Coach: Todd Edwards
Premierships: 1941, 1950, 1954, 1955, 1960, 1972, 1977, 2003
Last year: 6th (7 wins, 11 losses)
Gains: Terence Seu Seu (Manly), Riley Brown (Gold Coast), Dan Williams-Metcalf (Maitland), Shaun Williams-Metcalf (NZ), Junior Afu (Storm), Tom Pelo (NZ), Jake Watts (Cronulla), Mick O’Shea (year off).
Losses: Simon Osborne (injured), Joby Patten, Darcy Etrich (Maitland).
Player to watch: Terence Seu Seu. The former Knights, Cronulla and Manly hooker’s 51-game NRL career never reached the potential it promised. The Goannas should be the benefactors this season when the Kurri Kurri junior returns to the Coalfields aged 25 and hungry to take Cessnock to that elusive premiership. Seu Seu’s speed around the ruck and creativity should pose plenty of problems for opposition sides. Bottom line: After the disaster of Craig Thomas’s reign as coach last season, Cessnock have returned to Todd Edwards to guide the Goannas back to the top of the league. Edwards has recruited heavily and signed some quality players in Seu Seu, Riley Brown and Dan Williams-Metcalf. After three straight grand final losses from 2008-10 and a sixth-place finish last season, the Goeys are desperate for the title and this should be their chance.
Coach: Ron Griffiths
Premierships: 1933, 1934, 1956-58, 1965, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1983, 2010-11
Last year: 1st (won grand final)
Gains: Eni Folau (Parramatta), Ryan Walker (Penrith), Darcy Etrich, Joby Patten (Cessnock), Josh Griffiths (Kurri), Kyran Bubb (Orange CYMS), Damien Frize (Denman), Matt Marshall (Mt Pritchard), Luke Mercer (East Maitland).
Losses: Peter Ellis (not playing), Dan Williams-Metcalf (Cessnock), Mick Moran (Macquarie), Glen Paton (retired), Vern Moana-Mason (injured), Dan Randall, Adam Withyman (Knights NSW Cup).
Player to watch: Jade Porter. They call him ‘‘Freak’’ in Maitland and his talent has played a major role in the Pickers’ back-to-back premierships. With Mick Moran moving to Macquarie, Porter has offered to shift from five-eighth to halfback to take on a greater organising role within the side. The Pickers will field a strong forward pack, giving Porter a chance to again weave his magic.
Bottom line: Former Kurri Kurri reserve-grade coach Ron Griffiths takes over a Maitland side bristling with quality and fresh from two premierships. It is a major ask to achieve the hat-trick, but you cannot doubt Maitland’s ability. Losing Peter Ellis, Dan Randall and Mick Moran will hurt, but the Pickers will still field a quality starting XIII.
Coach: Craig Miller
Premierships: 1912, 1915, 1916, 1922, 1961, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1980-82, 1984, 1992, 1997-99, 2002, 2004, 2008
Last year: 2nd (lost grand final)
Gains: Jack Afamasaga (Melbourne Storm), Callan Richardson (France), Simon Williams, Matthew Herman (Knights), Justin Smith (Balmain), Matt Kennedy (UK), Josh Phillips (Roosters).
Losses: Mitchell Garbutt (Melbourne Storm), Brad Murray (deregistered), Adrian Davis (Knights), Daniel Foster (Penrith), Colin Clarke, Jamie Nowland (retired), Brian Clarke (not playing), Gus Brown, James Api (work).
Player to watch: Matt Thurston. With inexperienced halves in Tom Lidden and Tim Penny, the creativity of hooker Thurston around the ruck will be vital for Wests. Thurston’s importance to the club has grown as he has become the captain after the potential season-ending ruptured biceps injury to Jermaine Ale during the trials. If the Rosellas forwards make quality yards, expect Thurston to capitalise.
Bottom line: Seven players from the Rosellas’ grand final side have left the club over the summer due to work, injury, and in halfback Brad Murray’s case, deregistration due to charges relating to the NRL betting scandal. But coach Craig Miller is an astute tactician who has recruited solidly. Justin Smith and Simon Williams will give the Rosellas the speed out wide they lacked last season.
Coach: Paul Stringer
Last year: 4th (lost preliminary final)
Gains: Alex Moore, Ben Fitzsimmons, Dale Langford (The Entrance), Jay Florimo (North Sydney), Blake Davey (Manly), Jay McKenzie (Ourimbah), Matt McConnell (Cabramatta).
Losses: Mitch Williams, Josh Mantellato (Knights), Mitch Goddard, Dean Holton (Terrigal).
Player to watch: Chad Sharp. The signing of halfback Alex Moore has allowed coach Paul Stringer to move Sharp out of the halves and into the centres on the left side. Stringer believes the NSW Country five-eighth is the most damaging hole-runner in the competition and can become his major attacking weapon.
Bottom line: In recent seasons hooker Mitch Williams has been the premier footballer in the competition. How Wyong recover from Williams and fellow Country rep Josh Mantellato’s selection in the Knights NSW Cup squad will determine their fortunes. The Roos still boost a quality forward pack led by captain Jamie Davis, which will be complimented by former National Youth Competition bulls Jay Florimo and Blake Davey.
Captain-coach: George Ndaira
Premierships: 1931, 1940, 1945, 1993-95
Last year: 5th (lost elimination semi-final)
Gains: George Ndaira (Balmain), Adam Peek (Celtic Crusaders, UK), Mat Cooper (Northern Blues), Reegan Tanner, Greg Sharp (injury), Joe Southwell (Wingham).
Losses: Josh Griffiths (Maitland), Joey Griffiths (Greta-Branxton), Cheyne McIntyre (South Newcastle).
Player to watch: Jesse Royal. The former Knights and Warriors big bopper was simply a marvel at Kurri last season. His line speed and ability to offload in tackles was a level above the majority of his opposing props. The Bulldogs won many games from the platform he set and Royal will again be their trump card.
Bottom line: Year after year the Bulldogs begin the season as a premiership chance only to scrape into the top five. With Royal, Daniel Abraham, Adam Peek and Reegan Tanner they boast one of most experienced packs in the league. The halves could again be the Bulldogs Achilles heel, but former Knight George Ndaira should help solve that weakness. Shift work in the mines is another issue Ndaira will need to manage.
Captain-coach: Matt Bartlett
Premierships: 1947, 1974, 1975, 1985-87, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2007
Last year: 9th (4 wins, 14 losses)
Gains: Adam Woolnough (Storm), Hayden Jeans (Central), Scott Dobbins (year off), Kyle McGregor (Forster), Anthony Perkins (Townsville), Josh Charles (Waratah Tigers, Griffith).
Losses: Jacob Jenkinson (work), Nathan Ross (France), Brodie Delaney (Erina), Steve Lamond (Bradford Dudley Hill, UK).
Player to watch: Adam Woolnough. The former Knights, Penrith and Melbourne Storm prop is the biggest signing Lakes have made in years and he will be expected to deliver quickly on the investment. Woolnough brings with him 155 games of NRL experience and would have certainly learnt valuable lessons working under Storm coach Craig Bellamy last season. Woolnough should lead the Seagulls pack to more victories this season.
Bottom line: There has been a growing confidence inside the Seagulls camp this year and their rivals are beginning to sense Lakes could become a force again after struggling for the past four seasons with financial restraints. Rookie captain-coach Matt Bartlett is unproven in a leadership role, but senior props Adam Woolnough and Hayden Jeans will offer him guidance. A possible season-ending pectoral muscle injury to halfback Jackson Nicolau in the trials could expose the lack of talent in the halves.
Captain-coach: Matt Shipway
Premierships: 1919, 1926, 1943, 1946, 1963, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1988, 1989
Last year: 3rd (lost minor semi-final)
Gains: Dane Queenan (Northern Blues), Scott Briggs (Knights), Cheyne McIntyre (Kurri).
Losses: Nathan Hinton, Byron Warren, Daniel Wood, Noel Tupou, Brent Colley (work), Kurt Gudgeon (Mudgee), Scott O’Neill, Ainsley Coxsedge (retired).
Player to watch: Joe Cudmore. The Port Macquarie product made an impressive start for Souths last season and was constantly called on by captain-coach Matt Shipway to fill roles at hooker and five-eighth. Tough, yet creative, Cudmore will need to play even better this season as the Lions have been decimated.
Bottom line: The big improvers of last season could be in for a long, cold winter. While the mines have been a source of talent for Kurri, Cessnock and Lakes, the Merewether club has suffered from the employment migration towards the Upper Hunter. New halfback Dane Queenan suffered a serious injury in the trials and Shipway’s reconstructed shoulder will not allow him back until mid-season.
Coach: Noel Dent
Last year: 8th (6 wins, 12 losses)
Gains: Mick Moran (Maitland), Adam Swadling (Camden Haven), Nathan Cantor (Aberdeen), Jacob Briggs (Central).
Losses: Matt Hurd, Matt Cooke (retired), Sean Bovis (work)
Player to watch: Mick Moran. Maitland’s grand final hero kicked the golden point for the Pickers last year to win the JJ ‘‘Mo’’ Wilson Medal for man of the match. Moran’s deeds will need to be even more heroic if he is to guide Macquarie to the semi-finals this season.
Bottom line: Premiership-winning coach Noel Dent only took over the Scorpions midway through last season and with a full summer he should have the club well prepared. The loss of prop Ainsley Coxsedge to a career-ending neck injury before he joined the Toronto-based club will be a big loss. Moran and forwards Danny Vaughan and Blake Gallen are quality, but they lack depth to challenge for the top five.
Coach: Paul Davis
Premierships: 1910, 1921, 1928, 1930, 1937, 1939, 1949
Last year: 7th (7 wins, 11 losses)
Gains: Albert Kelly (Cronulla), Tate Shaw (Central Coast SG Ball), Heath McIlveen (Gunnedah), Ash Curry (Old Bar).
Losses: Hayden Jeans (Lakes), Owen Craigie (Wallsend-Maryland), Alex McMillan (Muswellbrook), John Schofield (UK), Joe Means (WA), Isaac Dargan (Newtown), Jacob Briggs (Macquarie).
Player to watch: Albert Kelly. It is unknown how much game time the former Cronulla livewire will see at Central with Knights coach Wayne Bennett eager to use Kelly in the NSW Cup. But if he plays regularly with the Butcher Boys he could become a game-breaker with his speed and deft footwork.
Bottom line: The off-season tug-of-war between Central and Maitland over the services of Peter Ellis has been a major distraction. Ellis quit as captain-coach due to a lack of commitment from players, but new coach Paul Davis said there had been improvement in recent weeks. After four coaches in two years, the Butcher Boys need a season of stability to give their juniors time to prosper.
Captain-coach: James McCabe
Premierships: 2005 (as Nelson Bay Blues), 1911, 1914, 1920, 1925, 1926, 1929, 1935, 1938, 1948, 1951, 1953, 1959, 1962, 1967, 1979 (as Northern Suburbs).
Last year: 10th (1 win, 17 losses)
Gains: George Maka, Anthony Lama (NZ Warriors under 20s), John Teaupa (North Sydney), Trent Green (Wingham), Aaron Mullins (out of retirement), James Sheridan (Glen Innes), Roy McMahon, Matt Peters, Dean Handsaker (Raymond Terrace)
Losses: Dane Queenan (South Newcastle), Mat Cooper (Kurri), Esira Dokoni, Neori Buli, Ratu Rokotuinaceva, Aborisio Delaimoala (Fiji).
Player to watch: James McCabe. The tough-nut second-rower has been the heart and soul of the Northern Blues in recent years – a Nathan Hindmarsh figure in a time of adversity. Little wonder McCabe is now the man assigned to captain-coach the new Port Stephens Sharks entity and bring respectability back to a proud rugby league region. If anyone can inspire the Sharks it is McCabe.
Bottom line: After a horrific season last year, a new board has relaunched the club as the Port Stephens Sharks. It is unlikely the Sharks will threaten in their debut season. Success will be more strongly measured by the performance off the paddock.