Australia’s rugby league circus begins this weekend and, as ever, separating the contenders from the pretenders is a minefield. Reigning premiers St George-Illawarra will be chasing back-to-back premierships, but the group of sides hoping to upset the apple cart appears stronger than in 2009.
At the other end of the spectrum, poor old Cronulla look set for a long year, but could be joined by ailing powerhouses Brisbane and Manly.

Overview: Missed the finals last year for the first time since 1991 and then sacked coach Ivan Henjak just weeks before the start of the season.
Key player: Darren Lockyer – he’s nearly 34 but remains the player most likely to inspire a fading outfit.
Prediction: 13th

Overview: Finished in the bottom four last year but are well-placed to bounce back after signing a handful of big names in the off-season.
Key player: Frank Pritchard –  the big Kiwi prop has crossed from Penrith, adding menace to the Bulldogs’ pack.
Prediction: 4th

Overview: May struggle following a high turnover of players – their inconsistency could result in another low finish.
Key player: Johnathan Thurston – one of the best backs in the world and a match-winner on his day.
Prediction: 14th

Overview: The reigning premiers will be right in the mix again, provided they are not distracted by talk about coach Wayne Bennett leaving.
Key player: Darius Boyd – last year’s Clive Churchill Medalist is one of the Dragons’ most creative players.
Prediction: Runners-up

Overview: Will be hoping new coach Stephen Kearney can induce less erratic form. Dangerous, but blowing hot-and-cold hurts them.
Key player: Jarryd Hayne – already a superstar at 23, but needs to recapture scintillating form of 2009.
Prediction: 11th

Overview: Their young squad will produce honest performances, but don’t have enough stars to test the best sides.
Key player: Akuila Uate – the Knights will be relying on their winger to score plenty of tries.
Prediction: 15th

Overview: A surprise bolter last season after five lean years. Could come crashing back to earth if more talented sides click.
Key player: Lachlan Coote – the Panthers will be hoping their emerging full-back has a long career.
Prediction: 10th

Overview: Plenty of buzz around Russell Crowe’s Rabbitohs over the pre-season and Souths may be on the cusp of a successful era.
Key player: Greg Inglis – the champion centre arrives in Redfern bearing a burden of expectation but should still deliver.
Prediction: 3rd

Overview: Losing Joel Monaghan in the off-season hurts but the arrival of Matt Orford ameans finals are still on the cards.
Key player: Josh Dugan – his turn in the All Stars match means Dugan is an early Dally M fancy.
Prediction: 8th

Overview: Fell short in last year’s final but should be thereabouts again, although opponents should be better equipped to contain their attack.
Key player: Todd Carney – won last year’s Dally M after making a remarkable comeback. Looms as the main man again.
Prediction: 6th

Sea Eagles
Overview: Snuck into the finals last year but have since lost Trent Hodkinson and Josh Perry. In for a rough trot while youngsters develop.
Key player: Jamie Lyon – a top-line centre and first-choice goalkicker, Lyon will need to hold the Sea Eagles together.
Prediction: 12th

Overview: Lack the class of the sides in contention and could cop some beltings. Almost unanimously tipped for the wooden spoon.
Key player: Paul Gallen – a rough diamond in the second row; ill-discipline can hurt but his work-rate can’t be faulted.
Prediction: 16th

Overview: How will they rebound after last year’s disaster? The loss of some stars will hurt but enough quality remains.
Key player: Billy Slater – if Slater has a big year, the Storm could vault straight back into title contention.
Prediction: 7th

Overview: Capable of the most exhilirating rugby, the Tigers are well-placed to go all the way but must add defensive steel.
Key player: Benji Marshall – arguably the best player in the world, the pivot now enjoys more support than in the past.
Prediction: Premiers

Overview: After a couple of years near the top, the Titans may find they miss Mat Rogers more than expected as they give ground.
Key player: Scott Prince – pulls the strings at halfback and will again be the crucial cog in the Titans’ attack.
Prediction: 9th

Overview: Form away from home remains an Achilles’ heel but the Warriors boast enough attacking flair to test anyone.
Key player: Manu Vatuvei – the man known as The Beast has become increasingly hard to stop on a wing.
Prediction: 5th