Your team's toughest question in 2016
As we count down to the start of the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership season, we at NRL.com ask the big questions confronting all 16 teams next year.
Can the Broncos make back-to-back grand finals?
We talk about the inability of teams to go back-to-back in recent history but the news is similarly poor for those who qualify for the grand final yet leave empty-handed. Melbourne and Manly both won grand finals in the late 2000s after losing a decider the year prior with the Storm later stripped of both their 2007 and 2009 titles. Prior to that, the last team to drown the bitter taste of grand final defeat with the tears of a title triumph were the 1991 Penrith Panthers who turned the tables on Canberra 12 months after losing the 1990 Grand Final 18-14. The return of master coach Wayne Bennett last year was in itself enough to get a greater output out of many Broncos players and if he can take them to the big day in 2016 it may stand as Bennett's greatest coaching achievement to date.
How do Canberra fix their home record?
Once upon a time, the Raiders were almost unstoppable in Canberra – two decades ago they went through an entire season with only one defeat at home – but in recent years the Green Machine have been relatively easy pickings at Canberra Stadium. It's not clear why. With no opponents based nearby and with playing conditions often unfamiliar to the Queensland- and even Sydney-based sides, the Raiders should have a natural advantage at home. Low crowds could be part of the problem – as well as losing more home games than any other team in 2015 the Raiders also struggled to attract crowds, with an average attendance of less than 10,000 in Canberra. But with a group of rising stars now in their ranks and a finals berth a genuine possibility there's no excuse for the club's faithful to stay at home in 2016.
Will the Bulldogs' big men handle the rule changes?
The NRL's new on-field innovations will impact the Bulldogs greater than most other clubs. The decision to cut interchanges to eight, introduce a shot clock to scrums and drop-outs and build a Central Command Centre is sure to test the fitness of the Bulldogs' monster forward pack. Between them, Greg Eastwood, Tim Browne, Sam Kasiano, David Klemmer and Tony Williams have an average weight of 116.8 kilograms. The new changes are expected to speed up the game and create more opportunities for league's little men, and the Bulldogs' forwards could be up against it in battling the fatigue factor.
How do the Sharks solve the Barba/Bird/Holmes puzzle?
Cronulla unearthed two of the great young prospects when Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes burst onto the scene in 2015. But now they have decide how best to utilise the talents in a team that looks to be building towards an ever elusive premiership. With a no-nonsense, take no prisoners forward pack and the acquisitions of halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend, things are looking very promising for the Shire, but they'll need to figure out where Ben Barba, Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes fit into the mix to find team harmony and get the best out of 2016.
Is Greg Bird the best choice as Titans captain?
Greg Bird desperately wants to be captain and he is far and away the most obvious leader at the club. But given the events Bird has been embroiled in over the past 12 months and his regular stints on the sideline due to suspension, for the sake of the club's reputation they cannot afford to reappoint him. But if Neil Henry wants to win as many games as possible in 2016 handing Bird the captaincy would not only ensure he gets the very best out of his representative star but that other players will follow. We don't have the answer; it's that tough a question.
Can the new-look Sea Eagles live up to the hype?
Manly's off-season has been nothing short of extraordinary in the transfer market, with the Sea Eagles quick to respond to a failed 2015 campaign that saw them miss the finals for the first time in a decade. But with many new faces comes a ton of expectation and pressure at Brookvale. With Dylan Walker joining a star-studded A-list of transfers including Nate Myles, Martin Taupau, Apisai Korisau and Lewis Brown – anything short of a top four finish will be seen by many as a failed campaign. Can Manly live up to the hype?
How do Melbourne get the most out of Munster?
One of the revelations of the 2015 NRL season was Storm young gun Cameron Munster, who excelled when asked to do the near impossible and replace Billy Slater at fullback for the final part of the season. Munster proved safe at the back and a genuine attacking threat with the ball in hand, to the extent that the Storm barely missed their superstar Kangaroos No.1. The youngster even finished as the most improved player in NRL Fantasy. With Slater set to return in 2016, the Storm have the enviable task of having two star fullbacks in their ranks, with Munster likely to slot into the centres. Now the rugby league world has seen what Munster can do, it's up to Craig Bellamy to ensure he's not wasted on the fringes if the Storm are to challenge for a title in what could be Bellamy's final year at the club.
Is Nathan Brown the man to turn the Knights around?
Nathan Brown has perhaps earned an unwarranted stigma surrounding his coaching career. Remembered in NRL circles for not getting the job done at the Dragons between 2003 and 2008, the fact he managed to make four finals series out of six seasons should give Knights fans hope. While he led St Helens to a Super League title in 2014, leading the NRL's reigning wooden spooners out of obscurity is a whole other task. The Knights' lack of experience (Jeremy Smith is the only remaining Newcastle player over 30) is another spanner in the works for Brown in his NRL return.
Can the Cowboys defy the premiership curse?
For the second year in succession we saw a team break a lengthy premiership drought and it was obvious in the Rabbitohs of 2015 that a sense of desperation can go a long way. It's a question that has plagued the premiers of a united competition for the past 22 years and no team yet has come up with the answer. The Cowboys boast an almost unchanged roster and a host of young talent pushing for a place in first grade but is that in itself enough to climb the mountain once again? History says no; it's up to the men from North Queensland to prove otherwise.
Who do the Eels cut from their backline?
All of a sudden the Eels have more depth than they know what to do with in the back five. The only thing that seems certain is the left edge of Semi Radradra and Brad Takairangi will stay intact. Michael Gordon seems likely to get fist dip at the No.1 jersey, and as the likely first choice goal kicker probably needs to be in the starting 13, but could just as easily play wing. New boy Clint Gutherson should get a chance at right centre but shapes as a quality fullback in the making, leaving the likes of Ryan Morgan, John Folau, Vai Toutai, tryscoring ace Honeti Tuha and promising fullback Kieran Moss vying for one spot.
Will Penrith's injury crisis end at last?
The Panthers have changed their coach in the off-season, but it is a change of fortune they are really after in 2016. No club has been hit as hard by injuries in the last two years and it has ultimately cost the Panthers any chance of a finals tilt. The Panthers were cruelled by injuries in 2014 but still managed an unlikely preliminary final berth, but couldn't repeat the heroics in 2015 when injuries reared their ugly head. Is it bad luck, or is there something the high performance unit needs to work on in 2016?
Can Sam Burgess repeat his 2014 feats for the Rabbitohs?
He only spent one year away from the game, but it remains to be seen how Sam Burgess will fare back at the Rabbitohs in 2016. With Souths having released Chris McQueen and Dylan Walker in recent weeks coupled with the departures of Glenn Stewart and Issac Luke, there's plenty of pressure on the 2014 Clive Churchill Medalist to lift a side that ended their premiership defence with an elimination final loss to the Sharks last season. Michael Maguire struggled to find a solid replacement at lock for Burgess, so his return certainly solves that dilemma. One man can't do everything on his own but if his return can inspire his teammates to rediscover to their best form, the Rabbitohs should yet again be a premiership contender.
Who does Mary pick for the Dragons?
Arguably possessing the best depth in the competition, Paul 'Mary' McGregor has plenty of decisions to make. Tim Lafai's signing puts the immediate NRL future of Kurt Mann, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Dylan Farrell and Kiti Glymin in extreme doubt, while Josh McCrone and Adam Quinlan will no doubt have to bide their time in reserve grade. The problems (no matter how good they may be) extend to the forwards where regular first graders Sebastine Ikahihifo, Jake Marketo and Will Matthews will struggle to carve themselves a spot in Mary's first choice team. Tough decisions have to be made, and it ain't going to be pretty.
How soon can the Roosters take a punt on Latrell Mitchell?
With the early departure of 2015 fullback sensation Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Trent Robinson's succession planning has struck an unplanned speed bump. Ideally you'd have wanted 2016 to see teen sensation Latrell Mitchell get a few games on the wing and be eased into first grade and follow a Tuivasa-Sheck-like path to the No.1 jersey. But the exit of RTS means Robinson now has to weigh up whether Mitchell is ready for the huge responsibility of first grade now or try and craft someone like Blake Ferguson into a fullback. The fitness demands would be immense and it remains to be seen whether Ferguson can make the switch but if he gets first crack and struggles early Robinson will have to make a tough call before the season slips away.
Who completes the star-studded Warriors spine?
The excitement surrounding the Warriors' 2016 recruits is justified – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke are a game-changing pair of buys for the NRL's New Zealand-based club, and instantly catapults the Auckland side into premiership contention. But while those two will replace the departed Sam Tomkins and Nathan Friend at fullback and hooker respectively, it remains to be seen who will line up in the halves alongside Shaun Johnson. The Warriors have three capable options: Thomas Leuluai, a veteran utility who has played 33 Tests for New Zealand but missed last season through injury; Jeff Robson, the former Sharks halfback whose no-frills game could gel perfectly with Johnson's off-the-cuff style; and Tuimoala Lolohea, who started last season with three NRL games to his name and finished it wearing the No.7 jersey for the Kiwis. Getting the right four players in the crucial playmaking positions is crucial – as demonstrated by the Cowboys last season – so the decision over Johnson's halves partner looms as a big one for Warriors coach Andrew McFadden.
How do the Tigers fit Farah, Ballin and Taylor into the same team?
There's been no shortage of newspaper ink spent on the Wests Tigers No.9 jersey in recent months. With Robbie Farah now set to stay and new recruit Matt Ballin almost no chance of recovering from a serious knee injury in time for Round 1, Farah will likely start the season. Ballin arguably fits coach Jason Taylor's no-frills style better than Farah's attack-first mode of play. If results go against them early will we see Farah become the highest-paid reserve grader in the country? Alternatively, if they start well, where does that leave Ballin? It will be a tough call on someone no matter what.