Roundtable: Transfer winners & losers
While the national sides are preparing for the Rugby League World Cup the 16 NRL clubs are working towards finalising their squads for 2018. Which teams are looking stronger next season, and who have been the best buys?
That's the topic of today's NRL.com Roundtable chat.
Dom (Dominic Brock, production editor): Today we're taking a look at off-season recruiting for the 2018 season. Which team has been the biggest winner in the transfer market so far?
Dom: They've certainly made a lot of changes.
CK: What I like about their recruiting is there are some good value buys in there that don't ruin the cap down the track, and quite a few of them are key signings in particular areas that needed a boost.
Gabz (Martin Gabor, national correspondent): Hard to argue with the Knights. They've brought in a mix of young guns (Connor Watson and Kalyn Ponga) as well as seasoned veterans (Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington). There hasn't been a competition for spots for years, but that will all change in 2018 with the older guys driving the younger players to new heights.
Tony (Tony Webeck, chief Queensland correspondent): For a long time I was worried it was Ponga and very little else but I really like the more recent additions, particularly Connor Watson and Chris Heighington. The presence of seasoned first-graders will enable the likes of Brock Lamb and the Saifiti boys to flourish next season.
Alicia (Alicia Newton, national correspondent): It reminds me a lot about their 2007/2008 changeover period under Brian Smith. A huge amount of changes, plenty of players on the verge of establishing their careers. How quickly they gel will be another topic but you hope for Knights fans it's fast.
Tony: At the time losing Dane Gagai looked disastrous but I think they have compensated sufficiently.
CK: Probably my only concern with the Knights' recruiting is that they started to show some really good signs towards the back end with guys like Fitzgibbon, Dan Saifiti, Brock Lamb etc. I just hope the new crew doesn't come in and take some of the gloss off what the locals had started to build. But, given the calibre of recruits, no doubt their professionalism will make sure that isn't the case.
Dom: It is really a focus on youth and experience – none of the new signings are really at their peak, which has presumably allowed Newcastle to save more cap space than they would have otherwise. Even if the experienced guys take a back seat to those young guys you mentioned they'll still be handy to have at the club.
Gabz: Big fan of Fitzgibbon. Still a bit raw around the edges but reminds me a bit of Angus Crichton.
CK: As Gabz said, competition for spots is crucial. You now have a scenario where Hodkinson probably isn't in most people's best 17 for Round 1 next year. Fitzgibbon and Barnett are fighting for bench spots. That should make everyone hungrier.
Alicia: They're lacking probably another decent outside back. With Peter Mata'utia and Dane Gagai departing, they've only recruited Tautau Moga in return. An injury here or there and it becomes a concern. But from all reports that's the position they're targeting next and still have good money left.
Tony: The other active player in the transfer market has been the Wests Tigers. Have they gained more than they have lost?
Dom: The general mood around the Tigers has been positive recently but I think guys like Aaron Woods and especially James Tedesco are very hard to replace.
Gabz: They might have lost some stars – and geez Tedesco and Woods will be sorely missed – but there is now plenty of quality depth on the bus.
Dom: Depth and experience too – Josh Reynolds, Benji Marshall, Chris McQueen, Ben Matulino and Russell Packer have all been around for a while now.
Gabz: The romance of Benji Marshall returning coupled with the energy Josh Reynolds brings will be great in attack while Ben Matulino and Russell Packer will provide the grunt they have missed over the years.
Tony: With Matulino and Packer their go-forward looks to me to have received a considerable boost, even allowing for the loss of Woods and Seumanufagai. Think Taane Milne is an astute pick-up as well.
Alicia: I think they've done extremely well, considering. What impressed me most was how quickly they responded to losing Woods and Tedesco by picking up Josh Reynolds, Ben Matulino and Russell Packer. Again like the Knights I can't see it happening for them overnight but by mid-season the combinations should click.
CK: I just wonder how much the guys they're bringing in are the guys they need. Definitely Packer and Matulino for some steel through the middle post-Woods and Seumanufagai looks a good move. The Reynolds/Benji/Brooks halves roster – I don't know. I assume Lolohea will be at the back and Liddle at hooker. It doesn't scream finals to me. Tedesco is a monumental loss. The strike out wide – Nofoaluma is still very good with the ball but how much will the likes of Fonua, Thompson, Milne etc add?
Gabz: They now have plenty of depth in the outside backs; an area that probably hurt them in recent times with back-towers often having to play out of position.
Tony: Chris McQueen will be delighted if he never has to play in the centres again I can tell you that.
Dom: Yep Ben Hunt and James Graham are some big names who should make a big impact.
Tony: Seconded. Think they've shrewdly targeted exactly what they needed. Couldn't agree more.
Dom: They had a disastrous end to the season but the Dragons probably overachieved this year, at least compared to the pre-season expectations. Most of us had them in the bottom three, and they came within a win of playing finals footy. Hunt helps their attack, Graham strengthens an already good pack – they should really be a top-eight side next year.
Gabz: If Widdop didn't get injured then they would have played finals for sure.
CK: Hard to argue. I think they have the players to easily cover Dugan's move to the Sharks. Widdop finally has a top-tier foil. McInnes and Dufty round out an impressive spine. Add Graham in alongside Friz, De Belin, Vaughan, Sims, Ah Mau, etc. Looks a strong pack, good spine. Big chance of finals.
Alicia: They never panicked losing Dugan and I liked that. They've lacked a quality half outside Gareth Widdop for some time, particularly in his absence, and they identified that very early on in the year. They'll be in my eight next season.
CK: The other team with a lot of names in the 'incoming' column is the Warriors. No need to dwell on how disastrous they were in 2017 but do Tohu Harris, Adam Blair, Peta Hiku, Vaha Pulu and Gerard Beale correct what was wrong with them?
Tony: I'm not convinced.
Gabz: Nor I.
Dom: It's impossible to tell with the Warriors. People have rated them a top-four team based on star recruits in the past, and they haven't come close.
CK: Well I don't want to death-ride them this early because I'd love to see them realise their potential but I can see them battling for the spoon next year.
Tony: It's ridiculous to suggest that group of players added to an already strong roster shouldn't make them a better team but we won't know for sure until about Round 6.
Gabz: I've got them getting the spoon. Harris is a great get on the left edge but I'm not overly sold on some of the other purchases. The loss of Kieran Foran hurts. I appreciate he wasn't at his best in 2017, but he was the player Shaun Johnson needed. I'm not sure they have the right personnel to replace him.
Tony: They've got six players in the current Kiwi team and we're talking about them getting the wooden spoon. Incredible.
Dom: Yeah I can't quite fathom a team with that quality and someone like Shaun Johnson pulling the strings finishing last, but again, it's impossible to predict what the Warriors will do.
Gabz: I want them to success. Maybe it's a reverse mock after years of tipping them to do well.
CK: I want them to success as much as anyone.
Alicia: It's interesting because I wrote a story after talking to Elijah Taylor in September and he said they needed more Australian-based players at the club who have come through strong Australian systems. Kearney has bought three in Blair, Beale and Harris who are either premiership winners or grand finalists in the last three years.
And they're all Kiwis too.
CK: They've bought a ton of Kiwis – Beale, Blair, Harris, Hiku, Love-Henry, Pulu, Cherrington. Given that stance from Elijah it's a concerning recruitment strategy.
Alicia: And lost Ryan Hoffman and Jacob Lillyman. Agree it's the total opposite Elijah is talking about.
Tony: One for me; the Roosters. And imagine if they add Cronk into the mix.
Gabz: Can a team with one signing win the trade period? I vote yes.
CK: Quite a few in that category. Jordan McLean to Cowboys, Tedesco to Roosters, Jack Bird to Broncos. Kane Evans looks a good fit for an Eels team that was low on size in 2017. But agree, throw Teddy into the 2017 Roosters and it's scary what they could do in '18.
Dom: I've got them equal favourites with the Cowboys to win it in 2018 – both good teams who have added one excellent player to the mix.
Gabz: Tedesco was unstoppable in a struggling team. Imagine how he'll go playing behind a representative pack!
 Telstra Premiership: James Tedesco
Tackle Breaks, All Run Metres, Line Breaks, Try Assists.
Alicia: Do we underestimate who the Roosters lost though or think they'll be fine? Guerra, Watson, Kane Evans....
CK: Roosters do have some big names outgoing but they weren't using Watson much outside injuries and Evans less so. Guerra came good but their pack is still ridiculous without him.
Gabz: Nat Butcher and Victor Radley are waiting in the wings.
CK: Yeah Roosters will be fine. Potentially Foran and Woods to the Dogs could be massive too. But Foran has hardly been the panacea for his past two clubs...
Gabz: How long have you been waiting to use that word?
Dom: The Dogs will be really interesting next year, for a few reasons.
Dom: Massive, considering Michael Morgan has become a legit superstar in the meantime.
CK: Agree, not only adding JT and Scott back in but adding them back in to a team that has evolved impressively in their absence.
Dom: The Storm will be pretty fascinating next season without Cronk. At least they've kept Slater for another year.
Gabz: True, but Sam Kasiano will probably captain the Kiwis next year and Ryan Hoffman will play Origin given Craig Bellamy's ability to find the best in his players. Brodie Croft was also outstanding when he was called upon. If Cronk stays on as a halves consultant then he'll be fine.
CK: Yeah they've got Hoffman back very late in his career. Will be interesting to see if Pat Kaufusi can find something like the improvement Felise found this year.
Alicia: I wouldn't say they'll be on the slide as such because they're traditionally a dominant club but Brisbane are taking a bit of a risk with the Jack Bird signing for mine and have lost some depth in the forwards. He'll likely move to lock and free up Josh McGuire into the pack but with no halfback depth too after losing Hunt and Marshall it will be interesting.
Gabz: Yeah the halves situation looks worrying. They had too many playmakers last season. Now they're stretched.
Tony: There's not an obvious half/hooker back-up at the Broncos now at all.
CK: Lots of talk about Bird playing 13. Surely not?
Gabz: He wants to be 'on the ball' so I wouldn't be surprised to see him shift to lock or even five-eighth if need be.
Tony: I think that's the way they'll go. You can't pair Milford and Bird in the halves I don't believe. Given his form in Q Cup and the fact that he is an absolutely massive human having Lodge could solve a couple of issues. Got great hands for a big bloke too.
CK: Five-eighth looks his best spot for mine. But Milford is much more a 6 than a 7. A Milf-Bird halves combo doesn't look the answer.
Gabz: Bennett can always go left field and play him at FB and shift Boyd to the halves.
Dom: They're a team of five-eighths all of a sudden...
Alicia: It doesn't sound like much thought went into the signing from a Broncos angle.
Tony: He's a wonderful player. Wayne will work out where he best fits and shuffle the team to suit. If only Ash Taylor were available...
Dom: Before we finish up, any bold predictions for player moves to expect between now and next March?
Tony: Cameron Smith to the Rabbitohs would help their prospects no end.
Dom: Wow. Although that probably could be said for a lot of teams.
Gabz: I'll go out on a limb and say Cronk retires.
CK: Suspect there will be plenty more movement. Knights still with considerable cap space. Eels and Sea Eagles with enough room for some solid signings.
Alicia: Knights to nab a centre. Let's go with Josh Morris.
Tony: I would have loved to have seen James Maloney go to the Knights. Thought that was a great fit for both parties that would have made them top eight contenders almost overnight.
Alicia: Didn't a lot of it depend on whether Cronk went there? So much speculation out there.
Gabz: Bodene Thompson has to sign somewhere, Lichaa will extend his stay at the Bulldogs and I'll say Brett Morris will end up at Souths.
Tony: Darius Boyd to sign with the Broncos at some stage before Christmas.
Gabz: Also Jayden Nikorima back to the Broncos.
CK: Manly will get a back rower. Bodene and Joel Thompson both mooted. Eels will get another prop. Knights will definitely get at least one more three-quarter.
Tony: It will be criminal if Joel Thompson has to leave the Dragons.
Alicia: Oh yes, one more... Matt Moylan won't be at Penrith. My tip is Wests Tigers.
Dom: OK thanks guys let's wrap it up there.