Every NRL season some players seem to attract the spotlight more than others. They dominate the headlines throughout the year with their on-field exploits and their importance to their team's success or failure.
With the 2018 NRL season about to kick off, we name a starting thirteen of players we think you will be hearing more about as the year progresses. These aren't necessarily the best players in their positions, they may not even be the best players in their teams, but, for the reasons listed, we think these players will be in the news this year.
1. Kalyn Ponga
The young fullback from North Queensland showed glimpses of brilliance in his limited playing time at the Cowboys. Snapped up in a coup by the Knights, he will nail down a permanent spot in the red-and-blue No.1 jersey and have every opportunity to showcase his abilities in front of an adoring Newcastle crowd. Any doubts he might have had about signing with the struggling club would have eased with the end-of-season cheque-book activity that saw Mitchell Pearce, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra and Tautau Moga, among others, joining him at the Knights. If coach Nathan Brown can string together some wins for Newcastle, you can be pretty sure Ponga's name will be on the receiving end of much of the praise. (Special mention to fullbacks James Tedesco, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Moses Mbye and Greg Inglis, who will all be under the microscope for various reasons.)
2. Akuila Uate
Uate had a brilliant 2017 season for the Sea Eagles after leaving the Knights, where he had seemingly lost his way. Fiji has provided the NRL with a constant flow of brilliant wingers in recent years, and Uate was one of the early pathfinders and one of the best. His scything runs and brutal physicality make him one of the most entertaining wingers in the game, when he is at his best. In 2017, we saw him return to the kind of form that saw him represent New South Wales, Australia and Fiji.
3. Jack Bird
It's not often that Wayne Bennett climbs out of the deep end of the Brisbane talent pool to find players to add to the Broncos' roster. When he does, you can be assured he has seen something he feels will go a long way towards continuing his highly successful coaching career. Bennett snapped up Bird from the Sharks, and he will be hoping the centre can add the backline spark needed to secure the Broncos another premiership victory. The weight of Brisbane expectation will be on Bird, and the local media will no doubt track his every success or failing throughout 2018.
4. Jarryd Hayne
After his incredibly well-publicised stint in the NFL with the 49ers and a tumultuous season with the Gold Coast Titans, Hayne returns to the Eels, where he started his dream-filled journey. He joins a team which seemed to be building into a premiership threat without him. He will be carrying the baggage of ending Neil Henry's coaching tenure at the Titans, being blamed in part for another New South Wales State of Origin series loss, and lingering doubts over whether he will ever be as good as the 2009 model. Will we see some of the old Hayne brilliance in the blue-and-gold or will it be another year of headlines focused on Hayne-inspired club disharmony?
5. Nick Cotric
Cotric had an incredible debut season for the Raiders in 2017, picking up the Dally M Rookie of the Year award after scoring 16 tries in 24 matches; he was certainly one of the highlights of what was a disappointing year for the Raiders. Brad Fittler named him in his Emerging Blues squad at the end of the year, and it will be interesting to see if Cotric goes on to fulfil his potential at club and representative level. The Raiders fans once again will be on their feet cheering every time he touches the ball in 2018.
6. James Maloney
During his impressive career, James Maloney has taken the Warriors to a grand final, won premierships with the Roosters and Sharks, and represented New South Wales and Australia. Trouble at the Panthers saw the club release Matt Moylan to the Sharks in a deal that involved Maloney moving the other way. He will line up alongside one of the league's most promising halfbacks in Nathan Cleary in a combination the Panthers hope will take them to the top in the next year or so. Glenn Lazarus won premierships at three different NRL clubs, and the Panthers are backing Maloney to be the second player to achieve that incredible feat. (Special mention in the five-eighth category to Matt Moylan, Josh Reynolds, Kieran Foran and Lachlan Croker, who will also be under intense scrutiny for various reasons in 2018).
7. Cooper Cronk (captain)
Frustrated at a lack of premiership success, despite building a team seemingly capable of winning several, the Roosters have gone all out with one massive Cooper Cronk-shaped roll of the dice. Cronk will be under immense pressure to perform from game one, and the fact that he is out of his Melbourne Storm comfort zone is only going to add to the intrigue. Is he the missing piece to the Roosters premiership puzzle? Can he produce the same game-management brilliance at the Roosters or will it become apparent that he really was just a finely tuned part of the Storm/Maroons/Kangaroos machine? He has two years to answer those questions, and his every move will be scrutinised like no other. (Special mention in the halfback category to Mitchell Pearce, Ben Hunt, Kodi Nikorima and Brodie Croft, who will also be under intense scrutiny for various reasons in 2018).
8. Matt Scott
It is not often that a champion front-rower has a year out of the game to refresh towards the end of his career. Scott's knee injury saw him miss most of 2017 for the Cowboys, giving him time to mend the myriad niggles that all players accumulate during their careers. Without him, the Cowboys went within one win of the premiership. Hence it is hard not to argue that the Cowboys should be premiership favourites for 2018 given the return of Scott and Johnathan Thurston. Can the old warhorse return to his best for the Cowboys, Queensland and Australia?
9. Michael Lichaa
The Bulldogs bought Lichaa from the Sharks at the time they released Michael Ennis to go the other way. The scouts had Lichaa pinned as the next star of the hooking trade, but he failed to live up to the hype as Ennis went on to help Cronulla win their first ever premiership. Through a turbulent 2017 season, word started to leak from Belmore that the players felt they were being restricted by coach Des Hasler's strict adherence to mistake-free football -- in particular Lichaa, who had all but canned his running game since joining the club. With it becoming apparent that Hasler's time at the club was over, Lichaa played the final three games of the season without restriction, earning widespread praise and a call-up to the Emerging Blues squad. Under new coach Dean Pay, Lichaa could flourish into the hooker he once promised to be -- and one the Bulldogs and New South Wales could build a resurgence around.
10. Russell Packer
Packer joins the Tigers to fill the rather large pair of boots left behind by Aaron Woods. Packer has a reputation as a front-row enforcer, something many Tigers fans felt was missing from Woods' game. A player with a history of off-field issues, and who always treads a fine line on the field, Packer is bound to attract the spotlight during the 2018 season. His only job is to make the Tigers forget they ever lost Woods.
11. Ryan Hoffman
Hoffman returns to the place his career began, at the Storm with Craig Bellamy as his coach. After a mixed three years with the New Zealand Warriors, Hoffman has been given the chance to end his career in the purple jersey. The Storm have lost key forwards Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean, so Hoffman will need to contribute significantly in his farewell year. Can he go out of the game a winner, with the Storm claiming back-to-back premierships? We have a feeling there is still some greatness left in this 34-year-old forward.
12. Angus Crichton
Crichton crashed into the headlines last year on the back of an incredible running game for the Rabbitohs. At times unstoppable, Crichton scored seven tries and ran for 2665 metres. Not surprisingly, it was announced mid-season that from 2019 he would be joining Sydney rivals, the Roosters, on a contract the Bunnies couldn't match. Can he give Souths one more incredible season before he packs his bag for the Tricolours?
13. Bryce Cartwright
Cartwright made his first-grade debut in 2014, and it looked as though his enormous potential would see him dominate the fringe of the ruck for the Panthers and representative teams for years to come. In 2016, he signed a contract extension that would see him at Penrith until 2021. Off-field dramas and injuries meant he struggled to deliver on that potential, and at the end of 2017 he asked for and was granted a release from the club to sign a deal with the Gold Coast Titans. Can Cartwright leave his troubles behind and return to the ball-playing, budding superstar that he was in 2016?
What do you think of the list? Have we missed anyone who will play a more significant or newsworthy role in their club's 2018 season? Add your comments by clicking on the comment button below.