Not long now until NRL season 2017 kicks off.
It looks like being one of the closest fought seasons we’ve seen, however rather than analyse each team’s chances here I’ll look at the individuals for whom 2017 is shaping up as a huge year.
Whether it’s someone under pressure to keep their job, coming back from injury or trying to recapture their best form, I’ve picked the person at each club who will need a big year.
Brisbane – Ben Hunt
Hunt had a sensational 2015 and formed one of the competition’s best halves combinations with Anthony Milford. Unfortunately 2015 ended with Hunt dropping the grand final for the Broncos.
He struggled for form throughout 2016 with only glimpses of his best. More importantly he just didn’t seem to be enjoying his footy and there were numerous on-field shots of him looking morose.
Hopefully Hunt can rediscover his best form but more importantly his love for the game.
Canberra – Ricky Stuart
Detractors are never too far away when Stuart’s name is mentioned. He’s had a couple of years relative grace while he’s assembled his team of seemingly bits and pieces players. But you get the feeling that grace period is over with last season’s top-four finish and expectations high in the nation’s capital.
There will be no flying under the radar for Stuart after his first successful NRL season in quite some time.
Canterbury – Des Hasler
Rightly or wrongly Hasler has been well and truly put on notice this year. With five years of making the semis along with two grand final appearances not yielding a premiership, it appears patience is running out at Belmore.
While he out-lasted Steve Mortimer, Hasler has had several of his high performance staff cut. If rumours are true only a top-four finish will result in Hasler keeping his job.
Cronulla – Shane Flanagan
Flanno is not under the slightest bit of pressure to keep his job after the 2016 premiership. But this year he’s faced with not only the daunting challenge of going back-to-back but attempting it without arguably his two main attacking weapons in Ben Barba and Michael Ennis.
Add in an under fire Andrew Fifita and Flanagan has a few things to work out this off season.
Gold Coast – Kane Elgey
Elegy was the 2014 NYC player of the year and the 2015 Titans rookie of the year. He was the player I was most looking forward to watching in 2016 but he never made it onto the field. He seems a natural footballer – he’s got a good running game, he can steer a team around the park, he’s an excellent kicker and passer and a strong defender and takes good options. His combo with Ash Taylor and Jarryd Hayne could be mouth watering in 2017.
Manly – Trent Barrett
Manly have made some astute signings and expectations are starting to look up on the peninsula. Barrett still remains the unknown factor with limited coaching experience and having replaced favourite son Geoff Toovey. It must also be a little unsettling having Bozo peering over your shoulder the whole time.
Melbourne – Billy Slater
One of the greats of the modern era, Slater has missed two consecutive seasons with injury. With a premiership, the record for most tries by a fullback, a Dally M, a Clive Churchill, a Golden Boot and well over 20 games for both Queensland and Australia, Slater has nothing left to prove – other than whether or not he can come back from these shoulder injuries.
I haven’t read that Slater has retired from representative football so he might still be aiming even higher than just a first grade comeback.
New Zealand – RTS, Foran, Johnson and Luke
The perennial under achievers have an absolutely mouth watering spine to go along with the talented forwards and massive outside backs. There’s a lot of pressure on these guys to deliver the experience, the points and a decent crack at the premiership.
Newcastle – Nathan Brown
Without a standout player at the club to shoulder the responsibility, Brown gets the nod. Everyone knows he inherited a basket case but when you look at the squad there are some decent names in there. Hodkinson, Mullen, Gagai, Mata’utia x4, Safiti x 2, Pauli Pauli, Ross, Buehrer, Sims, Kostjasyn, Paea, Starling among the younger players.
Brown only needs to improve on one win but I think Knights fans will be expecting more.
North Queensland – Matt Scott
Let’s be honest, the Cowboys chances start and end with Johnathan Thurston – but I’ve nominated Matt Scott. He’s been an absolute champion for the Cowboys, Queensland and Australia.
He’s won a world cup and captained a premiership winning side among other achievements. But last season he started to look like the wear and tear was starting to catch up with him as he battled a back injury. That load looks like increasing with both James Tamou and Ben Hannant moving on.
Parramatta – Corey Norman
Norman has been a promising and then brilliant player for a while but now he’s the main man for the Eels.
Coming off the disastrous 2016 season Parra fans will be hoping for big things from Parra and a lot of that will fall on the shoulders of Norman. His talent is undoubted but his maturity will be what counts this year.
Penrith – Nathan Cleary
The Panthers started 2016 with Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace in the halves. Nathan Cleary came from the clouds but delivered massive things for the Panthers but will be entering his dreaded second year with huge expectations on him.
Will defences have worked him out? Can he keep steering the talented but sometimes erratic Panthers around the park? Will second season syndrome strike? Or will he kick his career up another level?
Souths – The Burgii
At their best, the three good Burgess brothers are rampaging juggernauts, be it steaming onto the ball at ANZ or throwing street signs in Townsville. Sam had a great season by mere mortal standards but was below his best in his comeback from rugby.
George and Tom had a few niggling injuries through 2016 but looked like they had feet for hands for much of the year. Souths need all three firing to make the eight.
St George Illawarra – Paul McGregor / Gareth Widdop
The Dragons have been awful in attack over the last couple of seasons and a lot of the blame has to be laid at McGregor’s feet. What is their style? What is their structure? Some fans blame the players but players like Widdop (maybe), Mitch Rein, Jason Nightingale, Euan Aiken, Tyson Frizell and so on are not slouches in attack.
Is there a player whose stocks have fallen as far as Widdop’s over the past two years?
Sydney – Latrell Mitchell
Mitchell was stunning running the ball for a lot of last season but had some issues with his ball-playing, positioning and fitness, ending the season on the wing. Given the Roosters let Tuivasa-Sheck go partly because they had Mitchell in the U20s and Latrell needs to fire.
Wests – Luke Brooks
Critics have been demanding consistency from Brooks for a couple of years now, while fans have offered up any number of excuses. With Mitchell Moses stepping up last year, Brooks now looks like the most expendable member of the Tigers’ ‘Big Four’.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brooks was killing the Dragons on debut but that was in 2013, 66 first grade games ago. Excuses are like bums – everyone’s got one and they usually stink.