There is just a single weekend of trial football remaining until the Telstra Premiership officially kicks off on March 8.
Plenty of clubs have taken second-string line-ups into the trials, meaning this weekend represents their one real hit-out with something resembling a top-strength side.
There are almost no clubs without new combinations in critical positions. Only the Cowboys, Eels and Rabbitohs have had no major comings and goings in the 1-6-7-9 positions and all three of those clubs have players returning from long-term injuries in those spots.
Plenty of the other 13 clubs are yet to road-test their new spine in match conditions.
The surprise early return of Anthony Milford from off-season shoulder surgery (via the bench) will give the team's combinations a boost ahead of round one. But with fullback Darius Boyd's hamstring still on ice, rookie Jamayne Isaako – who at this stage looks certain of a round one start – continues to deputise at fullback and may even now be the official back-up No.1 ahead of Jordan Kahu. Like Boyd, hooker Andrew McCullough (knee) is also not back playing yet. His official deputy now looks to be this week's starting No.9 Todd Murphy with former Eel Troy Dargan not in the 20-man squad and Sam Scarlett starting at five-eighth. Corey Oates's early forays into the back-row have gone ok but he'll want to build on that this week.
The Raiders won't be looking for much this weekend as they're the one NRL club without a trial game. Hopefully Ricky Stuart saw enough in the team's error-riddled loss to the Bulldogs last week to know which of his hookers (and potentially other halves) he wants to see in the No.9 rotation for the early rounds as that shapes as the big question for the Green Machine over the opening rounds. Despite missing the finals last season they scored the third-most points of any club but inconsistency and narrow losses were their Achilles heel.
That win over Canberra last weekend had plenty of good news for new coach Dean Pay, with all of his likely round one playmakers getting some time together. Kieran Foran showed some good signs in the halves, ditto Moses Mbye at the back. Arguably the biggest positive was the continuation of hooker Michael Lichaa's good form from the end of last season. Pay is obviously content with what he saw because most of the likely round one best 17 have been rested this weekend. It will give the likes of Nu Brown, Josh Cleeland, Kerrod Holland, Francis Tualau and Rhyse Martin a chance to press their claims while Greg Eastwood is the senior man in No.13.
Shane Flanagan was another coach who decided to road-test his top-flight playmakers last weekend and he'll be glad to have a second bite at the cherry after some rusty early signs in the Chad Townsend-Matt Moylan partnership. A bit more time together to iron out those kinks is top of the wish-list. Goal-kicking candidates Townsend and Valentine Holmes are each yet to attempt a shot in match conditions this pre-season with Moylan having grabbed the tee last week (for one from two) so a bit more practice on that front would also be welcome.
Gold Coast Titans
X-factor recruit Bryce Cartwright had a fairly anonymous 20 minutes at lock in a big loss to Brisbane last week and coach Garth Brennan will be keen for him to show some signs he is the man for the job when they meet the Warriors. With virtually an entire NRL forward pack sidelined, Cartwright, Ryan James (in his possible shift to edge back row), new prop Leilani Latu and local junior Will Matthews (starting in the back row) will be keen for some decent minutes. Three of the four main playmakers (new fullback Michael Gordon, plus half Ash Taylor and hooker Nathan Peats) are playing their first match of 2018 so the new combinations will also be a focus.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Coach Trent Barrett went with a very much second-string line-up last week, meaning likely five-eighth Lachie Croker is yet to get a run in match conditions with the other three incumbent playmakers. Other than a few other big names like Jake Trbojevic, Curtis Sironen, Joel Thompson and Aku Uate blowing the cobwebs out, the spine combinations are about the only priority for this week's match against the Roosters.
Melbourne had a full-strength (minus one or two injuries) line-up in their commanding World Club Challenge win over Leeds, with the form of young half Brodie Croft particularly encouraging as Melbourne move into the post-Cronk era. If the match against the Cowboys were not a testimonial for Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston, coach Craig Bellamy may have even been tempted to give a few players another rest. As it is, the side is once again close to full-strength (Billy Slater is sitting out as a precaution after landing awkwardly on his shoulder last week) and can safely be expected to explode out of the blocks once the season kicks off.
The Knights were one of the few NRL teams to be sitting out last week but they did have a run against Melbourne a week earlier in which most of their big names and new signings had a solid run in a last-gasp win. There were great signs for the likes of Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson. This week Sione Mata'utia, Tautau Moga, Daniel Saifiti and Aidan Guerra get their first run of the year. With so many new faces every chance to gel as a unit will be welcomed by coach Nathan Brown.
North Queensland Cowboys
Coach Paul Green will be elated Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott got through last week, even despite the considerable rust in the team's loss to Wests Tigers. But there is so much quality and continuity in this squad that he won't be the slightest concerned by that. All Green will want to see this week is a few more minutes and kilometres in his big names and obviously no injuries.
Green privileged to be part of Testimonial
The Eels are the only NRL club not to have played a trial yet. With Canberra, they are the only two teams that will head into round one with a single trial under their belts. Coach Brad Arthur is taking this one seriously though, with no-one rested. Clint Gutherson is still a few weeks away from a return to the field but otherwise all the big names are on show. Notably, Jarryd Hayne will play centre and Brad Takairangi will start in the back row. Interestingly, that pushes Tepai Moeroa to the reserves with Beau Scott and Kenny Edwards on the bench. Starting hooker Cameron King's strong finish to 2017 keeps him in front of Kaysa Pritchard (reserves) for now. Josh Hoffman and Kirisome Auva'a present a safety-first wing pairing.
The best news out of the trial win over the Roosters last week was how comfortable Nathan Cleary and James Maloney looked together, even if it was only for a quarter of a game. Coach Anthony Griffin will want to see that develop further – particularly for the benefit of young fullback Dylan Edwards. The promotion of Viliame Kikau to starting second row ahead of James Fisher-Harris is an interesting one given his explosive World Cup form.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
A win's a win, and the Anthony Seibold era started off on a positive note for the Bunnies. Dane Gagai gets his first run for his new club this week but Greg Inglis is still on ice, along with halfback Adam Reynolds. The interesting part of that is Adam Doueihi's elevation to the starting No.7 jersey following his impressive World Cup showing for Lebanon and a nice contribution against Hull FC last week. He may get some NRL game time as the next-string playmaker this year so this experience will be invaluable for him.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Like the Bunnies, the Dragons bagged a trial win over a Super League team at ANZ Stadium last Saturday. The Ben Hunt-Gareth Widdop halves combination looked a work in progress so another chance to build on that will be welcome. Big-name recruit James Graham was also quiet last week but that won't be of concern. The slick form of fullback Matt Dufty means one less headache for coach Paul McGregor and with senior men Jack De Belin and Tyson Frizell returning this week this represents a chance to get some momentum together for the top-string line-up.
The evolution of McGregor’s coaching style
There wasn't much to take out of the understrength Roosters' loss to Penrith last week so coach Trent Robinson has just this weekend to prepare for his new spine of James Tedesco-Luke Keary-Cooper Cronk-Jake Friend. But he won't have Keary available due to his jaw injury so Mitch Cornish will run out at five-eighth. Cronk and Tedesco are star players in their own rights but moving into very different teams and environments always takes some sort of adjustment period.
The Warriors are another club who is yet to give the new spine a run, and the underwhelming effort against Melbourne's B-team won't have given fans a lot of encouragement. They'll be hoping once recruit Blake Green finally lines up alongside Shaun Johnson this weekend the answers come sooner rather than later. Skipper Roger-Tuivasa-Sheck will also be looking to put his contract talk aside as he looks to recapture his best form. Hooker Issac Luke isn't even in the starting side after a poor 2017 campaign. He'll be hoping his final season at the club can be a strong one but right now he has to worry about getting his spot back from utility playmaker Sam Cook, who will start in the No.9 against the Titans.
The new-look Wests Tigers started brightly with a handy trial win over the Cowboys in Cairns, which featured encouraging signs from new halves combo Luke Brooks and Josh Reynolds after a nervy start (and despite a couple of wayward kicks). Jostling for backline spots is intense with the likes of Esan Marsters, Mahe Fonua, Corey Thompson and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak all keeping their names in coach Ivan Cleary's mind last week.
The forwards are also still competing for a couple of spots, meaning this final trial is arguably most important for the fringe players.