With the 2021 NRL season almost upon us, it’s time to take a look at how each team is faring. In Part 1 of my season preview series, we’ll check in with four clubs looking for a fresh start.
Key additions: John Asiata (Cowboys)
Key subtractions: David Fifita (Titans), Darius Boyd (retired), Matt Gillett (retired), Jack Bird (Dragons), Joe Ofahengaue (Wests Tigers), Andrew McCullough (Dragons)
Recap of 2020
The Broncos were once the standard-bearer for sporting clubs in Australia. For 31 years, Brisbane were a model of consistency, routinely winning premierships and making Sydney clubs look like glorified lemonade stands.
Then along came Anthony Seibold. The coach’s influence spread through the organisation like a slow-acting poison. From puzzling player movements, clashing with local media, isolating former players and losing the respect of his squad, Seibold transformed a premiership contender into a cellar dweller in less than two years.
At the height of the Seibold experience, chairman Karl Morris and CEO Paul White were holding press conferences at a Dan Andrews level of regularity, constantly attempting to douse the flames being fuelled by poor results and player unrest.
On the field, Brisbane were a laughingstock. The rugby league equivalent of Scott Muller, the Broncos couldn’t tackle and they couldn’t score, resulting in the competition’s worst attack (scoring 11 points per game) and worst defence (conceding 26 points per game).
But it wasn’t just the results that were shocking, it was the individual performances. At times it was like watching Little Kickers, with players aimlessly floating through games without much concern for the result. There appeared to be no gameplan, no ability to adjust, and no real care factor from most of the squad.
Outlook for 2021
It would be naïve to assume that the appointment of Kevin Walters will instantly fix the problems. The former Queensland coach inherited an extremely inexperienced roster lacking in leadership and established star-power.
The biggest concern is the uncertainty throughout the spine. Can Jake Turpin stay healthy at hooker? Is Tom Dearden phsycially ready for a full season of first grade? Who is playing fullback? And just when does Anthony Milford’s contract finally expire?
The one positive to come from last season’s Chernobyl was that due to injury, poor form and suspension, boom youngsters like Tesi Niu, Herbie Farnworth, Xavier Coates and Tom Dearden all received valuable playing time and are poised to feature prominently in 2021.
With Walters onboard, the future looks bright. The appointment of Dave Donaghy will settle things down in the boardroom and Kevvie’s ability to bring the old boys back into the fold will establish a sense of tradition that’s sorely missing.
But most importantly, the players have a coach they want to play for.
Key additions: Nick Cotric (Raiders), Corey Allan (Rabbitohs), Corey Waddell (Sea Eagles), Jack Hetherington (Panthers), Kyle Flanagan (Roosters)
Key subtractions: Kieran Foran (Sea Eagles), Kerrod Holland (retired), Marcelo Montoya (Warriors), Aiden Tolman (Sharks), Sauaso Sue (Knights)
Recap of 2020
You have to feel for Dean Pay, who accepted the Bulldogs coaching job knowing he was unlikely to witness the fruits of his labour. With salary cap restrictions stifling his ability to build a competitive roster, Canterbury finished 15th after amassing only three wins all season.
To Canterbury’s credit, and despite being burdened with a vast talent deficit every time they ran onto the field, they remained competitive. And, unlike some of the other underperforming clubs (see Broncos, Brisbane), the players actually seemed to care. There was a level of pride and professionalism in their performances, with the Bulldogs conceding the fourth fewest penalties and committing the third fewest errors.
But no amount of effort could conceal Canterbury’s anaemic attack. The Dogs simply couldn’t create enough opportunities and they were unable to manufacture points. They ranked last in line breaks (64) and tackle breaks (351) and were second to last in total points scored (11.75 PPG). This was a wooden spoon roster. Someone at Belmore owes Anthony Seibold a beer.
Outlook for 2021
The appointment of Trent Barrett as Dean Pay’s replacement received a lukewarm reaction from the rugby league community. It’s hard to forget the petulant way he tossed his toys from his Brookvale bassinet but there’s no denying the immediate impact he’s had on Canterbury’s roster.
Kyle Flanagan and Matt Burton (pending his early release from Penrith) have the makings of a high-calibre halves pairing, Nick Cotric adds genuine strike potential on the flanks, Corey Allan has enormous untapped potential at the back, and Jack Hetherington adds a healthy dose of mongrel.
These are high-impact signings, not something the Bulldogs have been renowned for in recent seasons.
Adding a host of quality players will also ease the burden on Canterbury’s existing stars. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the likes of Josh Jackson, Adam Elliott, Will Hopoate and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak improve their level of play based on the enhanced talent playing alongside them.
And don’t sleep on Luke Thompson either. The Pommy prop arrived in Australia last year amid unenviable circumstances, and understandably struggled to settle in. However with a full pre-season under his belt and a healthy dose of vitamin D over the off-season, he could be in for a monster year.
The Dogs shouldn’t be confused with premiership contenders, but this is certainly a club on the rise. A quality dummy half is all that separates this roster from relevance.
Key additions: Lachlan Burr (Warriors)
Key subtractions: Gavin Cooper (retired), Tom Opacic (Eels), John Asiata (Broncos)
Recap of 2020
For the third straight season, the Cowboys were the competition’s great underachievers. Despite possessing superstar talent such as Valentine Holmes, Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo, North Queensland crashed to another 14th place finish.
Their attack has remained stagnant since the retirement of Johnathan Thurston, and this stale brand of football failed to mesh with the current players. The Cowboys ranked 15th in both tackle breaks and offloads last season, struggling to generate much second phase play.
Their defence was equally miserable, conceding the second-most points (520 – 22 PPG), the second-most line breaks (121) and missed the fourth most tackles (587).
Injuries certainly didn’t help, with Holmes and Morgan both missing significant time, however the stark lack of development from certain players was the most concerning issue. Blokes like Coen Hess, Jordan McLean and Scott Drinkwater were all touted as long-term representative prospects, but each has regressed in recent seasons.
Paul Green saw the writing on the wall as another dismal campaign came to an end. In a move that George Costanza would have been proud of, Green opted for the pre-emptive break-up rather than waiting to be dumped. A fresh start is probably best for both parties.
Outlook for 2021
The Cowboys have a tough decision to make. Sporting an ageing roster, top-heavy with bloated veteran contracts, they have two choices – push their chips to the centre of the table in an effort to win now, or sell off their existing assets to clear room for a massive rebuild.
Based on Todd Payten’s mini reclamation project with the Warriors last season, I’m guessing they have opted for the former. With no quality recruits outside of Lachlan Burr, this scenario requires Payten to find answers within his existing squad that seemed to allude Green, if such answers even exist.
In the short-term, this approach will yield positive results. Installing Payten’s new attacking and defensive structures may generate the kind of spark which jolted the Kiwis into finals contention, and North Queensland’s roster still boasts several blue-chip talents.
But is it worth spending a couple of seasons fighting tooth and nail for seventh or eighth position before tearing the joint down? I’d be inclined to gauge the market’s appetite for the likes of Morgan and Holmes, each of whom may have played their best football, facilitating the development of the next generation.
Key additions: Ben Murdoch-Masila (Warrington), Kane Evans (Eels), Euan Aitken (Dragons), Addin Fonua-Blake (Manly), Marcelo Montoya (Bulldogs), Bayley Sironen (Rabbitohs)
Key subtractions: Adam Blair (retired), Gerard Beale (retired), Lachlan Burr (Cowboys), Isaiah Papali’i (Eels), Agnatius Paasi (St Helens)
Recap of 2020
The Warriors were the feel-good story of 2020. Locked out of their home base in Auckland, the team hung their hat everywhere from Tamworth to Terrigal in a uniquely nomadic season. They endured injuries, homesickness and the clueless coaching of Stephen Kearney, and still finished only two wins out of eighth place.
It was a tale of two coaches. In the opening six rounds under Kearney, they knocked off a couple of lightweights in the Cowboys and Dragons but scored only 18 combined points in four games against genuine top-eight sides. This offensive ineptitude led to Kearney’s dismissal following a particularly gruesome loss to South Sydney.
Interim coach Todd Payten didn’t fare much better in the win column, losing ten of their next 16 games, but he did instil a competitive fire that the squad had been lacking for some time. The heavy losses continued, including a 50-6 spanking by the Storm in Payten’s first game in charge, but his team also produced wins against competitive opponents like Manly and Newcastle.
The Warriors had every right to claim the wooden spoon in 2020. Their depleted roster, combined with the stress and anxiety of not seeing their families would drive most teams to distraction. The fact that they remained competitive to the end is a testament to their professionalism.
New coach Nathan Brown may as well have turned up to training wearing a construction hat, high-vis vest and a holding set of plans under his arm. The rugby league version of Scott Cam is known for his ability to rebuild a club which has fallen into disrepair, and that’s exactly what he’s been hired to do.
Based on Brown’s track record at Newcastle, along with the hiring of football Svengali Phil Gould, it’s a safe assumption that New Zealand’s transformation will centre around youth development. This means shedding high-priced veterans to allow playing time for local juniors.
Contrary to this thinking, the Warriors have recruited strongly for the upcoming season. Ben Murdoch-Masila, Kane Evans, Addin Fonua-Blake and Bayley Sironen will add significant starch to a previously crumpled pack, while Euan Aitken and Marcelo Montoya provide solid depth in the backs.
If the Warriors can remain settled in the halves and find competent service out of dummy half, and provided that wingers David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo remain with the squad, this team is likely to be battling the likes of Newcastle and Manly for eighth position.