The pre-season trials are about to begin, giving plenty of players the chance to stake their claims and impress their coaches – but what position at each club is the most hotly contested and who will gain the jump on their teammates heading into round one?
The Sporting News analyses the state of play across all 17 NRL sides, deciding where the most interesting selection choice is for each club.
Brisbane Broncos – Five-eighth
When the Broncos brought Reece Walsh back home to Red Hill it seemed certain the Queenslander was going to start at fullback.
However, talk quickly turned to whether he would be better suited to five-eighth with Selwyn Cobbo and Herbie Farnworth reportedly wanting to try their luck at the back.
Thankfully, those rumours have died down but there still remains some doubt around who will partner Adam Reynolds in the halves.
Young gun Ezra Mam is the favourite to get first crack at it, but he was dropped towards the end of last year after struggling in defence. He faces competition from new recruit Jock Madden, with the former Tigers playmaker declaring how he was not just there to make up numbers.
Mam will have to prove himself on a more consistent basis in 2023, or potentially endure another spell on the sidelines.
MORE: NRL 2023 – The Sporting News’ 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season
Canberra Raiders – Centre
In the nation’s capital a battle seems to be brewing over whether the young bull, Matt Timoko, will be able to fight off the challenge of Jarrod Croker for a place in the backline.
After being eased into first grade since making his debut for the Raiders in 2020, Timoko established himself as a starter last year appearing in all 26 matches for the club. He scored nine tries and provided five assists in a side which vastly improved as the year wore on.
His high work rate along with tackle-busting ability made him a vital component of Canberra’s backline and he was rewarded with a new deal to tie him to the club until the end of 2025.
Meanwhile, after playing 20 matches or more in all but one of his first 12 seasons, Croker has been constantly hampered by injury at the backend of his career, playing just 13 games during the past two years.
The NRL’s third highest point scorer ever has seemingly lost his durability and may fall short in his quest of reaching the 300-game milestone for the Green Machine with the recently re-signed Harley Smith-Shields also back in the picture after injury.
Canterbury Bulldogs – Halfback
After years spent in the doldrums, Canterbury finally appears ready to climb back up the ladder.
Cameron Ciraldo, the most sought-after coach of the past few seasons, has taken over and the club has recruited well in recent seasons.
It’s clear the Bulldogs are building around Matt Burton after handing him a new five-year contract but exactly who will partner the five-eighth in the halves is a little less clear.
Kyle Flanagan got the nod in 2022 although he didn’t exactly set the world alight and may be replaced in the No.7 jersey.
New signing Karl Oloapu and returning cult hero Josh Reynolds will no doubt be vying for the opportunity to help guide Canterbury’s imposing pack around the field.
MORE: Could Karl Oloapu’s arrival spell disaster for Kyle Flanagan at the Canterbury Bulldogs?
Cronulla Sharks – Second-row
Craig Fitzgibbon enjoyed a remarkable first year in charge at the Sharks where his attacking brand of footy was rewarded with a second-place finish on the ladder.
Unfortunately, they crashed out of the finals in straight sets, so it’s back to the drawing board just like every other club besides Penrith.
Nicho Hynes took full control of the side on his march to the Dally M Medal and will be expected to do so again while being supported by Matt Moylan and Will Kennedy in the spine.
The Sharks have some of the most exciting and prolific backline talent in the game in Ronaldo Mulitalo, Sione Katoa and Siosifa Talakai and plenty of grunt up the middle.
However, in the backrow, Fitzgibbon faces a dilemma.
Club legend Wade Graham is in the twilight of his career and may struggle to warrant a starting spot with Teig Wilton impressing on the edge when he played there last season.
In fact, Wilton’s ability to run decoy lines contributed to Talakai’s success in the centres which significantly tapered off once Graham returned to the fold.
MORE: Wade Graham eyes possible Super League switch as his Cronulla swansong draws near
Dolphins – Centre
Wayne Bennett has packed his forward rotation with experienced campaigners who he can essentially leave to manage themselves.
Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi and Mark Nicholls will lead from the front and provide the Dolphins with a solid platform in which to work off.
However, things aren’t so simple in the backline with a number of players reuniting with the coach for the club’s inaugural season along with a few promising young guns.
Euan Aitken looks likely to revert to the backline after spending the past few years in the second row for the Warriors, while Oliver Gildart and Brenko Lee will also be pressing for starts.
Then, there is the x-factor that Valynce Te Whare offers after starring in the Queensland Cup last year. The rugby convert has garnered plenty of attention due to his barnstorming carries.
Gold Coast Titans – Fullback
Justin Holbrook’s men flattered to deceive in 2022, going on a horrendous run during the middle of the season that had the head coach under plenty of pressure.
In AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell, they have two young stars in which to build their team around, however they are both often struck down with injury and prefer to play in the same position at fullback.
The arrival of Kieran Foran and Sam Verrills provides some much-needed experience in the Titans’ spine, but there appears to be confusion around the rest.
Holbrook stated how he viewed Campbell as a possible utility to bring off the bench for an added spark, while there is also talk of Tanah Boyd winning the race for the halfback slot.
It may all be smoke and mirrors from the Titans heading into the new season, but it does feel as though key areas of their side have yet to be figured out.
Manly Sea Eagles – Five-eighth
After Manly decided to let Foran go to the Gold Coast, plenty of expectation has been heaped on Josh Schuster’s shoulders to pick up the slack.
Anthony Seibold has gone on record saying he will be handed the first opportunity to stake his claims for the No.6 jersey.
Yet the 21-year-old is coming off his most disappointing season so far in his young career. He scored one try, made a solitary linebreak, offloaded just twice and made an average of 44 metres per game.
After announcing himself on the scene in 2021, Schuster regressed massively as he was reduced to 13 appearances with most of those coming off the bench.
Cooper Johns has also been signed and acts as a genuine alternative should the new coach decide that Schuster isn’t cutting it alongside Daly Cherry-Evans.
Melbourne Storm – Second-row
Craig Bellamy faces a new challenge in 2023 after having his experienced forward pack dismantled.
His former captain, Jesse Bromwich, moved to the Dolphins while Brandon Smith hitched his wagon to Trent Robinson in Bondi.
Yet the most damaging impact will be on his backrow stocks after Bennett also signed Kaufusi and the younger Bromwich brother.
Without two of his most trusty lieutenants, Bellamy has now been left with integral spots to fill in his starting line-up which he hasn’t had to address for years.
Eliesa Katoa is likely to become yet another Storm success story after making the move across the ditch. At the other end of the scale, Tariq Sims provides valuable experience.
Meanwhile, the prospect of unleashing Nelson Asofa-Solomona permanently on an edge looms large after the enforcer spent some time there causing chaos last season.
MORE: The Dolphins don’t want to be ‘another franchise team’ as Bennett prepares an ambush
Newcastle Knights – Fullback
“Strengthening that fullback spot remains a priority for us,” Adam O’Brien said after revealing Kalyn Ponga’s switch to five-eighth.
Their captain has had a dreadful run with injury of late and suffered five separate concussions last season as his campaign was brutally cut short.
The Knights used this enforced absence to prime their talisman for a switch into the halves where he can, theoretically at least, conserve his energy while not being forced to make as many one-on-one tackles.
However, his positional change caused a ripple effect of leaving the side short at fullback.
O’Brien tossed up the names of Bailey Hodgson, Dane Gagai and Tyson Gamble as possible candidates until they swooped for Lachlan Miller from Cronulla.
The rookie is the favourite to start at the back but having had just over a month to gel with his new teammates, it may be clunky early in the Hunter.
New Zealand Warriors – Almost every position
While the incoming Canterbury coach has a few personnel choices to make at the Bulldogs, his fellow former Penrith assistant, Andrew Webster, has more on his plate in New Zealand.
A revolving door of arrivals and departures – 10 either way – has capped a difficult time for the Warriors who will be hoping a bit of solid ground can spark a reversal of their fortunes.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will likely slot into fullback, but Te Maire Martin could also do a job there. Although, he is favoured to join Shaun Johnson in the halves which will leave Luke Metcalf out in the cold.
Mitch Barnett and Marata Niukore’s roles in the side have been vaguely defined while Dylan Walker looks set for the utility spot on the bench.
Tohu Harris should start at lock but that is also Josh Curran’s preferred position, so one will have to play elsewhere.
Basically, there is more uncertainty around the make-up of New Zealand’s side than any other team in the NRL heading into the new season.
MORE: ‘Good to be home’ – Te Maire Martin reflects on his incredible comeback from injury
North Queensland Cowboys – Second-row
Todd Payten has the luxury of having a settled line-up in 2023 after the Cowboys surprised pretty much everybody to get to within one game of making the grand final last year.
Although Tom Gilbert, who was a vital component of their improvement from cellar-dwellers to genuine premiership contenders, has departed for the Dolphins and left behind a vacant spot in the backrow.
Heilum Luki is highly regarded and only lost out on the club’s incredible rise due to suffering a serious knee injury halfway through the season.
With Luciano Leilua ruled out indefinitely and Luki still returning to full fitness, an opportunity may be there for a young North Queensland player to make the spot their own early in the year.
Parramatta Eels – Second-row
The departure of Isaiah Papali’i from the right edge he had made entirely his own has left a chasm for Brad Arthur to fill.
Rather than try and find a player who can replicate the enormous work-rate and metre-eating ability of the Kiwi forward, it looks as if the Eels have tried to cater for his loss through a range of backrowers with J’maine Hopgood and Jack Murchie coming into the club.
Hopgood had an incredible campaign in reserve grade last year at the Panthers and could be the man to get the nod to start the season, or Ryan Matterson could be moved back to an edge once he returns from suspension.
Penrith Panthers – Second-row
Replacing barnstorming forward Viliame Kikau is a tall order after the Fijian became a vital attacking weapon for the back-to-back premiers before departing to the Dogs.
The Panthers’ left-edge has been deadly for some time now, regardless of who has played in the centres and on the wing- be it Matt Burton and Brian To’o or Izack Tago and Taylan May.
However, the one constant in that three-man combination has been Kikau, until now.
Luke Garner has been signed from the Wests Tigers along with Zac Hosking from Brisbane, while the ever-reliable Scott Sorensen is also in the mix. That trio will likely be vying for the coveted spot on the left-edge.
MORE: Penrith’s talent drain is concerning but Liam Martin’s re-signing proves they’re on the right track
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Wing
Alex Johnston has a mortgage on the left-wing spot and has done for years now, but over on the right things are a lot less certain.
The departures of Josh Mansour and Jaxson Paulo has reduced the depth Jason Demetriou has to call upon, but three candidates remain who will likely be fighting it out for the role.
Having not played any footy for a five-year period, Izaac Thompson may be in line to make the position his own, while he faces competition from Taane Milne, who featured plenty for the Bunnies last season despite his poor disciplin, as well as journeyman Richie Kennar and rookie outside back Josiah Karapani.
St George Illawarra Dragons – Hooker
Anthony Griffin catered for the retirement of Andrew McCullough with the addition of Jacob Liddle for 2023.
Yet doubts remain around the No.9’s ability to get through the weekly grind of NRL action. Since making his debut in 2016, Liddle has made more than 10 appearances in a season three times while reaching the 20-game mark just once.
He has scored 12 tries throughout his career while he has also recorded four assists which all came during his 2021 campaign. It’s clear that if the Dragons need creativity out of the ruck, Liddle won’t be the man to provide it.
It stands to reason that opportunities will be presented to young hopefuls at some point to possibly force their way into the side with Jayden Sullivan and Haele Finau the next cabs off the rank.
Sydney Roosters – Wing
Joseph Suaalii is expected to make the move into the centres after excelling on the wing and enjoying a stellar World Cup for Samoa.
The teenager’s shift will open up a spot on the wing though with Paul Momirovski, Corey Allan and Billy Smith the most likely candidates to fill that role after the departure of Kevin Naiqama back to the Super League.
The Roosters are settled pretty much everywhere else across the park and look set for a big year after a somewhat disappointing campaign last season.
Wests Tigers – Prop
The Tigers were dreadful at working the ball out of yardage last season and as a result of this inability to navigate out of their own half, they were constantly penned in as teams racked up scores against them time and time again.
New coach Tim Sheens has sought to address this problem with four shiny new signings in the forwards. Api Koroisau, John Bateman and Papali’i may be getting all of the attention, but it is David Klemmer who will be vitally important to the club’s fortunes this season and well into the future.
The former New South Wales and Australia representative provides some much-needed grunt up-front but will also serve as a leader in their pack to help bring through some emerging talent.
Stefano Utoikamanu and Fonua Pole will be battling for a place alongside Klemmer at prop with Alex Twal also likely to be in the mix following his return from a serious head injury.