LIKELY squad: Ben Hornby, Colin Best, Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, Wes Naiqama, Trent Barrett, Mathew Head, Jason Ryles, Dean Young, Luke Bailey, Ashton Sims, Ben Creagh, Shaun Timmins,Interchange: Michael Henderson, Justin Poore, Corey Payne, Matt BickerstaffStrengths:The Dragons once again have a top platform to build on. They have a strong balanced side which contains pace, strength and raw ability. The team has gone through a bit of a tough time at the moment but the starting side is still rather young and will continue to develop.The Dragons? backline is their most dangerous asset. Australian centres Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier combine for the best centre partnership in the competition while their outside men possess enough strength and pace to finish off anything they set up. Colin Best?s try scoring tally last season was enough to signify this.Ben Hornby is one of the best talents in rugby league today. The reason is largely attributed to his versatility. He is equally accustomed to fullback as he is to five-eighth or halfback. He did a stellar job in the absence of Mathew Head last season, and one would expect to see him carry the ball in hand as often as possible to give the Dragons another dimension in attack.The forwards are once again strong with the inclusion of young guns Ashton Sims and Ben Creagh to the starting team. Ryles and Bailey are two of the best props in the game and the pack which is mixed with youthful exuberance and valuable experience will be one of the best in the competition.Weaknesses:The Dragons? bench is not as solid as it once was. It may be time to promote some younger blood that has the potential to have greater impact. The Dragons have tremendous forward depth and always have had the ability to produce great forwards, but its time for Nathan Brown to eliminate guys like Payne and Henderson and give guys like Habercecht a go, who have the potential to make an impact on a game.The Dragons? mental state is shaky to say the least. While they have had the talent to win the competition for the last five years, they just can?t put it together when it counts. They are labelled the perennial chokers and for good reason. They are once again the favourites for the competition, so could they choke?Physical fitness is also a concern for the Dragons. The Dragons always have a tendency to get injuries to big names at the worst times. This is a weakness for the Dragons, but something that is beyond their control. Hopefully their physios are amongst the best in the country, because they will need to be.One to Watch:2005 Dragons Jersey Flegg player of the year Tom Haberecht is the Dragon?s youngster to watch this season. The Dragons purchased Haberecht from the Bulldogs in 2005 and he made an instant impression on the Dragons, becoming a vital player in the premiership winning Jersey Flegg team.The 20 year old, 95kg and 185 cm Haberecht has made a huge impression on coach Nathan Brown in the pre-season, enough for him to be considered for First Grade this early in his career. While Haberecht only has modest goals to cement a place in Premier League this season before getting a shot at First Grade, it is definitely conceivable that with Lance Thompson?s departure from the Dragons that this young gun will get his shot to impress sooner rather than later. The Dragons have always managed to bring in great forwards into the club and this is just another example. Haberecht is a devastating ball runner and a hard defender. He is definitely one of those classy players that a team is usually built around and the Dragons will be looking for him to continue his progression through Premier League and eventually to take on a leadership role in the First Grade squad. Gains and Losses:Gains: Bryson Goodwin, Matt Bickerstaff, Damon Alley-Tovio, Sam Isemonger, Lagi Setu, Andrew Price.Losses: Lance Thompson, Michael Ennis, Albert Torrens, Daniel Holdsworth, Willie Manu, Bryan Norrie, Nick Youngquest, Shane MarteeneAssessment:The Dragons once again are in with a shot to take out the competition, but will they have the mental preparation to win it? Only time will tell. Based on their top 17 it?s hard to conceive they will be outside the top 8, but I don?t feel they will be minor premiers. I think they?ll push the top 4 but fall just short. I believe the Dragons will finish in between 3rd and 6th.
LIKELY squad: Wade McKinnon, Luke Burt, Ben Smith, Timana Tahu, Eric Grothe, Marcus Perenara, Tim Smith, Nathan Cayless, Mark Riddell, Paul Stringer, Nathan Hindmarsh, Glenn Morrison, Brett DelaneyInterchange: Fui Fui Moi Moi, Michael Vella, Dean Widders, PJ MarshStrengths:Parramatta?s great strength is depth. They have quality players right through their grades. In Premier League they have Joel Reddy, John Morris, Daniel Wagon and other players of first grade quality in Blake Green, Zab Taia and other quality players who will make the progression to first grade from their junior ranks.Parramatta?s backline is tremendous. The power and absolute force of Ben Smith, Eric Grothe Jr and John Williams combined with the speed and elusiveness of Wade McKinnon and Timana Tahu makes for a salivating backline.Finally the forward pack for Parramatta is set in place. They have a quality back row with a ball-playing lock-forward, something they have lacked since Jim Dymock?s playing days. Brett Delaney is a talented individual with silky skills and a good boot and will develop into one of the premier locks in the game.The Parramatta bench is something that a lot of teams desire. It contains speed, strength and tremendous impact. Moi Moi, who has a huge cult following, does have brute strength and impact to turn a game. Dean Widders had a tremendous season in 2005 while PJ Marsh had a great year in his first back in full flight since a tremendous run of bad luck. This bench has the ability to make a lasting impact on a match and the ability to take a team to a Grand Final.Weaknesses:Will Tim Smith have a case of second-year syndrome? Most of today?s ?great prodigies? come out and play the worst season of their careers after the high of the first. Will Tim Smith join the line? Or will he prove us all wrong and continue his flourishing development?The angst about changing coaches can?t be good for the club. While the certainty is now in place with Michael Hagan definitely coming to the club in 2007, what does it mean for the Eel?s 2006? Does Brian Smith care about this season or does he just think ?Bugger it, I?m not going to be here in 2007?? However, Brian Smith is too much of a professional to let this get to him. He will try his best to win his maiden premiership this year and prove to Parramatta they made the wrong choice, even though it was the right one.One to Watch:Marcus Perenara has the weight of the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. The heir apparent to Stacey Jones in the New Zealand national jersey, Marcus will be looking to gain valuable First Grade experience in 2006 to be picked for the country he loves. Brought to Parramatta last season, he didn?t fail to impress and the young 19 year old Kiwi was a standout for Parramatta?s Premier League and an integral part of their Premier League championship.His performances during last season earned him a spot in the New Zealand squad and a chance to play for New Zealand A against an Australian invitational side. In this match he lined up against Trent Barrett and Scott Prince, two of the best halves in the competition, and Marcus showed his class leading the New Zealand A team to a comfortable victory.That performance has put Marcus on the map now, and with Parramatta?s need for a great five-eighth to partner Tim Smith in the halves, Brian Smith would be crazy not to consider this future star.Gains and Losses:Gains: Nil.Losses: Brett Anderson (Cowboys), Chris Muckert (Toowoomba).Assessment:I tried hard again to find a weakness with Parramatta and the only thing I could think of was psychological. As a team they are brilliant. A great set of young halves, strong and fast backline and a great forward foundation. On top of that they have a great bench and to add a bit of icing to the team they have depth in all grades. If the Eels can get it together and get their heads in the game then there is only one outcome possible and that is top 4.
LIKELY squad: Billy Slater, Matt Geyer, Matt King, Greg Inglis, Jake Webster, Scott Hill, Cooper Cronk, Ben Cross, Cameron Smith, Garret Crossman, Michael Crocker, David Kidwell, Dallas Johnson,Interchange: Ryan Hoffman, Antonio Kaufusi, Brett White, Glen TurnerStrengths:Melbourne?s greatest strength would have to be their backline. They have tremendous players in that backline that can just bust a game wide open. Their speed, agility and all round athleticism can win the Storm matches. But in order to do that, they must have the ability to spread the ball, something that could be a problem for the Storm in 2006.Craig Bellamy is in the top 3 coaches in the NRL. He is a young coach with great ideas. He is considered by many to be the smartest coach in the NRL by far with his training techniques, his tactics and his ability to scout talent. For the past few years with the Storm he?s been ?almost there?. Now that he has lost his key player in the off-season, there is one thing guaranteed, Bellamy will re-invent himself and his team yet again, in order to get the same level of success.Billy Slater and Greg Inglis are two of the most exciting young players in the game and much of the Storm?s success this season will rest on these young men?s shoulders. If these two perform to their great potential, the Storm has many wins in store. If they play below their potential and crumble under the great strain of leading the team?s attack, then Melbourne will be in dire straights.Weaknesses:One vital weakness for Melbourne is their lack of depth in the halves and forwards. In the backs the Storm can call upon Roosters reject Chris Walker or injury ravaged fullback Steve Turner, enough to compensate. However in the halves, the Storm only have a young player in James Ausbusson, hardly enough to suggest enough depth in such a key position. In the forwards, they have lost stalwarts Robbie Kearns, Peter Robinson and Alex Chan, along with a couple of their talented prospects. The young players now brought in need to step up for the Storm to lay a solid platform.The Storm are going through a transition period at the moment. They have lost their main strike player, their halfback and their captain. That is enough to suggest that the Storm will struggle. In Kearn?s absence, the young forwards showed they were not up to task. How will young Cooper Cronk handle the responsibility of starting halfback? He is definitely a talented young man. However, in many people?s minds, this responsibility will be too great this season, but it will bode well for the Storm?s 2007 campaign.Much of the Storm?s attack will rely on Scott Hill and his distribution to his backs. Unfortunately for Melbourne, Scott Hill has a tendency to only play half a season, only re-enforcing the lack of depth in their halves.The Storm?s discipline will be a problem. They have one of the most ill-disciplined forward packs in the competition. Hot-heads like Cross, Crocker and Kidwell will cost the Storm a lot of ball, something that will need to be rectified by Bellamy. While he has the backs to succeed, he has the forwards to halter that progression if the opposition can get under their skin.One to Watch:Cooper Cronk is not a rookie by any means, but while he has already played more than 20 games in the NRL, he is yet to have the pressure of the playmaking role consistently, hence why I picked him as one to watch. The 22 year old, 178cm and 89kg halfback was a regular feature off the bench for Melbourne in 2005, gaining valuable experience and working out combinations with team-mates in preparation for his new role in 2006. This season Cronk will have a world of expectations on his shoulders as it is his duty to give his backs enough ball and set up play for his team. He is a strong player with a good kicking game, but he?ll need to learn quickly about how to handle being the main strike player. I feel he will thrive in this role and will prove that he is a NRL quality halfback. That?s why he?s my one to watch from Melbourne. Gains and Losses:Gains: Michael Crocker, Chris Walker Ben Cross, Garrett Crossman, James Aubusson.Losses: Matt Orford, Steven Bell, Robbie Kearns, Alex Chan, Peter Robinson, Josh Graham, Robert Tanielu.Assessment:Potentially the Storm can go far in the competition. However, I just don?t see it happening. They will show glimpses of brilliance as they usually do during a season, but I fear this transition period will be too hard for even the likes of Craig Bellamy to overcome. I think the Storm will struggle this year, but will come out bigger and better in 07? once the combinations start to form, the forwards start to gel and they get an injury-free season. My prediction is for the Storm to finish in the bottom half of the competition, between 10th and 13th.
LIKELY squad: Karmichal Hunt, Leon Bott, Brent Tate, Justin Hodges, Steve Michaels, Darren Lockyer, Brett Seymour, Shane Webcke, Michael Ennis, Petero Civoniceiva, David Stagg, Brad Thorn, Tonie Carroll,Interchange: Shaun Berrigan, Ben Hannant, Corey Parker, Casey McGuireStrengths:Brisbane has always had the knack of unearthing some brilliant juniors from their large nursery. The depth of talent that they can unleash on the NRL is unbelievable.Darren Lockyer. The world?s second best player outside Andrew Johns. Didn?t have his best end of season ever, but was suffering as a result of injuries.The Brisbane backline is very strong. It possesses speed and skill. With centres Tate and Hodges back to their best and speedsters Bott and Michaels finishing off set plays, the Brisbane backline is one of the most potent in the competition. They even have Shaun Berrigan on the bench for utility value.The addition of Michael Ennis provides them with a great hooker who is an accomplished goal kicker. His rotation with Berrigan will be vital for the Broncos? success this season and there will be great things coming from Ennis and in turn the Broncos as a result.Weaknesses:The overall age of this Broncos? outfit is a concern, particularly in the forwards. Forwards such as Webcke, Civoniceiva, Thorn and TBA are getting on in years and this weakness was exposed during the finals, when on more than one occasion the Broncos looked lacklustre and tired in attack and defence.The stubborn refusal of Bennett to promote players from Toowoomba is also a weakness. He has a pool of talent waiting for their shot in first grade at his disposal to only burn them down. Guys like Nick Kenny who proved his value in the one game he played are craving for shots. Instead he persists in using players like Dane Carlaw who are past their best.One to Watch:The younger brother of Vinnie and Louis Anderson, 21 year old Fraser Anderson, was recruited by the Broncos this year from the New Zealand Warriors development squad. Fraser is described as having ?power, pace and potential?. This explosive winger could be the something the Broncos have lacked since Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri left the team for Rugby Union.Fraser will be looking to stamp himself in the NRL sooner rather than later. He is remarkably large for a winger, weighing at 104 kg, and standing at 190 cm he would be more suited to the back row. But his athleticism proves he is in fact a winger. In recent speed trials he even matched Leon Bott, the quickest in the Brisbane team. One thing for sure, when this massive winger explodes onto the NRL the Broncos could have another Tuqiri in their grasps.Gains and Losses:Gains: Michael Ennis, Ben HannantLosses: Tom Learoyd-Lars, Darren Mapp, Stuart Kelly, Berrick BarnesAssessment:Brisbane has the talent to win the competition. If Darren Lockyer fires, the backline gets good service and the forwards gain momentum, I don?t think there?s a team in the comp they can?t beat. However, the same goes the other direction. Will the Broncos do as they usually do and start well and then fade terribly with their tired legs and tactics? Or will they finally step up closer to finals time and claim yet another NRL premiership. My tip: Top 6 for the Broncos.
LIKELY squad: David Simmons, Luke Covell, Ben Pomeroy, Beau Scott, Darren Albert, Nigel Vagana, Brett Kimmorley, Ben Ross, Kevin Kingston, Lance Thompson, Reece Williams, Phil Bailey, Paul GallenInterchange: Hutch Maiva, Luke Douglas, Clifford Manua, Matt HilderStrengths:The Sharks have one of the best halfbacks in the competition directing them around the park. If Brett Kimmorley has an injury-free year and is able to handle the increased ball carrying, then the Sharks can push the top 8.They have purchased quite well for next season. They have replaced stalwarts Jason Stevens and Danny Nutley with Origin prop Ben Ross and former Dragon Lance Thompson.The Sharks also have a very formidable and mobile forward pack for next season. They do not have a large forward pack in size, but they have a very mobile pack that has a lot of skill. With the likes of rising stars Luke Douglas and Clifford Manua the Sharks have a solid forward foundation for 2006.They have purchased great depth for their junior ranks. They raided the Bartercard Cup and the Junior Kiwis? teams and managed to secure some of the most exciting talent in New Zealand. Some of which will be working their way to first grade very shortly.The move to play Nigel Vagana at five-eighth is a smart move by the Sharks. He is a very good ball runner and will create many opportunities for the Sharks to score points in 2006.Weaknesses:The pressure on Brett Kimmorley will be tremendous. Two years ago, before the Sharks acquired Adam Dykes, they relied heavily on Kimmorley for their creative playmaking. Kimmorley was touching the ball 3-4 times a set, something he has found in the past he is uncomfortable doing. With Vagana not being a creative ball player, rather a ball runner, Kimmorley will be under a lot more pressure with the ball in hand this season. This could mean the Sharks have too much of a one-dimensional attack.The Sharks have lost a lot of experience and their team has a massive new look. Clubmen David Peachey, Jason Stevens and Danny Nutley have gone and this will affect the environment and culture within the club.Their inexperienced backline could also be a problem for the Sharks. Aside from veteran Darren Albert, who is returning from the UK, the Sharks? three-quarters are very inexperienced.One to Watch:Pee Wee Moke is one of the most promising centre prospects in the game today. The 19 year old, 182cm and 89kg centre is looking to push for First Grade honours this season after a disappointing season with the Roosters. A member of the premiership winning and undefeated Roosters Jersey Flegg team, he was not getting the opportunities he was craving at the Roosters and has linked up with the Sharks for this season. In doing so the Sharks have secured a great centre talent and if he gets a chance in First Grade he will not go down without a fight. He is a well built and fast individual with great footwork, similar to Paul Whaitura. If Cronulla want to have their backs firing on all cylinders this season, they need to give this young man a shot. Gains and Losses:Gains: Ben Ross, Ben Pomeroy, Lance Thompson, Darren Mapp, Darren Albert, Tevita Latu, Brett Kearney, Ryan Borg.Losses: Jason Stevens, David Peachey, Danny Nutley, Michael Sullivan, Nathan Merritt, Paul Mellor, Keith Galloway, Bryson Goodwin, Jon Green, Russell Aitken, Ryan McGoldrick, Vince MellarsAssessment:The Cronulla Sharks have a team that can surprise a lot of people. They have a solid nucleus of forwards, but I believe the lack of experience in the backline aside from Darren Albert and the sole reliance on Brett Kimmorley in the playmaking role will mean the Sharks will struggle this year.The Sharks have no depth whatsoever in the halfback role losing back up Russel Aitken to the Cowboys. If Kimmorley gets injured, it will be curtains for the Sharks? chances and they will get the wooden spoon. If Kimmorley stays fit, then they are a chance to push the top 8. But the Sharks are a young team with potential and this season will set a good platform for things to come.My prediction ? 11th-15th.
LIKELY squad: Brett Stewart, Michael Robertson, Steven Bell, Ashley Alberts, Chris Hicks, Travis Burns, Matt Orford, Brent Kite, Michael Monaghan, Jason King, Anthony Watmough, Steve Menzies, Ben KennedyInterchange: Shayne Dunley, Kylie Leuluai, George Rose, Luke WilliamsonStrengths:Manly?s forwards are strong and versatile, meaning that they will be mobile in attack and defence. This is a great attribute to have in a forward pack. With experienced campaigners like Kennedy and Menzies along with exciting talent like Anthony Watmough, the Manly forward pack is one to be feared in the NRL.Matt Orford is an obvious strength for the Manly club. Not since Geoff Toovey has the Manly club had a halfback that is good enough to lead them to a premiership.Brett Stewart is one of the most exciting fullbacks in the game. He possesses electrifying pace and can score a try from anywhere on the field. Only his poor defensive errors prevent him from being the complete fullback package.Matt Orford?s combination with Steven Bell will be crucial for Manly?s success this season. Bell was one of the leading line breakers in the NRL in 2005 and Manly will be hoping that continues in 2006. Orford has a great combination with Bell and if that continues, Manly will score plenty of points in 2006 on the back of it.Weaknesses:Manly?s backline apart from Bell and Stewart still looks rather fragile. Chris Hicks, Michael Robertson and Ashley Alberts are not exactly the type of players to strike fear into the hearts of their opposition numbers. For Manly to succeed they will need for Ashley Alberts to finally realise his potential as a player or hope of securing Jamie Lyon in 2007.Manly may have two of their key positions covered for 2006 in their fullback and halfback, but they do not have stable options for five-eighth and hooker. Travis Burns may be an exciting young talent but he is untried at NRL level and Michael Monaghan is a player that could be low on confidence in a new position. This could be a problem for Manly in 2006.Des Hasler is not the best coach going around in NRL circles, but even he has to recognise the lack of depth currently at Manly. If Orford was to become injured, they do have the options available to counter that. However, Manly may lack available options to effectively replace key players in other key positions.One to Watch:Travis Burns is a product of Texas in Qld. The light footed five-eighth/halfback will be looking to link up in a halves combination with Matt Orford this season as the opportunity to shine now presents itself. With Michael Witt seemingly looking like he?ll never play First Grade again due to defensive lapses, the opportunity for young Travis to cement a First Grade spot has heightened. The talented playmaker made a couple of appearances in 2005 which set him up to be one of the better prospects to come out of Manly in recent years. In his few appearances he was cool under pressure and had a good kicking game. He still has room to develop his game a lot more and I?m sure with a good halfback at his side in Matt Orford we will see the best of Travis Burns in 2006. Gains and Losses:Gains: Matt Orford, Steve Bell, Michael Robertson, George Rose.Losses: Terry Hill, Chad Randall, Scott Donald, Sam Harris, Jye Mullane, Nathan Hollingsworth.Assessment:I believe Manly have the halfback, fullback and forward pack in order to win the competition, but I don?t believe they can do it with the existing players in the #6 and #9 jerseys. Manly will be competitive in 2006 and will more than likely repeat their top 8 effort this season, however I don?t believe they have the required strike power or creativity in key positions to take out the 2006 NRL Premiership.My Prediction ? 6th-10th.
LIKELY squad Anthony Minichello, Lelea Paea, Ryan Cross, Isolia Soliola, Amos Roberts, Braith Anasta, Brett Finch, Craig Fitzgibbon, John Doyle, Adrian Morley, Chris Flannery, Anthony Tupou, Ashley HarrisonInterchange: David Shillington, Mark Edmondson, Lopeni Paea, Craig WingStrengths:The Roosters have one of the better backlines in the competition. While it may not be the best, they have a tremendous amount of skill. Amos Roberts and Anthony Minichello spearhead the backline and if both men fire on their day, the Roosters will run riot over anyone.The starting forward pack is also very strong. Despite the losses of Jason Cayless, Luke Ricketson and Michael Crocker the Roosters still field a very strong starting pack. Tupou and Morley are intimidating figures in the side while new recruit Ashley Harrison will prove to be what many believe as the buy of the season. The rangy lock is one of the best in the game and will finally get a chance to prove that he is Origin standard.The use of Craig Wing off the bench will be vital for the Roosters. His impact can break a game wide open and set up wins for the Roosters. If he isn?t on his game when he is put into the attack it could spell dramas for the Roosters.Weaknesses:The Roosters? bench is not the strongest in the competition and apart from Craig Wing, none of the other players would be the type of player to strike fear into the hearts of opposition teams. While the three guys have potential, they do not have that ?fear factor? in order to give a team an edge when the game is in the balance after 20-30 minutes. This is a problem for the Roosters.The Roosters? depth seems a bit shaky at the moment. While they have quality players in Premier League, they neglect to have the adequate first grade experience to be an instant success and compare to the depths of the likes of the Tigers or Eels. This could be a problem for the Roosters should the inevitable injuries occur.Brett Finch is a weakness to this team. He would possibly have to be the most one-dimensional halfback in the competition. He lacks the adequate creativity to win the competition for the Roosters. Last year showed why the Roosters were so reliant on Brad Fittler and this season they will be relying on Anasta. The Roosters have the better solution in Jamie Soward in Reserve Grade, but that would mean the administration would have to swallow their pride and put a form player in, instead of someone who they pay big dollars.One to Watch:Adam Schubert is the player to watch for the Roosters this season. The 94kg, 182cm workhorse second row has built up reputation as being a damaging and tenacious defender. He got a real taste of First Grade in 2005 when the Roosters had injury dramas and Origin duties and he didn?t disappoint.In his debut against Manly in an epic battle which eventually Manly won, Adam was one of the best on field making crucial tackles and much needed metres. His best assets are of course his defence and also his working ethic. With the Roosters losing many forwards in the off-season, you?d have to think Adam would be foremost in the mind of Ricky Stuart and rightly so. He definitely has a future in the game.Gains and Losses:Gains: Ashley Harrison, Braith Anasta, John Doyle, Charlie Tonga, Mitchell Pearce, Glen Hall, Mark Edmonson.Losses: Michael Crocker, Luke Ricketson, Chris Walker, Jason Cayless, Ben Hannant, Stuart Webb, George Rose, Ned Catic, Grant Rovelli, James Aubusson, Jack Rampling. Richard Fa?osoAssessment:The Roosters have the team to make the top 8 if they can keep the same 17 on the park every week. If they get injuries however, particularly in the forwards, they will struggle to remain consistent enough to threaten for any title. They have lost aggression and inspiration in the off-season along with valuable depth, something that hasn?t been adequately replaced. I see the Roosters finishing between 7th and 10th.
LIKELY squad: Rhys Wesser, Nick Youngquest, Luke Lewis, Danny Galea, Luke Rooney, Preston Campbell, Craig Gower, Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis, Bryan Norrie, Trent Waterhouse, Tony Puletua, Shane RodneyInterchange: Frank Puletua, Matthew Cross, Frank Pritchard, Junior MoorsStrengths:The Penrith forward pack once again remains intimidating. They have purchased young prop Bryan Norrie from the Dragons and he comes to the club with big raps from many. Trent Waterhouse will hopefully go back to his best position in the second row to reap havoc at the fringes with his brilliant running and offloading ability, while 80 minute player Shane Rodney will be in his destined position.The Penrith bench is once again strong. Frank Puletua really reached his potential as a player last season, while Matthew Cross?s emergence in the closing part of the season really showed what potential he has as a player. Frank Pritchard is back on the bench and will provide that valuable impact boost the Panthers craved last season while youngster Junior Moors will hopefully get a shot to show he is First Grade material.The halves at Penrith would have to rate amongst the best in the competition. The toughness of Craig Gower with the creative genius and elusiveness of Preston Campbell is a vital combination for Penrith to succeed in the competition this year.Penrith, like South Sydney, have purchased in numbers and potential rather than names for the upcoming season. Penrith signed journeymen Craig Stapleton and David Thompson to play reserve grade and bolster their forward depth. They also signed a plethora of outside backs to cover the shortfall that existed all last season. This will only aid in the Penrith rebuilding phase.Weaknesses:The Penrith backline is once again going to be their downfall this season. Unless new purchases really kick into gear, then there will be grave fears for Penrith fans as we will once again be the butt of all jokes. While Rhys Wesser, Luke Lewis and Luke Rooney will provide great resistance, it is really up to the younger guys who will fill the 2 and 4 to get the team to a position of respect once again.The whole Craig Gower ?will he or won?t he? saga has to be affecting the players. While Gower?s first indiscretion was enough to harm the reputation of Penrith, the turmoil surrounding whether he wants to stay at the club or not has to be affecting the playing group.One to Watch:Junior Moors would have to rate amongst the best second row prospects in the game today. The parochial talent has a great bloodline as well. His cousin is New Zealand representative and Panther Tony Puletua and when you watch Junior play, you can definitely see the similarity.A NSW Under 19?s representative, he was the only shining light in a team that got belted by Queensland. He is a hard ball runner and has a handy offload. While he still has work to do on his defence he has been known to cream a few players and they know they?ve been hit. At 19 years of age, he still has some growing to do, which makes his 108kg, 192cm frame all the more impressive.Junior will look to feature on the bench this season for Penrith as the club rebuilds and losing the likes of Joe Galuvao and Ben Ross has paved the way for some young forwards to be given a shot. I have no doubt John Lang will be thinking of the name Junior Moors by the end of the season.Gains and Losses:Gains: Bryan Norrie, Nick Youngquet, Mark O'Halloran, Bob Blair, Matt Bell, Wayne Bond, Liam Georgetown, Chris NewtonLosses: Ben Ross, Joe Galuvao, Ben Rogers, Ben Pomeroy, Garrett Crossman, Shannon Donato, Trent Clayton, Paul FranzeAssessment:If Penrith can manage to get it together as a team before the season starts then I believe they have the potential to make the top 8. If this whole Gower saga affects the mental status of the team then they could be looking at the wooden spoon. Also with the recent change in coach and the way the management handled it with regards to John Lang, it may affect the team?s attitude on the field. Many people have tipped Penrith for the spoon this season, but the reality is that there are just too many good players in this team to finish with the spoon. I think Penrith will finish mid table, as high as 6th and as low as 11th.
LIKELY squad: Brent Webb, Manu Vatuvai, Clinton Toopi, Tony Martin, Todd Byrne, Jerome Roparti, Nathan Fien, Steve Price, Lance Hohaia, Richard Villasanti, Ruben Wiki, Warraingi Koopu, Sione FaumuinaInterchange: Sonny Fai, Awen Guttenbeil, Louis Anderson, Michael LuckStrengths:The Warriors have the uncanny knack of developing some of the most ferocious forwards in the game. They have developed the likes of Joe Galuvao and Ali Lauitiiti and there is no doubt they will unearth two or three brand new prospects that we will just be awestruck by.The appointment of Ivan Cleary to the head job at the Warriors will do wonders for them. He is a clever operator and a coach that will get his team into peak physical condition for the battles that lay ahead.The Warriors forward pack is lethal to say the least. Spearheaded by Steve Price and Ruben Wiki, the Warriors pack has the ability to defeat anyone on any given day, if only they applied their natural abilities.Weaknesses:Well, starting the season on -4 points is going to be a huge challenge to overcome. The whole salary cap issues surrounding the Warriors recently will have an enormous affect the player?s morale and the team?s cohesion in training.The inability of these players to remain consistent is quite ridiculous. With the talent at the Warriors, they should have the ability to compete at the highest level; however inconsistency and the inability to close a game when they grab a lead will need to be rectified for the Warriors to improve on last season.The Warriors also are going through a transition period. They lost their inspiration and halfback in Stacey Jones, without buying an adequate replacement. Nathan Fien can only take them so far, and it?s not to a premiership.The Warriors may have a lot of young talent at their disposal but they have a distinct lack of depth with regards to players with NRL experience. This could provide a distinct weakness for them and their progression in the competition this season.The Warriors backline is not one to be feared. The lack of form at club level for Clinton Toopi and the injury-prone Tony Martin do not pose much of a threat to any opposition backline defences. However the departure of Francis Meli and the arrival of exciting talent Manu Vatuvai into the winger?s position will be of great benefit to the Warriors chances.One to Watch:Junior Kiwi and New Zealand Residents representative Sonny Fai is the young player to watch for the Warriors in 2006. Rated by Warriors coach Ivan Cleary as their top junior prospect, the super talented Fai is looking to make his debut in first grade in 2006. He has been touted by many as the Warriors Sonny Bill Williams, something that could be very exciting for NRL to see.Remarkably Sonny Fai is still at the tender age of 17, but stands at 192cm tall and is 105kg. Many would think with his size he?d be slow, but while this young man possesses a massive frame, he is also very quick, with the ability to play centre, which he did on a number of occasions in Bartercard Cup last season. Fai is extremely versatile, being able to play the game-breaking centre, or the powerful ball-playing backrower. This is what sets him apart from other juniors in the Warriors? organisation.Fai?s greatest attributes are his size and skill, but along with that he is very quick and has an incredible football brain. On a number of occasions in Bartercard Cup playing centre, he was able to sniff out game breaking opportunities, such as a crucial intercept, when to press in the defence or which line to run. He looks like he will have a massive future in the NRL and it will be a privilege to watch his progressionGains and Losses:Gains: Michael Luck, Grant Rovelli, George Gatis.Losses: Stacey Jones, Monty Betham, Tevita Latu, Frances Meli, Karl Temata, Iafeta PaleaasinaAssessment:I don?t believe the Warriors have what it takes to make the top 8 this year. Starting on -4 points for this season is a big hurdle to overcome in the early stages of the competition.I also believe their recruitment was lacklustre for the calibre of players that left the club the loss of a New Zealand great will really affect their style of play this year. Stacey was a superb player for New Zealand and was responsible for big wins in big game situations. Something I feel that the Warriors lack this season. My prediction is for the Warriors to finish between 13-15th this season and to recruit heavily for 07?.
LIKELY squad: Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Reni Matuia, Willie Tonga, Matt Utai, Daniel Holdsworth, Brent Sherwin, Mark O?Meley, Adam Perry, Roy Asotasi, Andrew Ryan, Willie Mason, Tony GrimaldiInterchange: Chris Armit, Nate Myles, Sonny Bill Williams, Billy NgawiniStrengths:The team still has a solid nucleus. They have a strong backline capable of making big line breaks and scoring tries. I?ve placed Reni Matuia at centres because I believe he has a big future there if he maintains it.The Bulldogs have one of the best forward packs in the competition. They have great mobile forwards capable of ripping a game apart in a heartbeat. This will be where the Bulldogs will have to win their games. If their forwards don?t dominant, the Dogs will struggle.Any team that contains Sonny Bill Williams has to note him as strength. Coming off the bench Sonny will be looking to hopefully play the full season for once. If he does that, then the opposition had better watch out because Sonny has the capability of putting any team to sleep within a short period of time.Malcom Noad?s appointment as CEO of the club was a bit of a hurried process. However, he has handled the job with distinction and he is attempting to create a better culture in his club.Weaknesses:The Bulldogs currently have out of form halves. While at his best he is a brilliant halfback, Brent ?Shifty? Sherwin just didn?t cut the mustard in 2005. His play was lacklustre, his kicking was woeful and he just didn?t dominate oppositions like he used to. He needs to pick up his game dramatically for the Dogs to have a chance. If he can recapture his form of the past, the Dogs really have a chance of getting in the 8. If he doesn?t, then the Dogs will be looking at a mid table finish at best.Sonny Bill Williams is also a weakness to the Bulldogs. While he is one of the most brilliantly gifted individuals in the game, his body is prone to injuries with his style of play. Unfortunately this same style has forced him to another delay to get onto the field with a new injury surfacing. Sonny needs to change his style a little bit this season if he is any chance to lead the Bulldogs, because without him in the team, the Bulldogs seem a different team. The kid just needs a massive change of luck.Braith Anasta?s departure could possibly affect the mental state of the players this season. At crucial times in matches Braith used to take control, and they will really miss that. I believe Daniel Holdsworth is a great player and he is quality, but I don?t believe he will be as vital to the Dogs as Anasta was.One to Watch:Billy Ngawini was signed by the Bulldogs from North Sydney for this season. He was a relative unknown until a star performance in the New Zealand A game in Sydney late last year against a Australian Invitational side containing the likes of Trent Barrett and Scott Prince. Ngawini is expected to feature heavily this season as word spreads of his brilliant speed, strength and ability to put players through a gap. The talented Ngawini was once a product of the Waikato Chiefs in the Super 12, but after a conversation with Gary Freeman, switched codes and now that he has signed with the Dogs he is looking to make his mark on the NRL. He will be vital to the Bulldogs who have really lacked a good hooker at the club for a long time. Ngawini could replace Corey Hughes on the bench and be an impact player for the 2006 season.Gains and Losses:Gains: Daniel Holdsworth, Namila Davui, Jon Green, Chris Tuatara, Nick Kouparitsas, Billy Ngawini, Ben Roberts, Jamie Small.Losses: Braith Anasta, Charlie Tonga, Trevor Thurling, Jamaal Lolesi, Filinga Filiga, Jamie FrizzoAssessment:I believe the Bulldogs have a great team with some of the best forwards going around in the game at the moment, but I don?t believe they have the creative halves to win a competition. I believe on the back of their forwards they have the great ability to win matches, but when it comes down to the business end of the season, it?s your halves that win matches and the Bulldogs just don?t have that attribute yet. I believe the Dogs will finish between 7th and 11th, remaining competitive the whole season. However, they might not have the adequate skill level to win the crucial games that matter the most.