Broncos – Justin Hodges
Hodges remains one of the great attacking centres in the game, but injuries continue to pervade his brilliant career. He has missed 72 NRL games in the last five seasons – including the entire 2010 campaign – and has not made 20 appearances in a season since the Broncos’ 2006 premiership year. Hodges has been installed as co-captain alongside Corey Parker, a tremendous honour for a player who has had his ups and downs discipline-wise on and off the field. But the 31 year old is expected to be a late starter after suffering another crippling Achilles injury in 2013, although his recovery is progressing better than expected. The under-fire Broncos are at a major crossroads and they need the experience and offensive thrust of their strike centre available as soon as possible.
Raiders – David Shillington
A few short years ago, the Raiders’ big, mobile and imposing front-row rotation was considered their greatest strength. Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Dane Tilse and Brett White remain in 2014, but the quartet is no longer held in the same esteem. As Canberra’s regular stand-in captain and most experienced representative forward, Shillington needs to take responsibility for leading the rebuilding Raiders’ pack. The 30 year old lost his Queensland and Australian spots in a disappointing 2013 campaign.
Bulldogs – Michael Ennis
Ennis was regarded in the top bracket of the game’s hookers alongside Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah only a couple of seasons ago, while he led the Bulldogs admirably in their charge to the 2012 Grand Final. At 29, the seven-time NSW Origin rep is actually younger than his long-time rivals, but has slipped well behind in the form department and has lacked his trademark zip and dynamic impact from dummy-half in the last couple of seasons. Injury has been a factor in the niggly rake’s decline, but his team requires a fit and firing Ennis if they are to have any chance of improving on their disappointing qualifying final exit of last season.
Sharks – Andrew Fifita
Fifita was a colossus of 2013 – arguably only Sonny Bill Williams was more of a standout performer across the entire season – and now ranks alongside SBW, Paul Gallen and Corey Parker as the most valuable forward in the game. It was an incredible rise, given Fifita was a Wests Tigers castoff at the end of 2011 and regarded as an impact interchange player for the Sharks in 2012. Expectations will be even higher for the dynamic giant this year, however, with Fifita expected to spearhead Cronulla’s ongoing advancement through the ASADA crisis and NSW’s attempt to end Queensland’s eight-year Origin domination. Fifita is off-contract at the end of 2014, and South Sydney and the Australia Rugby Union are reportedly vying for his services – the speculation could prove a distraction for the 24 year old. But if his Nines form is to be used as a yardstick for the season ahead, Fifita will again be one of the brightest stars of the year.
Titans – Ryan James
Giant prop James has been talked up by all and sundry on the Gold Coast as a player destined for higher honours. The aggressive 22 year old debuted for Country Origin and made 22 NRL appearances in a breakout 2013 campaign (he racked up a total of 21 games in his previous three seasons for the Titans) but needs to back up the hype with an even better follow-up season. James is undoubtedly explosive and intimidating – the comparisons with Andrew Fifita are obvious – but does the Indigenous powerhouse deserve a NSW front-row berth ahead of consistent performers such as Kade Snowden, Aaron Woods, Tim Mannah, Tim Grant, Aiden Tolman and club-mate Luke Douglas?
Sea Eagles – Glenn Stewart
Regarded as one of the game’s most valuable forwards only two years ago following his Churchill Medal-winning performance in Manly’s 2011 Grand Final victory, veteran lock Glenn Stewart is now playing for his future at the club. The Sea Eagles have been forced to let go of several established stars to ward off salary cap constraints in recent seasons, and now Stewart is rumoured to be the high-profile player to make way as the club attempts to secure gun halfback Daly Cherry-Evans long term. The tough ball-player was an automatic representative selection a couple of years ago when injuries permitted, but after turning 30 in January, he faces the prospect of being squeezed out of Brookvale at the end of the year – unless he can produce a stellar season and make himself indispensable to the heavyweight Sea Eagles.
Storm – Cooper Cronk
The reigning Dally M medallist will be disappointed with his finals performances as the defending champs exited the September action meekly last season. He responded with a fine World Cup campaign, but is now under immense pressure for his Queensland and Australia No.7 jumpers from Manly superstar Daly Cherry-Evans. Helping maintain Melbourne’s superpower status will go a long way to suppressing Cherry-Evans’ challenge.
Knights – Kurt Gidley
Long regarded as Newcastle’s most important player, Gidley has missed a whopping 47 club matches in the last four seasons. The ultra-versatile veteran turns 32 in June and barring serious injury to Jarrod Mullen, Tyrone Roberts or Darius Boyd, he will spend the season at hooker – a demanding position he has only started in seven times previously at NRL level. The Knights desperately need his dynamic attacking ability and leadership following Danny Buderus’ retirement, but staying on the paddock will be Gidley’s primary concern.
Warriors – Feleti Mateo
One of the most gifted ball-players in a team stacked with them, Mateo has never been able to shrug off the enigmatic tag during seven seasons as a top grade regular with Parramatta and the Warriors. The offload-happy backrower is often brilliant when the Warriors win big, but goes missing in the tough grinds. The three-time City Origin rep’s work-rate is appalling, and with a clutch of outstanding young forwards pressing their NRL claims, the Warriors can no longer afford to carry an underperforming Mateo. Jayson Bukuya, Sione and Sam Lousi, Ben Henry, Sebastine Ikahihifo, David Bhana, Raymond Faitala-Mariner and John Palavi are all threats to the 29-year-old’s place in the Warriors’ 17.
Cowboys – Tariq Sims
Sims’ elevation to NSW State of Origin honours appeared a formality, with the hard-running enforcer expected to have a Gorden Tallis-like influence on representative football. Thwarted by consecutive broken leg injuries, Sims missed just two games as he returned to regular NRL action in 2013, but he was not the dynamic wrecking ball that had him pegged as the game’s most exciting forward prospect during an outstanding 2011 rookie season. The Cowboys need Sims at his best to challenge the competition’s top teams.
Eels – Chris Sandow
Parramatta paid a fortune to lure Sandow from South Sydney at the end of 2011. And while his Rabbitohs’ replacement Adam Reynolds has become established as one of the NRL’s elite No.7s, Sandow’s career has nosedived. He endured stints in the NSW Cup in 2012 and ’13 due to a dramatic loss of form, culminating in a highly publicised stint in a rehabilitation facility to deal with gambling addiction and other personal issues. Sandow did not feature after Round 17 last year, but he showed promising glimpses during the Nines and should be better for the arrival of classy Brisbane five-eighth Corey Norman. The Eels’ No.7 jumper has proved a poisoned chalice for a succession of promising and experienced halfbacks alike in the two decades since Peter Sterling retired – Sandow is on his last chance to make it his own and break the curse.
Panthers – Jamie Soward
Penrith has been the most active club in the player market, luring a horde of quality players to the foot of the Blue Mountains. But all of their aggressive recruiting will come to nought if tempestuous five-eighth Jamie Soward fails to fire. The linchpin of St George Illawarra’s 2010 premiership success and an Origin No.6 the following season, Soward’s form spiralled to the extent that he was dropped and released by the Dragons midway through 2013. Phil Gould has put his faith in Soward as the marquee half the Panthers’ line-up can be built around, but he needs to deliver quickly playing alongside another former NSW half looking for a reversal of fortunes, Broncos castoff Peter Wallace. Soward’s Nines campaign was underwhelming after he was tipped to be one of the stars of the abbreviated format.
Dragons – Gareth Widdop
St George Illawarra has undergone a roster overhaul ahead of the 2014 season, headlined by the arrival of Melbourne and England gun Gareth Widdop. Slated to feature in the halves alongside another newcomer in ex-Canberra No.7 Sam Williams, Widdop will be immediately thrust into a linchpin and leader role after spending his career to date being nurtured by Craig Bellamy, with the comfort of playing in a Storm spine accompanied by the fabled ‘Big Three’. It’s a big ask for a 24 year old who missed a large chunk of 2013 with a dislocated hip, but his brilliant display at pivot in England’s World Cup semi-final loss suggests he is up to the challenge of reviving the Dragons’ flagging fortunes.
Rabbitohs – Sam Burgess
British superstar Burgess’ shock defection to rugby union has been accompanied by reports coach Michael Maguire and the playing group will not be too distraught to see the back of him, that his high profile and thirst for the media spotlight was a destabilising influence. Burgess will play out the season with Souths, but anything less than his devastating best will provoke a backlash from the Rabbitohs faithful. A rare talent, Burgess came under fire for a string of hot-headed, grubby indiscretions during 2013, with his temperament as a player capable of delivering a long-awaited premiership to the club brought into question. His herculean display in England’s heartbreaking World Cup semi-final loss suggests the opposite, and if Burgess can produce that form on a regular basis he has a chance of leaving the NRL as arguably the greatest-ever British import.
Roosters – Mitchell Pearce
Several Sydney Roosters stars quelled career demons and doused the critics during the club’s emphatic charge to Grand Final glory – none more so than oft-maligned halfback Pearce. But if the Tricolours suffer any sort of premiership hangover, the spotlight is likely to again shine brightest on the determined No.7. His role in the Roosters’ success has temporarily rebuffed the stern challenge of Adam Reynolds for his NSW spot, but calls for the inclusion of the Souths gun will be renewed if Pearce underperforms in the 2014 series opener.
Tigers – Luke Brooks
Rarely has so much expectation or responsibility been thrust on a player with just one first grade appearance under his belt. Brooks, just 19 at the time, was brilliant on debut as the Tigers downed St George Illawarra at the SCG, but salary cap rules prevented him from adding to his NRL tally. The diminutive halfback will be charged with leading the club’s revival in the wake of two dismal campaigns and chief playmaker Benji Marshall’s defection to rugby union. With the identity of his halves partner no clearer following luckless Tim Moltzen’s injury – Braith Anasta, Curtis Sironen, Liam Fulton and fellow novice Mitchell Moses are the options – the 2014 Dally M Rookie of the Year favourite faces a baptism by fire this season.