The furious off-season transfer scramble appears to have finally subsided, but there are still positions at every NRL club that are far from settled. Here are the selection issues that will be causing the 16 coaches the most consternation this summer, and could have a massive bearing of your team’s 2015 campaign.
BRISBANE BRONCOS – Front-row rotation
The Broncos’ soft underbelly has proven an Achilles heel over the last few seasons, with rep backrowers Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker utilised up front in 2013-14. Incoming coach Wayne Bennett reacted by cutting Ben Hannant, Martin Kennedy and David Hala loose, while bringing in Wests Tigers duo Adam Blair and James Gavet. Jarrod Wallace and promising former Melbourne hulk Mitch Garbutt are also in the mix to accompany certain selection Josh McGuire in the front-row, while rampaging NYC star Joe Ofahengaue can’t be too far off a first grade opportunity.
CANBERRA RAIDERS – Fullback & five-eighth
The contentious fullback and halves picture in the capital essentially comes down to young stars Jack Wighton and Blake Austin, and what happens to embattled club great Terry Campese. Wighton finished 2014 at fullback, but is also a talented three-quarter prospect and was used at pivot – rather unsuccessfully – at the start of the season. Austin was a revelation filling in all over the Wests Tigers’ backline this year, but appears best suited to the No.6. Campese is on the outer after a few difficult, injury-plagued years, and is behind the eight-ball to partner Mitch Cornish in the halves.
CANTERBURY BULLDOGS – Fullback
Sam Perrett did a surprisingly good job at the back for the Bulldogs in 2014 – few would have picked him as a prospective grand final No.1. But he fits squarely into the steady and courageous category, rather than the brilliant ball-running creators that occupy most teams’ custodian role. Brett Morris shaped as potentially one of the best fullbacks in the game after playing half of 2012 there for the Dragons and even represented Country Origin in that spot, but is a somewhat reluctant fullback. He is also arguably the best wing finisher in the NRL – something the Dogs were sorely lacking in this year. Another recruit, ex-Cowboy Curtis Rona, is a fullback smoky.
CRONULLA SHARKS – Five-eighth/fullback
The recent signing of Ben Barba seemingly cleared up the Sharks’ halves equation, with Michael Gordon’s presence at fullback meaning the former Dally M medallist would line up at five-eighth. But teenage rookie Fa’amanu Brown was outstanding in 11 appearances for the wooden spooners, and is potentially a better No.6 than Barba. Gordon has experience at wing and centre (although he left Penrith to get a fullback gig) and putting Barba at fullback is certainly an option open to under-pressure coach Shane Flanagan.
GOLD COAST TITANS – Centres
This is an area of real concern for the Titans, who are badly in need of backline firepower. Josh Hoffman’s arrival will bump William Zillman out of the fullback spot (finally) and he is a leading centre contender, but the departure of Brad Takairangi and recurring off-field issues for brilliant young flyer James Roberts is clouding the make-up of the Titans’ three-quarter line. Brad Tighe, Dave Taylor, and Super League-bound duo Steve Michaels and Maurice Blair were the other centres used in 2014. With five tries and 30 tackle breaks in 12 games – plus a ton of pace – the Titans desperately need Roberts on deck, while David Mead could be worth trialling in the centres.
MANLY SEA EAGLES – Backrow
Their front-row stocks took a buffeting at the end of 2013, and this year it’s the Sea Eagles’ backrow contingent that has been depleted following the departure of Test forwards Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart, while fringe forward Daniel Harrison is off to London. In Tom Symonds, Justin Horo and Jamie Buhrer, Manly has a capable trio – but they need support. Will they get it from enigmatic recruit Feleti Mateo? The gifted ballplayer has played some excellent footy in teams on a roll (Parramatta in 2009, Warriors in 2011), but he has been generally awful otherwise. Dunamis Lui, regarded as a prop at Brisbane, featured prominently in the Sea Eagles’ backrow this season.
MELBOURNE STORM – Five-eighth
The fact Ben Roberts ended up cementing the No.6 jumper outside Cooper Cronk is an indicator coach Craig Bellamy did not find an adequate replacement for Gareth Widdop. Promising youngster Ben Hampton had virtually a free shot at the five-eighth job but couldn’t take it. Roberts is off to England, so 28-year-old recruit Blake Green, who played 43 games in four seasons with Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury before winning a grand final and a Challenge Cup with Wigan, shapes as the favourite to line up in Melbourne’s halves in 2015. But Easts Tigers pivot Shaun Nona is an exciting prospect and could be the player to spark the stagnating Storm side.
NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS – Fullback/wings
Still only 18, new Test star Sione Mata’utia – a veteran of just seven first grade games – is surely an automatic selection in the Newcastle backline, and the favourite to replace Darius Boyd at fullback. But Kurt Gidley finished the season in the No.1 this year and has to be in the team somewhere; his stints in the halves and at hooker were hit-and-miss. Mata’utia is obviously an outstanding wing candidate, but NSW incumbent James McManus and tryscoring machine Akuila Uate would like to think they have first dibs on the flanks. Clouding the picture further is the presence of emerging young guns Chanel Mata’utia, who was also superb alongside Sione at the end of 2014, an untried third brother Pat Mata’utia, electric rookie Jake Mamo, and versatile Warriors recruit Carlos Tuimavave. Coach Rick Stone has some crucial decisions to make, with seemingly only centres Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua locked in as certainties.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS – Five-eighth & centre
Chad Townsend proved a handy foil for Shaun Johnson for most of 2014 but was demoted late in the season, while veteran Test star Thomas Leuluai – the Warriors’ most consistent player of 2013 – was underwhelming after returning from injury. Boom NYC superstar Tuimoala Lolohea is busting for a regular first grade chance and is a specialist five-eighth, but can slot in anywhere in the backline (he made his initial NRL start on the wing and is an experienced fullback). Ngani Laumape should be able to cement the left centre spot with bumbling Dane Nielsen on his way to St George Illawarra, but Canberra recruit Matt Allwood is in the frame, while Solomone Kata – NYC grand final man-of-the-match with three tries in the Warriors’ triumph – can’t be denied for much longer.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS – Hooker
The Cowboys have the luxury of fielding one of the most settled line-ups in the premiership in 2015, but the lack of a genuine ace at hooker is a glaring weakness. The versatile Rory Kostjasyn is a capable player but lacks zip, while Ray Thompson provides decent back-up off the bench. The wildcard is former Broncos livewire Jake Granville, who is in search of more minutes after being stuck behind Andrew McCullough.
PARRAMATTA EELS – Fullback
Jarryd Hayne’s shock move stateside leaves a giant crater at the back for the Eels. No player can replace Hayne’s influence or all-round brilliance, but the blue-and-golds do have a couple of adequate candidates to step into the No.1. New buy Reece Robinson has a stack of fullback experience for Canberra and scored eight tries in 10 games there in 2012 while Josh Dugan was sidelined, but his form trailed off this season. Will Hopoate was earmarked as a future superstar fullback as a teenager, and shapes as the most likely option, although the Eels would lose some strike in the centres. Corey Norman has plenty of form as a fullback and is a quality playmaker, but five-eighth alternatives are thin on the ground, while Justin Hunt would also be a contender for the custodian role but is reportedly on the outer at the club.
PENRITH PANTHERS – Backrow
Boasting a very settled squad – provided everyone stays fit and healthy – Ivan Cleary’s biggest problem is fitting so much talent into 17 spots. In the backrow, Elijah Taylor, Bryce Cartwright, Adam Docker, Lewis Brown, Sika Manu, Tyrone Peachey, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Tupou Sopoaga need to squeeze into three starting spots and two interchange berths. It’s an enviable position for the club to be in.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS – Centres & fullback
Will Paul McGregor persist with Josh Dugan in the centres? If so, he will need to settle on a new fullback, with Gerard Beale on his way to Cronulla. The diminutive Adam Quinlan probably doesn’t have the all-round game to lock down the No.1 jumper long-term. If Dugan returns to the custodian role, both centre spots and one wing berth are up for grabs following the departure of Beale and Brett Morris, with Peter Mata’utia, Dylan Farrell, Charly Runciman, Nathan Green, Dane Nielsen and Jack Bird all in the mix.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS – Centre & wing
Lote Tuqiri has left the club while boom rookie centre Kirisome Auva’a has been stood down – most likely for the entire 2015 season – leaving Souths’ crack backline looking vulnerable. Their depth has been further eroded by Beau Champion’s departure to Parramatta and Nathan Merritt’s retirement, which leaves Michael Maguire with Bryson Goodwin, Joel Reddy and schoolboy rugby star Angus Crichton to choose from, while Queensland backrower Chris McQueen is a capable centre.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS – Fullback/wing
Blake Ferguson’s likely return to first grade in 2015 is the wildcard in the make-up of the Roosters’ star-studded backline. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has long been anointed as retired skipper Anthony Minichiello’s long-term fullback replacement, but the troubled Ferguson excelled in the No.1 during a brief stint there with Canberra. Ferguson is experienced on the wing, but at his best is arguably wasted on the flank – meaning Shaun Kenny-Dowall could be shuffled out there from centre to get the freakish Ferguson closer to the action. If Ferguson doesn’t return, winger Nene MacDonald – a Daniel Tupou clone – is the next cab off the rank.
WESTS TIGERS – Backrow
After a couple of unsuccessful years at prop, Adam Blair regained some form while spending all of 2014 at lock – but he is now on his way to Brisbane, while Liam Fulton, Braith Anasta, Cory Paterson and Bodene Thompson are also gone, with no forward recruits to speak of. New coach Jason Taylor will hope veteran Dene Halatau’s body can hold up, while tyros Curtis Sironen, Sauaso Sue and Ava Seumanufagai have to take on greater responsibility. Moving struggling former Test centre Chris Lawrence to lock is another option.