After one of the strangest rugby league seasons on record – Covid break, no fans, new rules, Origin in November and the once-mighty Broncos collecting their first-ever wooden spoon – it’s on again this week and it could get even stranger.
If the game’s big forwards were struggling to catch their breath after the introduction of the ‘six-again’ rule for ruck infringements last year, they will be brought to their knees by what the NRL has in store this season.
Six more tackles instead of a penalty kick for being offside, and a change of possession rather than scrum when the ball goes over the sideline will greatly reduce ‘breather time’ and shift the focus to forwards’ fitness and agility rather than size and bulk.
Penrith Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary is the key to his team’s chances of success
The captains of the 16 NRL teams gathered recently for the launch of the 2021 season in Sydney
Add the introduction of two-points for a field goal kicked from outside 40 metres and the forwards having to stay bound in the scrum until the ball has been cleared, and it’s going to be a whole new ball game.
How will it affect the teams, and who will be the last side standing come fulltime on grand final day? Will the four new coaches sink or swim, and who will ‘win’ that dreaded spoon? Strap on your headgear and put in your mouthguard as veteran sportswriter Mike Colman gives his predictions for season 2021:
St George-Illawarra Dragons
After getting the heave-ho from the Broncos and Panthers, Anthony Griffin put his hand up for every head coaching job going before finally getting the nod at St George-Illawarra. From the look on his face as the woeful Dragons were torn to shreds by the Rabbitohs in the Charity Shield, he must be wondering what he has got himself into. Griffin is an outstanding judge of talent (when working for the Storm he spotted Cameron Smith at a junior carnival and snared him from under the noses of the disinterested Broncos) so he would be well aware that he has precious little of it at the Dragons. The only thing they will be winning this season is made of wood and shaped like a spoon.
Corey Norman is a polarising figure, but footy fans know he can be a match-winner on his day
There has already been one big winner at the Bulldogs this season – Trent Barrett, for getting another head coaching gig after his shambolic exit from the Sea Eagles in 2018. Sadly for Doggies fans it’s looking like he’ll be the only one. The club has made two very good signings in the Raiders’ Nick Cotric and Rabbitohs’ Corey Allan, but outside backs don’t win you premierships. A lot is being asked of incoming halfback Kyle Flanagan, but given the eagerness with which the Roosters moved him on after just one season at Bondi Junction, it would seem that might be a vain hope.
High hopes have been placed on the shoulders of rookie Bulldogs halfback Kyle Flanagan
The Broncos started last season like a house on fire, with their gigantic young forwards taking them straight to the top of the premiership table. Then came Covid and the new six-again rule and their gigantic young forwards took them straight to the bottom of the premiership table. This year more rules have been introduced to make the game even faster, and what have the Broncos done to counter that? Nothing. Some might say less than nothing. While the retirements of Darius Boyd and Matt Gillett, and the off-loading of Jack Bird, Joe Ofahengaue and Andrew McCullough must surely have freed up a few bucks (as in a few million), incoming coach Kevin Walters has bought just three players: veteran wingers Dale Copley and David Mead, and Cowboys’ bench forward John Asiata. Other than that, it is pretty much the same old faces who gave every indication of throwing in the towel last season. Oh, except for one. Brisbane’s best player Kotoni Staggs will be out injured until round 13 or 14. There aren’t too many better blokes in rugby league than Kevin Walters, but if he can get the Broncos to within even sniffing distance of the top eight, they should give him a statue at Suncorp Stadium.
New Broncos coach Kevin Walters will try to turn around the club’s disastrous 2020 season
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
The most disliked club in the NRL celebrates 75 years of irritating the heck out of opposition fans this season, but so far it looks like they won’t have much to crow about. Coming off a fourth-last placed finish in 2020, they head into the first round still smarting from a 52-18 drubbing courtesy of the Wests Tigers. Obviously it was only a trial and nobody cares about trials, yada, yada, yada … but 52-18? That’s a loss of Broncos 2020 proportions. Coach Des Hasler won’t be happy, and Des is never unhappy alone – which might be part of the problem. History would tell us that Des’s style of old school tough love has a use-by date. The question is whether it has already been passed after just two seasons back at his old club. We’ll know soon enough but the signs aren’t promising.
Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (pictured middle) will look to the fire for the Warriors before departing the NRL to chase his rugby dreams
New Zealand Warriors
The best thing the Warriors did last season was turn up. NRL boss Peter V’Landys reckoned if the Kiwis hadn’t agreed to cross the ditch and set up camp on the Central Coast there wouldn’t have been a competition (although they were going so bad at one stage it seemed like the NRL could have sent them back home and given all the other clubs a bye round and no-one would have been the wiser). To their credit they came good after sacking coach Stephen Kearney and finished the season strongly under interim boss Todd Payten. Trouble was, they couldn’t hold onto Payten and have handed the reins to Nathan Brown. Question is: why? Brown has had two stints coaching in the NRL and failed to set the world on fire at either attempt. No trophies, but he is remembered for slapping his five-eighth Trent Barrett at the Dragons, and his highly personal sledging of Wayne Bennett while at the Knights. The Warriors have always been a treasure chest of ability that no coach has managed to unlock. Can Nathan Brown find the key? It’s doubtful.
The Tigers are one of those frustrating clubs that come out every year with all guns blazing and end up shooting blanks. They’ve got a lot going for them: good supporters, the chance to play the odd Sunday afternoon match at atmospheric Leichhardt Oval and, in Michael Maguire, a coach who knows what it takes to win a premiership, but inevitably they’re nowhere to be seen when the whips start cracking. This pre-season they’ve been talking up the fact that they get to play their first nine games in daylight. This apparently is a huge advantage because the dry ground will mean that new signing James Roberts (at his fifth club – sixth if you count the Rabbitohs twice) can show off his blistering pace to best advantage. Given that the first five of those opening nine games are against the Raiders, Roosters, Knights, Eels and Rabbitohs, Jimmy the Jet will need to have the afterburners working or Tigers fans’ dreams could be extinguished even earlier than usual.
Valentine Holmes will need to fire if the North Queensland Cowboys are to be competitive in 2021
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys have been wandering around in a funk since Johnathan Thurston retired. Guys, it’s been two years. He’s not coming back. Get over it. Happily for their fans there are signs that things might be on the improve. Co-captain Michael Morgan got through pre-season in one piece after spending most of 2020 on the sidelines, and there are high hopes that he and Scott Drinkwater can build a strong partnership in the halves with Valentine Holmes at fullback. The biggest bright spot though is the arrival of newbie coach Todd Payten who did a great job filling in at the Warriors for the latter part of last season. Payten is promising to bring a new, tougher attitude to the Cows after their third from the bottom finish last season and the way they overcame a half-time deficit to beat the Broncos in a trial suggests he’s on the right track. Yeah, I know. It was only the Broncos, but you have to start somewhere.
Does anyone else get the feeling that John Morris is only keeping the coach’s seat at the Sharks warm until they can prise Craig Fitzgibbon away from the Roosters? I think John Morris does and his players probably do too. There’s no question that Morris did a reasonable job sneaking the Sharkies into the eight last season, but he has an ageing roster and the club’s only signing for 2021 is ex-Bulldog Aiden Tolman who is 32. When that happens it’s usually because the board wants to wait until the new coach comes in before spending up big on the next generation of players. That being the case I’m tipping Morris and his team to put in another workmanlike performance this season – but they shouldn’t bother the scorers too much.
Despite a slew of injuries – they were down to their fourth hooker by the end of the season – the Knights made the finals for the first time in seven years in 2020. With an ounce of luck they should do it again in 2021. They have a good coach in Adam O’Brien and potentially one of the signings of the year in former Dragon Tyson Frizell. As with all clubs, a lot depends on the spine. In fullback Kalyn Ponga, five-eighth Blake Green, halfback Mitchell Pearce and hooker Jayden Brailey the Knights have one of the best but Ponga and Green will miss up to four weeks at the start of the season with injury, Brailey is returning from an ruptured ACL and Pearce’s off-season has been marred by personal dramas. Still, as they say, that’s rugby league
Newcastle Knights star fullback Kalyn Ponga must overcome injury in the early part of the year
The Eels have got everything going for them – except for the one ingredient they need to go all the way: a premiership-winning playmaker. Their enormous pack, anchored by the NRL’s heaviest player in Junior Paulo, could be hampered by the new rules, but it is the lack of a genuine game-breaker that is their biggest impediment. Just look at the most recent premiership winning sides. The Storm have had match-winners all over the park for more than a decade. Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary and James Tedesco combined to bring two titles to the Roosters, while James Maloney, Ben Barba and Michael Ennis provided the spark needed for the Sharks to finally break their duck in 2016. The Eels have been good enough to make the semi-finals for the past two seasons but in halfback Mitchell Moses they haven’t had the X-factor needed to go any further – and there is nothing to suggest that things will be different this year.
The Titans were the big improvers last season and they’ll go even better this year. In Justin Holbrook they have won the jackpot. I would have given him the Dally M Coach of the Year award for 2020. Instead, it went to Craig Bellamy who coaches the best team in the game. How hard can that be? Holbrook on the other hand inherited the reigning wooden spooners and took them to within one win of the finals. If the season had gone a couple more rounds, they would have given the title a real shake. Okay, maybe not, but they’ll trouble every team in the competition this season. Holbrook has transformed Ash Taylor from a befuddled halfback into a confident five-eighth outside a rejuvenated Jamal Fogarty. With exciting fullback AJ Brimson back to full fitness and outstanding signings Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita in the backrow, the Titans are finals-bound for the first time since 2016.
Speed machine: AJ Brimson of the Gold Coast Titans (pictured right) is one of this season’s players to watch
Doubts over the future of captain Boyd Cordner have cast a shadow on the Roosters season, but the return of mobile backrower Victor Radley after missing most of 2020 through injury will be a major boost. Just how far the team goes in the competition will depend a great deal on how rookie halfback Sam Walker handles the big time. A star schoolboy who attracted enormous interest before being signed as a long-term replacement for Cooper Cronk, Walker is tipped long term to beat Lachlan Lam to partner Luke Keary in the halves. Other than that, the side should be pretty much the same as last season – unless of course a superstar of young Sonny Bill Williams type-quality suddenly becomes available and Rosters chairman Nick Politis can slip him in under the salary cap.
A question mark hangs over the future of Roosters skipper Boyd Cordner due to head injuries
The Raiders have lost one of the best English players ever to ply his trade in the NRL with the return of John Bateman to Wigan after two outstanding seasons, but that is offset by the return from injury of another of the best of British in hooker Josh Hodgson. Together with the likes of the game’s top prop Josh Papalii, Dally M winner Jack Wighton at six, fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and yet another Englishman in halfback George Williams, coach Ricky Stuart has got a lot of talent on his hands. They might have lost their best chance of a premiership when pipped by the Roosters in the 2019 grand final but they will still be there or thereabouts at the business end of this season.
Josh Papalii (pictured middle) is one of the best props in the game and if he fires, the Raiders will be premiership contenders
Only a fool would write off the Storm, which is why I’m going to do it. In Cameron Munster, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Josh Addo-Carr, they have three of the best attacking players in the game, but they have also lost arguably their most promising forward in Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and reliable winger Suliasi Vunivalu. Then there is the fact that with the likes of 200cm and 118kg Nelson Asofa-Solomona and the Bromwich brothers, they have a monstrous pack which could struggle under the new rules. But nothing will affect the Storm in 2021 more than the loss of Cameron Smith. Any team would find it hard to replace just one of either its captain, goalkicker, dummy-half, play-caller or most inspirational player, but when all those roles are filled by the one man it is nigh-on impossible. For 19 seasons Smith has been the glue that held the Storm together. When things get tight with a few minutes to go in the big end-of-season matches they’ll be looking around for him to tell them what to do, and he won’t be there.
They say you have to lose a grand final before you can win one, but they also said that Anthony Seibold was a genius, and look how that turned out. The Panthers might win a premiership under Ivan Cleary, but it won’t be this year. They had a great 2020 – which is something not many people in the world can boast – but the big question mark is over whether boom five-eighth Jarome Luai can overcome arguably the worst thing that can happen to a young NRL player: success. At 24, he has just signed a massive three-year contract extension (said to be upwards of $700,000 a season) which isn’t always a good thing. Just ask Ben Hunt and Ash Taylor. There is also a bit of pressure on star halfback Nathan Cleary. At season’s end the coach’s son was tipped to take out The Big Three – Dally M, Premiership and Origin series – and finished with The Big Doughnut instead. If things aren’t going according to plan mid-year the monkey on his back will start feeling like a gorilla.
Tip: Grand final
Provided he stays fit, Rabbitohs fullback Latrell Mitchell can help deliver the title to Souths
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Nobody with any knowledge of the game takes any notice of trial form but seriously, how good did the Rabbitohs look in the first half of the Charity Shield? Okay, okay, the Dragons were atrocious, but even so – and allowing for the fact that Latrell Mitchell looked like he’d swallowed a whole cow in the dressing room before the game – even the most jaundiced critic would have to admit the Bunnies looked very impressive. Can they go one step higher than they have the past three years and grab the trophy? Well, it’s Wayne Bennett’s last season at the club and at 71 years of age he still has a few bridges he wants to cross. Sure, he might have to cross them on a zimmer frame, but winning premiership number eight with Souths is very much on his bucket list and the stars seem to be in alignment. Mobility rather than sheer size will be a key this season and in Cameron Murray, Jaydn Su’a and new signing Jai Arrow, they have three forwards who could have been designed for the new rules. Bennett is obviously planning on capitalising on the two-point field goal as well, with halfback Adam Reynolds taking a pot-shot from nearly 50 metres out in the Charity Shield. It missed, but it won’t be his last attempt of the year, you can be sure of that. Reynolds, Cody Walker, Damien Cook and Mitchell are as good as any ‘spine’ in the game. If he can just keep Latrell off the KFC, Bennett could be taking that walking frame on a victory lap come October 3.