Professional sport is a high-pressure environment.
Every year, every player and coach is under the gun to perform their best. But every year the spotlight shines brighter on a few who have that extra bit of incentive to prove a point.
It may be a young player looking to make a name for himself, an off-contract player wanting to prove his worth for his next big contract or a success-starved coach desperately trying to keep his job under mounting pressure.
Here are the people for each club who have a point to prove in 2020.
Opinions are divided on Lachlan Lewis’ short NRL career. Some call him a player of potential and a star of the future, while others think he’s a good defender but a one-trick pony in attack.
One thing that’s not up for debate is that with the season-ending injury to Kieran Foran, the Bulldogs need at least one of Lewis, Jack Cogger or Brandon Wakeham to stand up, take control of the team and transition from promising to become a genuine first-grader. The Lewis name probably puts a bit more pressure on ‘the Prince of Belmore’.
It’s no secret the Dogs have struggled to score points and get through the line over the last few seasons. They desperately need to find ways to break the line rather than grinding their way to field position and far more creativity when they do get into the red zone.
All of these things are specific areas where Lewis needs to improve his own game. While no one doubts his toughness – see his ongoing stoush with Sam Burgess last Good Friday – there are question marks whether he’s the man to lead the Bulldogs up from the foot of the table.
Speaking of a young half looking to make a name for himself, is there anyone in the game with bigger shoes to fill than Kyle Flanagan?
When the Roosters signed Cooper Cronk there were questions asked about whether the move would damage his legacy. The general feeling was that anything less than a premiership across the two years would be a failure. Cronk delivered two including his piece de resistance in 2018 with a broken scapula.
So what are the expectations for the 21-year-old nine-gamer?
Certainly not what they were for Cronk, but no doubt Flanagan will be under the pump as the Roosters chase a third consecutive premiership. Not only is there pressure to replace Cronk but the Roosters will lose one of their main attacking weapons with Latrell Mitchell moving on to the Bondi club’s arch rivals. Mitchell has been a top-ten try-scorer in each of the past three seasons and there’s no obvious replacement.
Roosters fans demand success and rightly or wrongly Flanagan may be in the crosshairs if they don’t get it.
Even with Paul Gallen and Matt Prior moving on, the Sharks have a tough pack. They have a big, mobile middle third and pace and skill down both edges. The query is on the spine and more specifically whether Matt Moylan and Shaun Johnson can spend enough time on the park to build combinations and lead the team to success.
In 2019, Johnson and Moylan didn’t spend more than three consecutive weeks in the team together. Johnson’s longest run in the side was ten weeks, while Moylan only managed five games on the trot. In their time on the park, Johnson had 16 try assists from his 18 games while Moylan had eight from 11, demonstrating their importance to the Sharks’ attack.
Both are brilliant players on their day but neither is renowned for their consistency. That’s made all the more challenging by being off the field. So while Johnson and Moylan are being nominated here at the Sharks, maybe it’s really the Cronulla medical staff most under the pump!
If Cronulla are to do anything in 2020, Moylan and Johnson need to be on the field, fit and firing.
Unsurprisingly, the focus at the foot of the mountains will be the Clearys.
Ivan is in the unique position of having been poached, sacked and then re-poached by his current employer. Cleary’s had a 13-year coaching career with one grand final appearance and a 47 per cent win rate. While there’s a seemingly never-ending talent pool coming through at the Panthers, the onus is on having a coach who can turn generation next into a premiership threat rather than seeing them regularly dispersed throughout the NRL.
Nathan is a young gun halfback who is yet to truly fire since his breakthrough 2017 season. Cleary has his hands on the ball a lot at the Panthers and steers the team around the park but James Maloney has been the go-to man for points and creativity in attack.
With Maloney moving on, that pressure to create opportunities and points will sit squarely with Cleary. It will be fascinating to see how he responds. He’ll also have to do it with a new hooker and inexperienced halves partner and fullback.
It’s a big ask considering Cleary is only 22 himself, but when you have 79 games’ experience and have been a part of two winning Origin series, expectations get raised.