The 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership season is still more than a month away but with clubs making moves in the player market over the off-season and injuries already wreaking havoc on some squads, we look at how each team is shaping up ahead of the Downer NRL Auckland Nines and pre-season trial games.
1. Sharks – The reigning champs hold top spot on this list by default, although the pressure will be on with Michael Ennis no longer at the club, Ben Barba to miss the start of the season and the NRL premiers curse hanging over their heads. They've finally ended their premiership drought – can they now defy recent history and go back-to-back?
2. Storm – Last year's minor premiers and grand finalists are the safe bet to go one better in 2017. The bulk of their side remains intact and will actually be improved if and when champion fullback Billy Slater makes his return.
3. Raiders – Last year's Cinderella story, Canberra quickly became most fans' second-favourite team as they piled on the points to earn a second-place finish at the end of the regular season. Boasting arguably the best-balanced 17 in the NRL, they can establish themselves as a real premiership force with another strong campaign this season.
4. Cowboys – The 2015 premiers remain one of the most star-studded outfits in the league, led by international stars Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Michael Morgan and reigning Dally M winner Jason Taumalolo. But how will they cope with the loss of James Tamou?
5. Broncos – A change is looming in Brisbane with halfback Ben Hunt to play his final season at the club before a move to the Dragons, but Wayne Bennett's men remain one of the strongest-looking sides in the game. Their rivalry with North Queensland will be something to behold once again in 2017.
6. Panthers – It's been six years since the Panthers played finals football in back-to-back seasons but they're expected to snap that streak this year after a tremendously promising 2016 campaign. One of the most exciting teams in the league and a popular club for the neutrals, it'll be intriguing to see just how good young guns Matt Moylan, Nathan Cleary, Bryce Cartwright and new pivot Te Maire Martin will be this year, while James Tamou boosts an already-strong forward pack.
7. Bulldogs – Des Hasler is under pressure, Moses Mbye is under pressure, heck the whole team is under pressure… despite the fact the Bulldogs are one of just three teams to have played finals football in each of the past five seasons (the Storm and Cowboys are the others). Once again they're likely to make the top eight, but once again they remain dark horses at best in the premiership race.
8. Roosters – Yes, they finished 15th last year, but the Roosters will be boosted by the arrival of two handy buys in Michael Gordon and Luke Kelly plus the full availability of stars Mitchell Pearce, Boyd Cordner and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves after the trio missed the opening two months of last season. Their absence led to a shocking start that derailed the Roosters' campaign, but at full strength the 2015 minor premiers will be expected to make massive improvements this year.
9. Eels – After a year dominated by unwanted headlines Parramatta will be as grateful as anyone to be playing football again in March, and they've got a coach and a roster that are worthy of a top-eight finish. With Corey Norman pulling the strings and Bevan French scoring tries for fun the Eels are capable of challenging any side this season.
10. Titans – Last season was a stunning one for the Gold Coast, who defied expectations of a wooden spoon to finish inside the top eight – picking up some quality signings in the form of Jarryd Hayne, Nathan Peats and Konrad Hurrell along the way. Ryan James led from the front with a record-breaking campaign for a front-rower, but can he and his side match those heights again this year?
11. Warriors – After yet another disappointing season the Warriors have a new star in Kieran Foran (albeit one whose contract is yet to be registered by the NRL) and more importantly a new coach in Steve Kearney. They'll also have a fit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at their disposal again. There's certainly no shortage of talent at the club but they'll need to cut out the errors and defensive lapses if they are to finally reach their potential.
12. Rabbitohs – Which South Sydney team will we see in 2017: the one that slumped into the NRL's bottom four by Round 22, or the one that finished the season with a confident four-game winning streak? That momentum – plus the recruitment of NSW hooker Robbie Farah – should have Souths fans cautiously optimistic of a finals challenge this year.
13. Wests Tigers – The post-Robbie Farah era begins with Mitch Moses and James Tedesco the new main men at the Tigers, who loom as one of the most intriguing teams of 2017. Can the young guns get the job done for Jason Taylor? Or are Wests still a team planning for the future?
14. Sea Eagles – The personnel changes continue at Manly with Blake Green, Akuila Uate, Jackson Hastings and Curtis Sironen among a host of new names at the club, while veteran stars Brett Stewart and Steve Matai appear to be on the outer. Daly Cherry-Evans is the new Sea Eagles skipper but can the halfback lead his team back into finals contention?
15. Dragons – St George Illawarra finished 11th last year but have dropped to 15th in premiership betting for 2017, mostly due to the improvements made at other clubs. Paul Vaughan replaces Mike Cooper, Cameron McInnes replaces Mitch Rein, and a new half must come in to fill the spot vacated by Benji Marshall, with young gun Drew Hutchison sidelined with an ACL injury.
16. Knights – There are some promising signs for Newcastle – Jamie Buhrer and Rory Kostjasyn are solid signings, for example – but by the same token the bad news hasn't stopped, with Jarrod Mullen testing positive to a banned substance and Pauli Pauli dislocating his hip in a car accident. It's all about the future for the Knights, with any improvement the goal at this stage.