SOME coaches have been courageous in their young, ambitious lineup, others hope some old hands will rescue them.
>> Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
>> New Zealand Warriors
>> Melbourne Storm
>> Wests Tigers
>> St George Illawarra
>> Brisbane Broncos
>> North Queensland Cowboys
>> Newcastle Knights
>> Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
>> South Sydney Rabbitohs
>> Sydney Roosters
>> Penrith Panthers
>> Cronulla Sharks
>> Parramatta Eels
>> Canberra Raiders
>> Gold Coast Titans
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
In: Ben Farrar (Catalan Dragons), Nick Skinner & Jorge Taufua.
Out: Michael Robertson, Shane Rodney (both London Broncos), Will Hopoate (Eels 2014)
Scouting report: An off-season of minimal movement on the player front but major movement on the coaching front leaves the reigning premiers facing some searching questions. Geoff Toovey was a natural replacement for the sacked Des Hasler, but being a good assistant coach doesn't guarantee success as a head coach. Assistants never drop anyone, sack anyone or tell them they aren't needed next year, so they're always popular. They aren't directly accountable for poor performances, and don't have to answer directly to stakeholders, fans and the media. All of that now falls on Toovey's plate. So far, so bad, with a heavy trial defeat by (gulp) Cronulla, followed by another comprehensive loss in the world club challenge final. But Toovey has plenty of quality and should start with a fairly long rope.
Where it could all go wrong: Round one. And two. And three, four and five. Having already travelled to England and back, Manly come across the ditch for a Round 1 Grand Final replay against the Warriors at Eden Park. Round 2 sees a home game against Wests Tigers moved to Gosford, followed by trips to Cronulla, St George Illawarra and Parramatta before an eventual to Brookvale Oval in Round 6. Five weeks on the road is a tough start in anyone's books, even if the last three are all in Sydney.
New Zealand Warriors
In: Nathan Friend (Titans), Konrad Hurrell (Toyota Cup), Ben Henry (Toyota Cup), Sebastine Ikahihifo (Toyota Cup), Sam Lousi (Toyota Cup), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Toyota Cup), Carlos Tuimavave (Toyota Cup)
Out: Shaun Berrigan (Canberra Raiders), Aaron Heremaia (Hull FC), Lance Hohaia (St Helens), Isaac John (Wakefield), Jeremy Latimore (St George Illawarra), Joel Moon (Salford), Brett Seymour (Hull FC).
Scouting report: The Warriors can't be accused of not giving youth a chance, with six of the seven new players in the squad emerging from the club's junior ranks. Former Broncos, Storm and Titans hooker Nathan Friend is the lone exception. Friend at his peak will be a huge asset for a team than can lack direction, but the 31-year-old is coming off two shoulder surgeries that wiped out almost all of 2011. Key centre Jerome Ropati is also back from a serious knee injury. Halfback Shaun Johnson appears ready to take the competition by storm, but five-eighths James Maloney will be under scrutiny given his pending departure to the Roosters next year. New coach Brian McClennan has a huge groundswell of goodwill behind him, however, he will want to quickly silence the naysayers who insist his lack of NRL experience will be an Achilles heel.
Where it could all go wrong: Eden Park has been nothing short of a graveyard for league and the Warriors will head into their season opener against Manly on Sunday without key pack stalwarts Jacob Lillyman, Sam Rapira and Micheal Luck. The club should have the depth to cover those losses, but they will still certainly be felt. Things can unravel pretty darn quick in the NRL. If the Warriors start badly it could be a long season. The ghosts of 2009 haven't been fully banished just yet.
In: Jack Afamasaga (France), Ryan Hoffman (Wigan Warriors), Will Chambers (Munster Rugby Union), Shea Moylan (Brisbane Broncos), Mitchell Garbutt (Wests Newcastle), Michael Greenfield (St. George Illawarra Dragons) and Jason Ryles (Sydney Roosters).
Out: Chase Stanley (St George Illawarra Dragons), Beau Champion (Gold Coast Titans), Adam Blair (Wests Tigers), Atelea Vea (St George Illarwara Dragons), Adam Woolnough (retired), Troy Thompson (retired) and Dane Chisholm (Wests Tigers).
Scouting report: Another season, another key player departed because of salary cap pressures - welcome to the real world, Melbourne Storm. He may not have been part of the big four, but Kiwis star Adam Blair was a pretty darn useful fifth wheel. So useful, in fact, the Tigers have reportedly splashed A$500,000 ($643,000) a season on him. Such is their new reality that Melbourne have replaced Blair with ageing former Kangaroos prop Jason Ryles and cut-priced (although useful) journeyman Ryan Hoffman and Jack Afamasaga.
Where it could all go wrong: Same place it did last year - against a team with a superior pack in the finals. The Storm have some Rolls-Royce backs, but a pack full of Hillman Hunters. When push comes to shove, it will likely be the Storm getting shoved.
In: Adam Blair (Melbourne), Dane Chisholm (Melbourne), Joel Reddy (Parramatta), Tom Humble (Parramatta), Matt Bell (Penrith), John Grant (Eastwood rugby), Jack Spencer (Salford).
Out: Robert Lui (Cowboys), Wade McKinnon (Hull FC), Todd Payten (retired), Andrew Fifita (Cronulla), Bryce Gibbs (Cronulla), Simon Dwyer (deregistered), Mark Flanagan (St Helens), Jake Mullaney (Parramatta), Geoff Daniela (Penrith), Jason Schirnack (Mackay).
Scouting report: Title favourites with Australian bookies and a host of jaw-flapping types, the Tigers made the biggest recruitment splash by capturing Adam Blair. They've also punted the troublesome Robert Lui and handed the halfback duties to Tim Moltzen, who remains a Tiger despite having signed with St George. With Moltzen reassigned and Wade McKinnon gone, fullback appears to be the main area of concern. Rookie James Tedesco gets the first crack.
Where it could all go wrong: It's never easy being favourites, and the tag won't sit easily with a Tigers side that has done some serious deck-shuffling to accommodate Blair and his huge salary. Stalwarts Bryce Gibbs, Todd Payton, Simon Dwyer and Mark Flanagan are all gone, leaving some sizeable holes for coach Tim Sheens to plug.
St George Illawarra
In: Chase Stanley (Storm), Will Matthews (Titans), Jeremy Latimore (Warriors), Reece Simmonds (Wests Illawarra, Leeson Ah Mau (Cowboys), Daniel Vidot (Raiders), Josh Miller (Raiders), Atelea Vea (Storm), Denan Kemp (rugby union), Ray Cashmere (Salford).
Out: Darius Boyd (Knights), Jack Bosden (Roosters), Jon Green (Sharks), Mark Gasnier (retired), Peni Tagive (Roosters), Alex McKinnon (Knights), Adam Cuthbertson (Knights).
Scouting report: Another club hoping an assistant coach steps up to the big time - and no one has bigger shoes to fill than poor old Steve Price. With Wayne Bennett having taken three backroom staff and five players - headlined by Darius "Are You Fair Dinkum, Mate?" Boyd - and Mark Gasnier having retired, Price has a rebuilding job on his hands. The top 17 still looks strong enough, and there are high hopes new fullback Kyle Stanley can add some zip to an attack that laboured last season.
Where it could all go wrong: Any team that signs Denan Kemp and Jeremy Latimore is either run by morons or horribly desperate. Life after Wayne may not be all beer and skittles.
In: Nick Slyney, Luke Capewell (Gold Coast Titans), Petero Civoniceva (Penrith Panthers)
Out: Darren Lockyer (retirement), Denan Kemp (St George Illawarra Dragons), Shane Tronc (retirement), Shea Moylan (Melbourne Storm), Dane Carlaw (released), Nick Kenny (retirement), Rohan Ahern (Mackay Cutters)
Scouting report: The world's population has increased by about 1.4 billion since Darren James Lockyer first laced them up for the Broncos. Despite that fairly hefty increase in the number of humans running around - not to mention the fact the club has had about a decade to prepare for this moment - the Broncos head into 2012 with, dear-oh-dear, Corey Norman stepping gingerly into the great man's boots. Corey Norman, the more astute reader will have noticed, is not Darren James Lockyer. Nor is Ben Hunt - the next option if/when Norman blows out. Nor, even, is Sam Thaiday, new captain in the post-Locky era.
Where it could all go wrong: Corey Norman.
North Queensland Cowboys
In: Robert Lui (Wests Tigers), Kane Linnett (Sydney Roosters), Luke Harlen (Northern Pride), Ethan Lowe (Sydney Roosters), Chad Grintell (Mackay Cutters), Sam Hoare & Moses Pangai (promoted from Toyota Cup)
Out: Leeson Ah Mau (St. George/Illawarra), Willie Tonga (Parramatta Eels), Michael Bani (Canberra Raiders), Dylan Smith (Mackay Cutters), Shannon Gallant (Illawarra Comp), Will Tupou (Rugby Union), Isaak Ah Mau (out of contract), Clint Amos (retired)
Scouting report: 2010 Toyota Cup player of the year Tariq Sims burst on to the NRL scene last year (before breaking a leg) and similar things are expected of young Aucklander Jason Taumalolo, who succeeded Sims as the junior competition's best player last year. With the hulking James Tamou, tackling machine Dallas Johnson and line-break king Scott Bolton also in the ranks, the Cowboys have a wonderfully balanced pack. Johnathan Thurston shifts from seven to six, with Robert Lui coming in at halfback. If injuries are kind - with Brent Tate in the squad they probably won't be - the Cowboys will be serious contenders this year.
Where it could all go wrong: Injuries. Tate is already battling busted ribs and if Thurston goes down it could all unravel pretty swiftly. The Cowboys also need to find some form on the road, rather than relying on the massive advantage provided by playing their home games in a sauna.
In: Kade Snowden (Sharks), Timana Tahu (Panthers), Darius Boyd (Dragons), Robbie Rochow (Storm), Alex McKinnon (Dragons), Danny Buderus (Leeds), Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Daine Laurie (Panthers)
Out: Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls), Isaac De Gois (Sharks), Cameron Ciraldo (Panthers), Antonio Kaufusi (Harlequins), Adam MacDougall (retirement), Ben Rogers (retirement), Mark Taufua (Sharks), Steve Southern (Wakefield), Josh Ailaomai (Roosters), Dan Tolar (retirement), Shannon McDonnell (Hull KR), Con Mika (Hull KR)
Scouting report: New coach Wayne Bennett has made plenty of moves since (okay, let's be honest, before) taking over the Knights. Far be it for any humble scribe to question the great man's wisdom, but poaching foster son and fellow journo-fancier Darius Boyd and Kade Snowdon aside, the rest look questionable. Danny Buderus and Timana Tahu may be favourite sons in coal town, but, at 34, Buderus is pushing the age envelope, while Tahu hasn't exactly been a model of mental stability. Throw in serial idiot Daine Laurie - sacked by Penrith for drinking Jack Daniels on an early morning flight to Auckland for a match - and Sir Benney is certainly pushing the boat out.
Where it could all go wrong: Even with the Supercoach at the helm, the halves could still be a problem. Jarrod Mullen doesn't deliver consistently and Ryan Stig isn't entirely convincing either, likely leaving injury-prone Kurt Gidley to clean up the mess as usual.
Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
In: James Graham (St Helens), James Gavet (Warriors), Luke MacDougall (Sacarens)
Out: Andrew Ryan, Gary Warburton, Michael Hodgson & Brad Morrin (retired), Jamal Idris & Aiden Sezer (Titans), Jarrad Hickey (released), Ben Roberts (Eels), Chris Armit & Junior Tia-Kilifi (Panthers), Grant Millington (Castleford)
Scouting report: If there's one thing Aussies love more than a hard-nosed British forward coming to the NRL and smacking a few people it's a hard-nosed ginger British forward coming to the NRL and smacking people. James Graham, grab your SPF1000 sunblock and come on down. And, hey, James Gavet, you highly promising Kiwi beast, you come on over, too. New coach Des Hasler - he of "I'm definitely going to be here at Manly next season" fame - has added some nice pop to his pack. He's also dumped Ben Roberts, a move that would make any team better.
Where it could all go wrong: If there's one classic recipe for disaster in footy it's having your best and most exciting player being a total and utter calamity on defence - and then trying to hide him at fullback. Hey Ben Barba, that oval thing tumbling towards you is a football. You're supposed to catch it. Ben? Where you going? Ben? Over here. Oh dear.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
In: Matt King (Warrington), Luke Burgess (Leeds, ESL, mid-season), Ryan Carr (Redcliffe), Justin Hunt (Redcliffe).
Out: Chris Sandow (Eels), Junior Vaivai (Panthers, mid-season), Shannan McPherson (Salford), Luke Stuart (retired), Beau Falloon (Titans), Rhys Wesser (retired), Ben Ross (Sharks).
Scouting report: The Rabbitohs went into the final match of last season knowing a victory would book them a place in the finals. It was backs-to-the-wall, man-the-pumps, last-man-standing, derring-do-desperado stuff. At least until kick-off. After that it was an utter humiliation, with the roadkill Rabbits shipping 30 points in a disgracefully unenthusiastic first half. New coach Michael Maguire comes with big raps, but he's got a serious cultural transformation to enact if he wants to make this lot contenders. Even without Chris Sandow the Bunnies will have an all-star cast. The question is whether they can get over the stars-in-bars, pea-hearted, badge-kissing nonsense that tends to take precedence over actually winning footy games.
Where it could all go wrong: Having a Hollywood A-lister as a figurehead seems to be more trouble than it's worth. Maybe it's not all Russell Crowe's fault, but something is seriously amiss with the Bunnies' self-image. On my signal, unleash another season of woeful under-performance, finger-pointing and buck-dodging.
In: Anthony Mitchell (Eels), Jack Bosden (Dragons), Peni Tagive (Dragons), Daniel Tupou (Eels), Adam Henry (Warriors), Josh Ailaomai (Knights), Daniel Mortimer (Eels), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Otahuhu, NZ).
Out: Nate Myles (Titans), Mark Riddell (retired), Daniel Conn (retired), Kane Linnett (Cowboys), Phil Graham (Titans), Todd Carney (Sharks), Anthony Watts (Widnes), Jason Ryles (Storm).
Scouting report: A startling slide from grand finalists to easy-beats that started with Todd Carney getting nicked for drink driving and ended with the tattooed one being dumped after welshing on a promise to his teammates not to drink would have left plenty of Roosters fans reaching for the bottle last season. With the chief sauce-guzzler dispatched to the last stop before career oblivion that is Cronulla, the Roosters will be hoping for a more sober and successful season. It's hard to see them getting it. Carney may be a goose, but he is a bloody talented goose - vastly more talented than Eels washout Daniel Mortimer. Help will be on hand in 2013 when James Maloney (sob, sob) and - word has it - Sonny Bill Williams (yay) arrive, but coach Brian Smith may well be goneburgers by then.
Where it could all go wrong: To borrow from a sledge aimed at Mark Waugh, Mitchell Pearce may be the best halfback in NSW, but he isn't even the best player in his own family. If the Pearce-Anasta halves combo fails, Smith will have to turn to Daniel "how much did you say are we paying this kid again?" Mortimer. Oh dear.
In: Junior Vai Vai (Rabbitohs), Cameron Ciraldo (Knights), Chris Armit (Bulldogs), Danny Galea (Raiders), Clint Newton (Hull KR, ESL), Geoff Daniela (Tigers), Junior Tia-Kilifi (Bulldogs), Etu Uaisele (Eels), Ryan Simpkins (Titans).
Out: Timana Tahu (Knights), Shane Elford (retired), Trent Waterhouse (Warrington Wolves, ESL) Junior Paulo (Eels), Matthew Bell (Wests Tigers), Petero Civoniceva (Broncos), Adrian Purtell (Bradford Bulls, ESL), Arana Taumata (released), Masada Iosefa (released), Tim Winitana (released), Michael Worrincy (released), Daine Laurie (Knights).
Scouting report: New coach Ivan Cleary and the ghost of Phil Gould have promised to rebuild the Panthers from the ground up. That, of course, is code for "don't expect much this year". Don't worry fellas, not much danger of that. Second-place finisher two years ago but 12th last year, the Panthers were heading the wrong way fast when Matt Elliott was sacked. Cleary does at least have some big forwards and flashy backs to work with. Lachlan Coote, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings are top draw talents, but Petero Civoniceva and Trent Waterhouse are huge losses in the pack. An instant turnaround is unlikely.
Where it could all go wrong: Well, it won't be because the coach loses his rag and gives his players a public spray after a huge first-round defeat. Under Cleary, the Panthers will defend better, but whether he is the man to reignite an attack that frankly sucked last season remains to be seen.
In: Mark Taufua (Knights), Andrew Fifita (Wests Tigers), Bryce Gibbs (Wests Tigers), Isaac De Gois (Knights), Jeff Robson (Eels), Jon Green (Dragons), Ben Ross (Rabbitohs), Todd Carney (Roosters), Sosaia Feki (Warriors).
Out: Luke Douglas (Titans), Kade Snowden (Knights), Taulima Tautai (Eels), Tim Smith (Wakefield), Jon Mannah (Eels), Dean Collis (Wakefield), Soisaia Vave (Storm), Ryan Tongia (Wakefield), Luke Harlen (Cowboys), Paul Aiton, Scott Porter, Broderick Wright (all released).
Scouting report: The outcome of two fairly sizeable gambles will determine the Sharks' fate this season. On the field they are relying on the Dally M version of Todd Carney turning up instead of the mopey, uninspired git who scuppered the Roosters last season. Off the field, the cash-strapped Sharks are banking on a proposed $300-million property development rescuing the club's finances. The NSW Department of Planning is considering a venture that includes eight residential buildings, a retail and leisure centre and upgrades to Toyota Stadium. If that fails, Plan B is an enormous hotel in Queenstown and a golf course on the banks of Lake Taupo.
Where it could all go wrong: Nowhere. Combining fallen stars with drinking problems and property speculation is a failsafe approach. Success is guaranteed. Just sign here.
In: Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs), Willie Tonga (Cowboys), Ben Roberts (Bulldogs), Esi Tonga (Titans), Taulima Tautai (Sharks), Nathan Smith (Bulldogs), Jake Mullaney (Tigers), Jason Seage (Rugby Union Sevens), Jamil Hopoate (Sea Eagles), Jon Mannah (Sharks), Cheyse Blair (Roosters), Daniel Penese (Dragons)
Out: Joel Reddy (Tigers), Carl Webb (retirement), Chris Walker (retirement), Chris Hicks (retirement), Tom Humble (Tigers), Daniel Mortimer (Roosters), Jeff Robson (Sharks)
Scouting report: Call Steve Kearney what you like but don't ever suggest the man lacks courage. With his back against the wall after a horror first season at Parra, Kearney has all but bet his career on Chris Sandow and, umm .. Ben Roberts? Wow. Talk about ballsy. Miffed Souths chief executive Shane Richardson appeared less than convinced that throwing silly money at Sandow would fix Parra's problems, saying that in Russell Crowe the halfback had "met his Alan Bond" - a reference to the famous quote attributed to the late Kerry Packer after he sold Channel Nine to Bond for $1 billion in 1987 then bought it back from him in 1990 for $700 million. As for Roberts, well he just met his Steve Kearney.
Where it could all go wrong: He's brilliant all right but there is nothing in Chris Sandow's resume to suggest he is a championship-calibre halfback. His penchant for vigorously over-celebrating first-minute tries and then doing bugger all for 79 minutes as his side is stuffed out of sight is particularly irritating. Good luck, Steve. You'll need it.
In: Shaun Berrigan (Warriors)
Out: Alan Tongue (retired), Daniel Vidot (Dragons), Josh Miller (Dragons), Danny Galea (Panthers), Matt Orford (retired)
Scouting report: From title favourites to utter disgrace, the Raiders simply can't be that bad again. For starters they won't be saddled with a high-priced bust at halfback (thanks for nothing Matt Orford), with Josh McCrone and Sam Williams vying for the job. Shaun Berrigan is the only major signing, but some serious cavalry is coming over the hill in the shape of Terry Campese, David Shillington, Josh Dugan and Tom Leahroyd-Lahrs. All four big guns missed the bulk of last season through injury. If they stay healthy, the 2012 Raiders may well be the team they were meant to be last season.
Where it could all go wrong: Mark these words. No team with Shaun Berrigan as one of their major signings will ever reach an NRL grand final. Again.
Gold Coast Titans
In: Jamal Idris (Bulldogs), Nathan Myles (Roosters), Beau Champion (Storm), Phil Graham (Roosters), Aiden Sezer (Bulldogs), Beau Falloon (Rabbitohs), Javarn White (North Brisbane Devils), Beau Henry (Knights), Louis Fanene (Storm).
Out: Mat Rogers (retired), Nathan Friend (Warriors), Anthony Laffranchi (St Helens), Brad Meyers (retired), Esi Tonga (Eels), Sam Tagataese (Sharks), Joseph Tomane (rugby union), Will Matthews (Dragons), Luke Capewell (Broncos), Clinton Toopi (retired), Shannon Walker (rugby union), Preston Campbell (retired).
Scouting report: The Titans went into last season with the oldest squad in the NRL and it didn't take long until they looked over the hill, with a team that came within a game of the grand final in 2010 plummeting to last place. Some would lay the blame for that at John Cartwright's door, but with the coach having just penned a five-year extension, he was never likely to be bladed. Instead there has been a massive clear-out of the playing roster, with stalwarts Preston Campbell, Nathan Friend, Anthony Laffranchi and Brad Myers departing. Jamal Idris is the face of a new generation.
Where it could all go wrong: The failure to find an able lieutenant for captain Scott Prince in the wake of Mat Rogers' retirement was the major problem last year and it is an issue that still remains. Aiden Sezer is predicted to get the first shot at the No 6 jumper, with Beau Henry next in line. If that fails Mat Rogers will come out of retirement.