IT'S been a breathless first nine rounds of the NRL season. Stars have shone, flops have emerged and the ladder is taking shape.
We rate your club's season so far and rub the crystal ball to see what's in store for the remainder of the year in our representative break report card.
Ladder position: 1st
The story so far: Even Craig Bellamy admitted the Billy Slater comeback could have gone either way. After the best part of two years out Bellamy wondered if the game might have passed the champion fullback by, which potentially could have proved awkward for team selection and game planning. The opposite has been true. Slater hasn't lost any pace or power and his timing and positioning have gradually returned. His comeback has been like a metaphor for the whole Storm machine which has powered to the top of the ladder, ignoring Father Time.
The star: Cameron Smith. Like his mate in the No.1 jersey, Smith has confounded the expectation that he would start to slow with age and has been arguably the best player in the competition over the first nine rounds.
The surprise packet: Felise Kaufusi. Charged with filling the yawning gap left on an edge by Kiwis star Kevin Proctor, this 24-year-old back-rower has done the job without fuss. Already he's grabbed the attention of Queensland coach Kevin Walters who has spoken about him as a possible inclusion this year. He leads the Storm for one-on-one tackles and has scored three tries.
Needs a lift: Cooper Cronk. Really tough on the halfback but look across the Storm side and there's not too many who aren't playing out of their skins. Cronk won the Dally M Medal last year and simply hasn't got back to that standard so far this season. If he starts playing his absolute best the Storm will be nearly unstoppable for the title.
The stat: Four points clear after nine rounds, a feat only one other team has achieved in the NRL era - Melbourne in their 2012 premiership season.
Crystal ball: The Storm will be tested over the representative period and in the run home but with all their experience, no team is better equipped to deal with it. Pencil them in for a top-two finish.
- by Ben Glover
Ladder position: 2nd
The story so far: After losing their first-choice half to an ACL injury, Paul McGregor rolled the dice on a teenage rookie. Jai Field looks every bit the future playmaker but when an injury opened the door for Josh McCrone, the Dragons found the missing ingredient. With Josh Dugan and Gareth Widdop living up to the hype, Paul Vaughan and Tim Lafai rediscovering form and Jack de Belin and Joel Thompson having career seasons, the Red V have been on a roll. With a hardened defensive edge and attacking flair, McGregor has taken a struggling team and transformed them into premiership contenders in a matter of months.
The star: Gareth Widdop. The skipper lifted in an off-contract year. Without having to juggle duties with Benji Marshall in the halves, the English star is back to his best. He's competing on every play, kicking for the corners and exploiting his brilliant running game. While an injury has put him on the sidelines, the fans have plenty to cheer about when the No.6 is on the paddock.
The surprise packet: Take your pick. Cameron McInnes, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan have all surprised this season. McInnes went from a NSW Cup hooker at South Sydney to an explosive weapon. McInnes has now put himself in the conversation for an Origin start.
Needs a lift: Josh McCrone. While the No.7 has done a classy job alongside Widdop early in the year, with his halves partner injured he needs to step up. Off-contract this season, the 30-year-old has taken his chance in the top grade with both hands but now he needs to prove he's more than just a handy back-up.
The stat: Breathing fire in attack. The Dragons have already scored 39 tries in 2017 (equal most with Manly) and have the best completion rate of any team. Last year they scored just 58 tries in the entire season. Also sitting equal first in linebreaks made, and second in run metres.
Crystal ball: The Origin period will be interesting for the club with several of their stars set to feature for the Blues. If they can manage to push through with a handful of wins, a top four finish is a realistic goal.
- by Nathan Ryan
Ladder position: 3rd
The story so far: They may sit third on the NRL ladder but Cronulla's season can best be described as hot and cold. The reigning premiers have scored convincing wins over top-eight contenders Canberra, Melbourne and Parramatta, but they've lost to the Dragons, Broncos and Titans, and only scraped home by a field goal against Newcastle. It's safe to say they've been less than convincing over the opening nine rounds of the season as they defend their 2016 title.
The star: Valentine Holmes. He's running third in the competition for metres gained per game (171) and his form has kept his spot in Mal Meninga's Kangaroos side. The switch to fullback is reaping rewards.
The surprise packet: Jayden Brailey. We knew this kid was going to be good, but not many people would have thought he would be this good, this quickly. The 21-year-old rookie has stepped into the boots of premiership veteran Michael Ennis and performed the role admirably. Once he starts playing 80 minutes, he'll be an absolute weapon.
Needs a lift: Andrew Fifita. The barnstorming prop is well down in running metres per game, tackle busts, and offloads compared to his past two seasons. He's also conceding more penalties.
The stat: Discipline lacking. The Sharks have the worst completion rate of any team in 2017, and have conceded the most penalties. Even with these invitations to their opponents they have managed to concede the fewest tries and the second fewest linebreaks and metres.
Crystal ball: Cronulla will play finals but on current form will more than likely drop out of the top four, and will fall short of another grand final.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 4th
The story so far: Wayne Bennett was accused of losing his aura. If he lost, it didn't go far ... down the crack of the lounge perhaps? Or just maybe it never went at all. The Broncos have been firing this season. Even with talk if Bennett losing the playing group and the news Ben Hunt will leave at the end of the season for the Dragons. While some of their players like Anthony Milford had a slow start to the year, they've found form and look every bit the premiership contender.
The star: Andrew McCullough. The hooker has taken his game to the next level this season. Having developed some handy kicking options into his game, the 27-year-old averages 110 kick metres per game. Defensively, there aren't many better. McCullough leads the competition in average tackles per game (51.4).
The surprise packet: Korbin Sims. He left Newcastle in search of security, a fresh start and finals footy. He's got all three. He's also become a starter and pushing for an Origin berth. The 25-year-old's time at the Knights was far from memorable but he's quickly making up for lost time with some big efforts up the middle. He's crossed the stripe three times this season and averaging 77 metres from an average of 37 minutes per game.
Needs a lift: Anthony Milford. The playmaker has long been touted as being the game's next superstar. Having a wealth of potential to draw on, the No.6 has had a slow start to the year and struggle for consistency.
The stat: Safety first. The Broncos have the fewest number of incomplete sets of any team in their own half, averaging just 1.8 per game. It's no surprise then they make more run metres than any other team.
Crystal ball: The path they're on is the one they'll continue to walk. They're in the top four and there's no reason they can't finish there and challenge for the title.
- by Nathan Ryan
Ladder position: 5th
The story so far: The Roosters won their opening four games, but just two of the next five. Narrow losses to the Sea Eagles and Warriors could come back to bite them when the top four is being decided. Still, they've looked like the best team in the competition at stages over the first nine rounds.
The star: Mitchell Pearce. The classy halfback was the club's best player during their early winning run, and it's prompted calls for Laurie Daley to recall him to the NSW side. He holds the key to the Roosters' premiership hopes.
The surprise packet: Luke Keary. His form at South Sydney last year was way down and he was even relegated to the bench at times. But it took barely two games for commentators to start labelling him the buy of the year. His combination with Pearce in the halves has been electric.
Needs a lift: Latrell Mitchell. He's one of the game's best young players but Trent Robinson has opted to leave him out of the side for the past three weeks. His form was down prior to being dropped but whether there's other factors at play is unclear to the public.
The stat: Defence on the improve. The Roosters have conceded the third fewest points and tries so far in 2017, and have conceded over 18 points just twice, a big improvement on last year, when they conceded over 18 points in 17 of their 24 matches.
Crystal ball: The Roosters will finish top four and have two bites of the cherry come finals. Don't be surprised if they make it all the way to the big dance.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 6th
The story so far: Trent Barrett was starting to look long odds to see out the season after a rocky first fortnight but Manly have turned things around and now look genuine finals contenders. Their round nine dismantling of the Rabbitohs showed that they've got the attacking arsenal to match it with the best of them, particularly now that Daly Cherry-Evans' combination with Blake Green is firing. The concern that won't go away is their depth, particularly in the forwards - and the proof was in round two, also a clash against Souths, when the Sea Eagles got towelled up without Marty Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake.
The star: Tom Trbojevic. The young fullback is the competition leader for linebreaks, is fourth in run metres and is sixth in linebreak assists. Every time he gets the ball he's dangerous and Manly's attack is feeding off him.
The surprise packet: Brian Kelly. This kid can seriously play. After carving up the under-20s for the Titans, Manly invested in him with a two-year deal and Trent Barrett threw him straight into the deep end with a start in round one. He hasn't looked back. It's not easy filling the shoes of a club legend like Steve Matai but he's started nicely with five tries from his first nine games.
Needs a lift: Nate Myles. For the Sea Eagles to hold onto a top eight spot they're going to need all of their senior players to have good seasons. Myles should be leading the forward pack and while he's still earning that mantle off the field, he has been 'rested' and benched for the contests on it, which is not what you'd expect from a current Origin player.
The stat: Road Warriors. Have scored the equal most tries and made the fewest errors in 2017 and are yet to lose on the road this season.
Crystal ball: Manly are a top eight chance but they're destined to be on the edge - either just in or just out. Their fate will likely be decided by their ability to keep their best side on the field.
- by Ben Glover
Ladder position: 7th
The story so far: Rolling the dice on a halves combination of Clint Gutherson and Corey Norman hasn't let Brad Arthur down. With Bevan French slotting into fullback and Kaysa Pritchard playing above his weight, Arthur's spine are firing. Even with an injury to French, the team has managed to shuffle the backline into a winning combination. Norman is in fine form and looking every bit the match winner, while the forwards are doing a stellar job. Suaia Matagi has been a handy addition to team, while Tepai Moeroa has lifted his game from last season.
The star: Corey Norman. Who else but the playmaker?
The surprise packet: Nathan Brown. Unheralded at South Sydney a year ago, Brown is averaging 118 metres per game from 62 minutes, and has produced an impressive 17 offloads for his new club.
Needs a lift: Kenny Edwards. He missed the start of the year due to off-field issues and returned two weeks ago only to be sin binned for a slap. Edwards is a popular figure among the group and a very handy player but he owes it to his teammate and coach to put his head down and bum up after missing so much footy.
The stat: Stormin' Norman. Corey Norman has been involved in 15 of the Eels' 30 tries. He has also taken more than half of the Eels' general play kicks and has forced 11 of their 16 drop-outs.
Crystal ball: With the mid-season gain of Mitchell Moses still a genuine chance, the only way is up for the Eels. This is a team that works hard for each other.
- by Nathan Ryan
Ladder position: 8th
The story so far: A dismal opening four rounds had the knives out for Bulldogs coach Des Hasler. But the team has somewhat turned its form around and Hasler's job has been assured. Wins over the Broncos and Canberra have proved Canterbury has the manpower to win big games, now it's just a matter of doing it consistently.
The star: David Klemmer. In charge of a big Bulldogs pack, the firebrand has averaged 160 running metres per game - 11th overall in the competition. Hasler knows what he'll get from the big prop.
The surprise packet: Matt Frawley. He's been a revelation since making his NRL debut earlier in the season, and is pushing a strong claim for a starting role in the halves going forward.
Needs a lift: Michael Lichaa. The hooker is seriously under the gun and could be pushed out of the club due to salary cap pressure. His form has been well down and the introduction of Frawley means Moses Mbye could be permanently moved to No.9 if Lichaa doesn't lift.
The stat: Can't get out of the blocks: They have scored just 46 first half points, almost 20 less than Newcastle (64 points). On a positive note they have conceded the fewest linebreaks and missed the fewest tackles.
Crystal ball: Hasler will eventually bite the bullet and move Frawley to halfback and Mbye to hooker, pushing Lichaa out of the side. This switch-up could just be the key to a finals appearance.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 9th
The story so far: Their wins have been far from convincing and some of their losses have been worrying. There's no doubting this North Queensland side looks nothing like the all-conquering Cowboys of 2015, or anywhere near the form they showed last year. They're certainly not a competition powerhouse in 2017 from what they've shown so far.
The star: Kalyn Ponga. The talented teenager is leaving Townsville for Newcastle next year, but the Cowboys are certainly getting their money's worth while he's still at the club. Even when Lachlan Coote returns from injury, Ponga has surely done enough to earn a permanent spot in the team.
The surprise packet: Coen Hess. Another young gun who's been stepping up to the plate every week. A try-scoring backrower who is already being mentioned in Origin discussions.
Needs a lift: Johnathan Thurston. Even before he picked up a calf injury a few weeks ago, the champion halfback was nowhere near hitting the lofty standards he's set for himself.
The stat: 1300 Frowns. The Cowboys are yet to win consecutive matches at 1300 SMILES Stadium this season. Their two 20-point losses are already their equal most at home in a season since 2003.
Crystal ball: The Cowboys will improve enough to play finals, without a doubt. But it could be a short September campaign for Thurston and his men.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 10th
The story so far: Canberra have become the enigma of the competition, with their best performances making them look every inch a premiership contender, only those don't come around often enough. Take out their round-two pummeling at the hands of the Sharks and their clear problem is getting over the line in close games. They've lost by a converted try or less four times - against the Bulldogs, Manly, the Broncos and the Cowboys. Fixing it is another story.
The star: Jordan Rapana. Arguably the best winger in the competition. Rapana has been outstanding this year, leading the competition with eight tries, he's also in the top five for linebreaks and tackle busts, with his Leipana combination with Joey Leilua tearing opposition sides apart at times.
The surprise packet: Nick Cotric. The 18-year-old had big raps on him coming into his first season at the top level but no one could have counted on the kid's maturity. No doubting his speed, skill and power but it's his decision making that's really impressed, helping him make some massive plays on both ends of the field.
Needs a lift: Blake Austin. The five-eighth has very high standards for himself and it's fair to say he wouldn't have reached them so far this season. He has just three try assists, two linebreaks and three linebreak assists for the season so far and has barely been mentioned when the Origin halves jerseys are discussed.
The stat: Too much Leipana? Leilua (6) and Rapana (8) have scored almost 40 per cent of the Raiders' tries. If they don't fire, neither do the Raiders.
Crystal ball: The Raiders have all the talent to push for a top four finish this season so their fate is in their own hands. To be a premiership contender they need to go back to what they did so well last year, with a focus on winning the middle through their massive pack, rather than relying heavily on their flashy outside backs.
- by Ben Glover
Ladder position: 11th
The story so far: The Warriors' season can be broken into two very different sections: pre-Foran and post-Foran. Pre-Foran they looked rudderless and struggled to adapt to the more structured game plan new coach Stephen Kearney was implementing - losing convincingly to the Storm, Bulldogs and Dragons. Post-Foran they've won all their home games and were well and truly in the Anzac Day clash against the top of the table Storm. Their attack looks threatening and Shaun Johnson is as relaxed and comfortable as he's looked for years.
The star: Kieran Foran. His numbers aren't through the roof but he brings a directness to the Warriors play that makes them a much more difficult proposition than they are without him.
The surprise packet: James Gavet. The big front-rower has always been big on potential but up until this season he hadn't really delivered on it. Averaging for more than 100 metres per game, Gavet has added starch to a pack that has eased back a bit on the razzle dazzle.
Needs a lift: Tui Lolohea. The 22-year-old is clearly unhappy at the Warriors after being elbowed out of his preferred positions and it's resulted in a demotion to reserve grade. There's constant reports swirling around that link him with other clubs but while Lolohea is at the Warriors, his best football has the potential to make the team better, even if it's on a wing.
The stat: The death of the "Warriors' Style". The Warriors are busting the fewest tackles of any team, and are making the second fewest offloads ... most un-Warriors like!
Crystal ball: Much depends on the fitness of Foran. It's clearly a better outfit with him in it and he will only get better if he stays on the park as he gets confidence back in his shoulder and gets to know the system the Warriors are playing. If he plays 20 games for the season, the Warriors will make the eight.
- by Ben Glover
Ladder position: 12th
The story so far: Gold Coast's record looks a little better when put in context their horror injury run over the opening nine rounds. They haven't been able to field a full-strength team yet, and some important pieces of the puzzle have only just come back from the casualty ward. There's no doubt they have plenty of potential and could make a big move in the second half of the season.
The star: Tyrone Roberts. A fringe player not too long ago, Roberts has found himself an integral part of the side this year. His versatility has been a godsend for coach Neil Henry during the club's injury troubles.
The surprise packet: Jarrod Wallace. Let go by Brisbane last year, Wallace has been one of the form forwards of the competition and has even entered Origin consideration.
Needs a lift: Jarryd Hayne. It's a high bar the cross-code star has set for himself, and so far he hasn't been hitting it often enough. He's also yet to settle into a position.
The stat: Efficient in attack: The Titans have the best red zone ratio of any team, scoring one try from inside 20 for every 7.6 tackles they have on the attack. They have scored 14 tries from kicks this season, the most of any team.
Crystal ball: The potential is high, and the Titans can push for the top eight once again. But they'll need some better luck with injuries.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 13th
The story so far: A season-ending knee injury to captain and star fullback Greg Inglis in the opening round was probably the nail in the coffin of South Sydney's season. They've managed to beat Manly, Newcastle, and Penrith by a field goal but have looked far from convincing in most of their games.
The star: Cody Walker. Again, probably the best value-for-money half in the competition has stepped up to the plate for the Rabbitohs. He's also had to deal with injury to halves partner Adam Reynolds which has seen Walker take the bulk of playmaking duties.
The surprise packet: Angus Crichton. The young forward has doubled his career games and has been promoted to starting backrow. He's averaging 60 minutes a game and 90 running metres, while busting a whopping 30 tackles in eight appearances.
Needs a lift: Robbie Farah. The NSW No.9 jumper is his to lose. But with Damien Cook now ahead of him in the club pecking order, Farah needs a big few weeks to retain the Blues spot.
The stat: Run Rabbits Run! The Rabbitohs have run for the third fewest metres so far in 2017, and have conceded more than everyone bar the Knights. Their red zone defence has also been poor, leaking one try from inside 20 for just 8.8 tackles conceded; only the Knights have a worse ratio.
Crystal ball: South Sydney will lose more games than they win over their remaining 15 rounds.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 14th
The story so far: It took three games for the club to sack coach Jason Taylor - despite a big win over South Sydney in round one. Since then they've beaten finals hopefuls Canterbury and North Queensland, and shown glimpses of being a top eight contender. But no doubt their entire season has so far been overshadowed by off-field drama, including the departure of stars Aaron Woods, Mitchell Moses and James Tedesco.
The star: David Nofoaluma. He's sixth in the NRL for average running metres (169), first for offloads (29), ninth for linebreaks (8), second for tackle busts (59) only one behind teammate James Tedesco. Oh, and the Tigers fans love him because he's one player to have recommitted to the club beyond 2017.
The surprise packet: Matt McIlwrick. Considered a fringe player at best just a couple of months ago, McIlwrick has stepped into the starting hooker role while veteran Matt Ballin battles to return from injury. He's upstaged young local Jacob Liddle who's been relegated to the bench.
Needs a lift: Mitchell Moses. He's produced just two try assists and four linebreak assists, plus is third in the competition for missed tackles and fifth for errors. The Tigers rely on him playing well.
The stat: Second-half slumps. The Tigers have a +4 differential in the first half but a whopping -86 in the second. In the final 20 minutes of their games this season the Tigers have been outscored 74-14.
Crystal ball: The off-field distractions will continue to plague the Tigers' year - Moses is no guarantee to see out the season - and will spend another campaign bereft of finals action.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 15th
The story so far: From pre-season premiership favourites to wooden spoon contenders - Penrith's season has seriously derailed. The young and exciting squad that promised so much has flopped so badly punters are demanding their money back. Beaten convincingly by the Dragons, Storm, Sharks, and Broncos. When they play well they are electric, but such performances have been few and far between. Having their captain Matt Moylan suspended for breaking team protocol may be the most damning incident to date.
The star: Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Gorden Tallis said last week the young forward was the only Penrith player lifting his weight for the team. He's averaging more than 100 metres per game from just 50 minutes each week.
The surprise packet: Corey Harawira-Naera. Virtually unheard of just a few weeks ago, the young forward is now averaging 63 minutes from five appearances, has scored three tries and is the club's second highest points scorer. He's averaging 118 metres every week and 20 tackle breaks, seven linebreaks, and a try assist to his name.
Needs a lift: The halves. Nathan Cleary and Te Maire Martin are two of the NRL's most promising young players, but it looks like a case of second year syndrome has crept in and they're struggling to take charge of this team.
The stat: Kicking themselves: The Panthers have forced just eight drop outs from kicks this season (the fewest), and have scored just one try from a kick. Even the much maligned Bulldogs' kicking game has come up with two tries.
Crystal ball: They won't make the eight from here, but Penrith will win enough games to give fans some hope for 2018.
- by Simon Brunsdon
Ladder position: 16th
The story so far: The Knights weren't expected to play finals this year and they won't. But no one can question the effort the players have been producing every week for coach Nathan Brown. A 40-0 loss to Penrith and a 38-8 loss to Gold Coast are the only performances where it could be said Newcastle were disappointing. But they've suffered narrow losses to top-eight sides Cronulla and the Warriors, and beaten the Titans well in round 2.
The star: Nathan Ross. The loveable winger has become a fan favourite in the Hunter and has bagged six tries in eight games in a side that's often struggled to score points.
The surprise packet: Mitchell Barnett. In and out of Canberra's side before being traded north, Barnett has been a shining light in the backrow for Newcastle. He typifies the effort the battling Knights have been showing week in, week out.
Needs a lift: Trent Hodkinson. The captain and on-field leader has been struggling with injury and poor form over the opening nine rounds. He's been left out of the team altogether in the past couple of games but the Knights need him back and playing well if they want to climb the ladder.
The stat: Spoonworthy. Last in points, tries, run metres and linebreaks ... in both attack and defence.
Crystal ball: Newcastle haven't won their last game for 2017, but unfortunately another wooden spoon is on the cards.
- by Simon Brunsdon
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