The Best of Herald Sport 2012
AFL Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes at the SCG. Photo: Wolter Peeters
● Gains: Scott Prince (Titans), David Stagg (Bulldogs).
● Coach Anthony Griffin has added some experienced heads into his young side to fill the void left by the retirement of Petero Civoniceva. Former Broncos Scott Prince and David Stagg have rejoined the club. Peter Wallace is likely to shift to five-eighth so that Prince can assume the halfback duties. Stagg was prepared to retire after playing in the grand final for Canterbury but landed a deal with the Broncos in the post-season.
New start ... former Sea Eagle Tony Williams is reunited with Des Hasler at the Bulldogs. Photo: Brendan Esposito
● Gains: Joel Edwards (Knights), Jake Foster (Bulldogs)
● The Raiders have kept the bulk of the squad from last season but will be boosted by the return of skipper Terry Campese from a second knee reconstruction. The Raiders finished the season as one of the form sides in the competition and managed to progress through to the second week of the finals series. The last time they played finals football, they missed the play-offs the following year.
● Gains: Tony Williams (Sea Eagles), Drury Low (Raiders)
● Prize Bulldogs recruit Tony Williams described his 2012 season as a disappointment, but has vowed to return to his barnstorming best for his new club next year. After a devastating finish to the 2011 season, big things were expected from the Australian international this year, but unfortunately he never reached the heights many predicted. While he still managed to make his State of Origin debut, Williams admitted injuries and suspension cruelled him of the opportunity to have the sort of impact on matches he desired. ''I got that suspension early in the year and then I got injured so I was out for 12 or 13 weeks,'' Williams said. ''It's hard to build momentum. It was disappointing because it wasn't what I hoped the year would be, but I think big players bounce back and I'm looking for a big year next year.'' Williams is reunited with former Manly coach Des Hasler, but despite the change of scenery, the Bulldogs wrecking ball insists nothing has changed about the two-time premiership-winning coach. ''It's the same old Dessie, I don't think he'll ever change,'' Williams said. ''He's helped me a lot and it's amazing what he's done here in one year. He created a great team culture at Manly and I think he's brought that over here.''
● Gains: Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis (Panthers), Chris Heighington, Beau Ryan (Tigers), Jonathan Wright (Bulldogs)
● Michael Gordon has spent more time in rehabilitation than on the football field over the past two years, but he's done enough to earn first crack at fullback for the Sharks. A broken ankle in the opening match last season kept the 29-year-old off the field until round 21, but he never quite recovered from the injury that is still causing him some discomfort. ''It's been the worst injury I've ever tried to come back from,'' Gordon said. ''When I first started running, everything was hurting. I ended up finishing the last five or six games of last season but I was nowhere near 100 per cent. Even this pre-season, I'm still not 100 per cent but I'm pretty close to it. It's just a little niggly thing that should be right after the break.'' Gordon was overlooked by Panthers coach Ivan Cleary at fullback in favour of Lachlan Coote last season. Despite being recruited as a potential No.1 for Cronulla, Gordon insists he was never guaranteed the position. ''I came here with no expectation about where I'd play,'' he said. ''I wanted to earn my position.'' Todd Carney has been using a hyperbaric chamber to help him recover from an Achilles injury but is still in doubt for round one. Skipper Paul Gallen had an arthroscopy on his elbow this week and is expected to return to training on January 7.
GOLD COAST TITANS
● Gains: Marmin Barba (Eels), Albert Kelly (Knights), Dave Taylor (Rabbitohs)
● Titans coach John Cartwright has signed Marmin Barba and Albert Kelly in the hope of finding a halves partner for Aidan Sezer after Scott Prince's move to the Broncos. Cartwright hasn't decided on a new captain, but it could be handed to the off-contract Greg Bird as an incentive to keep him at the club.
MANLY SEA EAGLES
● Gains: Richie Fa'aoso (Storm), David Gower (Dragons), Justin Horo, Esi Tonga (Eels), Brenton Lawrence, Kayne Lawton (Titans)
● Despite losing Tony Williams and two of their best young forwards in Darcy Lussick and Daniel Harrison, Manly coach Geoff Toovey believes they've recruited well enough to replenish their depth up front. ''There's no dramas there, we've recruited well,'' he said. ''They're young and inexperienced but we've got some high hopes for those blokes moving forward. It's going to be interesting to see how they go but they're training the house down. It's added a lot of enthusiasm at training.''
● Gains: Brett Finch (Wigan), Junior Moors (Tigers), Junior Sa'u (Knights), Lagi Setu (missionary)
● The premiers have added some depth in the halves by signing veteran Brett Finch. Former Dragons and Broncos back-rower Lagi Setu returns from his Mormon missionary, while Junior Sa'u has been brought to the club to replace Dane Nielsen, who has joined the Warriors.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
● Gains: Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Todd Lowrie, Dane Nielsen (Storm), Dominique Peyroux (Titans), Harry Siejka (Panthers)
● The Warriors have recruited Thomas Leuluai and Harry Siejka to fill the void left by James Maloney's defection to the Roosters. New coach Matthew Elliott has the arduous task of turning one of the most inconsistent sides into competition heavyweights. They have the players to be competing for a top-four berth.
● Gains: David Fa'alogo (Huddersfield), Beau Scott (Dragons), Jeremy Smith (Sharks)
● Newcastle have no shortage of experience for next season, but that isn't going to keep Jeremy Smith from taking on a leadership role with the Knights. Kurt Gidley, Danny Buderus, Willie Mason, Timana Tahu and Neville Costigan have played 1001 NRL games between them, yet coach Wayne Bennett has opted to sign another 285 matches of knowledge bringing Smith and his former Dragons teammate Beau Scott to the club. ''They have got a lot of older blokes there but you can't buy experience,'' Smith said. ''But I'll be the same bloke I was at Cronulla. Wayne got me here for those reasons - the leadership qualities. Some people are meant to be leaders, others are not. I feel it's what I am.'' When Smith was squeezed out of St George Illawarra in 2010, he rejected offers from Newcastle and North Queensland to play for Cronulla so he didn't have to move his family from their Wollongong home. The 32-year-old admitted he thought he'd see out his career at the Sharks, but with Luke Lewis on the club's radar, Bennett leapt at the opportunity to reunite Smith with Darius Boyd, Costigan and Scott - premiership winners at the Dragons in 2010. While some have questioned whether he'll be able to see out the four years on his contract, Smith insists there's still plenty of fight left in him. ''The enjoyment of getting up and going to training and putting your body through the pain, knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel … as soon as I lose that enjoyment for the game, I know that it is time to hang up the boots,'' he said.
NORTH QLD COWBOYS
● Gains: Clint Greenshields (Catalans), Rory Kostjasyn (Storm)
● The biggest problem the Cowboys will face this year is dealing with the distraction of Johnathan Thurston's contract negotiations. They have a strong forward pack and a lethal backline, but Aaron Payne's retirement and James Segeyaro's move to Penrith has created a huge hole in the dummy-half stocks.
● Gains: Daniel Harrison, Darcy Lussick (Sea Eagles)
● Darcy Lussick admitted to feeling like ''just another number'' in the star-studded Manly pack but has declared he is willing to step up and lead from the front at his new club. The 23-year-old, who earlier this year was one of the most sought-after players in the competition, despite playing just seven NRL games, has vowed to repay the faith the Eels have shown him. ''At times I did feel like just another number, but at times I felt like I really did belong there,'' Lussick said. ''We have a good forward pack here at Parramatta too, but I know that I'm going to have to - and expected to - lead from the front. Ricky's been up me a couple of times at training, reminding me what he expects from me. When Ricky says things to you, you listen.'' In an honest assessment of his time at the Sea Eagles, he confessed to not giving his all at his former club. Lussick, who was this year tossed up as an Origin bolter by Stuart, said he struggled to apply the commitment he felt was required from a first grader. ''I didn't train as hard as I should have and I didn't apply myself - that's no one's fault but my own,'' he said. ''This off-season I'm leaving nothing in the tank and everyone's going to see a completely different player to what they saw last year. With Ricky here, he's going to get the best out of me.''
● Gains: Lewis Brown (Warriors), Tom Humble (Tigers), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Sika Manu (Storm), Mose Masoe (Roosters), Wes Naiqama, Kyle O'Donnell (Knights), James Segeyaro (Cowboys), Dean Whare (Sea Eagles), James Roberts (Rabbitohs)
● When Dean Whare tormented Penrith in his maiden appearance at fullback for Manly last season, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary found his new No.1. So impressive was Whare's brief stint at the back in the absence of Brett Stewart, he was signed by the Panthers as a potential long-term fullback. The 22-year-old St George junior has been training all off-season at fullback and will be given first crack at the position next year. Cleary will continue his end-of-year experiment playing Lachlan Coote at five-eighth. Whare had a three-year apprenticeship at Manly under Des Hasler and Geoff Toovey, and while he didn't play as many games as he would have if he was at any other club, the Kiwi international insists the wait for a regular NRL berth has been worth it. ''Even though I didn't play as many games as I wanted to, just being at Manly made me a better player,'' Whare said. ''Three years under Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai and Brett Stewart helped me more than it would've playing first grade. Seeing those positions at Manly had been taken … for the next few years, I saw a real opportunity to start here.'' Whare has spent most of his career playing in the centres or on the wing, however he believes he has what it takes to make a successful transition to fullback. ''When I was younger I was more of a five-eighth,'' he said. ''I got pushed to the centre because I had a little bit more size than everyone else. Moving to fullback, I feel that's my best position being able to run the ball back, and having those skills to set up tries and coming back off the line.'' The Panthers have recruited the most of any team in the NRL, with almost half of the squad made up of new faces.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
● Gains: Thomas Burgess (Bradford), Bryson Goodwin (Bulldogs), Jeff Lima (Wigan), Ben Te'o (Broncos)
● They've lost Dave Taylor but bolstered their forward stocks by signing Jeff Lima, Ben Te'o and the fourth of the Burgess clan, Thomas. An injury to halfback Adam Reynolds in the preliminary final against the Bulldogs ended their hopes of reaching the grand final in Michael Maguire's first season at the club, but they have a more rounded squad now and will be better for the experience.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA
● Gains: Gerard Beale (Broncos), Josh Drinkwater (Sea Eagles), Tyson Frizell (Sharks), Bronson Harrison (Raiders), Michael Henderson (Titans)
●Jamie Soward has taken Gerard Beale under his wing, with the pair working closely to help spruce up the Dragons attack for next year. The Kiwi international, whose fiancee Roimata Ransfield recently gave birth to their first child Nixon, has been brought to the club to solve their fullback dilemma. Coach Steve Price used Kyle Stanley, Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale in the No.1 jersey this season, but the Dragons still lacked that extra attacking dimension Darius Boyd provided. Beale is confident he can offer St George Illawarra the ball-playing skills to rejuvenate their attack. ''I'm pretty confident I can play that role,'' Beale said. ''This is the time for me to work on all those things. You look at Benny Barba, he's quick and good on his feet, but what he can do with the ball is just as important. Fullbacks these days have to be an extra half on the field. That puts extra responsibility on me, but I want that responsibility. That's what I thrive off.''
● Gains: James Maloney (Warriors), Michael Oldfield (Sea Eagles), Sonny Bill Williams (rugby)
● All eyes will be on Sonny Bill Williams, but fellow recruit James Maloney could be the key for a Roosters resurgence next year. New coach Trent Robinson is yet to appoint a captain but it is believed either Anthony Minichiello and Mitchell Pearce will get the job. Handing the captaincy to Pearce could ensure he remains a Rooster beyond the end of his contract, which expires after 2013.
● Gains: Braith Anasta (Roosters), Eddy Pettybourne (Rabbitohs), Bodene Thompson (Titans)
● A new coach and a vastly different playing roster. The Wests Tigers underwent a massive makeover in the off-season, but their biggest concern remains finding a compatible halves partner for Benji Marshall. Tim Sheens spent years trying to find the right combination, now that pressure falls on Mick Potter. Braith Anasta will start the year in the back row, leaving Curtis Sironen, Tim Moltzen and Jacob Miller in a battle for the No.7 jersey.