Who are the teams to watch in the 2017 NRL Telstra Premeirship?

What do you remember about the 1998 NRL season? You might remember it as the first year of the newly formed NRL competition following the Super League war. You might remember it as the year the Melbourne Storm were introduced into the competition or you might be reminded of this year every time you hear Tubthumping by Chumbawamba on WSFM.

I have to be honest, I remember very little from 1998. I was nine years old and it was my first year watching rugby league. I lived in a house (and still do!) with a dad and two brothers who loved the Parramatta Eels, so naturally that was the team I chose.

Unless it related to the Eels, the reality was that I wasn't interested, so what I remember from that year is Clinton Schifcofske (who was the first player I ever had a crush on) and the Canterbury Bulldogs coming back to beat the Eels in the grand final qualifier after the Eels were up 18-2 with 10 minutes to go.

Flash forward to 2017 and I have grown up from a chubby-cheeked girl in pigtails who loved the Eels to a woman who still loves the Eels, but that has also developed a real appreciation for rugby league. No longer am I a person who only watches my team on the weekend, but my motto has really become 'too much footy is never enough'.

So with that motto in mind, I'm really looking forward to a very competitive 26 weeks of the Telstra Premiership ahead and apart from my Eels, here are the four NRL teams I am most excited about watching in 2017.

Newcastle Knights

The Newcastle Knights will not get the wooden spoon this year.

While the team had a tough 2016 with only one win, the upside is that plenty of exciting young players will be better for the experience, and I am looking forward to seeing an improved Danny Levi, Brock Lamb and both Saifiti brothers this season.

The combination of these youngsters with a strong second row of Mitch Barnett, Sione Mata'utia and Jamie Buhrer (who I see as exactly the type of player the Knights need), and the dedication and razzle-dazzle of Nathan Ross, should mean that Newcastle fans can expect a team that won't be pushovers in 2017.

What I know is that the Knights are building. They finished last year on a positive, with Kalyn Ponga, one of the most exciting young players in the game, putting pen to paper. With plenty of salary cap space, I'm predicting he won't be the only big-name signing the club will announce this year.  

Newcastle will win at least seven games this season and that makes them my prediction for most improved in 2017.

Knights fans, the only way is up.

Canberra Raiders

The Raiders were one of my favourite teams to watch in 2016; not just because they were the most lethal attacking team in the competition, scoring 688 points, but because they surprised everyone. So many people tipped them to miss the finals, and who can blame them when their biggest off-season signings were Elliot Whitehead and Aiden Sezer? 

By September, the Raiders were everyone's second favourite team and off the back of a 10-game winning streak between rounds 16 and 26, came agonisingly close to making their first grand final since 1994.

This year, not only will they make the grand final – but they will win it. 

There is firepower across the field - one of the biggest forward packs in the competition, including Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo, a halves pairing that has really started to find its feet in Sezer and Blake Austin; Jarrod Croker who scores points for fun, and the dynamic duo of Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua. I haven't even mentioned Josh Hodgson or Jack Wighton! 

And if that isn't enough to get you pumped for their opening game against the Cowboys, just think about the Viking Clap which returns on March 11 at GIO Stadium. This sends tingles down my spine every time, so much so that I promise I'll get down to Canberra at some point this year just so I can take part. 

Wests Tigers

Plenty of people have completely written off the Tigers for 2017. Has everyone forgotten that this team only missed the finals by one competition point last year?

There are a number of reasons I am excited about watching Wests Tigers this year, but when I think of this club, I think of opportunity.

The loss of experienced playmakers Robbie Farah and Dene Halatau can be seen as a negative but their departure gives younger players the chance to step up and take on additional leadership responsibilities. With four key players coming off contract at the end of the year (Aaron Woods, James Tedesco, Mitch Moses and Luke Brooks), what could be key to keeping this group of young men together is the opportunity to be part of a leadership group which will form the base of the Wests Tigers team for the next five years. 

It has been five years since the Tigers have played finals and my prediction is that they will be desperate to make amends. Even if they just miss out again, securing the signatures of their 'big four' will go a long way to making Tigers fans look forward to the years ahead.  

Warriors

As I mentioned in my column last week, if the Warriors do not make the finals this year we should fold the club. They are simply all out of excuses.

What most interests me about the Warriors this year is how the team will respond to new coach Stephen Kearney. Many think that Kearney will suit the Warriors, but I would be lying if I said I was completely confident; the reality is that there is a significant difference between being a successful international coach and having the ability to motivate a team of underachievers week in, week out for an entire season.

Kearney is lucky in that he has this job to do with one of the most talented teams in the competition, including Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Simon Mannering, Tui Lolohea, Isaac Luke, Shaun Johnson, and Kieran Foran. I'm hopeful that this is the Warriors' time because they have the potential to be one of the most exciting in the comp this year if they play their best footy. 

I hope you all enjoy Round 1, and a big thank you to the NRL for scheduling opening weekend on my birthday. Tonight, I'll celebrate turning 28 by cheering on Aaron Woods and Teddy when the Wests Tigers take on the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium.