2020 was both a year to remember and a year we all want to forget.
Before the start of every NRL season there are those players and coaches for whom the spotlight shines a little brighter, the bar is set a little higher or who are just a little more determined to prove the knockers wrong.
Here’s the person from each club with the most to prove heading into 2019
Jack Bird was a prodigious junior talent with the Dragons whose signing by rivals Cronulla was big news considering he was yet to play first grade.
When his chance came in 2015, he exploded onto the scene with two tries and an assist on debut. That year, he represented NSW Country and was named Dally M rookie of the year.
By the end of 2017, he’d represented the Indigenous All-Stars, played five games for NSW, won a premiership (playing the grand final with a broken arm), been selected for the PM’s XIII and signed a reported $4 million, four-year contract with the Broncos.
But that was when the wheels fell off. Bird showed up to the Broncos with an injured wing and then reported for pre-season training overweight (possibly as a result of daily McDonald’s gift cards!) Bird put in a few lacklustre performances before suffering a serious sternum injury that put him out for the season.
A million bucks (if it is a million) is a lot to pay any player. It’s a hell of a lot for a centre and it’s an astronomical for amount a centre who’s overweight, out of form or injured.
He’s a massively talented player but he’s under pressure to bounce back to his best.
Honourable mention to Darius Boyd playing his first season without Wayne Bennett for a long time.
Ricky Stuart is always in the spotlight in the nation’s capital – and has more than his fair share of critics – but he only gets an honourable mention here.
Jack Wighton is an immensely talented footballer. He goes through parts of seasons where he looks like he’s ready to play representative football and then others where the simplest skills seem beyond him.
Maybe it’s confidence, but he’s never quite found the key to consistency. This year he also faces playing in the front line. He whacks hard in defence so that won’t be an issue, but has he got the nous to steer a team – that for years has been crying out for direction – around the park?
His combination with Aiden Sezer or Sam Williams will be critical to the Raiders season.
He’s also coming off the back of an NRL imposed 10-week ban for pleading guilty to five counts of assault in June last year.
Another player seeking redemption is Kieran Foran. At the end of 2015, Foran had a premiership to his name, was a regular in the Kiwi test side, had just signed a big money deal with Parramatta and was widely regarded as the sort of outstanding young man you could build a club around.
Within months, Foran went through the break up of his long-term relationship, overdosed on prescription medication, was caught up in the Parramatta salary cap scandal, was fighting numerous legal battles, had gambling accusations made against him, was admitted to rehab and suffered a season ending injury.
On field, his form has been poor. His spells at Parramatta and the Warriors ended with a whimper and his first season at the Bulldogs was one to forget with poor performances, a lack of cohesion and a season ending toe injury. The fact the Bulldogs looked much better with rookie halves in his stead is a damning indictment.
The Bulldogs need a quality playmaker more than any other position and Foran is their big money man. From his perspective it’s a case of if not 2019, then when?
Honourable mention to the man that replaced Foran, Lachlan Lewis. Lewis lit up the NRL at the end of last season but is now entering the dreaded second year where he’ll get a lot more attention.
It has to be the Sharks big offseason signing Shaun Johnson. It’s not often a team, and a typically struggling team at that, will voluntarily let their best player walk, but that’s what the Warriors have done.
At his best, Johnson is one of the most skilled and talented players in the comp – but he’s been plagued with claims of inconsistency over the course of his career.
It’s not going to be easy in the Shire either. Johnson will be replacing former crowd favourite Valentine Holmes and is walking into a club with potential salary cap issues and a sacked coach who’s been replaced by a rookie. Expectations are massive and there are plenty who’ll say that’s when Johnson is least likely to deliver.
Honourable mentions to new coach John Morris and Johnson’s equally mercurial spine partner Matt Moylan.
Gold Coast Titans
In 2018, Ryan James ran for 118 metres per game and averaged 40 tackles. He averaged one offload and two tackle breaks a game and found his way to the try line six times – not bad for a middle third forward.
He had a horrid time at the selection table though. Before Origin 1, he was told he’d been selected, but in the time it took him to get home and pack his bag he got a call to say the selectors were going with David Klemmer instead. Same with Origin 2, when Reagan Campbell-Gillard was out injured.
This time it was Matt Prior who got the late nod in front of James. For Game 3, Prior was dropped but Tariq Sims leapfrogged James, who again wore the unluckiest number of all – 18.
This will be a big season for James. He has a strong pack around him and there’s talk about him playing on an edge, although we’ve heard that before about him at this time of year.
Garth Brennan gets an honourable mention. He’s had a bit of grace since moving to the Titans but this is finally looking like his side and not a team he’s inherited. They’ve got quality across the park and top eight must be the target.
Manly Sea Eagles
Has to be the nutty professor Des Hasler. In 14 seasons as an NRL coach (2004-2017), Hasler’s teams appeared in 12 consecutive semi finals series, making five grand finals and winning two premierships. That’s an outstanding record by any measure.
His great Manly sides went toe-to-toe for years with a Melbourne team that was proven to be over the cap. When he arrived at the Bulldogs he developed a completely different style of forward play, marked by crisp interchange passing around the middle of the ruck.
Yet, Hasler comes into season 2019 as a maligned coach despite his record. His exciting style of forward play with the Bulldogs quickly became turgid and stale. Hasler also left both clubs with financial dramas as a result of messy back-ended contracts.
Is Hasler still an eccentric rugby league genius or has the game passed him by? Was his success due to revolutionary coaching or was it all just salary cap smoke and mirrors?
Tough to pick an honourable mention here, but Kane Elgey is a man with a point to prove. He burst onto the scene in 2015, a bad knee injury put him out in 2016 and his form since has been ordinary. Manly desperately need a five-eighth to step up and help Daly Cherry-Evans run the team.
A really tough one to pick as there isn’t a standout. Maybe this is controversial, but I’m nominating Craig Bellamy. Bellamy has achieved plenty in the game with two premierships, minor premierships, ubiquitous semi final appearances, world club challenges and doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.
Bellamy has often said that he’ll retire once the ‘big three’ do. Well, we’re now two thirds of the way there. He’s built a reputation on developing players from a young age and by squeezing every drop of ability from league journeymen. Those skills will need to be on display this season with only Cameron Smith left from Bellamy’s famous triumvirate.
It’s 12 months since Cooper Cronk’s exit and his replacement still isn’t nailed down 12 months on. Now, Bellamy needs to confirm who’ll take over from Billy Slater as well as start the succession transition from Cameron to Brandon Smith. Nothing to prove, but this could be one of Bellamy’s most challenging seasons.
Honourable mention to Will Chambers who has gone from being arguably the best centre in the game to getting ‘owned’ by Latrell Mitchell on a couple of occasions.
It’s easy to get coach heavy as they’re always the blokes most under the gun, but for the Knights it’s got to be Nathan Brown.
He’s been with the Knights through their darkest days of three straight wooden spoons. He’s overseen the rebuild, nursing young local players through before splashing out on some imported talent.
This is his side and, as a result, there are no excuses. Not only has he got talent across the park but the Knights have got depth in a lot of positions. If the Knights aren’t successful from the start, Brownie could be in the crosshairs.
Like a lot of people, I rate Kalyn Ponga as one of the most exciting talents I’ve seen. He’s only 20 though, with 29 games under his belt and a huge switch from fullback to five eighth. A lot to live up to.
North Queensland Cowboys
At the back end of 2017, barely 18 months ago, Michael Morgan was the in-form player of the game. His month-long jag of red hot form helped a severely depleted Cowboys make an almost fairytale charge through to the grand final.
With Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott coming back into the team, a lot of punters thought it would be the Cowboys by how many in 2018.
It didn’t work out that way for Morgan or the Cows. Morgan sustained an abdominal injury in the preseason and missed the first two competition rounds. On his return he never looked fully right and the 2017 Dally M halfback of the year was shuffled between five-eighth and fullback as the Cowboys struggled for answers in the wake of a 1-5 start to the season.
Morgan was named on the bench for Game 1 of the Origin series but was shuffled into the line-up at fullback after Billy Slater withdrew. His season was finished shortly after by a mid-season bicep injury.
There’s a lot of pressure on Morgan’s shoulders this year. Was 2017 a fluke or can he do it again without JT?
There’s pressure on Paul Green too. The Cowboys looked stale last year and Green has been accused of rolling over the same tactics. Will he do that again or try to spark something new in the post-JT era?
After a strong season following his switch to Parramatta in 2017 and linking with Brad Fittler in Lebanon’s World Cup team, Mitchell Moses seemed virtually anointed to become the Blues five eighth in 2018.
Of course, that never happened as both the Eels and Moses returned to form and struggled for consistency through the season.
Moses is now entering his sixth NRL season and has over a hundred games. It’s time he stopped trading on potential.
The Eels have put their eggs in his basket by moving on halves partner Corey Norman and there’s no doubt Moses is expected to be the main man, with the other Eels’ half still not crystal clear.
At his best, he’s absolutely dynamic but it seems like it’s too easy to put Moses off his game.
He gets rattled, he gets emotional, his head drops and the errors start rolling in. If he can control these lows, he might find the highs easier to hit.
Honourable mention to Brad Arthur. Arthur came into his Parramatta career with big wraps but is now entering his fifth season as head coach. Other than 2017, it’s been pretty grim. Of concern is the Eels have seemingly gone backwards since.
It has to be the Cleary collective at Penrith. The once-sacked coach has been lured back to the foot of the mountains. The conspiracists will have us believe that Ivan has only been signed to shore up the signature of Nathan. Maybe, maybe not.
But it must be a fairly unique situation for a coach to be poached from an opponent, subsequently sacked and then re-hired by the same administrator at the same club.
The Panthers have spent a couple of years fine tuning and moulding their squad and are smack bang in the middle of a genuine premiership window.
They really can’t afford to be pulling the wrong rein with their coach to solve a retention issue.
Nathan is entering his third season. He already has 58 first grade games and has 444 points. He’s pretty cool under pressure, but his play can be a bit one-dimensional at times.
There’s been occasions when James Maloney has been out that Cleary hasn’t stepped up and taken control of the side. Possibly unfair expectations on a 21-year-old half, but not for a Blues incumbent. It will be interesting to see if having dad in charge increases the pressure.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Wayne Bennett is always the centre of attention and, historically, success hasn’t been far away. Bennett won a BRL premiership with Souths early in his coaching career before guiding the Raiders to their first grand final in his only season there.
Of course, he’s synonymous with the Broncos having been in charge from their inception into the NSWRL and overseeing all six of their titles.
He moved to Sydney in 2009 to coach the Dragons and immediately won a minor premiership and the Dragons first title in 21 seasons the following year. A big money transfer to the Knights funded by Nathan Tinkler was next.
In 2013 he took the Knights through a deep semi final run, getting to within one game of the grand final. It seemed the Bennett magic would follow wherever he went.
Everything that could have gone wrong (and more) did go wrong at the Knights in 2014 and Bennett high tailed it out of town and back to the Broncos.
Rightly or wrongly, he’s still blamed by a lot of people for the mess the Knights have been since.
Things seemed to turn around immediately when he got the Broncos to their first grand final since the last one Bennett got them to. Unfortunately things have soured since, despite constant semi-final appearances. The once Midas-like Bennett has now left his previous two clubs without a title. Does he still have what it takes or will Souths be his third strike?
Dishonourable mention to Greg Inglis. One of the all time greatest NRL athletes who was found guilty of drink driving offences last year that cost him the test captaincy. Needs to earn back some respect.
St George-Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons are in the middle of their own premiership window. Paul McGregor has been in charge since midway through the 2014 season. While early results were mixed, he’s assembled one of the best squads in the NRL. What he hasn’t been able to do is time his team’s late season run.
In 2018, the Dragons won eight of their first nine and 12 of 15 but fell in a massive hole and could only win three of their last nine. In 2017, they won six of their first seven but only six of their next 17.
Their high contingent of representative players and their two semi final appearances versus Brisbane and Souths last year are indicative of the quality of this side but they can’t get that out on the paddock consistently enough.
Whether it’s coming out of the blocks too hard, poor roster management through rep season, over reliance on a core group of players or a combative aggressive style that physically takes its toll, McGregor needs to find the answers this season to have a coaching future and get the Dragons a premiership before the window closes.
In his last season in the NRL, the honourable mention goes to Gareth Widdop. His career in Australia has been mostly good including a 2012 premiership with the Storm but he has also had a few poor seasons.
Very tough to pick anyone here but given Angus Crichton is coming into a premiership winning side as an incumbent Origin player – and player moves between league’s oldest enemies never go down well – he’ll be looking to take his game to the next level.
It’s often said that premiership-winning sides need to refresh their roster to keep the energy levels up and competitiveness alive in their squads. The Roosters haven’t been too active on the transfer market – at the pointy end of their roster it’s pretty much Blake Ferguson, Ryan Matterson and Dylan Napa out and Crichton, Brett Morris and Ryan Hall in.
If there’s a knock on Crichton it’s that he hasn’t been up to his normally high standards in big games. He should get plenty of opportunity to fix that.
If anyone gets an honourable mention it’s Trent Robinson. Not that he’s got a point to prove, just exceptionally high standards to live up to. In six years in charge at the Roosters, he’s made the semis five times, claimed three minor premierships and won two grand finals, won a Dally M coach of the year and is striving to be the first coach since Wayne Bennett to go back-to-back.
Another team, another coach. Stephen Kearney has been a coach at the highest levels for a while now but only boasts 32 wins from 91 games in charge in the NRL. Kearney got the Warriors to the semi finals last season for the first time since 2011. This would normally auger well for a coach, however Kearney has given his star player his marching orders in the off season.
Coaches coming into unsuccessful teams tend to get a couple of years grace. The first year is about stopping the slide. The second year is righting the ship.
By the third year, the coach has had the opportunity to make the team his own, get rid of the players he doesn’t want and bring in the players who want to be on the bus.
It’s a massively bold move for Kearney to have axed Shaun Johnson at this time and he may be gambling his career on the outcome.
Shout out to Blake Green. He’s had a not-quite-James-Maloney-like ability to lift teams that he comes into as the second string half. Kearney and the Warriors need him to be the main man.
It seems like a long time since we’ve seen Josh Reynolds out on the footy field. Reynolds left his beloved Bulldogs when the Tigers threw big money his way for the 2018 season. Injured preseason, he didn’t make it on the park until round six, was injured again until round 12 and didn’t play after round 16.
In his first four full first grade seasons, Reynolds had a top five and top six finish in the Dally M, had played in two grand finals, and won an Origin series in the No.6 jersey.
It’s fair to say his career has flatlined since 2014. His success was built on instinctive attacking play and an ultra competitive streak.
It’s also fair to say that competitive streak has got him into strife on a few occasions.
Reynolds will be looking to re-establish himself as an NRL player and you’d think he needs to do it pretty quickly with the amount of coin he’s on. Benji Marshall was signed as a back up but now looks like he could keep Reynolds out of the side. Can’t imagine that sitting well with Reynolds.
I’m going with Luke Brooks for the honourable mention. 2018 was arguably his best season since bursting onto the scene in 2013 inviting comparisons with Andrew Johns – and not just because of the size of their backsides.
Consistency has been a concern and he’d love to follow up with another big season.