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Opinion

The winners and losers of abandoning the 2020 NRL season

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Expert
5th April, 2020
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Putting aside the crippling financial pain being felt across the great game of rugby league, it’s clear that some players and clubs will fare far better than others if the 2020 NRL season is suspended.

Winners

Wests Tigers
The Tigers were never going to qualify for the finals in 2020. The perennial ninth-placers showed real promise in Michael Maguire’s first season in charge, but any talk of the club breaking their eight-year September drought was delusional.

The good news for Tigers supporters is that the club is in good shape. After years of coaching calamities, highlighted by two seasons of Jason Taylor’s finest work, they look to have finally found a long-term replacement for Tim Sheens.

Maguire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, with his maniacal methods said to wear thin on even the most ardent of trainers, but he’s a proven winner. He knows what it takes to put his team in a position to play September football, and outside of Ryan Matterson, the players seem to have bought in.

After years of corporate sniping and boardroom brawling, the Tigers have also cleaned up their back office. When Wests Ashfield Leagues Club assumed majority ownership of the club, they secured the Tigers’ financial future and allowed them to finally focus on putting a decent side on the park each weekend.

This just leaves the playing roster. To put it nicely, the squad Michael Maguire inherited was the rugby league equivalent of an aged-care facility crossed with a juvenile detention centre. The list was littered with players on their last legs or on their last chance, with little in the way of bankable star power.

The Tigers entered last off-season with fat wallet and a mandate to spend, but the best they could come up with was Adam Doueihi. And if you factor in Matterson’s premature departure, the Tigers achieved a net negative result in talent recruitment.

Abandoning the 2020 season would give the Tigers the time they need to plan their next recruitment binge without the indignity of another failed campaign. It would also allow them to move on from off-contract players such as Robert Jennings, Chris Lawrence, Benji Marshall, Chris McQueen and Elijah Taylor, freeing more funds to rebuild the squad and infuse fresh talent.

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Boyd Cordner
The Sydney Roosters and New South Wales skipper was busted heading into the 2020 campaign. After several long seasons, which included Origin series, Kangaroo campaigns and a World Club Challenge – not to mention back-to-back grand finals – Cordner’s dogs were barking.

Boyd Cordner

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Still only 27 years old but with a lifetime of rugby league burdening his broken body, Cordner missed the opening two rounds of the 2020 season. The Roosters claimed it was nothing serious and that they were just managing his workload, but it’s still a concern.

When I think of players having their workload managed, I picture blokes at the back-end of their careers grimly holding on for dear life. Guys like Dean Young, who battled a degenerative knee condition for almost six years, forcing him to train on his own under a constant haze of chronic pain, just to get out on the paddock each week.

A season spent on the sidelines may be exactly what Boyd Cordner’s body needs. Without the constant grind of NRL games and the physicality of training sessions, he may be able to prolong his career by several seasons. And he’s not the only player in this position.

The likes of Wade Graham, Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan seem to be forever battling niggling injuries. Moylan in particular has seen his once promising career derailed by a series of recurrent minor injuries. His hamstrings will certainly thank him if the 2020 season doesn’t come to fruition.

And then there’s the players who’d already lost this season to injury. I’m sure Jack Bird, Billy Smith, Kieran Foran and Jayden Brailey will be thanking their lucky stars that they aren’t missing any football, even while rehabbing from surgery.

Paul McGregor
Paul McGregor entered this season with no job security. Coming off several disappointing campaigns highlighted by underwhelming performances from his star recruits, 2020 shaped up as a make or break year for the embattled coach.

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The rumour mill was running hot that Mary’s Dragons had to deliver a fast start if he had any hope of keeping his job. And while this kind of salacious scuttlebutt makes for a juicy headline, it’s hardly news. It feels like there has always been a red-and-white army demanding McGregor’s resignation.

But this season felt different. After finishing in 15th place last year, the worst performance in the 21-year history of this proud joint-venture club, the Dragons hired former Sharks premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan as McGregor’s assistant.

The terms of Flanagan’s reinstatement mandate that he can’t hold the role of a head coach until 2022 at the earliest, but his presence at the club is the clearest sign yet that the Dragons are planning for life without Mary.

If the 2020 season were to be abandoned, McGregor would likely be spared the axe this year and be given one last opportunity to turn things around in 2021. It may only be a temporary reprieve, but anything can and does happen in rugby league.

Losers

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Nathan Cleary
This was shaping up to be a breakout season for Nathan Cleary. With the departure of his former halves partner James Maloney, Cleary was set to take full carriage of the Panthers attack. Paired with Jarome Luai and aided by the addition of crafty hooker Api Koroisau, Cleary finally had the creative infrastructure around him that he needed to succeed.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers runs the ball

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

The early signs were promising. In wins over the Roosters and Dragons, Cleary showed poise and patience in steering Penrith around the park. Best of all, the young halfback was starting to show the kind of creative flair that has been glaringly absent from his performances over the last two seasons.

Cleary was also likely to regain the New South Wales Origin jersey, which he vacated to Mitchell Pearce for last year’s decider. A favourite of both Brad Fittler and Greg Alexander, the Panthers pivot is viewed as the Blues’ long-term solution in the number seven jersey, and the 2020 series could have been an important step.

Luckily for Cleary, he happens to live with his first-grade coach. While some of his rival halfbacks may be sharpening their FIFA skills or answering the Call of Duty, Cleary will likely be talking tactics and practising his passes.

Nathan Cleary will come back next year as a better player but losing the 2020 season will serve as an unfortunate delay in his development into one of the game’s premier playmakers.

Swansongers
Every player wants to go out on a high by playing their final game at home in front of a full house, or better yet, to sail off into the sunset as a premiership winner. At the very least, players want to exit the game on their own terms rather than having retirement forced upon them.

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out this way. For every Steve Menzies and Cooper Cronk, who both finished their illustrious careers by hoisting the Provan Summons trophy, there are dozens of Darren Lockyers.

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The Brisbane legend and possible future Immortal achieved every accolade the game had to offer. He’d won premierships, captained his club, state and country, and held the record for most premiership appearances. Unfortunately, the rugby league gods care little for such achievements.

In his final season in Brisbane, Lockyer kicked the winning field goal against Wayne Bennett’s Dragons to propel his Broncos into the preliminary final. Had it not been for Gerald Beale’s knee shattering Lockyer’s cheekbone towards the end of the game, the Brisbane five-eighth could have gone out a winner. Instead, he was forced to watch on from the sidelines as his NRL career concluded with a loss to Manly.

So spare a thought for Benji Marshall, Cameron Smith, James Graham and Darius Boyd. This legendary quartet boast a staggering 1445 first-grade games, 160 Test matches and 70 Origin encounters between them, and all were tipped to hang up the boots at the end of the season.

Cameron Smith and Brendon Smith.

(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

But now, who knows? If you’re Darius Boyd, what would you do? Would you go back on your earlier decision and go around again? What about James Graham? Does he risk long-term health complications by putting his body through another NRL season? And do Benji Marshall and Cameron Smith risk playing one season too long in a quest to finish on top?

If I were a betting man and the 2020 season was ultimately abandoned, I’d say that Smith, Marshall and Graham will all return for the 2021 season. These guys love the game of rugby league too much to let the biggest decision of their respective careers be taken out of their hands.

Clubs in their premiership window
As in life, timing is everything in rugby league. Premiership windows remain open for such a short period of time that clubs need to make the most of every opportunity. Because as the Newcastle Knights have shown, you may be waiting a long time for that window to re-open.

The Canberra Raiders find themselves squarely within their premiership window. After coming up short in last year’s decider, a game marred by several controversial decisions, the Raiders were in a good position to go one better in 2020.

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The core of their squad remained largely intact, with the loss of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana largely negated by the signing of Curtis Scott and the emergence of Bailey Simonsson. And the addition of Englishman George Williams was set to add another dimension to their attack.

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This team didn’t just come together overnight. It’s taken coach Ricky Stuart seven long seasons, a king’s ransom in press conference fines and only two top-eight finishes to assemble a collection of players that have the talent, character and attitude that he coveted.

And with the Roosters and Rabbitohs losing several key players, Manly still a little light on depth, and the Storm’s recent inability to defeat the Raiders, this season really looked like a golden opportunity for Canberra to win their first premiership since 1994.

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The Parramatta Eels find themselves in a similar position. After years of manoeuvring up and down the competition table like a game of snakes and ladders, Brad Arthur looked to have finally put together a squad capable of contending for the title.

While the Eels may only now be entering their premiership window, as opposed to the Raiders, who are sitting squarely in the middle of theirs, this will still go down as a missed opportunity for the blue and gold if the season does not recommence.