Your team's greatest unknown in 2016
As we begin a new year, NRL.com takes a look at the great unknowns facing each club this season. Will your club live up to expectations in 2016?
Brisbane Broncos: Is Ben Hunt a big-game player?
Those close to Ben Hunt insist there will be no after-effects of his grand final nightmare but until we see the star No.7 come through in the clutch – as he did regularly throughout 2015 – we cannot truly know how deep the scars truly are. A confident Hunt was the perfect foil for Anthony Milford playing in a new position at a new club and it was a positive sign for the club that when Hunt was below his best in the grand final Milford was arguably the best player on the field. A match-winning Ben Hunt play in the first month of footy would come as great relief to Bronco fans.
Canberra Raiders: Will they handle the expectations?
In recent seasons, the Canberra Raiders were considered wooden spoon contenders. The recruitment of favourite son Ricky Stuart as coach signalled an intent to return to the top half of the table, and then the success of recruits Blake Austin, Josh Hodgson and Sia Soliola last season – plus the rise of home-grown talents like Jack Wighton and skipper Jarrod Croker – made them a competitive force last year. Now, with the highly rated Aidan Sezer joining Austin in the halves and English star Elliott Whitehead adding to an impressive-looking forward pack, Canberra are suddenly expected to be a finals contender. Throw in arguably the "easiest" draw in the league – with home and away games against only two of last year's eight finalists – and the Raiders are now a team that will need to deal with high expectations. Will the former underdogs be able to handle the pressure?
Canterbury Bulldogs: How do Reynolds and Mbye manage the halves workload?
Trent Hodkinson's dislocated wrist with two weeks remaining in the 2015 season gave Bulldogs fans an insight into their future – it wasn't pretty. Sure they won their next two games (by the skin of their teeth) but were then eliminated by the Roosters in week two of the finals, with Hodkinson's organisational skills sorely lacking. With Hodkinson now at Newcastle, Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye will be the uncontested starters in the halves moving forward. Both are recognised as livewires, but one of them is going to have to check himself and step up in directing the team around the park in 2016.
Cronulla Sharks: Will they bounce back?
A stellar 2015 season ended abruptly when the Cronulla Sharks were totally battered into submission by eventual premiers North Queensland Cowboys. The 39-0 mauling was not the way the Sharks deserved to have their season end, but how they bounce back from that heavy loss will be key in 2016. If they want to end their premiership drought, the Sharks will need to prove they belong at the pointy end of the season and hold no scars. It is a long wait for another shot for even longer suffering fans.
Gold Coast Titans: Can the halves get the job done?
Another new-look halves pairing will have no time to settle if the Titans are to convince even themselves that they are top-eight material. How Tyrone Roberts reacts to the departure of his cousin James will be telling while Kane Elgey has all the hallmarks of a fine first grade halfback if he can avoid the dreaded second-year syndrome. And waiting in the wings is Junior Kangaroos half Ashley Taylor, who will likely start the season in the Intrust Super Cup after a delayed start to pre-season training. If the Titans are any hope of playing finals footy in 2016 they need their first-choice halves pairing fit and firing from Round 1.
Manly Sea Eagles: New coach, new results?
Out with the old and in with the new, but will a total changing of the guard in the backroom of the Sea Eagles pay dividends on the field? The house that Des built has completely changed from the structure that led to two premierships, with Trent Barrett coming in to take over the coaching duties from club legend Geoff Toovey. How will Manly's old firm respond? Do they have one last tilt in them, or are their best days behind them?
Melbourne Storm: Is the Big Three era almost over?
Every year it seems the Melbourne Storm are written off by critics, and every year they seem to bounce back and prove they're still among the game's best. That's mainly down to the presence of champion trio Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater and their master coach Craig Bellamy. But how much longer will all four be at the club? Bellamy has admitted he's considering retirement at the end of his contract in 2016 while there are whispers Cooper Cronk could be changing clubs in 2017. Meanwhile Slater suddenly appeared to be somewhat replaceable when Cameron Munster starred in his place at the end of last season. If 2016 is to be a last hurrah for the core of this successful Storm side it might only prove to be extra motivation for them to go all the way, but it also suggests Melbourne's time as a genuine contender could be up.
Newcastle Knights: Will Hodkinson and Mullen combine as expected?
Theoretically Trent Hodkinson should be to Jarrod Mullen what spaghetti is to meatballs – the combination should just work. Reality will soon hit though and with Hodkinson joining a new team that is fresh from "winning" the wooden spoon, this particular halves partnership has its work cut out. Mullen has been a livewire stuck in the organiser role for a couple of years now. A game breaker on his day, the 28-year-old has been left to direct his troops around with a negative run of results. With the Knights possessing one of the NRL's toughest draws in the early stages of 2016, these two need to be firing for Newcastle to be realistic finals shot.
North Queensland Cowboys: Is JT on his last legs?
As he approaches his 33rd birthday on April 25, Johnathan Thurston has amassed 268 NRL games, 33 Origins for Queensland and 32 Tests for Australia. He has played 59 games of rugby league in the past two seasons and if he stays fit will play a further 28 in 2016 even before the Cowboys reach the finals. His greatness lies in his ultra-competitiveness in every game he plays but there must come a point where it takes its toll on an ageing – and battered – body. He carried the Cowboys to a maiden title virtually on one leg and as much he will be carefully managed by the Cowboys' medical staff father time waits for no man. If 'JT' gets through another full schedule in good shape, the Cowboys can most certainly go back-to-back.
Parramatta Eels: Have they found the right balance?
The Eels are heading into their first season where highly-rated coach Brad Arthur essentially has a squad of his making. They have a genuine superstar in the halves for the first time since Peter Sterling retired. They have size, strength, mobility, experience and just enough mongrel in the forwards. They have genuine strike out wide. If they'd won all the games in 2015 they were in a position to win late in the piece they'd have just about finished top four. The ingredients are there and the excuses are gone. So will it be same old Parra or will they turn the corner?
Penrith Panthers: Underachievers or overachievers?
Will the real Panthers please stand up? In 2014 the Panthers were one game shy of an improbable Grand Final berth after a dramatic last-gasp victory over reigning premiers the Roosters in the opening week of the finals. Penrith looked destined to come into 2015 with a vengeance, but sadly their challenge never really got off the ground as they stuttered to a disappointing 11th-placed finish. With injuries taking their toll the Panthers won just two from their last 10 games to limp to the end of the season. Did we see the "real" Penrith side in 2014 or in 2015? Only time will tell.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Can they replace Issac Luke?
A cornerstone of the Rabbitohs side since 2007, Luke announced midway through 2015 that he would be returning home to New Zealand to link up with the Warriors in 2016. With young hooker Cameron McInnes already on the books Souths went out and acquired Bulldogs rake Damien Cook, a player who enjoyed a stellar finish to season 2015 after replacing the injured Michael Lichaa. With McInnes never having been an 80-minute hooker so far in his NRL career and Cook still new to first grade, it's expected both will be named in Souths' Round 1 side. There's plenty of upside for this duo, but it's not going to be easy replacing the man NRL.com voted as the fourth-best hooker in the game.
St George Illawarra Dragons: Where does the skipper fit in the Red V puzzle?
It is a very real possibility St George Illawarra skipper Ben Creagh will play the 2016 season from the bench. It was already part of coach Paul McGregor's gameplan in the backend of last year but with Mose Masoe, Dunamis Lui and Sebastine Ikahihifo jumping on board for next season and Russell Packer given the green light to resume his career, times are tough for the former New South Wales and Australian representative. But Creagh's a team player and will do whatever job is asked of him.
Sydney Roosters: How important were Maloney and RTS?
There is arguably no team with a heavier weighting in the "outgoing" compared to the "incoming" player list than the Roosters heading into 2016. A pair of superstar premiership-winners in Origin pivot James Maloney and Kiwis fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck leaves a huge gulf. They still have one of the very best forward packs in the comp and a superstar backline and spine (the vacant No.1 jersey pending). Jackson Hastings is mature beyond his years but not yet a Maloney while RTS is even harder to replace. Will the Tricolours stake a claim for a fourth straight minor premiership or fade towards mid-table?
Warriors: Will the big-name recruits fix their problems?
There's no denying the star power of new Warriors Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke. Tuivasa-Sheck is coming off a stunning season at fullback for the Roosters and is arguably the best No.1 in the game, while Luke has been a mainstay of the Kiwis side for years and was a big part of South Sydney's run to the 2014 NRL premiership. Both will be a big boost to the Warriors' attacking game in particular, and take some pressure off star halfback Shaun Johnson. But attack wasn't where the Warriors struggled last year. Their real problems were defence and ball control – two areas in which the club ranked 14th last season. If Andrew McFadden's side don't get the fundamentals right, all the star power in the world might not be enough to make them a genuine contender.
Wests Tigers: Will the gambles start to pay off?
The Wests Tigers have had to deal with well-publicised salary cap issues and the ongoing questions over the future of captain and hooker Robbie Farah and coach Jason Taylor. They have, to an extent, put all their eggs in one basket with young playmaking trio Luke Brooks, Mitch Moses and James Tedesco. If those three don't fire the club's 2016 finals hopes will rapidly slip from 'slim' to 'forlorn'. Their gamble to bring in Manly veteran Matt Ballin as a replacement for unwanted hooker Farah is also looking somewhat premature, with their ex-skipper now sticking around as well. Will the result be more pain for Tigers fans?