The new year has rolled over and we are soon to enter into a whole new NRL season full of triumph, disappointment, scandal, shocks, success and failure.
Following on from Parts 1, 2 and 3 here’s some more NRL identities with a point to prove.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
It seems odd to suggest a 22-year-old with 65 tries and 679 points from 97 games, a two-time premiership winner, two State of Origin series wins, four Australian caps and the reigning Dally M centre of the year has anything to prove, but that’s exactly the situation Latrell Mitchell finds himself in.
Rather than resting on his laurels, Mitchell has signed with a new club mainly for the opportunity to play fullback. As talented as Mitchell is, it will be a big transition for him. Trent Robinson has used Latrell as a low-involvement, high-impact matchwinner to great effect. But you just can’t do that from fullback.
Mitchell’s strengths are his ability to use his power in traffic to create opportunities for himself and the players around him. Typically a fullback needs to play more of a ball-playing role these days. It’s not completely foreign to Mitchell with previous spells in the No. 1 and No. 6 at the Roosters, albeit with mixed success. He’ll also need to improve his endurance, get used to marshalling the defence, learn positional play and cart the ball back 15-plus times a game.
While some would admire a young man for setting himself these challenges, that’s probably unlikely to be the overwhelming reaction Mitchell receives. As well as learning a new position and settling in at a new club, Mitchell will also have to face a legion of death riders and boo boys waiting for any opportunity to gloat (and worse). Every mistake Mitchell makes will be under a microscope.
For so long Craig Bellamy had Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith in Nos. 1, 7 and 9. The process for replacing these legends started in 2018 when Cronk moved to the Roosters, and while the Storm have barely missed a beat on field, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth process.
First it was Brodie Croft versus Riley Jacks for the halfback role. When Croft was selected for the 2018 finals series and Jacks moved to the Gold Coast it looked like a pretty straightforward swap of Croft for Cronk.
In 2019 it was time to find a fullback. Jahrome Hughes got the nod after a preseason injury to Scott Drinkwater and looked to have nailed the spot until the electrifying emergence of Ryan Papenhuyzen from the Storm bench. For a time Bellamy persisted with Croft and Hughes but Papenhuyzen’s presence couldn’t be denied. But what to do with Hughes who was having a very good season of his own?
Bellamy decided to switch Hughes to halfback, benching Croft and ultimately trading him on to the Broncos.
Hughes has nabbed a seat in the post legend game of musical chairs at the Storm, but how secure is he? He’s a very talented player but not necessarily a natural half. He’s also got to work out what his role is. Smith and Munster handle most of the playmaking and kicking duties so Hughes needs to take a backseat to them but that may not be as easy as it sounds.
So Hughes needs to be a team man and support Smith and Munster without getting in their way, but he made his NRL debut back in 2013, and with only 41 games since, Hughes will be keen to make the most of this opportunity and prove he’s an NRL quality half in his own right and not just a second fiddle.
If you had to do this sort of a balancing act, there wouldn’t be a better club, coach and teammates to have to do it with.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys’ unlikely surge to the 2017 grand final without Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott papered over a lot of cracks in North Queensland. Basically, the form of Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo made an ageing roster and out of date game plan look better than they were. The promise of Scott and Thurston returning for 2018 meant that Paul Green and Cowboys didn’t really have to look that hard at themselves.
Green has stuck doggedly to the game plan that brought title success in 2015, using his big forward pack as battering rams with limited offloading and ball movement.
The Cowboys finished 14th for the season and were 14th in points scored. They were fourth for set completions and second-best for handling errors, indicating that they valued weight of possession over quality use of the ball.
Most tellingly, though, they were 12th for offloads and had no players featuring in the NRL’s top 25. It doesn’t sound that bad when you say it quickly, but when you consider this team has hard-to-tackle giants like Taumalolo, Jordan McLean and Coen Hess as well as forwards with skill sets like Josh McGuire, John Asiata, Francis Molo and Gavin Cooper, that shows the sort of shackles this team has been playing in.
The Cowboys have a strong-looking roster on paper but the query is whether Green uses players like Taumalolo, Hess and the other forwards and has the game plan to get the best out of his team. With a premiership, a grand final appearance and four semi-final campaigns in his six years in charge, Green has earnt a few chances, but he needs to show he’s the right man to get the Cowboys back into September footy in the post-Thurston era.
New Zealand Warriors
For anyone who thinks a 47 per cent win record for a long-term coach is a concern, Stephen Kearney says hello. Kearney has had five years as an NRL head coach for a 36 per cent win rate and a lone semi-finals appearance to show for it.
Admittedly he’s had some pretty tough gigs, coaching at Parramatta and the Warriors, but this is his fourth season in charge at New Zealand and that’s usually long enough for a coach to have rebuilt the roster and established a playing style. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, and the Warriors don’t look any closer to sustained success than they did before Kearney took over.
After making the semi-finals in 2018, Kearney went out on a limb and told Shaun Johnson he could negotiate with other clubs. A bold move for a coach desperate for success and one that could make or break his career. While Johnson had an injury-plagued 2019, it doesn’t look to have helped the Warriors as they slid from eighth to 13th on the ladder.
Kearney has an outstanding record as an international coach with a World Cup (with Wayne Bennett as an assistant) two Four Nations titles and five victories over Australia. He’s also got an excellent reputation as an assistant coach with extended periods at the Storm and the Broncos.
It all points to someone who should be able to make their mark at NRL level but, Kearney must be running out of time to make it happen.