Biggest talking points of the NRL pre-season
THE lead-up to the 2019 NRL season is well and truly under way.
As clubs return from their Christmas breaks to ramp up training, the countdown to the first fixtures of 2019 is on.
The action officially kicks off on February 15 when the Indigenous All Stars and Maori All Stars clash in Melbourne, followed by a host of pre-season hit-outs for all 16 clubs.
Here is your ultimate guide to every trial game for every NRL team from next month - and what your side needs to work on in the lead-up to season 2019.
Saturday, March 2: v Gold Coast Titans, 6.30pm at Cbus Super Stadium
Brisbane's roster is quite settled with the notable exception of Jack Bird, who endured a truly awful season in his first year as a Bronco. It remains to be seen exactly what role he will play for Anthony Seibold's Broncos - he was recruited to be more than the centre he was at Cronulla and yet centre is the only vacant spot in the Brisbane backline. Likewise, a cadre of exciting young forwards mean a move to the pack is seemingly outside the realms of possibility. Brisbane's trials will be our first look at the new Jack Bird and precisely how Seibold plans to use him.
Saturday, February 23: v Canberra Raiders: 5.30pm at Bega Recreation Ground
Canterbury need to work out whether they want to start building towards the future or win as many games as possible in 2019. It sounds ridiculous, but their well-publicised salary cap mess has reduced the quality of their roster. The likes of Kieran Foran and Michael Lichaa will likely be first-choice playmaking options in round 1. However Knights recruits Nick Meaney and Jack Cogger, along with rookie playmaker Lachlan Lewis, look like greater long-term prospects at Belmore. The pressure will be on the veterans to hold out the promising young brigade.
Saturday, February 23: v Gold Coast Titans, 5pm at Sunshine Coast Stadium
Saturday, March 2: v Melbourne Storm, 7pm at Mackay
The crucial factor for North Queensland will be getting their new-look spine together as quickly as possible. Ben Barba hasn't played in the NRL in two years and Michael Morgan missed the bulk of 2018 with a pec injury while the five-eighth spot is up for grabs between Jake Clifford and Te Maire Martin. Deciding between Martin, who played in the 2017 grand final and has extensive Test experience for New Zealand, and Clifford, a junior sensation who improved rapidly once he made his top grade debut, will be Paul Green's biggest battle of the pre-season.
Saturday, March 2: Charity Shield v South Sydney Rabbitohs, 7.30pm at Glen Willow Stadium, Mudgee
With the recruitment of Corey Norman from Parramatta the Dragons will be using a new halves combination and a new fullback in 2019, assuming Gareth Widdop's switch to the No. 1 jersey goes as planned. Getting some reps together before the season starts will be absolutely crucial so look for Paul McGregor to play his new set in Mudgee.
Friday, February 22: v Canberra Raiders, 5.30pm at St Mary's Stadium
Saturday, March 2: v Penrith Panthers, 7pm at Panthers Stadium
When you land the wooden spoon nobody is safe, so expect plenty of shuffling around Parramatta way in their two trial matches. Some of the bigger concerns include where Clint Gutherson plays (fullback, halves or centre), who partners Mitchell Moses in the halves (Jaeman Salmon and Dylan Brown are the two most likely candidates) and how Brad Arthur works new men Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane into the side.
Saturday, March 2: v Cronulla Sharks, 5.30pm at Maitland
The Kalyn Ponga five-eighth experiment will be the talking point of the NRL pre-season. The Queensland rep is a star, but he's still just 20 years old. The need to heap defensive pressure on him seems illogical, while Connor Watson can excel at fullback. The major concern for Nathan Brown is his depleted hooking ranks. A fourth ACL injury has Slade Griffin's future in doubt, while Danny Levi appears on the outer at the club. Brown is a huge fan of recruit Kurt Mann, but tasking him with an unfamiliar starting hooker role is an enormous challenge.
Saturday, February 23: v Sydney Roosters TBA at Panthers Stadium
Saturday, March 2: v Parramatta Eels, 7pm at Panthers Stadium,
Ivan Cleary has the difficult choice to bring back Dylan Edwards at fullback or persist with Kiwi Test No.1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. It's a nice headache to have, and one that reflects the depth of the current squad that boasts the likes of Tyrone May, Caleb Aikens and Jarome Luai. The promising Wade Egan is also nipping at the heels of Sione Katoa for the starting hooker role.
Saturday, March 2: St George Illawarra Dragons, Charity Shield, 7.30pm at Glen Willow Stadium, Mudgee
The Rabbitohs narrowly missed a grand final berth last year and have an almost identical squad, so they don't have too many headaches ahead of the season opener. Angus Crichton's departure leaves a hole in the back-row, which could force Sam Burgess on to an edge. Cameron Murray will likely start at lock, which would push Burgess into the second-row. Should new coach Wayne Bennett opt to keep big Sam in the middle, it'll be interesting to see who would be promoted into Crichton's role.
Friday, February 15: v Parramatta Eels, 5.30pm at St Marys Leagues Stadium
Saturday, February 23: v Canterbury Bulldogs, 5.30pm at Bega Recreation Ground
Canberra are one of the few teams to schedule two trials as Ricky Stuart looks to avoid a repeat of last year's awful start to the season. The main challenge for Stuart will be sorting out the exact line-up of middle forwards - Josh Papalii and Sia Soliola are assured starting berths but Luke Bateman, Dunamis Lui, Emre Guler, John Bateman, Royce Hunt and Corey Horsburgh will all duke it out for the other spots. The Raiders will also try and get Sam Williams and Aidan Sezer together in the halves as much as possible.
Sunday, February 18: v Wigan Warriors v Sydney Roosters, 6am AEDT, DW Stadium, Wigan
Saturday, February 23: v Penrith Panthers, TBA at Panthers Stadium
Saturday, March 2: v Manly Sea Eagles, 7pm at Central Coast Stadium
Fourteen of the 17 Roosters who played in 2018's premiership side are returning and 12 of the 13 starters are coming back so there's not a whole lot of change coming in Bondi. Brett Morris and Angus Crichton will have to get to know their new teammates but that's as drastic as things will get. The Tricolours are tremendously settled and will be fully focused on going back to back.
Saturday, February 23: v Cronulla Sharks, 7.30pm at Lottoland
Saturday, March 2: v Sydney Roosters, 7pm at Central Coast Stadium
The loss of Brian Kelly and the uncertain future of Dylan Walker has Manly lacking serious depth in the outside backs. Moses Suli has quality but can be sporadic in form, Brad Parker is reliable but lacks any X-factor, while Des Hasler will have plenty of concern if Jorge Taufua's injury curse continues to hamper him. Young gun Albert Hopoate could earn a spot on the wing, while Reuben Garrick, Brendan Elliot and Tevita Vuna will also vie for spots.
Saturday, February 23: v Manly Sea Eagles, 7.30pm at Lottoland
Saturday, March 2: v Newcastle Knights, 5.30pm at Maitland
First and foremost the Sharks have to figure out their coaching situation following Shane Flanagan's deregistration. On the field Cronulla's major concern will be around cohesion in the halves. Shaun Johnson is a superstar and is likely to combine well with Chad Townsend, while Matt Moylan possesses serious X-factor in his return to fullback. Despite the class, it takes time for new spines to forge quality combinations. If they gel early in the season the Sharks can be a title force, but it won't come easy for the men from the Shire.
Saturday, February 23: v New Zealand Warriors, 7.30pm at Kardinia Park, Geelong
Saturday, March 2: v North Queensland Cowboys, 7pm at Mackay
Once again, Melbourne will have to replace one of their superstars. Last season, they didn't replace Cooper Cronk, not really, they just kind of threw Brodie Croft, Ryley Jacks and Jahrome Hughes at the problem and hoped things would work out. They nearly won the premiership doing this, which is crazy. This time they need to find a new fullback with Billy Slater retiring but they have three standout candidates in Hughes, Scott Drinkwater and Cameron Munster. Interestingly, Munster is also one of the best five-eighths in the league but has expressed his desire to return to fullback.
Saturday, February 23: v North Queensland Cowboys, 5pm at Sunshine Coast Stadium
Saturday, March 2: v Brisbane Broncos, 6:30pm at Cbus Super Stadium
The Gold Coast squad is relatively settled, but they do have a few tough decisions to make. Unless Bryce Cartwright rediscovers his form of the past, Garth Brennan is short a quality back-rower. It could force him to shift captain Ryan James on to the edge, which looks the best balance for the team, despite the skipper being so influential in the middle of the park in recent years. Barring poor trial form, AJ Brimson looks to have sewn up the custodian role ahead of unlucky veteran Michael Gordon.
Saturday, February 23: v Melbourne Storm, 7.30pm at Kardinia Park, Geelong
Saturday, March 2: v Wests Tigers, 5pm (NZ time) at Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
The Shaun Johnson-Simon Mannering era is over, so who leads the Warriors halves into the future? Look no further than Parramatta to realise how difficult it can be to replace a champion No.7. The club have several options, with Adam Keighran, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Hayze Perham all vying to fill the role should the Warriors do so internally. The experience of playmaker Blake Green will be beneficial for the winning candidate, however the decision will likely have a significant impact on the success of Stephen Kearney's side in 2019.
Saturday, March 2: v New Zealand Warriors, 5pm (NZ time) at Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
The outcome of the Tigers' salary cap fiasco is yet to be confirmed but they may well be without Robbie Farah by the time this trial rolls around. If that is the case, look for Jacob Liddle or Josh Reynolds to slot in at hooker but regardless, Michael Maguire must do his best to sort his muddled spine. Reynolds, Farah, Liddle and Benji Marshall are all competing for spots and the exact composition of the club's playmakers will be vital.