Nearly two years on from the salary cap scandal that threatened the very existence of the Melbourne Storm, the club which had established itself as the most successful of the 21st century is perfectly poised to reclaim lost ground. After the Storm were discovered to have kept two sets of books to rort the NRL’s cap on player payments, they were stripped of the premierships won in 2007 and 2009, and fined almost $1.7m (£1.15m).

Melbourne rebounded strongly last year, winning the minor premiership before being upset by the New Zealand Warriors in the preliminary final and will begin the new season, which starts on Thursday, as premiership favourites. Which of the other 15 teams are most likely to stand in the way of Melbourne’s unlikely resurgence?

After surprising many by finishing third last season, Brisbane enter the post-Lockyer era with optimism, built around a tough forward pack complemented by some outside fliers.
Key player: Sam Thaiday – the burly second-rower has some massive shoes to fill, replacing Lockyer as captain.
Prediction: 6th – the Broncos don’t seem to truly bottom-out.

Over the off-season, the Bulldogs poached coach Des Hasler from arch-rivals and reigning premiers Manly. How he fares with his new team will be one of the season’s big stories.
Key player: Ben Barba – the utility back is an excitement machine and one of the league’s most prolific try-scorers.
Prediction: 10th – Hasler has some hard work ahead of him.

They snuck into the finals last year before being bundled out in the first week and should be thereabouts again but don’t have the depth or top-end quality to aim much higher.
Key player: Johnathan Thurston – won the Golden Boot last year after being adjudged the world’s best player.
Prediction: 9th – another year as also-rans for the Cowboys.

Plenty of comings and goings in the off-season – most significantly, supercoach Wayne Bennett going to Newcastle, taking star full-back Darius Boyd with him. Testing times.
Key player: Jamie Soward – the halfback blossomed under Bennett and is one of the keys to the Dragons’ attack.
Prediction: 7th – good enough to avoid falling off the edge.

Have dropped off since playing a grand final in 2009, slumping to 14th last season. There is, however, enough sizzle on their roster to suggest improvement is likely.
Key player: Jarryd Hayne – one of the league’s real talents, who, at 24, needs to start delivering week-in, week-out.
Prediction: 11th – the gap between their best and worst hurts.

Mining magnate Nathan Tinkler took charge of the club and promptly recruited Wayne Bennett to restore the Knights to the top tier of the NRL. Improvement seems inevitable.
Key player: Darius Boyd – was a star for the Dragons and his joining the Knights showed they were serious.
Prediction: 4th – a definite bolter but surely can’t win it yet.

Penrith slipped off the pace last season after making the grand final the year before. There’s further pain ahead after they lost Timana Tahu and Petero Civoniceva post-season.
Key player: Frank Jennings – the ballistic centre is on his last chance at the club after a series of off-field indiscretions.
Prediction: 14th – hard to see them improving significantly.

There’s plenty of quality on South Sydney’s roster but they’ve been undone by defensive frailties. Their fans have waited ages for the new dawn – is this finally the year it happens?
Key player: Greg Inglis – was the best player in the league at the Storm but hasn’t quite reached those highs at the Bunnies.
Prediction: 8th – could crack the top four if everything clicks.

Failed to meet vaulting expectations last year. Their forward pack is one of the best and there’s enough attacking flair in the backs. But consistency is the worry for the Green Machine.
Key player: Terry Campese – emerged as one of the game’s new stars in 2010 before enduring a nightmare run of injury.
Prediction: 12th – could play finals but will likely fall short.

Their best attacking play is devastating but the Roosters lack discipline and have often been accused of playing like millionaires and not wanting it as much as less flashy sides.
Key player: Mitchell Pearce – the young halfback will need to pull the strings now that Todd Carney has been moved on.
Prediction: 14th – another tough season for the boys in Bondi.

Sea Eagles
Widely written-off following a tumultuous off-season, the reigning premiers may take a little while to get going but still boast one of the league’s strongest, most experienced lists.
Key player: Brett Stewart – the Silvertails rely heavily on their fullback‘s tries so will be desperately hoping he stays fit.
Prediction: 3rd – the naysayers are likely to be disappointed.

Cronulla fans will be hoping for some improvement but a lack of firepower and organisation will be their undoing.
Key player: Todd Carney – if he stays sober, he will be the Sharks’ best and only chance of playing finals. Loose unit.
Prediction: 15th – they’re just too erratic to do much better.

Melbourne have taken their medicine and held it together pretty well, retaining an experienced core that will be desperate to exorcise the club’s demons with a premiership.
Key player: Billy Slater – the reigning Dally M winner and world’s outstanding fullback has nothing left to prove.
Prediction: Premiers – they could well have won it last year.

They’ve got a nicely balanced list, a favourable draw and the pain of last year’s surprise finals exit to spur them on. The Tigers play cracking football and should be right up there.
Key player: Benji Marshall – the playmaker has amassed an impressive highlights reel and is now in his absolute prime.
Prediction: Runners-up – every chance of going the distance.

After two promising seasons, the Titans lost the plot last year and face a tough rebuilding period without many experienced campaigners in the key playmaking roles.
Key player: Scott Prince – the skipper carried the can last year and looks set to play a lone hand again.
Prediction: 16th – sorry, but another spoon beckons.

They’ve got some dashing young players and have a style that pays off in finals. Their record on the road remains dicey, though, making it tough for them to finish in the top four.
Key player: Nathan Friend – after joining from the Titans, his clean passing will add an extra string to the Warriors’ attack.
Prediction: 5th – capable of upsetting anyone on their day.