the rise of the Johns brothers in the mid-1990s.
In Rick Stone's one year in charge in 2011, the former assistant coach embraced the natural free-flowing style of his talented backline as his team squeezed into the finals. As Stone returns to the role the Knights' backline remains their strength, with boom centres Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua surrounded by former rep players Kurt Gidley, Jarrod Mullen, Akuila Uate, James McManus and new Kangaroo Sione Mata'utia. Expectations of a title tilt may have faded a little at Newcastle, but a return to exciting football seems a safer bet.
7. Who got the better end of the Ennis/Lichaa swap deal?
There have been many high-profile player moves in the NRL off-season – Anthony Milford to Brisbane, Ben Barba to Cronulla, Anthony Watmough to Parramatta, Glenn Stewart to Souths – but arguably the most intriguing transfer is effectively a "trade". Des Hasler's Bulldogs have swooped on highly-rated young Sharks hooker Michael Lichaa but have let veteran skipper Michael Ennis go, fittingly enough, to the Sharks. While it's a tough call on Ennis, the move may well pay off for both clubs. The Dogs may have a star in the making, but the experienced Sharks pack now looks all class, with Ennis joining the likes of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Sam Tagataese and the returning Jayson Bukuya. Lichaa meanwhile will have a blockbuster troupe of big men to play behind, led by the game's best prop in Englishman James Graham – one of potentially six internationals in the pack along with Kiwis Greg Eastwood and Sam Kasiano, and Kangaroos Josh Jackson, David Klemmer and Tony Williams.
Ennis's arrival boosts the Sharks' short-term prospects, and his experience will be of great benefit to the club's youngsters, while Lichaa is still a work-in-progress but finds himself in the perfect situation to learn on the job. If the 21-year-old lives up to the hype he could be a superb long-term recruit for Canterbury, but the club has taken a significant risk letting a player of Ennis's proven quality go. They missed Ennis's experience when the injured skipper was sidelined for the 2014 NRL Grand Final, and they may miss him again if the Dogs reach another decider this season.
6. Was the Panthers' top-four finish a fluke?
Penrith had arguably the most gentle draw of all teams last season, playing just three games against fellow top-four sides and just nine of their 24 matches against teams that made the finals. On the other hand, their recruiting drive paid off handsomely and those players who were new faces in 2014 should only be more comfortable in their roles this season. The club is also unlikely to face an injury crisis as dire as the one they faced last year, with captain Peter Wallace among several stars to spend significant amounts of time on the sidelines. No finals-bound team used more players than the 29 Penrith did in 2014, so a friendlier injury toll could see the men in black take another step towards becoming premiership contenders. On paper, they look very solid – a spine of James Segeyaro, Jamie Soward, Wallace and rising star Matt Moylan is up there with the best of them, while the club also boasts some terrific outside backs and a forward pack with tons of depth. They had a knack for winning most of their close games last year, and if they can continue that trend they should be well in finals contention again.
5. Are the Melbourne Storm on a slide?
Even allowing for a salary cap rorting crisis that wiped out their 2010 season, the Melbourne Storm have been one of the most successful rugby league teams of the past decade. The basis of the team that remained after 2010 had played in four straight grand finals – including two wins – in the previous four years, and then went on to win the minor premiership in 2011 and the major premiership in 2012. But last season suggested the club's on-field success could be on the wane: they finished sixth, their worst result in nine years apart from that 2010 wooden spoon. Their superstar "Big Three" of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are all on the wrong side of 30, in footy terms, with Smith and Slater to turn 32 in June (at the time of writing, only three players in the NRL are still playing at 34). The club is yet to finalise a suitable replacement for Gareth Widdop, and even Craig Bellamy's touch may be fading after the mentor failed to generate his usual magic with last year's veteran recruit George Rose. Bellamy himself has said he aims to retire after his contract ends in 2016.
So are the Storm still a genuine premiership contender? They do still boast three star Kangaroos, one of the game's best props in Jesse Bromwich and arguably the NRL's best coach, so only a fool would write them off altogether. But if their crop of current greats is to experience grand final glory again, 2015 could well be their last shot.
4. How will Shane Flanagan's Sharks cope?
Cronulla's coach returns after a 12-month ban and the Sharks' players also have a clean slate following suspensions in the aftermath of the club's supplements scandal, but the bruises of the lengthy saga could take some time to heal. Injuries and the ASADA cloud had an obvious affect on the team's performance last season, with the Sharks taking out the wooden spoon for the first time since 1969. On the field though, there is no reason why Cronulla can't bounce back into finals contention. After all, in 2013 the Sharks finished fifth, and last season's disastrous campaign had as much to do with a horror injury toll as any off-field crisis. The 37 players they were forced to use in 2014 was five more than any other club, and a more settled squad this season – not to mention the big-name inclusions of Ben Barba and Michael Ennis – should see the team rocket up the ladder.
3. What will be the fallout of player moves at Manly?
If any club has exemplified the "us against the world" mentality that tends to work wonders for NRL teams, it's Manly. Long seen as the club other fans love to hate, the Sea Eagles have embraced the image – the tone of their fans' banners ("No one likes us! We don't care") is matched by a group of star players who have traditionally accepted underpriced contracts in order to stay at the successful club. It's worked; they've made the finals every year since 2005, playing four grand finals and winning two premierships in that time.
But now, the rise of Test halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran may have tipped the balance. With the pair coming off contract at the end of 2015 and the rival clubs circling with the prospect of massive offers, Manly have been forced to offload veterans Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough in order to free up cash for new deals for the playmaking duo. The contract dramas didn't affect the team's on-field results too much in 2014, with the Sea Eagles finishing in second place on the ladder, but the absence of two star forwards won't help morale this season. Then there's the tricky issue of getting DCE and Foran to re-sign – if Manly secures both young guns they are set to remain a force for the foreseeable future; but if one jumps ship for a better offer the empire that has been built at Brookvale could crumble.
2. Will Bennett's Broncos turn back the clock?
Bennett returns to Brisbane next season for the first time since 2008. In his time at the club the Broncos won six premierships and never finished lower than eighth; since he left Brisbane have missed the finals twice and scraped into the eight two more times. Of course, Bennett had a team full of stars at his disposal during his era at the Broncos – but he'll have another one in 2015. New recruits Anthony Milford and Adam Blair have all impressed at club and representative level in the past, halfback Ben Hunt was arguably the most improved player in the competition last season, and the Brisbane pack features Kangaroos Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Matt Gillett, Four Nations-winning Kiwi Blair, standout Samoa star Josh McGuire and workhorse hooker Andrew McCullough. The ingredients are there, but so too will be the pressure – and Bennett's time at the Knights showed that the legendary coach doesn't always live up to lofty expectations. The long-term injury to returning recruit Darius Boyd doesn't help matters, particularly after the exit of fellow fullbacks Josh Hoffman and Ben Barba, meaning makeshift custodian Justin Hodges could hold the key to Bennett's first season back at his old club.
1. Will Souths be the team to end the premiers' curse?
No team has won back-to-back premierships in a unified competition since Brisbane in 1992 and 1993, but – as is the case every year – many will fancy the defending champions to go close this season. They are undoubtedly a quality side across the board, but the Rabbitohs will have to deal with losing arguably their most influential player, Sam Burgess. They have a few very handy alternatives in their ranks, with Glenn Stewart arriving from Manly and George and Tom Burgess still yet to turn 23, but it's hard to replace the most damaging forward in the competition. And that's on top of the pressure that has weighed down every premiership-winning side in the NRL era. As the Roosters found out in 2014 with a virtually identical roster to that which won the 2013 premiership, when you go into every game as the team every other side wants to beat, things get a lot tougher the second time round.