NRL Power Rankings: 2016 pre-season
The new season is still over a month away but with most clubs having made significant moves in the player market over the off-season, we look at how each team is shaping up ahead of the 2016 pre-season and trial games.
1. Cowboys – The premiers have essentially kept their grand final-winning team in place for 2016, and with the game's best player Johnathan Thurston pulling the strings they'll be hard to beat again. But the pressure will be on like never before with every opponent, every week sure to raise their game against the reigning champs this season.
2. Broncos – Brisbane were seconds away from winning the Provan Summons trophy on grand final day and look to have the strongest line-up in the competition on paper, with Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt now arguably the best halves combination in the league. Justin Hodges is a loss, but James Roberts is a great replacement.
3. Roosters – They're still among the bookies' favourites for the premiership despite losing key attacking weapons Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney and Michael Jennings. After three straight minor premierships you can see why, and they do still boast the best defence in the league.
4. Storm – They were written off multiple times last season but continually reminded critics why they're among the most professional teams in the NRL. They have four genuine superstars with Jesse Bromwich backing up The Big Three and in Cameron Munster they also have a worthy successor to Billy Slater at the back.
5. Sea Eagles – After a season of turmoil Manly seem to have got things in order by retaining Daly Cherry-Evans and boosting last year's underwhelming forward pack with internationals Martin Taupau, Nate Myles and Lewis Brown. They still have a star-studded backline even without Kieran Foran, with Kangaroos centre Dylan Walker slotting into the side. Expect big improvements this season.
6. Sharks – Wooden spooners two years ago, Cronulla have put their 2014 troubles behind them and recruited smartly with James Maloney and Chad Townsend set to spark a team that had everything but a good attacking game last year. Expect young guns Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes to grab some more headlines in 2016 as well.
7. Rabbitohs – Souths suddenly went from potential bottom-eight side to genuine contenders with the news Sam Burgess was returning to Redfern. They have the talent to go all the way, but will they make the most of it after a disappointing end to 2015?
8. Warriors – The best recruiters of the off-season landed a couple of gems in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke, with the NRL's lone New Zealand club now boasting an all-Kiwis spine. They should be a sensational team to watch, but can they lift their defensive game as well?
9. Eels – Parramatta's fans have got to be thrilled with their signings for 2016. Kieran Foran could revolutionise the Eels, and Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon and Beau Scott are more than handy pickups as well. With the league's best try-scorer on the books and a major injection of big-game experience Parramatta could be a surprise packet this year.
10. Bulldogs – They were grand finalists in 2014 but have fallen back to the pack since, despite the success of new signing Brett Morris at fullback. Now minus NSW halfback Trent Hodkinson, there is suddenly a lot of pressure on playmakers Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds to perform.
11. Raiders – Aidan Sezer appears to be an excellent halves partner for Blake Austin, one of the breakout stars of 2015, while if Canberra's recent track record with Super League imports is anything to go by then Catalan Dragons forward Elliott Whitehead should be another top buy. Ricky Stuart's men should challenge for a top-eight spot in 2016.
12. Dragons – Apart from the loss of Trent Merrin the Dragons haven't done much wrong in the off-season, having tackled their way into the finals in 2015, but they slip down our rankings due to the improvement in their mid-table rivals. Their attack needs to improve, but they do have some quality attacking players in their side and in new recruit Tim Lafai yet another strike weapon.
13. Panthers – They picked up Merrin from St George Illawarra, lost their coach, and have another big turnover of players coming and going heading into a new season. Penrith have a lot of young talent but it could all come down to the performances of experienced halves Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward.
14. Knights – Trent Hodkinson is a good buy, and Nathan Brown has a strong coaching record from his time in the UK. Plus Newcastle have some of the most talented young outside backs in the game. That should be enough to avoid back-to-back wooden spoons, at least.
15. Tigers – Robbie Farah is still at the club but he's lost the captaincy and his planned replacement Matt Ballin has already arrived. Kiwis star Martin Taupau has left for Manly, and the Tigers will again need to put a lot of faith in young playmaking trio Luke Brooks, Mitch Moses and James Tedesco. It looks like being a tough season.
16. Titans – They'll be reeling from Daly Cherry-Evans' backflip for some time, with one superstar signing slipping through their fingers and Aidan Sezer, James Roberts and Nate Myles now gone as well. After that, they lost half Kane Elgey for the season to an ACL injury. Just about everything that could have gone seemed to go wrong for the Gold Coast last year and like the Tigers they're already planning for the future.
This article first appeared on NRL.com.