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Opinion

One eye on the future: The NRL clubs already looking towards 2022

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4 days ago
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In Part 2 of my season preview series, we’ll look at the NRL clubs that have already written off the upcoming season and are instead focusing their attention on 2022.

St George Illawarra Dragons
Key additions: Poasa Faamausili (Roosters), Jack Bird (Broncos), Daniel Alvaro (Eels), Andrew McCullough (Broncos)

Key subtractions: Tyson Frizell (Knights), Euan Aitken (Warriors), James Graham (St Helens), Jacob Host (Rabbitohs), Korbin Sims (Hull KR), Jason Saab (Sea Eagles)

Recap of 2020: the Dragons entered the 2020 season with a coach under extreme pressure, a star player facing imprisonment, and a pair of overpaid playmakers struggling to justify their spots. Shockingly, this environment of fear and uncertainty was not conducive to success, with St George Illawarra finishing 12th.

Paul McGregor coached like a man waiting to be fired. He chopped and changed with the callousness of a NSW Origin selector, using eight different combinations along the spine in only 20 rounds of football, and failed to use the same combination twice until Round 6.

Much like my brother’s relentless adjustments to his golf swing, these constant changes robbed the side of any chance to build consistent form.

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Emblematic of this madness was Ben Hunt – the former Bronco started the season at halfback, then moved to five-eighth, hooker and bench utility, before finding his way back into the halves. Hardly the best use of a player absorbing ten per cent of the team’s salary cap.

The only positive note in an otherwise wasted season, apart from the mercy firing of McGregor, was the emergence of Zac Lomax, with the Temora junior quickly developing into one of the better centres in the competition.

Outlook for 2021: with the McGregor era confined to the history books, the Red V had the opportunity to appoint a new coach to revitalise the team and energise the fan-base. Sadly, Craig Fitzgibbon declined the role and the club was forced to offer the job to Anthony Griffin.

Tasked with shaking up the joint, Griffin wasted no time. Hook’s first order of business was an attempt to lure cross-code carcinogen Israel Folau out of sporting purgatory, followed quickly by allowing club captain Cameron McInnes to sign with bitter rivals Cronulla.

In his place, Griffin signed a 31-year-old veteran of almost 300 NRL games who was last seen having his hamstring surgically reattached to the bone.

Needless to say, the Dragons are in for a tough year. The prospect of Hunt and Corey Norman returning in the halves was already unpalatable, but the loss of McInnes is enough to make fans gag. The departures of Tyson Frizell and James Graham further weakens a forward pack still suffering from the absence of Jack de Belin, and the signing of an injury-prone Jack Bird does little to ease the pain.

As an organisation, 2021 will be St George Illawarra’s band-aid season. Ripping it off in one fell swoop will be painful but could lead to fresh hope in 2022. A future devoid of Hunt, Norman, de Belin and even coach Griffin might be worth a wooden spoon.

I hope someone at Kogarah kept Fitzgibbon’s number.

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Anthony Griffin

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Wests Tigers
Key additions: James Roberts (Rabbitohs), Stefano Utoikamanu (Eels), James Tamou (Panthers), Joe Ofahengaue (Broncos), Daine Laurie (Panthers)

Key Subtractions: Chris Lawrence (retired), Chris McQueen (Huddersfield), Robert Jennings (Panthers), Matt Eisenhuth (Panthers), Harry Grant (Storm), Josh Aloiai (Sea Eagles), Josh Reynolds (Hull FC), Elijah Taylor (Salford Red Devils), Benji Marshall (Rabbitohs), Paul Momirovski (Panthers)

Recap of 2020: sometimes I feel as though the Tigers are trapped in some bizarre timewarp where the players and coaches keep changing, but the problems at the club remain the same. Once again in 2020, they finished just outside of the top eight and were only a few key moments shy of breaking a nine-year finals drought.

Halfback Luke Brooks reprised his role as the perennially underachieving playmaker and team punching bag. His meagre tally of five try assists were dwarfed by the 21 accumulated by his geriatric halves partner and were certainly not good enough to justify his position in the side.

Luke Brooks

Luke Brooks of the Tigers (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Moses Mbye continued his nomadic drift across the team sheet. Despite his obvious talent, the former Bulldog can’t lock down a fulltime position. At least he had company, as overpriced utility Adam Doueihi joined his tour of the backline.

And no Tigers season would be complete without the side being burdened by prohibitively expensive players signed by a previous regime who were either sitting on the sidelines or starring for another club. The 2020 iteration of this ongoing nightmare was Josh Reynolds and Russell Packer – the pair pulled down a reported combined salary of $1.5 million for a total of 17 games between them.

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Most painful of all had to be the play of hooker Harry Grant. The Storm superstar, on loan while Cameron Smith penned the final chapter in his fairy tale, was clearly the Tigers’ best player. His impact was on display in almost every set of six, and he showed the rare ability to improve the play of those around him. Grant will haunt the black and gold for years to come.

Outlook for 2021: of all the tortured fan-bases in the NRL, Tigers fans deserve the most sympathy. What reason have they got to be confident heading into this season? Is Luke Brooks, now entering his ninth season of first grade, suddenly going to emerge? Will Jacob Liddle and his titanium knees finally fulfil his potential? Will coach Michael Maguire recapture the magic he discovered at South Sydney? Not bloody likely.

In an ongoing effort to improve their roster, the Tigers did what they do every off-season – they got rid of a bunch of average players and signed a fresh bunch of average players. This year’s crop is headlined by 32-year-old James Tamou, a freshly rehabilitated James Roberts, and a player not deemed good enough to continue at the Brisbane Broncos.

By all reports, the Tigers have some quality youngsters on the verge of making their presence known in first grade. Big things are expected from halfback Jock Madden and hooker Jake Simpkin, while newly signed fullback Daine Laurie may begin to erase some of the agony left by the departure of James Tedesco.

This season should be all about maximising the opportunities for these kids to get on the paddock. For a team that won’t qualify for the finals anyway, wins and losses are irrelevant. Wests should have their sights firmly set on next season, and finally moving into a promising era of Tigers football.

The Tigers celebrate a try.

Wests Tigers (Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Cronulla Sharks
Key additions: Aiden Tolman (Bulldogs)

Key subtractions: Cameron King (retired), Jayson Bukuya (retired), Scott Sorensen (Panthers)

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Recap of 2020: the Sharks are one of those sides that look fantastic on paper but fail to translate name recognition into quality performances. Any team with a veteran nucleus of Andrew Fifita, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan, Shaun Johnson and Wade Graham should win more games than they lose. The tricky part is getting those blokes off the physio table.

Objectively, Cronulla had a good year in 2020. They finished in eighth position and qualified for the finals, an unwritten benchmark for success at any NRL club. They had the competition’s sixth strongest attack and generally showed signs of growth under coach John Morris.

After a slow start to the year, the Sharks caught fire thanks to Johnson’s purple patch of form. The former Warrior went on a Cooper Cronk-inspired mid-season tear, leading his sides to victory in seven of nine games. During this period, Cronulla averaged a whopping 30 points per game and Johnson was leading the league in try assists.

When Johnson’s Achilles tendon exploded in a Round 19 loss to the Roosters, with it went any hope Cronulla had of contending. An attack led by Chad Townsend might look good in a Fox Sports promo or a Head and Shoulders commercial, but it won’t win you premierships.

Outlook for 2021: there’s no surer signal of a club looking towards the future than a CEO negotiating to sign a new coach before the season has even started. And while you can’t blame the club for coveting Craig Bellamy, you’ve got to feel for Morris. From rumours of Shane Flanagan’s return to whispers about Craig Fitzgibbon and now this, the bloke never got a fair go.

As disrespectful as it might seem, the Sharks are right to look forward. Relying on the current veteran core to remain healthy is borderline negligent – Fifita and Moylan should consider medical retirement, Johnson is a long shot to return the same player, and Dugan needs an exorcist to remove some of the phantoms inhabiting his limbs.

The good news for fans is that the salary cap situation will look much healthier after this season. Dugan, Johnson, Moylan and Aaron Woods are all off contract, and should free up over $3 million in available funds. If they can rid themselves of Fifita, that pushes the figure closer to $4 million.

In the unlikely scenario that the Sharks do convince Bellamy to relocate to Sydney, their fortunes will change overnight. Having the code’s highest-profile coach with half of the team’s salary cap to spend could set this club up for years to come.

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Wade Graham and the Cronulla Sharks

Up, up Cronulla (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Newcastle Knights
Key additions: Bailey Hodgson (Castleford), Tyson Frizell (Dragons), Sauaso Sue (Bulldogs)

Key subtractions: Aidan Guerra (retired), Tim Glasby (retired), Herman Ese’ese (Titans), Andrew McCullough (Broncos), Sione Mata’utia (St Helens), Mason Lino (Wakefield Trinity), Tautau Moga (Rabbitohs)

Recap of 2020: last year felt like the season that Newcastle had been building towards. After years of pain brought about by a full roster reconstruction, the Knights finally had a squad capable of contending for a premiership.

Sadly, it just wasn’t to be. The Knights started the season strongly enough, only losing one of their first six games, however a string of season-ending injuries to their top three dummy-half options severely stifled their attack, robbing them of any chance to form consistent combinations along the spine.

Injuries aside, Newcastle’s star players were poor. Halfback Mitchell Pearce regressed from his Dally M form of the previous year. His 16 try assists were 13th in the competition, fewer than the likes of Scott Drinkwater and Kodi Nikorima. And most alarmingly for a player who prides himself on defence, Pearce led the entire NRL in missed tackled (73).

It was a similar story with fullback Kalyn Ponga. After bursting onto the scene in 2018, Ponga looked predictable last season. His shimmy-shimmy-whoosh move to get on the outside of his opposite number was no longer fooling the defence, while his backfield carries seemed to lack venom. Calf and shoulder injuries were certainly a factor, but the Knights would have hoped for more from their marquee player.

Outlook for 2021: while hardly the ‘off-season from hell’, the club would have hoped for smoother sailing. Pearce was engaged in some texting shenanigans which saw him stripped of the captaincy and the respect of his teammates, coach Adam O’Brien copped some negative press after a couple of schooners at the Broadmeadow races, and poster boy Ponga was unable to train fully with the side as he recuperated from shoulder surgery.

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Kalyn Ponga scores a try

Kalyn Ponga (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

On a positive note, while the Knights lost over 750 games of NRL experience with the departure of several veterans, the addition of Tyson Frizell will improve their pack and add big-game experience.

But the situation with Pearce bears watching. Off contract at the end of the season, the former Rooster has made it clear that he wants a multi-year extension. Newcastle have baulked at this suggestion, instead offering Pearce a one-year deal at a dramatically reduced rate.

Such callous treatment of a premier playmaker is rare in the NRL and a clear indication that Newcastle is happy to move on without Pearce. And for good reason.

Whether it happens this season or next, this team belongs to Ponga. His shift into the halves and appointment as captain are inevitable, so prolonging the Pearce era makes little sense.