With the NRL season approaching, here are some burning questions to consider.
1. Can Nathan Cleary deliver the Panthers a title?
Minor premiers. A 17-match winning streak. The only missing piece of the puzzle was the premiership for the Panthers as they stumbled at the final hurdle against the mighty Melbourne Storm.
You couldn’t call 2020 anything less than a success, Penrith. No, they didn’t capitalise on all their hard work to break a 17-year premiership drought, but they did just about everything else with a side that was downright awful at times in 2019.
The question now is whether Nathan Cleary and the Panthers can get up again and go one better this year? After an early year Tik Tok scandal in 2020 that meant he missed two games, Nathan Cleary was instrumental for the Panthers in seeing them get to the big dance. But on the biggest stage of all, he couldn’t maintain his composure and made some big errors under pressure.
It wasn’t all down to Cleary, you don’t trail 26-0 in a grand final just because of your halfback. But the Panthers failed to maintain composure when they fell behind early in the game, and that was ultimately the difference as they managed to claw back to 26-20 by the final siren.
Their state of mind in the first half was epitomised by Cleary. Down 10-0 after half an hour, Cleary saw space out wide and tried to throw a long ball that was intercepted by Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu, who ran the length of the field to score.
The Panthers hadn’t done much wrong to start the game and only conceded one try. But this was example of a young team, and player under scoreboard pressure. With plenty of time to go, it wasn’t the play and it cost the Panthers in a big way.
If the Panthers go deep into the finals series this year, they need your best players firing. For them it is Nathan Cleary. He is their halfback, goal-kicker and now, co-captain. It is moments like that in the grand final that he just has to nail. He has won plenty of games for the Panthers off his boot and through the hands, but it is now his time to take those championship moments and make them his.
In much the same way the Panthers were a success this year, so too was Cleary. But next year he needs to find that dominant streak and composure in the biggest moments if the Panthers are to win the title.
2. Does Wayne Bennett have one last premiership in him?
The 70-year-old master coach will have his last season as coach of the Rabbitohs this year. In a rarely seen strategy by a club, it has always been South Sydney’s plan to replace the veteran next year with assistant coach Jason Demetriou.
The Rabbitohs have bowed out of the competition with a preliminary final loss in three straight seasons now, as they just can’t find the last piece of the puzzle. Some thought that with the addition of Latrell Mitchell last year, they could have the x-factor needed to win the comp. But just as he was finding his feet at fullback, an injury ended his season. Even without him the Rabbitohs made it to a preliminary final against the Panthers and were in that game until the final whistle.
While it hasn’t been a bad run for the Rabbitohs, no one remembers the runners up or also-rans. They have a quality squad, one that should be pushing for premierships. They have Mitchell returning, and this year without such an intense spotlight on him. They also add steal to their forward pack with Jai Arrow at lock.
Josh Mansour comes across from the Panthers as an experienced winger who had a really solid season for the Panthers and has never shirked hard work coming out of trouble. He will be hungry for a premiership after last year’s heartbreak.
The biggest factor, though, is Bennett. Everyone knows this squad is good enough, at least on paper and as the last three years would suggest. But he needs to convert that into a premiership this year. He has well and truly been there and done that, and this might be just about his last chance to win one. It isn’t hard to imagine the wily old coach masterminding a premiership-winning season from this squad.
3. Can the Knights become a more consistent football side?
The Knights may well have made the finals last year, and after so long that in itself could be described as something to celebrate. But look a little closer and the Knights have some way to go in 2021.
They bowed out of 2020 with a big loss to South Sydney in an elimination final, a fitting end to a season that was incredibly inconsistent. Equally likely to win or lose by 30, the Knights could be flat-track bullies one week, then roll over against a heavyweight side a week later.
This off-season they have also had to deal with a leadership scandal involving Mitchell Pearce, who has stepped down from captaining the club this season. That is not a good sign, having your on-field general and halfback deemed unfit to captain the club.
Whatever has transpired, that would have to be concerning. We have seen off-field scandals derail a clubs season in the past, and that could yet play a factor in how the Knights go in 2021.
The Knights had plenty of injuries to key personnel last year, especially at five-eighth and out of dummy-half. They will be hoping that this year they can get the same key players on the paddock week-to-week. Kurt Mann, Connor Watson, Jayden Brailey and Blake Green all represent playmaking options alongside Pearce and Kalyn Ponga, and getting those combinations right is key to finding them some consistency.
They will also be hoping that Tyson Frizell can recreate the form that has seen him play Origin and galvanise a pack that could be a little soft last year at time.
The Knights’ hopes likely hang on the morale of the playing group. If they are able to move past whatever has happened with Mitchell Pearce and are not distracted by that, then on paper they can be a finals football team once again. If that is something that is dividing the group, then the season might already be over before it begun for the Knights.
4. Can Kieran Foran take the Sea Eagles back to the future?
It has been a long road but Kieran Foran finds himself back where it all began, rejoining the Sea Eagles and Des Hasler for 2021. He has gone via the Eels, Warriors and Bulldogs, but finds himself back home after a real wretched run of injuries that have crippled his career since.
Now he is back in the Northern Beaches. Once a kid who was one of the many stars of a dominant Sea Eagles side that won the 2011 premiership and was back in the grand final two years later. Now a veteran of the game and in the twilight of his career, he links with former mentor Des Hasler and old halves partner Daly Cherry-Evans. They are just about the only familiar faces at a club that has changed a lot since he left in 2015.
The Sea Eagles struggled big time in 2020, especially when they lost star fullback Tom Trbojevic for an extended period in the middle of the season. It meant Cherry-Evans had to do most of the playmaking, and while he did his best with 20 try-assists, he had no real foil to back him up.
Foran represents someone who can take the pressure off Cherry-Evans and Trbojevic if he can just stay on the park. He hasn’t played more than 17 games in a season since he was last at the Eagles, and hasn’t played more than 14 games in any of the last three seasons. When he is at his best, Foran is so likeable as a player because he puts his body on the line and plays really tough.
At the Sea Eagles, he can leave the playmaking to Trbojevic and Cherry-Evans. They will just want him to be consistent, to take more of a role in game-management and be another kicking option. The Sea Eagles don’t have heaps of depth and will be hoping that their most influential players, including Foran, stay fit. Hasler is a master at getting an underdog team to perform and play tough.
They might not be winning the premiership in 2021, but Hasler will be confident that Foran can have a hand in steering them back in the right direction.
5. Was the Titans’ end to 2020 an indication of things to come?
The Gold Coast Titans won their final five games in 2020, to give the impression that this might be a team on the up. While they didn’t play finals, things certainly seem to be looking brighter for the team on the glitter strip with some big-name recruits also heading there over the offseason.
Ash Taylor has seemingly found a reliable halves partner in Jamal Fogarty, AJ Brimson has really started to come into his own and they have settled on Mitch Rein as their dummy-half. David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui have joined the squad to bolster a forward pack that has lost Jai Arrow over the off-season.
It is very different winning the last five games of a season against lowly opposition and starting a competition again when everyone is in contention. While it is always positive to end the season on a high, in the grand scheme of things it amounts to nothing.
The Titans have some really highly-paid individuals who need to be making an impact each for the club, none more so than Taylor and Fifita. The end of 2020 showed what some of their players are capable of and gave them a chance to work on combinations heading into the new season.
They need Brimson fit and firing, they need the rest of their spine starting the year as well as they ended the last and they need the likes of Fifita making an impact. The Titans are a club starved of success that may have taken their first steps into achieving some in seasons to come.
They look to have a competitive roster and a rookie coach who knows what he is doing, but 2021 is the time to start cashing in on what they have going for them.