Which teams will join the title race in 2016?
Earlier this week we discussed five key stats that go a long way to determining whether a team will be successful – kick metres, run metres, attack, defence and ball control – and three that didn't – offloads, dummy-half runs and tackle breaks. Teams that finished at the top of the ladder this season tended to dominate in the former stat categories, whereas the latter categories had no real bearing on where a team finished.
For example, grand final winners the Cowboys and minor premiers the Roosters ranked first and second for most metres gained, whereas the dominant team for offloads – the Panthers – only just managed to avoid the wooden spoon. The other teams that finished inside the top four – Brisbane and Melbourne – were also among the best in each of those five key stats categories.
So, with that in mind, which clubs will be vying to join the premiership contenders next season – and where will they need to improve to get there?
The Warriors have been installed as fourth favourites behind the Broncos, Cowboys and Roosters next season, despite finishing a lowly 13th this year. There are two reasons why: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke. The arrival of the two Kiwis stars is set to give the Warriors one of the most dangerous spines in the NRL, but improving the team's defence and ball control will remain top priority for Andrew McFadden. The Warriors were the third worst team in terms of points conceded and errors per game this year.
Last year's grand finalists finished fifth this season and aren't far behind the leaders in most key areas. Defence is the real area of concern, having conceded more points than the 14th-placed Panthers, and the loss of halfback Trent Hodkinson could hamper the team's kicking game and organisation in attack. The pressure will be on Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds to form a consistent combination in the halves in 2016.
Remarkably, considering the dominance of the South Sydney pack in 2014, the Rabbitohs were the fourth-worst team in terms of metres gained this season. They tick all the other boxes and after fading badly at the end of 2015 should be able to bounce back into contention next year.
Cronulla must be a dark horse after signing talented halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend for 2016. They already possess one of the strongest forward packs in the league and will have an excellent spine next season with Michael Ennis at hooker and Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes vying for the fullback role. Line breaks and kick metres were the two areas where the Sharks struggled this year, but the arrival of Maloney in particular could fix that.
It's all about attack for the Dragons in the off-season. Their defensive performances were superb in 2015 but for some reason a team featuring Benji Marshall, Gareth Widdop and Josh Dugan simply couldn't click in attack. They were the only team to produce fewer than three line breaks a game this season and if they can sort out that issue they should be able to climb the ladder in 2016.
Ball control and kick metres were where Penrith really struggled this season, with the team managing to be a top-eight defensive side despite a huge injury toll. Having a fit halves duo next year should go a long way to fixing their problems, but with a new coach coming on board after the exit of Ivan Cleary it looms as a season of rebuilding for Penrith.
They may have been blessed with one of the kindest draws in the competition but the Raiders produced some good numbers this year, committing the fewest errors per game of any team bar the Storm and finishing as a top-four attacking side. Defence and go-forward are the areas the Green Machine need to improve on, but the additions of England international Elliot Whitehead to the forward pack and Aidan Sezer to the halves could make Canberra a finals force next season.
Manly were one of 2015's big disappointments, but they are almost certain to have a more forgiving draw next season and will no longer be forced to play through the speculation surrounding their star halves duo and coach. Kieran Foran may be gone but Manly still have one of the strongest backlines in the NRL, and the additions of Nate Myles, Lewis Brown and Apisai Koroisau among others should improve a forward pack that ranked second-worst for metres per game this year.
Parramatta may have boasted the most dominant winger in the game this year but it didn't lead to much success on the field, ranking third worst for line breaks per game and metres per game and fourth worst for points conceded. But the arrival of Kieran Foran, Michael Gordon and Beau Scott should improve the team significantly in both attack and defence. A premiership tilt is probably a step to far but don't be surprised to see Parra vying for the top eight next year.