The NRL season kicks off next weekend. Michael Burgess looks into his crystal ball for the key storylines of 2016.

1. Warriors back on the rollercoaster - but make the finals

The Warriors will be better in 2016, but it won't be straightforward. Why? Well, because it never is. There will be some inexplicable defeats snatched from the jaws of victory and highs followed by heartbreak. Add in some injuries, maybe some issues at the judiciary, and you have a pretty standard Warriors season. The main uncertainty is how the Auckland club handles the expectation, which is at its highest levels for years. They won just nine matches in 2015 and only two against teams in the top eight. Both those statistics will have to change significantly in 2016.

2. Sonny Bill Williams

Expect Sonny Bill Williams stories every week. Maybe even every other day. The season hasn't even started and already the Sydney media has Williams back in Bondi next year, on the strength of another cafe meeting with Nick Politis. The Roosters supremo is known for getting what he wants, but what exactly is in those coffees? SBW's 2013 return was on the strength of a handshake agreement with the car dealer a few years earlier. By the end of this season, and particularly after the Rio Olympics, Williams will surely be linked to a few clubs - maybe the cashed up Broncos or Sea Eagles. Or what about a sentimental 'heal the world' return to the Bulldogs, brokered by fellow New Zealander and Canterbury chief executive Raelene Castle?


3. The Cowboys don't repeat

Whatever unfolds this year, it's hard to see Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston holding the NRL trophy aloft in October. The North Queensland Cowboys will be strong contenders, with their powerful squad and the pressure going off somewhat after their win last year. But repeat triumphs just don't happen in the NRL. There hasn't been back-to-back champions since the Broncos in 1992-93, when Allan Langer, Steve Renouf and Glenn Lazarus proved incomparable. Since then, a succession of great teams have failed to back up. Some have fallen at the final hurdle, others disappeared almost without trace the following season.

4. Coaching changes, as Ivan Cleary returns to the NRL

It would not surprise to see the coaching merry-go-round begin by June. Jason Taylor (Wests Tigers), Neil Henry (Titans) and Andrew McFadden appear under the most pressure, albeit for differing reasons. Taylor has made some unpopular decisions around name players, McFadden has a dream roster, Henry has almost no one. If things go south, Ivan Cleary's availability will tempt senior club officials and Craig Bellamy could also come on to the market, as his Melbourne Storm contract finishes at the end of this year.

5. Off-field incidents

It's pointless to speculate what kind of incidents might unfold, as NRL players continue to surprise with their 'creativity', but unsavoury headlines will emerge at some point. The only guarantee is there will be alcohol, extremely poor judgement, moral outrage and a carefully-scripted remorseful apology.

6. Maroons continue their State of Origin dominance

Despite Sydney hosting two matches this year, it's hard to see anything other than New South Wales getting the blues again. Queensland still have the best halves in the game and Laurie Daley's team will have yet another new look spine. Back the Maroons to win their 10th series in 11 years.

7. Drama, mate

The NRL continues to serve up the best sporting theatre in Australasia, epitomised by last year's grand final. Expect more miracle plays, on-the-hooter finishes, amazing acrobatic feats and against-the-odds moments in 2016. That's just how it works.