It is that time of year where rugby league commentators, journalists, ex-players and fans provide their predictions for the upcoming NRL season.
There are many unknowns and questions to be answered heading into what has been described as the most anticipated season in recent memory, and I have seen several crazy predictions already.
How will teams adapt to the new rules designed to speed up the game?
Young players will become stars and star players will flop. We could see teams written off due to a poor start to the season but deliver a late-season surge to scrape into the finals. Teams could start the year off with a bang, then fall by the wayside at the backend of the season.
It is all standard in a season of NRL, which makes predictions damn near impossible. So here are my own crystal-ball musings for the 2021 NRL season, which are sure to cause debate.
Wooden Spoon: St George Illawarra Dragons
Even with a new, hard edge coach in Anthony Griffin, there is widespread concern and a lack of confidence about the Dragons this year.
Questionable roster management, off field dramas, key players suspended, underperforming big money players and they have lost the heart and soul of the club in Tyson Frizelle who signed with the Newcastle Knights and their now ex-captain, Cameron McInnes to a season ending injury and has signed with the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks for 2022.
On paper, the Dragons have a competitive side, but I doubt even the experienced Anthony Griffin will get the best out these players.
15th place: Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
There are three huge concerns for the Sea Eagles heading into the 2021 season. First is the terrible defence they showed at the backend of last season, conceding more than 30 points in five of the last six matches. Second is the lack of quality with their depth, suffering a huge injury toll last season and several of their fringe players who came in as cover were not up to NRL standard. Third is the fitness of star fullback Tom Trbojevic who suffered multiple injuries last season and the teams dismal record without him on the field.
There is also the question of whether they can make up for the loss of front row enforcer Addin Fonua-Blake. Kieran Foran returns to the Northern Beaches to link up with Daly Cherry-Evans for the first time since 2015, but I am unconvinced with the inconsistent form of Cherry-Evans in recent seasons. I believe they will be a contender for the clubs first ever wooden spoon.Embed from Getty Images
14th place: Brisbane Broncos
I expect the Broncos to improve under new coach Kevin Walters after their catastrophic 2020 season in which the once glamour club collected their first wooden spoon.
Although they have lost key players, most notably David Fifita to the Titans, they still have a side stacked with quality young talent. The obvious problem is that young talent does not have the experienced heads to lead them. A lot will depend on the fitness and form of marquee half Anthony Milford and it was Walters that got the best out of him in 2015 in his role as halves coach.
Walters needs time and patience to get the best out of this team, and to get the team he wants. They are a young and inexperienced side, but I expect their defence and attitude woes to gradually improve throughout the season.
13th place: Wests Tigers
It will be the usual case of the more things change, the more they stay the same for the Tigers.
They have recruited some quality players like James Tamou, James Roberts and Joe Ofahengaue, but lose star players Benji Marshall, Josh Aloiai and Harry Grant. I think their 2021 squad is inferior to the squad they had last season, which they finished 11th.
Luke Brooks has never led this club to the finals since he debuted in 2013. At 26 years of age, the time for him to reach the prime of his career is now but whether he will ever reach his full potential at the Tigers remains to be seen.
Despite their trial form, it is hard to see them improving.
12th place: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
The Bulldogs head into the new season looking fresh with a new coach and some quality signings but are still missing a number of key pieces to the puzzle, with the likes of Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr not arriving to the club until 2022. They have a staggering 18 players coming off contract at the end of this season so expect other key signings to occur during the season.
It is a rebuild year. Trent Barrett will look to build a new culture and revitalise their attack in the way he oversaw the Panthers attack which led them to a grand final last season. I expect the Bulldogs to compete well against the top sides and knock off a few of the bottom teams, but I think they are still 12-months away from challenging for a finals birth.
11th place: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
I have a few bold predictions and the Sharks taking a nosedive out of the top eight is one of them. They still have a reasonably competitive side on paper, but several of their marquee players are aging, injury prone and have not produced their best football for a long time.
Matt Moylan has been a big money flop, mainly due to injuries. One could argue that Andrew Fifita’s best days are behind him and has also struggled with injuries in recent years. Like Fifita, Josh Dugan is injury prone and is well past his best football.
Their most dangerous player, Shaun Johnson was prolific in setting up most of the Sharks tries last season, but an Achilles injury means he will not be available until at least round eight – but even then, he may take a while to find his feet, especially with the new rules increasing the speed of the game.
10th place: North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys are the great unknown in the lead up to this season. I have already seen predictions from several pundits who have them finishing anywhere from fifth place to wooden spooners.
The only change to the roster that finished 14th last season is the addition of former Warriors forward Lachlan Burr, but when you look at the quality of their roster, it is hard to fathom how they have been so poor for the past three seasons. New coach Todd Payten has come in off the back of an impressive stint as interim coach of the Warriors.
His first order of business has been to completely refresh the teams stale and predictable structures in attack and defence. I think they will improve slightly, but based on recent seasons, it is hard to see them making the finals.
9th place: Newcastle Knights
The Knights form and attitude at the backend of last season was a real concern, especially during games which they had a lot to play for including a top four position, then a home final and on both occasions they were flogged by bottom eight teams.
Halfback Mitchell Pearce has had his issues off the field, lost the captaincy and has been inconsistent at best in recent seasons. Star fullback Kalyn Ponga will likely miss the first six rounds after shoulder surgery and experienced five-eighth Blake Green will likely miss the first two months of the season as he recovers from an ACL injury, which means the pressure is on Pearce to deliver in the early rounds.
Tyson Frizelle is a huge inclusion, but I think the Knights are still a year away from being premiership contenders.Embed from Getty Images
8th place: New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors have recruited well for this season, especially the signing of front row enforcer Addin Fonua-Blake. He will give them some much needed mongrel and a high work rate in their middle-third.
The Warriors will again be based on the Central Coast until at least June this year while the New Zealand borders remain closed. They impressed everyone with their resilience last season, just missing out on a fairy tale finals birth despite playing away from home and being away from their families for so long. They have built a strong culture within the team and I believe new coach Nathan Brown will only add to that culture and lead them back to the finals.
7th place: Parramatta Eels
I am concerned with another late season fade out from the Eels in 2020. Despite finishing third, they limped into the finals and were bungled out in straight sets.
It has been said that there are some coaches who can lift a team from the bottom of the ladder to finals, from finals to the top four, but it takes a special coach to take a team from fourth to first. Brad Arthur has led the side to the top four, but I am unconvinced if he is the man to lead them from fourth to first and a premiership. The same can be said about whether Mitch Moses is the halfback to lead them to that next level.
They have a great team but based on recent seasons, I expect them to get off to a fast start, but I predict they will again be cooked by the business end of the season.
6th place: Gold Coast Titans
They are probably the most hyped team heading into the new season and I have brought into that hype. Coming off a quality second half of last season which saw them compete well against last years grand finalists the Panthers and then-premiers the Roosters, they went on to finish the regular season with five-straight wins to finish ninth.
Add superstar signings David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to an already impressive forward pack, along with late-blooming halfback Jamal Fogarty, naturally talented five-eighth Ash Taylor and boom fullback AJ Brimson, they will be exciting to watch in 2021.
They also have a potent backline and quality depth. The only issue I see is in the hooking position. But there is a strong culture being built on the glitter strip under the guidance of Mal Meninga and Super League premiership winning coach Justin Holbrook and I boldly predict they will be challenging for a top four spot at the backend of the season.
5th place: South Sydney Rabbitohs
Souths seem to be the overwhelming premiership favourite in the eyes of many, but I am not fully convinced. They have a very potent attack with the likes of Cody Walker, Damien Cook and Latrell Mitchell, but all those good performances at the backened of last season, you need to add in a loss to then-last placed Bulldogs, which is why I think inconsistency will cost them a top four spot. I expect them to lose several players to Origin as well so that period in the season will prove a major challenge.
I also do not believe their forward pack is quite at the level of the Panthers, Storm, Raiders and Roosters. But there is more than enough quality in this team under the guidance of master coach Wayne Bennett and if they can time their run heading into the finals, they could easily win the competition from outside of the top four.
4th place: Sydney Roosters
It has been said that the Roosters have an aging squad but to me, these old pro’s will again be the yardstick for which every other side in the competition is measured.
If you want to talk about age, the Morris twins and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves are aging like a fine wine and are still amongst the best players in the competition in their positions. With the likes of Cleary, Munster, Papenhuyzen and Wighton receiving a lot of media hype recently, I fully expect James Tedesco to start the season on fire, as a friendly reminder that he is still the best player in the world.
I was perplexed at to why Keary was not shifted to halfback last season after playing under the tutelage of Cooper Cronk, but I fully expect him to excel in the seven jersey this season. Top four is a non-negotiable expectation for this club, they will be there again and will challenge for the premiership.
3rd place: Canberra Raiders
The Raiders will again fly under the radar of many pundits in this years premiership race.
They are a side that features the current Dally M medalist in Jack Wighton, arguably the NRL’s premier prop in Josh Papalii and the return of one of the most influential leaders in Josh Hodgson but there does not seem to be many tipping them to win the premiership or even finish in the top four.
They made the grand final two seasons ago and fell one game short of returning to the big dance last season. They have a well-balanced side and potency right across the park. Easily a top four side in my opinion and will prove to be a tough challenge for the other top sides.
2nd place: Melbourne Storm
The reigning premiers will begin their title defence without arguably the greatest player of all time, Cameron Smith for the first time since 2002 and the post ‘big three’ era is finally here for the Melbourne Storm.
But it is amazing to think the old big three of Smith, Cronk and Slater have been replaced by Munster, Grant and Papenhuyzen which shows the excellence of the Storm system. I do not think we will see those predictions of the Storm “falling back into the pack” any time over the next few years.
The only concern will be how they handle pressure in games without the leadership and composure of Smith. That responsibility will fall on Munster’s shoulders but if his performance in the 2020 Origin series is anything to go by, the Storm will be hard to stop again this season.
Minor Premiers: Penrith Panthers
Although the Panthers have let go some experience in James Tamou and Josh Mansour, the maturity level of some of those young blokes is quite impressive. Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo have been promoted to co-captain the side and they will be looking to make amends for last year’s heartbreaking grand final loss to the Storm.
I think they are the most potent attacking team in the competition but the challenge for them is whether they can get themselves up mentally and emotionally each game for another long season. Inexperience is no longer an issue for the Panthers after a grand final and several of their star players being involved in Origin camp last year. I expect them to finish as back-to-back minor premiers, but they will have a huge target on their back come finals time.Embed from Getty Images
Dally M Medal: AJ Brimson
Bold prediction for the Dally M. AJ Brimson is a smokey but his contributions were a major reason why the Titans finished last season with five-straight victories. If the Titans make the finals this year, I expect Brimson to poll votes in most of their wins.
Grand Final: Penrith Panthers vs Canberra Raiders
The Raiders are a side who have proven capable of grinding out important wins against other top sides in recent years, particularly the Storm and I think they can do it again this year when it matters and qualify for the grand final.
As I mentioned, the challenge for the Panthers will be whether they can get themselves up mentally and emotionally for a long season, but I have no doubt they will be ready come finals time. The difference from last year is they played without fear of failure, whereas this year they have the weight of expectation and the pressure of not failing again.
Out of these two sides, I think it would be the Panthers who would more likely to get the wobbles in a grand final, whereas the Raiders would not be under the same pressure and have the ability to grind out a win against a more fancied opponent.
Premiers: Canberra Raiders