Sunday 17 December 2017 / 12:05 AM

YOUR CLUB’S BIG QUESTION FOR 2017

The wait for the return of NRL action is almost over, so what is the big question hovering over your team ahead of the 2017 season?

Brisbane Broncos – How do you replace Corey Parker?

He appeared in 24 games for the Broncos last year, and wasn’t far off career-best form, making his retirement all the harder to take from a fan’s point of view. Averaging 124 metres and 30 tackles per game in 2016, Parker was getting through plenty of work in the middle of the park, while his second-phase play, where he averaged more than an offload per game, continued to be an important part of Brisbane’s attack. Likely replacements Josh McGuire and Jai Arrow are good players, but can they fill the void left by this champion lock?

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – Will Hasler survive the season?

Despite making the top eight last year, Bulldogs coach Des Hasler is under all sorts of pressure to keep his job, and if the Bulldogs struggle early on in the season – as many are tipping them to – there is every chance they will have a new coach before the end of 2017. While they have some star power in the backline and pack, the Doggies don’t have an elite roster on paper, there’s big question marks over their spine, and many are predicting them to be among the bottom four teams in the competition after five straight years in the finals.

Canberra Raiders – Are the Green Machine ready to take the next step?

Second-placed at the end of the regular season, and two points off beating the Storm to advance to the NRL grand final in 2016, Canberra were on the verge of their best season since 1994. The Raiders have the most lethal centre/wing combination in the game right now, a top-quality hooker and a settled halves pairing. They are in an ideal position to challenge for the title, so can Ricky Stuart’s men go one better this year?

Cronulla Sharks – How important were Ennis and Barba to last year’s success?

If the Sharks are to defend their premiership in 2017 they will have to do it without two key members of their spine in fullback Ben Barba (rugby union) and hooker Michael Ennis (retirement). It’s obvious they played a big role in Cronulla winning their long-awaited first title last year, but will we actually discover the true value of the pair in their absence? Between them Barba and Ennis accounted for 30 try assists, 18 tries and 20 line breaks last year.

Gold Coast Titans – Will two young halves click?

Gold Coast playmakers Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey are among the most highly-regarded young halves in the competition. That is great news from an individual point of view for the Titans, but how will they go working together? They both love getting the ball in their hands and appear to both be ‘chief playmaker’ types rather than one being happy to play second-fiddle. It can be really, really hard to work with two halves of the same style, and how long will it be until one of them starts to question his role or future at the club if he isn’t getting the opportunities he wants? Interesting times ahead in the Gold Coast No.6 and No.7 jerseys – particularly with the neighbouring Broncos sniffing around for a 2018 replacement for Ben Hunt.

Manly Sea Eagles – Veteran departures a positive or negative?

Club stalwarts Jamie Lyon, Brett Stewart and Steve Matai have all retired and the Sea Eagles have lost over 750 games’ worth of NRL experience in the process. While Stewart and Matai weren’t significant on the field last year due to injuries, Lyon was still a key contributor in the centres. But it’s off the field that Manly are likely to notice the biggest change, with three key voices missing at training. It gives the opportunity for a group of new leaders to come through, so will be it be a positive or negative for Trent Barrett’s side?

Melbourne Storm – How will the attack adjust post Proctor and Koroibete?

Kiwi international back-rower Kevin Proctor was a long-time favourite target of Cooper Cronk’s down the right edge, last year scoring six tries and breaking the line on five occasions. With Proctor having departed for the Gold Coast, Cronk will have to develop a new combination down that side of the field, while prolific winger Marika Koroibete is also gone. The Fijian flyer scored 12 tries last year and made 16 line breaks. Accounting for that loss of attacking productivity will be a real test for the Storm.

Newcastle Knights – Are they in any better shape than last year?

It was really bad for Newcastle last year, finishing dead last with a win and a draw their only joy in a season where they battled through with an extremely inexperienced side. With a year under their belts you would assume it’s going to get better for the Knights in 2017, but a look at their squad and a couple of the blows they have suffered through the pre-season – Jarrod Mullen’s probable ASADA ban and Pauli Pauli’s serious injury caused by a car accident – and it’s easy to think Newcastle are in no better position. It could be another long year for the Knights.

North Queensland Cowboys – Will departures hurt that vital go-forward?

So many of the incredible things Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote have managed to do over the last couple of years have only been made possible thanks to the excellent work done by North Queensland’s pack. That is going to be a little harder to achieve in 2017 with NSW Origin prop James Tamou (Panthers) gone along with Ben Hannant (retirement), and it remains to be seen if and how that will change everything else the Cowboys do in attack. Both Tamou and Hannant averaged over 10 carries and 100 metres last year.

Parramatta Eels – Can their unorthodox halves work over an entire season?

The names Corey Norman and Clinton Gutherson don’t immediately jump out as being the ideal halves combination, yet they will be tasked with combining to lead Parramatta around the park this year. While both enjoyed some great form at times in 2016, question marks exist around whether or not they can sustain that over a 26-round season. You suspect if the Eels’ pack can dominate most weeks then this free-running playmaking duo can enjoy some success, but if not things might start to go pear shaped.

Penrith Panthers – Can Cleary dodge second-year syndrome to put Penrith among the NRL’s elite?

At just 18 years of age last year Nathan Cleary was the youngest player in the NRL, but at times he played with the composure of the oldest, helping Penrith through to the finals with a spectacular back half of the season. There is little doubting Ivan Cleary’s boy is going to be a star for a number of years, but can he back up his excellent debut season and lead the Panthers to glory? He will have plenty of attention and pressure on him this year, but has arguably an even better pack in front of him thanks to the acquisition of James Tamou.

South Sydney Rabbitohs – Farah the key to getting the pack back to their best?

Given some of the names in their forward pack last year – Nathan Brown, Kyle Turner and the Burgess trio – the Rabbitohs really underperformed in terms of their go-forward. There are any number of reasons as to why that could have been, but it was a key reason why they missed the NRL finals. With NSW Origin hooker Robbie Farah on board, Souths will be hoping they can reignite the fire in their forwards, and if they do it’s likely they can contend for a top-eight spot once again.

St George Illawarra Dragons – More deadly, less dour?

The Dragons had the third-lowest points tally in the competition last year, outscoring only the Eels and Knights with their 14.2 average points per game. St George Illawarra need to find points and plenty of them. The recruitment of former Junior Kangaroos rake Cameron McInnes should help, but much will once again depend on English playmaker Gareth Widdop, and whoever his halves partner happens to be. Every finals team last year bar the Bulldogs also finished in the NRL’s top eight for points scored, so while the old adage will tell you that defence wins premierships, you still need to be able to score points, too.

Sydney Roosters – Youngsters to take Roosters into new era?

The Roosters won the NYC competition last year and then backed it up with victory at the NRL Auckland Nines, with a squad containing several of their young players who either have already come through to debut, or probably will in the next 12 months. The Bondi club have some real talent in their first-choice team in the way of Mitchell Pearce, Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend, but you get the feeling it’s the new breed who will be the ones to lift the Roosters back to being premiership contenders. Players like Connor Watson, Latrell Mitchell, Joseph Manu and Ryan Matterson could be vital in 2017.

New Zealand Warriors – Will they make the most of the world’s best spine?

Boasting four Kiwi internationals who have all played together and enjoyed success with the Kiwis, it’s unlikely the Warriors will ever have a better 1,6,7 and 9 than they do in 2017. But will having Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke be enough for the New Zealand club? If they don’t make the top eight this year then it will have been a massive missed opportunity, and with both Johnson and Foran off contract at the end of the season it might be the only chance they get to make a push for a premiership with this spine.

Wests Tigers – Will life post Robbie Farah be what Jason Taylor hopes?

Tigers coach Jason Taylor got his wish at the end of last year, with veteran rake Robbie Farah now out of the picture at the club. At the very least that should significantly reduce the public distractions at the club, but what will the other effects be? Taylor believes Farah’s departure will allow players like Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses to come into their own, but it remains to be seen if that is the case.

[YouTube – The Sporting Life]

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About the author

Corey Rosser

One of CBS’s newest contributors, Te Aroha product Corey is the New Zealand correspondent for NRL.com, the editor for the excellent new site Kiwi League Central, and a guru of the local Auckland rugby league scene.

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