Players across the game will step into the 2018 Telstra Premiership season with a series of personal goals.
Some will have the spotlight on them more than ever before for various reasons, while others are out to simply improve after having a quiet year in 2017.
Rugby league loves a redemption story and for these 16 players, it’s shaping up to be a make or break year.
Matthew Lodge (Brisbane Broncos)
The much-publicised wild past of former Wests Tigers prop Matt Lodge is set to put the 22-year-old under immediate pressure as he looks to return to the top grade with his new club.
With the Broncos losing an abundance of depth in the forwards and a host of experience over the off-season, the club is banking on the next generation to pull through.
Lodge, who has joined the Broncos on a one-year deal, is coming off a strong season with the Redcliffe Dolphins in the Intrust Super Cup and has been earmarked as one of the game’s emerging front-rowers.
“He’s a big body and I think everyone forgets that he has played NRL, probably a few years ago now, but he is very athletic,” Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough said.
“He was out there running very well in the intermittent fitness tests and running with the backs, so he is certainly fit enough and putting his best foot forward.
“That is all you can want from him. He certainly competes and has been doing that since he’s been here.”
Joey Leilua (Canberra Raiders)
Leilua endured a second-year syndrome type season in 2017 after a barnstorming year alongside Jordan Rapana. A damaging runner with the ball, the 26-year-old averaged 105 metres last season, well below his 129-metre average the previous year.
While he continued to be a handful for defensive lines, his offloading ability – arguably his best weapon – was cut by more than half (71 to 32) last season. Defensively his numbers dropped too, with a 79.5 per cent tackle efficiency rate – down from 88.4 in 2016. He missed 44 tackles for the season despite making almost 50 fewer attempts than the preceding campaign.
The edge pairing of Leilua and Rapana needs to get back into form – in all aspects of the game – for the Raiders to get back into finals calculations.
Kieran Foran (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
Four clubs in four years is enough for any player to go missing on the paddock, let alone one of the game’s once elite players. Foran managed 17 appearances for the Warriors last season and while he did string a few games together the 27-year-old was hardly at his best.
He now faces the prospect of lining up alongside an inexperienced halfback but the former Kiwi international should enjoy the opportunity of playing behind a formidable Bulldogs pack and relish the free-flowing style incoming coach Dean Pay is set to instil.
Matt Moylan (Cronulla Sharks)
A change of clubs is set to do the former Panthers skipper a world of good after a challenging 2017 at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
Moylan missed the final month of the NRL season with personal issues and Penrith did enough with Nathan Cleary and rookies Tyrone May and Dylan Edwards to suggest the club could thrive without the talented junior in the future.
Moylan will link with an experienced Sharks line-up and in a different environment should relish the chance to get back to the peak of his game and potentially back into the representative arena.
Bryce Cartwright (Gold Coast Titans)
Once on the cusp of State of Origin selection and viewed as a potential future club captain, the past 12 months have been nothing short of hell with injuries and off-field issues plaguing Cartwright to the point where he’s now opted for a sea change with a late switch from the Penrith Panthers to the Titans.
Former Panthers teammate Nathan Cleary said it was just a positive to see Cartwright back on the paddock last year altogether.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Bryce for what he went through,” Cleary recently told the NRL podcast.
“The stuff that happened to him last year would break other people. He’s obviously mentally strong and has really settled down. He’s a freak of a footballer when he’s on.”
Gold Coast coach Garth Brennan has been a long-time mentor of Cartwright’s during their time at Penrith and maintains he can get the best out in him with the move. Titans fans will be holding Brennan to the statement as the club looks to improve on last season’s efforts.
Jorge Taufua (Manly Sea Eagles)
A player who has had his fair share of injuries will return for a seventh season on the Northern Beaches, looking to improve on an impressive 70 tries from 112 appearances.
The right edge of Dylan Walker and Akuila Uate fired last season but the left side is where the Sea Eagles can up their attacking ante on the back of Taufua’s return.
Sam Kasiano (Melbourne Storm)
The weight-loss stories have been in overdrive for Kasiano but unlike in the past, you know this time around it will be serious for the former Bulldogs front-rower. Once the Dally M prop of the year in 2012, the 27-year-old’s career has stalled despite missing just six games in the past three seasons.
There is no doubting Kasiano has the talent and playing under coach Craig Bellamy at Melbourne could just be the change of scenery he needs to get back to the top of his game.
“Sam has really made an effort this pre-season,” Storm assistant coach Adam O’Brien told NRL.com.
“He’s at a stage where he understands what he wants. We don’t have this magical fairy dust everyone thinks we do. Players need to buy into what the coaching staff tells them. Some players have come to the club and not done that. We are looking forward to seeing how he goes with a fresh start.”
Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Newcastle Knights)
It was a whirlwind 2017 season for Kenny-Dowall, who parted ways with the Roosters in June after more than a decade with the Bondi outfit. The 28-year-old was the first of four Tricolours stars to move to the Hunter in the end and the change already seems to have brought the best out in him.
A big year at the Knights could cap off a significant turnaround for the former Kiwi international, who in his prime was one of the best outside backs in the game.
Matt Scott (North Queensland Cowboys)
He was close to a return for the 2017 decider but now Scott gets the chance to finish the final two seasons at the Cowboys on his own terms.
Restricted to two games in 2017 – his worst season in a decade – the Australian prop’s return is another bonus for a side which defied everyone to make last season’s Telstra Premiership decider.
The comeback of Scott and co-captain Johnathan Thurston sends an ominous warning to rivals, not to mention the addition of Australian prop Jordan McLean in the off-season.
“I’ve missed a whole year of footy so am well behind the eight ball,” Scott told NRL.com.
“I’m under no false illusions I’ve got a whole lot of work to do.”
Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta Eels)
He’s created all the headlines over the off-season with his swift departure from the Gold Coast Titans following the World Cup but it’s simply now or never for Jarryd Hayne.
Parramatta have taken their prodigal son back on reportedly half the price, but can they get enough out of him for the whole season?
After performances as a Titan described by many as mediocre on the paddock, all eyes will be on if the old Hayne Plane can make a smooth landing.
“If we can get him firing he will be special for our team,” Eels five-eighth Mitchell Moses told NRL.com.
“He’s been training well the last week and a bit, despite a few distractions and I know he’s looking forward to the year.”
Sam McKendry (Penrith Panthers)
Veteran forward Sam McKendry looks to make a return from back-to-back ACL injuries in what was arguably one of the more heartbreaking stories of the 2017 season.
Once a Test prop for the Kiwis and in the prime of his career, the 28-year-old partially re-tore the tendon in the club’s trial game last season to be further sidelined for another 12 months.
With former Panthers prop Leilani Latu departing for the Titans, the club will be hoping McKendry, also their longest-serving forward, can make a successful return to the game and prolong his career at the foot of the mountains.
Greg Inglis (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
Inglis is in a similar boat to many who are returning from long injury lay-offs, but the 31-year-old’s comeback journey may just be the most significant.
The loss of their main man in the opening round of the 2017 season was a huge blow for the Bunnies, and as a team they never recovered following the loss of their skipper.
With the additions of Dane Gagai and new coach Anthony Seibold, the stage is set for Inglis to make a much-anticipated comeback and help guide the Rabbitohs back into finals contention.
Mitchell Allgood (St George Illawarra Dragons)
It has been a low-key return to the NRL for the former Parramatta Eels prop after three seasons in the English Super League. Allgood will be keen to cement an NRL berth in the competitive Dragons pack in his second stint in the NRL while also hoping for more team success after winning only 27 per cent of the 70 games he played in blue and gold.
Reece Robinson (Sydney Roosters)
The journeyman utility back has made a quiet return to the NRL after a stint in rugby union with the NSW Warratahs.
With the departures of Connor Watson and Michael Gordon over the off-season, the outside back depth is perhaps all that could stop the Roosters from finishing in the deep end of the competition if injuries strike.
Robinson scored 57 tries in 116 games during his first stint in the NRL with Canberra and Parramatta, proving he is more than capable of re-adjusting to the 13-man code.
Issac Luke (Warriors)
He only missed one game in 2017 but the former South Sydney hooker was not at his best statistically – slumping to win 30% of matches and down on impact compared to previous seasons.
Luke was understandably dropped from the Kiwis’ World Cup squad after a representative career spanning a decade. With a cool head in Blake Green coming on board to replace Kieran Foran in the halves, it shapes as a make-or-break season for Luke with the 30-year-old off contract at season’s end.
Robbie Rochow (Wests Tigers)
A forgotten man who the Knights were desperate to retain 18 months ago, Rochow joins the Wests Tigers facing a career-defining season.
The 27-year-old forward has battled injuries in recent years with only 22 appearances after making a name for himself in the Hunter, and faces an uphill battle with Ivan Cleary’s side unearthing a wealth of youth in the pack in 2017.
The advantage for the Maitland junior is there are nine other recruits joining him at the joint venture, offering a fresh change and environment to get back to his best.