According to the final NRL ladder in 2016, seven teams – the Raiders, Wests Tigers, Titans, Panthers, Storm, Sharks and Warriors – improved on their previous year's performance. Seven other teams – the Cowboys, Bulldogs, Broncos, Dragons, Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs and Roosters – went backwards, to varying degrees. The Knights didn't budge from last place on the ladder, while the Eels dropped two spots according to the official ladder or rose two spots according to actual on-field wins.
So which teams look set to improve next season? Will new finals contenders the Raiders and Panthers be in with a shot again at the end of the next campaign? Will previously dominant teams like the Rabbitohs and Roosters bounce back after horror seasons, or has their premiership window closed for now?
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): One team that really looks to be on the rise is the Penrith Panthers. They've been a bit of a yo-yo team in the past few years – since 2012 they've finished 15th, 10th, fourth, 11th and sixth – so do you expect them to drop out of the top eight again or are they now becoming the real deal?
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): Like many I'm very excited to see what Penrith can produce next year. The key piece of the puzzle is the Te Maire Martin-Nathan Cleary halves combo, assuming Bryce Cartwright returns to the back row. They're both young, and they're a new halves combination. The loss of Josh Mansour for the first half of the year is a big blow. Best case, I see a slight improvement to maybe a fourth-place ladder finish. I can't see them missing the finals though.
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): The danger will be expectation. They had a great finish to the year and looked really impressive. But as we know the NRL is a long tough season. I fully expect them to be in the top eight, but can they get to that next level consistently to be a top four team? So hard to tell. But if they stay healthy they should be a decent shot at a top-four run.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): I've got Penrith in my top four (subject to change). No squad has greater depth than the men from the foot of the mountains and they'll need it to cover the loss of Josh Mansour. Hiku and Whare return, they've added Rein and Tamou, and their youngsters will be better after getting a taste of first grade. Like CK, my only question mark is how TMM will go in the halves. He performed well before he got injured, but can he do it for a whole season?
Adrian McMurray (Producer): I wrote in our Panthers 2016 season review that I felt this past season was just the beginning for a highly talented and youthful group of players. Adding James Tamou certainly helps. There's certainly massive question marks around whether their young halves can produce across the season, but they haven't let anyone down in their short time in the NRL so far, so I'm willing to back them in.
DB: At the other end of the scale are the Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs and Roosters, who were all disappointing this year. Are we expecting any or all of those teams to bounce back in 2017?
MG: Lock in the Roosters for a vastly-improved 2017.
AB: The Roosters will return to a pretty competitive team in 2017 – they'll be around that top four. Not sure about the Rabbitohs, and well Manly, their fans expect a lot better, I think Blake Green will be a massive boon for the club and DCE.
AM: Manly should improve with Blake Green to allow Daly Cherry-Evans to work his magic. The Rabbitohs' last month of 2016 showed enough promise for the year ahead, and you wouldn't imagine the Roosters could be any worse. I wonder what they're going to do with all those halves though?
CK: There's reason to tip some improvement from each of those teams but I doubt more than one or maybe two of them will return to the top eight. The Roosters really should be a lot better, assuming the key trio of Pearce, Cordner and Waerea-Hargreaves are all good to play from the get-go. Whether it's Luke Keary or Matterson or Hastings or Watson or a Cornish, they need to settle on their best halves but their pack is still fantastic and should definitely make the eight.
MG: Cordner and Pearce missed plenty of football last season and we saw how important those two were at the backend of the year. Latrell Mitchell will be better, Keary is a handy pick up and Michael Gordon will add plenty of experience.
Pearce and Keary will start in the halves with Connor Watson to play a supporting role off the bench.
CK: Manly I'm least confident in. As mentioned above, Blake Green does look to solve arguably their biggest problem by providing a good foil for DCE. But their back five outside Tom Trbojevic really worries me. Brett Stewart and Steve Matai may not lace on a boot again, Dylan Walker has been very up and down since joining Manly, Aku Uate won't solve a lot of problems and the depth isn't really there. The forward pack too – again, outside of a bloke named Trbojevic – isn't inspiring heading into 2017.
AB: They will need to fix their defence big time in 2017. It was embarrassing during stretches of the season.
MG: I agree wholeheartedly with CK. Manly's edges concern me, especially defensively. The halves and Tommy Turbo will create plenty of points, but as we saw at the backend of last year – I'm thinking the Storm and Raiders games – they leaked plenty of points.
CK: Quality work MG.
MG: I've got them missing the eight at this stage.
CK: Yeah, 12th-14th for me.
AB: Yep – a combination of new... combinations... and probably missing a few players. Will be exploited during the year again no doubt. But, if they can fix those issues, their attack should be much better with a solid combination in the halves with Parcell at hooker. It's not all doom and gloom – but expect them to take a bit of time to pull it together.
Certainly missing those key senior figures though – who are pretty much part of the Brookvale turf.
CK: The Rabbitohs were very strong at the back end of 2016, raising thoughts of what could have been. They may make the finals if they get the best out of Inglis, Sam Burgess and Adam Reynolds. I'm not sold though – anywhere from fifth through to about 13th wouldn't surprise me for Souths next year.
AB: That's a pretty big fence you're sitting on CK.
MG: They key for me is a fit and firing Adam Reynolds. When he's on the park, the Bunnies can beat anyone. It's been a long time since he's been fully fit for an extended period of time.
AB: I'm not sure South Sydney have the depth. As Martin mentioned, the key is a fully fit and firing Reynolds & Inglis. I think they might miss the eight again.
AM: I feel Robbie Farah can provide that up-tempo work out of dummy-half they were missing since Issac Luke's departure.
AB: That's a fair point – will be interesting to see how he is used and how he works with the forward pack.
DB: Speaking of Issac Luke, how about the Warriors – will they finally live up to the hype?
CK: There's a fair bit of deja vu about them at the moment. High expectations, big name recruit(s). Will it be the same old Warriors? Will Foran be the saviour for Warriors that Parra wanted him to be? I don't know. I'm not ready to fall for it again. I love watching them when they click but I get the feeling we'll be doing more post-mortems on 'how did it go wrong for the Warriors (again)' come September 2017.
MG: If I can quote the Godfather (Part III to be exact) "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again".
AB: Yes you can Martin.
I want them to make the top eight, they should make the eight and it would be great for rugby league to have a strong and winning Warriors side... But I've been burnt way too many times. I can't tip them to make the eight, because they just keep disappointing me.
MG: There is something about this team that makes me put them in my top four every year. Maybe it's the world-class spine. Perhaps it's the huge forward pack. Or it could be their home-ground advantage. And at the end of each year I am left with egg on my face (not the Cadbury cream egg variety) as they falter to miss the finals.
That said, I've got them finishing fifth in 2017.
AM: Warriors fans have certainly kept the faith for a number of years. I want to believe it. I desperately want them to be the powerhouse they should be, because on their day there are few other sides more enjoyable to watch play. But I'll have them missing the eight, simply because I can't do it to myself again.
DB: So we've tipped a few teams to improve, but they can't all make the eight. This year's three biggest improvers according to the ladder were the Raiders (who jumped eight spots to second), the Titans (up six, to eighth) and the Wests Tigers (up six to ninth). Can those teams match those efforts – or even improve on them – next season?
CK: I don't really see why not. Raiders have basically the same team only more experienced and deserve to be in premiership discussions. The Tigers will be interesting with no Farah-JT distractions but like 2016 I can't see them quite scraping into the eight. The Titans will also be interesting with a fully fit Elgey and a full off-season into Hayne. Should be thereabouts and may even improve slightly.
AM: The Raiders will certainly be in the mix for the premiership. Wests Tigers could improve, and the Titans will be in the finals again (anything less would be disappointing given their progress in 2016).
AB: I think Raiders will be in the mix – but wouldn't be surprised if they missed top four. They have a great team, and will make the finals. But it will be interesting to see if they can keep their charge all the way through the season.
MG: I can see the Titans moving up a position or two. I want to see the Tigers make the finals. I think they are the sort of team that could make an Eels-like run (2009) if they snuck in.
AB: Hmm. I'm not sold on the Tigers or Titans. Gold Coast surprised everyone last year – but they still lost more games than they won. It will be a dogfight for them to make the finals again.
DB: Any other teams you're tipping big improvements from?
AB: The Knights will be the biggest improving team – I reckon they'll win at least three games.
CK: Ladder-wise you'd have to think Eels will jump substantially from 14th assuming no 12-point salary cap penalties. They can't possibly have as many dramas in 2017 as in 2016, even though they're in the papers for the wrong reasons as we type. Great coach, good roster, most of their valuable 2016 players are still there and a couple of smart recruits are inbound.
MG: I think the Storm will go from grand finalists to premiers, but maybe we can save that for another day.
AB: That won't happen.
AM: Do you think this every year?
MG: Every time they've lost a GF, they've won the comp the following season.
DB: Well you can't argue with facts. Any other points before we wrap up?
AB: Well – Terry Lamb wants a premiership this year... But if you don't want a premiership you are really in the wrong game.
CK: If anyone's slipping I reckon it's the Sharks and Bulldogs. No team has gone back-to-back since the Broncos in the early '90s and an Ennis-less Sharks outfit won't break that streak. Combine the loss of Ennis with a premiership hangover and I've got them landing somewhere between sixth and eighth. The Dogs just lack some creativity in the spine despite having a great pack and I think will struggle to make the finals.
AM: The Cowboys might not be as potent as in the past two seasons. They still possess an amazing roster, but Matt Scott can't do everything on his own up front... The likes of John Asiata, Ben Spina and Sam Hoare are really going to need to step up.
DB: This sounds like the start of a new roundtable, so let's leave it there for now. Cheers guys.