The 2015 season was a dynamic beast, the fortunes of clubs rising and falling in just a few rounds. The turning point arguably occurred early in the piece, when the league leading Knights ended their four game winning streak, just as the eventual premiers the Cowboys notched their first win of the year. From there clubs struggled and tussled to gain a foothold in the top 8, and it was truly a mugs game to predict anything with much accuracy.
This season will be equally hard to predict, with huge amounts of player movement and roster rebuilding. Rather than comb through all 16 clubs we’ll take a look at specific areas and then try and identify who the movers and shakers are in 2016.
2016 Most Improved Team – New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors finished a very humble 13th in 2015, their season ending with a disastrous eight game losing streak. 2016 is a completely different kettle of fish for them with the welcome additions of Roger Tuivasa Sheck and Isaac Luke. They released a large swathe of players primarily to secure these two, purchasing only a few other names to bolster the roster. Warriors fans will be praying that McFadden can extract the maximum potential from a spine featuring Luke, RTS and Shaun Johnson.
2016 Premiership Winners – Brisbane Broncos/NQ Cowboys
You get the feeling that the Broncos will use the emotion of that last field goal in 2015 to drive themselves forward this year. In the finals series last year, Wayne Bennett famously said that he hadn’t even begun working on offensive structures with this side. With roster changes at a minimum they can really knuckle down and start honing their already keen edged offense to complement their solid defence from last year. Expect Hunt and Milford to double up on their output from last year.
I included the Cowboys in this because they too have had a minimal roster shake up, and will no doubt be keen to have a crack at the elusive back to back premiership.
With that in mind I do expect the Broncos to take out the minor premiership, which is not necessarily a good thing judging by recent seasons.
2016 Wooden Spooners – Wests Tigers
I just can’t see a youthful Tigers outfit overcoming the off-field dramas that plagued them at the backend of 2015. With the tumultuous relationship between Taylor and Farah still slowly simmering in the background the Tigers are only a handful of lost games from away from all out internal conflict.
The exodus of talent including Taupau, Richards and Galloway has been offset by the incoming names of Chee-Kam, Littlejohn and Tim Grant, but they will need time to adjust to their new side, a difficult task if everyone is reading from a different page.
2016 Best buy – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Roosters fans would’ve surely been crying themselves sick (if they had souls) upon learning that their young gun fullback was not just changing club but also moving overseas to get away from them.
Conversely Warriors fans must’ve been tripping the light fantastic upon learning of Rogers switch. In a side a powerful and unpredictable ball runners expect RTS to crank the offensive chaos up another notch. Opposing defences have been warned.
2016 Worst/Weirdest Buy – Josh McCrone
I don’t know what the recruiting team were smoking at the Dragons when they decided towards the end of 2015 that what they really needed for the next year was Josh McCrone.
You’d think if you’d just lost Trent Merrin you’d be focusing on obtaining a suitable replacement to your star Origin forward, but instead they seem to have cast a wide net for quantity over quality (seriously, Russell Packer is marked as theirs come 2017).
McCrone was actually a quite good and serviceable half in his younger days, when he and Campo formed a formidable attacking pair, but those days, like Campo’s knees, are long gone. Raiders fans were no doubt smirking that the Dragons habit of raiding the Canberra stock yards had finally relieved them of McCrone forever.
2016 Dark Horses – Parramatta Eels/Canberra Raiders
I fully expect the Eels and Raiders to be the two teams that finally claw their way back into the top 8 this year. The Eels already had a raft of new talent locked up before they announced surprise signing Michael Jennings this week, stocking the larder for a proper assault on the top end of the ladder. Fans have a right to expect good things from the spine of Foran, Norman, Degois/Peats and Gordon, with backline firepower in the forms of Radradra and Jennings.
The Raiders have also recruited well, signing more talent in the forms of Sezer, Whitehead and Lima after they had themselves massive end of 2015 cleanout. The recruitment of recruiter Peter Mulholland appears to be working for now.
2016 Head Start – Canberra Raiders
Fortress Canberra has been a bleak and desolate outpost in recent seasons due to the Raiders godawful home record – last year they managed just three wins at home. 2016 offers the Green Machine a chance to buck this trend with three of their first four games at home, against the Panthers, Roosters and Titans (Rd 3 is an away game in Newcastle) If there was ever a time for the Raiders to put their best foot forward it’s 2016.
2016 Round 1 Fireworks – Cowboys v Sharks or Roosters v Bunnies
Round 1 presents you with the reigning premiers against a side who bested them twice during the season last year, only to fall short in their finals encounter. Twice the Sharks sprung a gritty ambush on the rampaging Cowboys, grinding them out in two close encounters. The Cowboys had the last laugh, obliterating the Shire-dwellers in the finals.
If that isn’t enough then you can also watch two teams who hate each other, and are in turn hated by everyone else, resume their annual Sydney based biffo. The Roosters host the Bunnies, and quite frankly we hope they both lose by way of chronic gastro at halftime.