What your team needs in 2018: Part 1
An NRL's team's fortunes can change quickly with some smart recruitment. All teams have strengths and weaknesses and addressing those weaknesses can turn a bottom-eight side into a finalist, or a mid-table team into a premiership contender.
At the end of 2015 the sixth-placed Cronulla Sharks needed some attacking strike power to match their strong forward pack, and they recruited James Maloney and Chad Townsend and won their first premiership the following year.
At the end of last season the 15th-placed Roosters needed to find adequate replacements for Maloney and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (and keep their stars on the field), and a year later they finished second on the table with new faces Luke Keary and Michael Gordon starring. The Sea Eagles needed a genuine five-eighth and some tackle-breaking attacking spark, and brought in Blake Green and Akuila Uate and jumped from 13th to sixth.
Of course recruitment isn't the whole story (the form of Daly Cherry-Evans and the Tbrojevic brothers has been key to Manly's rise, for instance) but getting it right certainly helps.
Here are each team's strengths and weaknesses in 2017 and where they need to improve next year, starting with the bottom four.
2017 rank: 16th
Key 2017 stats: Defence 16th; run metres 16th; metres conceded per set 16th; attack 14th
What they've got: A team coming off a third consecutive wooden spoon, albeit one that is starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. Five wins in 2017 isn't much but it's a significant improvement on last year, and Newcastle's largely inexperienced squad is sure to improve in the years to come. A focus on keeping things simple and minimising their opponents' chances hasn't resulted in good completion rates or defensive records just yet, but they do at least concede fewer seven-tackle than any other team in the NRL.
What they need: A stronger forward pack for starters – not only do the Knights make the fewest metres of any team but they also concede the most per set of six. Their defence is ranked the worst in the league, both in terms of points and line breaks conceded, and although their attack is stronger it's still well below top-eight standard. There is plenty of young talent at the club – led by Sione Mata'utia, Daniel and Jacob Saifiti, Mitch Barnett and Brock Lamb – but some class signings and a big-name prop would be most welcome.
What they're getting: Former Rooster and Maroon Aidan Guerra will add experience and class to the forward pack, Herman Ese'ese is another handy recruit for the pack while young guns Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson and Tautau Moga add strike to the backline. It's no coincidence that all five buys so far have come from clubs playing finals football in 2018.
2017 rank: 15th
Key 2017 stats: Tries from kicks 1st; tries 8th; defence 15th; tackle breaks 16th
What they've got: A young, talented team that was hit hard by injuries this season before their form dropped off dramatically late in the year, culminating in the axing of coach Neil Henry. They've struggled both in defence and in breaking the defensive line but their attack is reasonably good – and with young halfback Ash Taylor pulling the strings they've led the league in tries from kicks.
What they need: Better luck with injuries, a much improved defensive game, and ideally a better goal-kicker. The team ranked equal eighth in the league for tries but just 15th for goals this year, and even with game-breakers like Konrad Hurrell and Jarryd Hayne in their backline they ranked last in the competition for tackle busts.
What they're getting: Brenton Lawrence will return to the club where he made his NRL debut after several seasons with the Sea Eagles and former Holden Cup star Jai Arrow is another handy pickup in the forwards, following in Jarrod Wallace's footsteps from Broncos bench player to key Titans forward.
2017 rank: 14th
Key 2017 stats: Discipline 2nd; penalties awarded 16th; tries from kicks 15th; metres conceded 16th
What they've got: A team in transition, who have started to turn the corner under new coach Ivan Cleary despite the looming exits of Origin stars Aaron Woods and James Tedesco. They'd already lost a coach and their starting five-eighth earlier in the year and have a big turnover of players coming in 2018. The Tigers face several areas of improvement – they earn the fewest penalties in the league and concede the most metres, for starters – but will field somewhat of a new-look line-up next season.
What they need: For the new faces to gel quickly, and to capitalise on a strong end to the 2017 campaign which featured three wins and three competitive defeats against top-eight sides. Replacing Tedesco and Woods is the top priority, but they'll need to do more than that if they are to become finals contenders.
What they're getting: The versatile Tuimoala Lolohea is already at the club and is likely to switch from five-eighth to fullback next season, with big-name recruit Josh Reynolds to take the No.6 jersey and favourite son Benji Marshall returning to the club in a role likely to be similar to the one he's played at Brisbane this year. Kiwi props Russell Packer and Ben Matulino have been brought in to replace Woods while Chris McQueen and Robbie Rochow add depth to the back row and Taane Milne, Mahe Fonua and Corey Thompson (the latter two returning from the Super League) strengthen the outside backs.
2017 rank: 13th
Key 2017 stats: Ball control 1st; kick metres 1st; attack 13th; defence 14th; metres conceded 14th
What they've got: A team that embraced a new strategy in 2017 – switching from offload-happy unpredictability to safety-first high-percentage play – yet saw the same old disappointing results. The all-Kiwis spine of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke didn't live up to the hype in Foran's one and only season at the club, and although the team's ball control and completion rates were second to none they became less dangerous in attack and couldn't fix their old problems in defence.
What they need: A replacement for Foran at five-eighth, and some real grit in defence and in the forward pack. While the big men did a great job of holding the ball this season and Shaun Johnson backed them up with the most kick metres of any player in the league, the team remained fragile in defence and were the third worst in the competition when it came to conceding metres from opposition teams.
What they're getting: Storm and Kiwis second-rower Tohu Harris is a great buy while Gerard Beale is a handy pickup in the outside backs, Leivaha Pulu adds depth in the middle and Manaia Cherrington provides cover at hooker.