So, what can you expect this year and what should you be keeping an eye on as the season progresses?
The bunker was bad last year. It just was.
Technical justifications could be found for some decisions, even if they exhibited a startling lack of feel for the game, but others were just plain wrong and boggled the mind.
It also did not seem to noticeably cut down on the amount of time we spent trying to decipher which poorly rendered pixel of strapping tape belonged to which player.
The NRL has changed what the bunker can rule on — reducing it to scoring plays and reportable foul play — but that likely will not change much. There will always be room for mind-bogglingly stupid video-ref calls.
Ben Hunt and the Broncos
You have to feel sorry for Ben Hunt.
Before the 2015 grand final he was one of the best players in the game and came within a whisker of the Dally M. In 2017, he is unwanted by the best coach in the game, the whipping boy for any and all issues pertaining to Brisbane and bound for the Dragons.
Hunt’s impending departure and Brisbane’s lack of a consistent in-game kicking option are both very real problems.
They have other issues in the backline — James Roberts is still James Roberts and no-one knows why Benji Marshall is in Brisbane — and the loss of Corey Parker hurts the forward pack to no end. So, is it possible the Broncos could fall out the back end of the eight?
Will 2017 be the year of Down, Down Cronulla?
Look, no-one has gone back to back since Brisbane in ’97/’98 (or ’92/’93 depending on who you ask), so expecting any team to repeat is a bit much, but especially this team.
The Sharks really took their opportunity in 2016 and it’s a good thing too because it looks like they may have had a one-year premiership window.
How much petrol can Paul Gallen have left in his tank? Or Clive Churchill medallist Luke Lewis for that matter?
Ben Barba is gone, as is the thirst for The Shire’s first title and neither of those can be understated.
Will the Storm drop off?
It was ridiculous that in the year 2016 the Melbourne Storm reached the NRL grand final.
This team is supposed to be gone. They have a pretty high player rotation and the players that have been hanging around are getting old.
Now Billy Slater’s shoulders are questionable and he is halfway out the door (God-willing, he will be able to farewell rugby league on his terms, as a player of his calibre deserves).
The decline has to come eventually. Maybe it will wait until Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy trot off into the sunset, but we will see.
Hayne and the Titans
The Titans went from cocaine scandals in 2015 to comeback kids in 2016.
Ash Taylor grew up before our eyes, leading the team to the finals, then they welcomed football mercenary Jarryd Hayne.
The off-season brought with it the signing of ex-Melbourne Storm back rower Kevin Proctor and the under-rated Daniel Vidot.
If Taylor maintains his progression and Hayne regains some rugby league form over the off-season, the Titans could contend.
Where are the women?
The NRL is getting left behind in the promotion of women’s sport.
While cricket and AFL are going to great lengths to promote their female athletes, the NRL’s offering is still limited to occasional Jillaroos v Kiwi Ferns games being played effectively as curtain-raisers for men’s matches.
There are small steps being made — the women’s World Cup will run alongside the men’s in October and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg made all kinds of sense when he said it would be irresponsible to jump the gun on a women’s league — but all told, rugby league is probably a bit off the pace at the moment.
NB: Full marks to the Sharks for including female players in the ‘Team profiles’ section of their website, but they’re literally the only one of the 16 NRL clubs to do so at the moment.
Were Canberra and Penrith sparks or sustained fires?
Both of these teams played a great style of footy and had their semi-starved fans cheering from go to whoa.
They ultimately fell just short of the grand final, but if they can keep playing the way they did last year they should be able to put the fear of God into some of the heavy-hitters.
Just about every ridiculous pass and audacious chip hit the mark last year, but how sustainable is it? I guess we’ll find out.
If Matt Moylan keeps going the way he has been, Penrith should be fine, but the Raiders, after relying so heavily on the right-side combination of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana could experience inconsistency issues if they don’t find another avenue of attack.
How bad will the Knights be?
Oof. Reading this team’s roster is like reading The Road. What is happening in the Hunter?
It’s almost sad to see this franchise, which is in one of the few parts of the country where rugby league means about as much as anything (save for coal and horse racing), having crumbled to this husk of a team.
Trent Hodkinson is an above-average playmaker and Dane Gagai will do his best at the back, but it probably doesn’t bode well for a club when its big off-season moves are signing a solid Manly utility and a back-up Cowboys hooker.
Coach Nathan Brown’s job will be under the pump, but honestly sometimes polishing turds is tough and that goes double for …..
Warriors plus Kieran Foran is a recipe for … something?
Warriors seasons are famously impossible to predict. Add to that Kieran Foran recently returned from a brief sojourn with the Eels featuring injuries and a rehab stint and it becomes a coin toss, but you’re trying to land the coin on its edge and have it stay there.
A spine of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Foran and Issac Luke is stupidly good on paper, but RTS is coming back from a torn ACL and Luke was average last year.
Foran should be able to steady the ship, but it is equally likely the Kiwis could crash into a glacier.
Could Origin be better in 2017?
The Maroons were a bit of a spare-parts side last year, trotting out Nate Myles, Jacob Lillyman and chucking a debut Justin O’Neill’s way.
This season the Maroons should have Cameron Munster, Valentine Holmes, Dylan Napa and Anthony Milford to throw in the mix.
The Blues meanwhile, struck gold with James Tedesco, Matt Moylan and Tyson Frizell last year, while Jack Bird will most likely play a bigger role.
Basically, both teams are set to become more dynamic and that is a very good thing.