With 20 rounds to play, no Origin break and no byes, the eventual winners of the 2020 NRL season will justifiably hold their heads high.
This is no usual year but let there be no mistake, the victors on grand final night will have every right to call themselves the legitimate premiers.
However, just because our winners will be entitled to wear their premiership rings with pride and, in all likelihood, get a shit tatt to have their accomplishment forever etched into their skin, the other end of the table will be a different story.
Because while there is no asterisk to be found in the 2020 history books to delegitimise the club that claims the Provan-Summons Trophy (vale Arthur), there will be plenty of excuses for teams that inevitably struggle.
And while a wooden spoon season can be enough to see a coach get the sack – unless you’re Nathan Brown – there’s a decent chance we won’t see any team fire their clipboard holder this year.
So who’s got the best excuses in case things go pear-shaped when the comp resumes?
Now in his sixth season as a head coach, the evidence suggests that while Stephen Kearney makes for a great assistant and a World Cup title proves he can lead rep sides, he’s probably not a long-term club coach.
In five completed seasons he has won just 35 per cent of his games, with the Warriors’ 2018 season the only time he’s steered a side to the finals.
However, the Kiwi club have indefinitely relocated to Australia and Kearney is their leader in what will surely be the most difficult season in their history.
It could yet be the making of both the Warriors as an organisation and Kearney as a mentor – they’ll certainly be everyone’s second-favourite team and the other clubs will hopefully show them the kind of respect Canberra paid them after their Round 2 match.
But if things don’t go so hot and the Auckland-based team struggle for wins, reckon anyone at the organisation will be game to fire Kearney?
Regarded as one of the game’s nice guys, if it all goes to pot for the Warriors, the man doing his all to keep his players motivated in a foreign country for an undetermined period of time will be heralded as a hero.
I hope the Warriors make a fist of it and really shake the comp up.
If they don’t however, the coach can rest assured his job isn’t under any threat.
The man in the hottest seat in the comp at the start of the season, Paul McGregor kicked off 2020 with a pair of losses.
If things had continued the way things were going, you’d have to think ‘Mary’ would have been out of work by midway through the season – the Dragons having given the coach more than his share of rope.
But COVID-19 has reset the comp and, with it, expectations of what success and failure look like.
Funnily enough, what may save McGregor in the short term is the same person who looks set to cost him his coaching gig in the future.
His 2IC at St George Illawarra is Shane Flanagan, the premiership-winning coach who signed with the Red V this season after being deregistered by the NRL at the end of 2018.
Under the terms of his return to the game, Flanagan is not allowed to be a head coach until 2022, so while he acknowledged earlier this year that McGregor’s future was “the elephant in the room”, the club can’t shuffle their assistant up a rung if results don’t go their way this season.
If it had been any other year, you’d think poor results would have seen ‘Mary’ given the boot, with an interim coach keeping the seat warm for Flanagan until 2022.
But given the disruption to 2020, a poor season for McGregor is more likely to be forgiven, with the club realising it’s financially prudent to let the current coach ride out the next two seasons before replacing him with the bloke at the club whose CV is more impressive from a win-rate perspective, albeit far less impressive from a disciplinary point of view.
The Roosters’ three-peat
Trent Robinson’s team broke a decades-long record last year when they won back-to-back titles for the first time since the ‘90s.
And while they lost some serious talent ahead of 2020, with Cooper Cronk retiring and Latrell Mitchell heading to Souths, you’d be a fool to write off a team featuring the likes of James Tedesco, Boyd Cordner, Luke Keary, Joey Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Victor Radley…
The Chooks are stacked with talent and have arguably the best coach in the game. If any club could win three from three for the first time since the Eels of the early ‘80s, it’s this club.
And, in fact, you could probably argue that with no Origin interference, Easts are in an even better position to mount a charge for an elusive third title on the trot.
But club chairman Nick Politis has already trotted out the excuses, arguing his side have been unfairly put out because they were 0-2 when the season was suspended and the new draw “makes it almost mathematically impossible for the bottom sides to make the top four”.
“If you change the draw, you’ve got to start again. If the current points are to stand, we have to play over a full season,” Politis told the Daily Telegraph.
“It’s like changing the race from a Melbourne Cup (two miles) to a Doncaster (one mile) after it’s already started.
He’s wrong of course – you don’t play to lose, Nick – but there he was, preparing his arguments for why his club will have been hard done-by if they don’t break an almost 40-year-old record.
Will the Roosters make it three in a row? Like I said, given the talent at their disposal, I wouldn’t put it past them.
But much like Kearney and McGregor, if the Chooks fail – and the definition of failure for that club these days is not winning the title – they’ve got their excuses locked and loaded.