After a frantic period of player movement at the conclusion of the 2014 season, almost every club has welcomed a host of new players. The recruits and their new teams alike need to adapt as quickly as possible, with coaches sweating on fledgling combinations in the backline, the engine-room and the spine flourishing from the outset. We’ve taken a look at the most exciting new combination at your club with the 2015 NRL premiership just two months away.
BRISBANE BRONCOS – New halves pairing
Boom former Raider Anthony Milford has been anointed Brisbane’s five-eighth solution, and the livewire, in conjunction with Ben Hunt, looks set to form the club’s best halves pairing since Walters and Langer. Ex-utility Hunt carved out a breakout season after assuming the No.7 in 2014 – despite playing alongside misfiring pivots Josh Hoffman and Ben Barba. Milford’s confidence and class will allow Hunt to steer the Broncos around while injecting himself when the time is right – Hunt won’t always have to come up with the big play as he did last season. The scope for Hunt (13 tries and 19 try assists in 2014) and Milford (12 and 12) to dominate the premiership as early as this year is mouth-watering if you’re a Brisbane fan. The new combination should reinvigorate hooker Andrew McCullough’s game after the highly-regarded No.9 plateaued in 2014.
CANBERRA RAIDERS – Devastating wing combination
There were plenty of magnificent club wing pairings in the 2014 NRL – Mansour and Watene-Zelezniak, Johnston and Tuqiri, Tupou and Tuivasa-Sheck – while arguably the best, Morris and Nightingale, has been broken up by the former’s move to Canterbury. But an injury-free Edrick Lee and Melbourne recruit Sisa Waqa have the potential to be the premiership’s most prolific in 2015. Waqa scored a career-best 18 tries for the Storm last year and his acquisition is a real coup, while the luckless Lee boasts 15 tries in 24 appearances and has future Queensland Origin star written all over him.
CANTERBURY BULLDOGS – The Morris twins together again
Brett Morris heads to Belmore six years after his twin Josh left St George Illawarra to don the blue and white of Canterbury. The long-striding, free-scoring brothers combined just 17 times in the Red V, but have shown in six Origins together for NSW since that they have an innate understanding of each others’ games. Although Brett may occupy the Bulldogs’ troublesome fullback spot instead of playing on the left flank outside centre Josh, having both players in the same backline will prove a boon for the club.
CRONULLA SHARKS – Bulldogs reunited
Ben Barba and Michael Ennis were linchpins of the Bulldogs’ capture of the 2012 minor premiership and drive to that season’s Grand Final, where they went down to Melbourne. A little over two years later, the pair find themselves back in the same side – a Cronulla line-up that is taking ominous shape. Barba, likely to play five-eighth, and wily hooker Ennis could spark a backline that has famously failed to produce a double-figure try-scorer since 2008.
GOLD COAST TITANS – Burgeoning back three
While Country Origin fullback David Mead was incredibly unlucky not to get a fulltime shot at the No.1 jumper, the embattled Titans’ back three shapes as one of their strengths following the arrival of former Bronco Josh Hoffman. William Zillman’s erratic form has been a burden on the Titans for years – Hoffman gives the team far greater stability, and can assist Mead and Kevin Gordon in rediscovering the tryscoring form that deserted them last year.
MANLY SEA EAGLES – New-look backrow
Maybe it’s just morbid curiosity, but seeing how celebrated enigma Feleti Mateo slots in for departed club great Anthony Watmough is sure to be fascinating. On one hand, the gifted ball-player gives the Sea Eagles excellent backrow balance alongside hardworking, hard-running pair Justin Horo and Jamie Buhrer. On the other, he’s about as inconsistent as they come and has shown a reluctance to get his hands dirty on a regular basis. Manly rarely come up with a poor purchase, but Mateo is odds-on to end up in the ‘duds’ column.
MELBOURNE STORM – A foil for Cooper
Cooper Cronk was forced to steer the Melbourne ship without a reliable lieutenant throughout 2014 as Ben Hampton and Ben Roberts both proved unreliable. The answer may be 28-year-old Blake Green, who experienced modest stints at Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury, but has flourished during the last two seasons at Wigan, helping guide the glamour club to Super League grand final and Challenge Cup success in 2013. He could play a Brett Finch-like role for the Storm at five-eighth; ironically, Green was recruited by Wigan from Hull KR to replace Finch, who rejoined the Storm in 2013 after two seasons in the cherry and white.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS – Backrow bonanza
Ryan Hoffman is on the wrong side of 30 but he’s a current Origin and Test player – and he’s exactly the kind of professional, consistent player the notoriously fickle Warriors require. With Feleti Mateo moving on and the club’s front-row depth potentially allowing Ben Matulino to return to the second-row, Hoffman and skipper Simon Mannering could complete the NRL’s best backrow triumvirate – three world-class performers that work hard on both sides of the ball, can use the footy and can find the try-line.
NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS – Blistering backline
Whoever ends up starting in the Knights’ outside-back contingent, you can bet they’re in some good form. Gun centre pairing Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua appear the only players assured of a first grade spot, with recent NSW Origin wingers James McManus and Akuila Uate under pressure from the trio of Mata’utia brothers – Test star Sione, prolific try-scorer Chanel, and as-yet untried Pat – and another boom youngster in Jake Mamo. Sione is likely to get first crack at Darius Boyd’s fullback spot, unless Kurt Gidley is moved back there, but there is a wealth of scoring potential out wide at Hunter Stadium.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS – A resurrection for Hannant
Ashton Sims hit career-best form prior to his departure from Townsville at the end of 2014 – forcing Kangaroos regular James Tamou back to the bench – but the Cowboys have acquired a prop who has only just turned 30 and boasts 12 Origin and six Test appearances as a replacement. Ben Hannant was shown the door by returning Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, but he still has plenty to offer and a sea-change could be the catalyst for rediscovering his representative form. A rotation that includes Matt Scott, Tamou and Hannant should be one of the NRL’s most effective. Marquee front-rower Scott has paired up with Hannant previously six times for Queensland and once for Australia.
PARRAMATTA EELS – Watmough: King of the kids
The Eels boast an incredible array of young, raw forward talent – Pauli Pauli, Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa, Junior Paulo, Kenny Edwards and Peni Terepo. Bringing in a mentor of Anthony Watmough’s stature and ability was a masterstroke. The presence of the ex-Manly stalwart will take the Eels tyros’ game to another level in 2015.
PENRITH PANTHERS – Future Blues in Panthers’ pack
While Kiwi trio Elijah Taylor, Lewis Brown and Sika Manu are in the mix for backrow spots, don’t be surprised to see Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachey and Adam Docker occupying the NSW 11, 12 and 13 jumpers in a couple of seasons’ time. Peachey and Cartwright missed the Panthers’ charge to the finals through injury, but they will provide the burgeoning Panthers with an extra edge combining and rotating with hit-man Docker and Taylor and co. in 2015. It’s the most exciting backrow group since Menzies, Kosef and Gartner were tearing it up for Manly in the mid-1990s.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS – Young Warrior on the fringes
Buried in a pile of journeymen and has-been signings is a recruit to jot down in your little black book. Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard was a star of the Warriors’ NYC premiership triumph – a tall, mobile and rugged backrower with a knack for running great lines and hitting holes. If given the opportunity in a frankly ordinary-looking Dragons pack, Tuimavave-Gerrard could run riot on the edges in conjunction with the playmaking class of Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop. ATG will become a recognisable rugby league acronym within a couple of seasons.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS – The Stewart effect
Sam Burgess leaving has created not so much a hole, but a crater in the defending premiers’ forward pack. Ben Te’o is a huge loss, too, meaning the likes of Chris McQueen, Kyle Turner and out-of-favour former Panther Tim Grant need to step up big time if the Bunnies are to go back-to-back. Burgess’ bombastic play on both sides of the ball is impossible to replace, but Manly veteran Glenn Stewart offers the Rabbitohs something different altogether. Tough, dynamic and a brilliant ball-player, Stewart can be one of the buys of the season if he stays injury-free, combining with young gun halves Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary to help shed the one-dimensional jibes that Michael Maguire’s side copped during 2014.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS – ‘Fergo’ to light up back three
He may well end up shunting Shaun Kenny-Dowall to the wing and lining up in the centres alongside Kangaroos incumbent Michael Jennings, but reprieved bad boy Blake Ferguson looks set to be a blue-chip replacement for Anthony Minichiello in the Roosters’ back three. Whether he’s on the wing or at fullback – or a combination of both, as the electric Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Minichiello did last season – Ferguson has emerged as a challenger for teammate Daniel Tupou’s NSW jumper despite not having played a game since August 2013.
WESTS TIGERS – Patched-up Tedesco to thrive off young playmakers
With James Tedesco in scintillating form combining with rookie No.7 Luke Brooks, the youthful Tigers looked like finals material early in 2014. The wheels fell off thanks to a plethora of injuries – not the least of which was Tedesco’s season-ending knee injury – but with five-eighth Mitchell Moses (who also played several games at fullback with Tedesco absent) emerging as another future superstar, incoming coach Jason Taylor has potentially the most dangerous attacking triumvirate in the competition at his disposal. There’s still a few crinkles in their respective kitbags to be ironed out, but if they stay on the paddock together, Tedesco, Brooks and Moses will compile a formidable highlights reel in 2015.