With Part 1 analysing the people behind the scenes, the players make up Part 2.
Just over one month has passed since the Melbourne Storm claimed what may go down as the toughest premiership ever won in Australian rugby league history, but already preparations have begun in earnest for the 2021 National Rugby League season.
After this year’s season was suspended for two months, then subsequently rewritten and reduced to 20 rounds due to the coronavirus pandemic, things will revert back to normal in 2021, with a 25-round season and State of Origin returning to its traditional mid-season slot.
The traditional matches will also return – not least the Good Friday clash between the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs, the Anzac Day clash between the Dragons and Roosters, and Magic Round, which was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
With free travel between New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT and Queensland resuming, it remains to be seen whether teams will continue to fly in and out for matches, or whether they will be allowed to stay in hotels overnight and return home the day after matches.
Another topic of discussion will be the fate of the New Zealand Warriors in 2021, with free travel between Australia and New Zealand expected to resume by next March (currently, New Zealanders can travel to Australia quarantine-free in that direction only).
Whatever happens between now and the start of next season as far as the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic and the race for the vaccine could suddenly shake up the fixture, which was released this week.
Nevertheless, here are some of the highlights that you will be treated to in 2021.
1. The opening round
As always, the first round of every season is the most anticipated, and Round 1 next year will bring up a myriad of subplots.
The season will kick off on Thursday, March 11 when the Melbourne Storm begins their premiership defence against Wayne Bennett’s South Sydney Rabbitohs, in what will be the first match to be played in the Victorian capital since June 5 this year.
A devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, which has since been crushed, forced Craig Bellamy’s side out of their home state indefinitely, with the side setting up camp on the Sunshine Coast until the end of the season.
Despite having to spend up to four months away from family and friends, the Storm adapted well to the conditions and went on to win their fourth premiership while playing their home games on the Sunshine Coast and in Brisbane.
It is the Rabbitohs who are tasked with spoiling the Storm’s long-awaited homecoming, and two major hoodoos will be against them as Wayne Bennett looks to deliver a premiership to Redfern in his final year at the helm of the game’s greatest club.
Firstly, the Bunnies have never won in Melbourne, coming closest when they lost a qualifying final heart-breaker by 29-28 in 2018, plus the Storm have not lost in Round 1 since 2001, though they did drop their first game of the 2004 season after having a bye in Round 1.
It is also expected that a new era will dawn at AAMI Park, with Cameron Smith not expected to line up for the Storm with news of his imminent retirement looming.
Another homecoming that is set to occur in Round 1 will be when the New Zealand Warriors host the Gold Coast Titans at Mount Smart Stadium in their first true home game since 2019.
The Warriors were already in Australia preparing for their Round 1 clash against the Knights when, in March, prime minister Jacinda Ardern suddenly shut her country’s borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all arrivals being forced into two weeks’ self-isolation.
The Kiwi club then played their Round 2 match against the Canberra Raiders, which was originally set for Eden Park, on the Gold Coast before the season was suspended for two months, during which time the club returned home to New Zealand and self-isolated for a fortnight.
Upon the season resumption, the Warriors based themselves on the Central Coast for the remainder of the season, and the sacrifices they made in leaving behind their families to keep the NRL season alive won them the respect of the Australian sporting community.
Despite the circumstances that were thrown at them, including having their coach Stephen Kearney sacked after Round 6, the club remained competitive for most of the year, winning eight of their 20 matches and finishing tenth on the ladder.
The Warriors will also have a new coach in Nathan Brown, before which now-Cowboys coach Todd Payten deputised following Kearney’s departure from the club.
Thus, both the Storm and Warriors home matches will have the potential to be well-attended, even if crowd capacities remain restricted, though the latter’s home game remains dependent on whether Australians will be allowed to travel to New Zealand by then.
Another Round 1 match expected to generate fireworks will be the one between the Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels at Suncorp Stadium, with favourite son Kevin Walters given the task of restoring the Broncos’ status as a powerhouse club after a tumultuous few years.
The Broncos were one of the biggest disappointment stories of season 2020, with the club winning only three matches and suffering a record 59-0 defeat at the hands of the Sydney Roosters as they crashed to the bottom of the ladder for the first time in their history.
Despite the hype surrounding his appointment as Broncos coach in December 2018, Anthony Seibold bowed to pressure and departed mid-season, leaving Peter Gentle (now at the Dragons) to oversee their dramatic fall from grace.
Now, Walters has been given the unenviable task of attempting to end the club’s longest premiership drought, which is now 14 seasons. With Darius Boyd’s retirement at the end of this season, no survivors remain from their 2006 premiership side.
It has meant that Walters, who captained the club to the 2000 title, was forced to relinquish the Queensland Origin coaching role, which Wayne Bennett assumed this year.
He and the Broncos will attempt to overcome an 87-year hoodoo, with no club having gone from wooden spooners to premiers in the space of 12 months since the Western Suburbs did so in 1933-34.
In recent times, the Panthers (2001-03), Bulldogs (2002-04), Storm (2010-12) and Sharks (2014-16) have managed to rise from the bottom to the top in a three-season period, though in the case of the Bulldogs and Storm, they were quick to rebound from severe salary cap breaches in 2002 and 2010 respectively.
In other Round 1 matches, Todd Payten will have a tough initiation as Cowboys coach, with the men from Townsville to be sent to the foot of the mountains where they will face last year’s beaten grand finalists, the Penrith Panthers.
Anthony Griffin’s first match as Dragons coach will be a local derby against the Cronulla Sharks, while the Wests Tigers have copped the short straw, being sent down the highway for a tough opening-clash against the Raiders in Canberra.
2. Titans vs Broncos, Round 2
We will not have to wait long for south-east Queensland bragging rights to go on the line, with one of last year’s most improved teams, the Gold Coast Titans, to host the Brisbane Broncos in a Friday night Gold Coast blockbuster.
Lighting the fuse will be the appearance of David Fifita in Titans colours, with his acquisition by the club being one of many as the club seeks to return to the finals for just the second time since 2010, and fourth overall.
The men from the holiday strip finished last season strongly, winning six of their last eight matches to finish ninth on the ladder in a promising first season under rookie coach Justin Holbrook.
Among their nine wins were two against the Broncos, this meant that the Titans became the first Gold Coast franchise in Australian rugby league history to beat the men from Red Hill twice in the one season.
But despite coming off a wooden spoon season, the Broncos will be expected to be a tougher proposition under new coach Kevin Walters, and they have made it clear they will not want to cop another loss against the men from down the M1.
Another match to watch in Round 2 will be that between the Sharks and Raiders, in what will be their first meeting since last year’s finals series, in which the Green Machine stamped their authority and made the Sharks’ finals foray a brief one.
3. The grand final rematch, Round 3
The Penrith Panthers will not have to wait long for a shot at revenge against the Melbourne Storm, with the grand final rematch pencilled in for Thursday, March 25 at Panthers Stadium.
Despite being the best team by a mile last season, inexperience and nerves got the better of the mountain men in the decider, with the Storm’s big-game experience proving to be the difference as the men from Victoria claimed their fourth title.
The Panthers had trailed 22-0 at halftime, and fell behind by 26-0 early in the second half, but showed why they were the most consistent team of 2020 when they pegged back 20 unanswered points and very nearly forced golden point at the death.
But in the end, it was Cameron Smith’s side that were left to hoist the premiership trophy, and even then he may not be present as the Storm face the Panthers for the first time since grand final night last month.
The Storm will get their chance to host the Panthers with a second rematch scheduled to be played on a Saturday night at AAMI Park in Round 20.
Also in Round 3, the latest chapter in the Book of Feuds will be rewritten when the Rabbitohs face the Roosters in a Friday night showdown at ANZ Stadium.
It will be the first time the game’s two oldest clubs face off since Round 25 last season, when Alex Johnston scored five tries as the Bunnies inflicted humiliation upon their greatest rivals with a 60-8 victory at the Olympic Stadium.
Fittingly, that came on the 20th anniversary of Cathy Freeman – a Rabbitohs supporter – winning the gold medal in the 400-metre race inside that very stadium at the Sydney Olympics.
Thus, nearly all rugby league supporters will await the next chapter between the Bunnies and Roosters with a lot of intrigue.
4. The Tyson Frizell Cup, Round 4
Tyson Frizell will not have to wait long to face his former teammates, with the Newcastle Knights drawn to face the St George Illawarra Dragons at home on a Sunday afternoon in Round 4.
After a difficult few years, the Novocastrians, under rookie coach Adam O’Brien, did well to reach their first finals series since 2013, only to be bundled out at the first hurdle when they dropped their elimination final against the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium.
With the acquisition of Frizell, the Knights will be expected to take the next step up, and as long as their halves Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce remain fit and firing, there will be no excuses at McDonald Jones Stadium in 2021.
New Dragons coach Anthony Griffin will also want his side to be firing early in the season, with the Red V being handed a tough draw as they attempt to return to finals for just the third time since 2011.
That match is only part of a blockbuster Easter round, which also sees the Bulldogs face the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium, as well as the Storm hosting the Broncos at AAMI Park.
5. Rabbitohs versus Wests Tigers, Round 6
The Round 6 match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers promises to be intriguing as it will mark the first time new Tigers recruit James Roberts faces his old club after walking out of Redfern earlier this month.
Mental health reasons saw Roberts forgo the second year of his two-year contract with the Bunnies, and despite fears that we’d seen the last of him in the NRL, the Tigers were quick to snap up his services.
He will be reunited with Tigers coach Michael Maguire, who was his coach during his first stint at Redfern in the early part of last decade.
With the first of two matches between the two sides being played at ANZ Stadium, Roberts will expect to cop it from the Bunnies fans, but will have the home crowd in his corner with the Tigers hosting the return leg at Leichhardt Oval in Round 16.
6. Magic Round
After Magic Round was called off this year due to the impact of COVID-19, the footy festival returns next season, with Suncorp Stadium to again be the epicentre of the rugby league universe when it hosts all eight matches in Round 10.
Six of the eight matches that were originally scheduled as part of the cancelled Magic Round in 2020 will carry over into next year, those being the Sea Eagles versus Broncos, Bulldogs versus Raiders, Roosters versus Cowboys, Warriors versus Eels, Storm versus Dragons and Titans versus Panthers.
The Knights and Broncos will play in separate matches on Friday, May 14 – 17 years after the two clubs contested a dramatic golden point match, which the Novocastrians won 17-16, thanks to the boot of Kurt Gidley.
Unlike the inaugural Magic Round in 2019, there will be no Thursday night match. To compensate, Channel Nine will cover the Saturday night match between the Roosters and Cowboys, while they will also cover the Sea Eagles-Broncos and Storm-Dragons matches.
For the Dragons it will be their only match in south-east Queensland this year, with their only other match in the sunshine state being in Round 2 when they face the Cowboys in Townsville.
7. Wayne Bennett versus the Broncos for the final time
The Round 15 match between the Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs could mark the final time veteran coach Wayne Bennett comes up against the club he coached to their six premierships.
Season 2021 won’t just be Bennett’s final year in charge of the Pride of the League, it’s also expected to be his final year of coaching at the top level given he will be 72 on New Years’ Day in 2022.
Before he hands the clipboard to Jason Demetriou, the super coach will have one final shot at the Broncos, who will be coached by his 2000 premiership-winning captain Kevin Walters, thus writing another new chapter in the rivalry between the two clubs.
Already the two sides would’ve met at ANZ Stadium in Round 5, but the return leg at Suncorp promises to be an emotional one as it is likely to be the final time Bennett graces the ground as an NRL coach.
He will also be attempting to mastermind the Bunnies’ first win over the Broncos in Brisbane since Round 1, 2015, which ironically saw the super coach back in charge at Red Hill after three years at the Dragons (2009-11) and Knights (2012-14).
The Broncos’ 22-18 win in front of an empty stadium in Round 2 this year was one of just three for the northerners in the season just completed, and was the only time the now-departed Anthony Seibold managed to snag a win against Bennett.
8. The Battle of Brookvale, Round 21
While it is somewhat disappointing that the Sea Eagles and Storm won’t meet on August 26 – exactly a decade since the infamous Battle of Brookvale – the Round 21 match between the two sides at Lottoland still promises to deliver plenty of intrigue.
By the time they face off in the suburban ground on August 7, the Manly halves, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, will be the only survivors from that match still playing today (though Cameron Smith has not yet announced his retirement but is expected to do so soon).
They, of course, masterminded the Sea Eagles’ 2011 premiership win with Cherry-Evans, now captain of the club, being a rookie halfback in his first year in the top grade.
Before that, though, the Sea Eagles and Storm engaged in one of the most violent matches in recent times when the match spilled into an all-in brawl at the 26-minute mark of the first half.
What unfolded was absolute anarchy as Glenn Stewart and Adam Blair traded punches on their way to the sin-bin, resulting in both being sent off from the field.
Then-NRL CEO David Gallop condemned the actions of both clubs, saying the brawl “was a horrendous look for the game”.
But while there have not been any particularly violent matches between the two clubs at Brookvale Oval since, this match-up at the ground remains a must-watch, especially with this clash coming in the run to September.
9. State of Origin
After this year’s series was pushed back to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, State of Origin returns to its rightful slot next year, with three matches to be played across five weeks in June and July.
The prospect of this year’s series being played in front of empty stadiums was what prompted the Australian Rugby League Commission to schedule it for the post-season for the first time in the concept’s history.
History will tell us that what was dubbed “the worst ever Queensland side” won the series 2-1, though it was New South Wales that scored more points, outscoring the northerners by 62-48 across the three matches.
While venues are still to be confirmed by the NRL, it’s likely Melbourne will host the first match, with Brisbane to host the second and a potential decider set down for Sydney.
But come Game 1 on June 9, the Blues will be out to regain the Origin shield, and there are also reports incumbent coach Brad Fittler could be moved on should they lose the series for the second year in a row.
The Maroons are guaranteed to have a new coach, with Kevin Walters and Wayne Bennett both out of the running due to club commitments. Former Cowboys coach Paul Green is firming as the favourite to be named the latter’s successor.
The women’s State of Origin match is set down for Friday, June 25, with a venue still to be decided.
10. The NRL finals
Finally, 25 rounds of jam-packed action will culminate in four weeks of finals, the pinnacle of which is the grand final scheduled for Sunday, October 3 at ANZ Stadium.
As defending premiers, the Melbourne Storm will have the biggest targets on their heads as 15 other clubs attempt to stop them from going back-to-back for the first time in their history.
The Roosters, Rabbitohs and Panthers are among the other clubs expected to feature in September, with questions to be asked of the mountain men as to whether they can put behind their grand final disappointment and go one better in 2021.
Another question to be asked is whether Wayne Bennett can finally lead the Bunnies to the promised land in his final year in charge at Redfern, while the Roosters could potentially cement themselves as the most consistent team of the century with a fifth title in two decades.
Next year’s league decider will take place one week after the AFL’s, meaning the sport will have the lead-up week all to itself.
Those are just some of the highlights of the 2021 NRL fixture, which is always filled with excitement and intrigue. The countdown is now on to Thursday, March 11, with the season kicking off between the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs at AAMI Park.