Less than two weeks to go and the footy will be back.
After a very unique and challenging 2020 season, fans and players alike will hope that this season can play out as planned.
Like any season, we will see the stocks of some start to rise, as others fall in their place. A few teams could count themselves very lucky to play finals footy last year, while others had much improved ends to the season.
Who will it be at the pointy end? And who will live to wait another season for their shot at glory? Here is who I think will make the cut in 2021.
1. Melbourne Storm
In any other season, losing just three games would see you lucky to miss out on the minor premiership. But that was exactly the fate of the Storm last year.
While they took home the big prize in the end, they would have to be happy with a second-place finish in the regular season. While plenty of pundits will line up to say that the Storm are in for a fall without Cameron Smith returning to the side, this is a team that just breeds success.
It was the big four, then three, down to two and finally Smith was the last man standing. But each and every time they have lost a once-in-a-generation player, they just find someone else, and build someone else into a role that sees the team succeed.
It is owing to the man in the coaches box that this team just never relents and never gives in. It is as certain as death and taxes the Storm will finish in the top four and be pushing for a premiership each and every year. While Smith won’t be there, they just happen to have the Dally M rookie of the year coming back in Harry Grant. He didn’t take a backwards step in a Maroons series win to end the year either.
If anything, it could make Melbourne even more dangerous and unpredictable for oppositions with Grant providing something different out of dummy half. They may not win the premiership, we have seen how hard it is to go back to back. But Melbourne are the best bet in terms of being consistent. Even being displaced from home last year couldn’t stop them.
The loss of Cameron Smith is a big one, especially in the big end-of-season matches. But in terms of the week-to-week grind, the culture that this club has built will see them finish top of the pile once again in 2021, with Harry Grant maybe wearing a different Dally M medal by the end of the season.
2. South Sydney Rabbitohs
South Sydney have been close enough if not good enough in the past three seasons, and 2021 will have them finish in just about the best possible spot to win Wayne Bennett another premiership.
Run your eye over the roster for the Bunnies in the last few years, and it is a premiership-winning one. Latrell Mitchell, Dane Gagai, Josh Mansour, Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds, Damien Cook, Jai Arrow and Cameron Murray have all played Origin at one point or another, with prolific try scorer Alex Johnston probably unlucky not to have made the cut.
They have experience, the have strike power, they have size and skill. They also have the most experienced coach in the NRL.
The key to this season for the Rabbitohs is Latrell Mitchell. Everything else is accounted for, but if Mitchell can find his best it gives them that X-factor and game-breaking ability to push for a premiership.
Just when he was starting to get into gear last year, injury finished his season. If he can stay fit, without the intense pressure that he was under to start last year, he could make all the difference for South Sydney. He doesn’t need to overplay his hand, or feel as though he needs to be winning them the game in every situation. He just needs to be comfortable that when the game is on the line, he can have the play for them if needed.
They have recruited Jai Arrow for this season, and veteran winger Josh Mansour. It is more experience for a side that already had plenty. Mansour has always been happy to make dirty metres out of trouble and take pressure off his forwards while Arrow gives the pack a harder edge. If they can stay healthy, there is no reason this team should finish outside the top two.
3. Sydney Roosters
In the same way the Storm are the model for consistency and success, the Roosters under Trent Robinson are much of the same. Since Robinson came to the club in 2013, the Roosters have four minor premierships and three premierships in just eight years. They have made a preliminary final in six of eight seasons under his tenure, and were the first club in 26 years to win back-to-back premierships when they achieved the feat in 2019.
In 2020 they just seemed to run out of puff. They had a swathe of injuries throughout the year with a couple of season-ending injuries thrown in the mix, and just looked like a team that needed a rest by the time they were bundled out of the finals by the Raiders.
Boyd Cordner was in and out of the side with concussion concerns, Victor Radley missed the end of the season with an ACL injury and there was some tinkering with the halves that meant the Roosters couldn’t build as they normally do into a finals series.
While some were critical of the Roosters axing Kyle Flanagan after just one season, again, this is a club that knows what it is doing. The Storm did a similar thing with Brodie Croft at the end of 2019, and look where both parties are now.
While Flanagan was by no means a bad player, he didn’t do anything that demanded a spot for next year, and with two quality rookies hunting for game time, the choice was made to part ways. Trent Robinson will know that between James Tedesco, Luke Keary and Jake Friend, there is more than enough experience and quality there to win games and that the next member of their spine just has to come in and do their job, whatever that may be.
While the Roosters won’t be pushing for a premiership this year, they will be better from a break, and being out of the spotlight somewhat. Being back-to-back premiers puts a target on your back and the Roosters looked the victim of that last year. They had opposition out to get them every week and with their depth tested, they bowed out. Even still, they managed to finish in the top four, and you can expect much the same from them this season.
4. Penrith Panthers
You couldn’t label the Panthers’ 2020 season anything but successful. Seventeen straight wins, only the one loss in the regular season, a minor premiership and a grand final berth were all massive achievements for a side that went into the year without a great deal of expectation.
But unfortunately, history doesn’t remember the runners-up and for the Panthers, their loss against the Storm in the biggest game of all will have been keeping them up at night all off-season.
A fourth-placed finish this year would still give the Panthers a very real shot at redemption. But being consistently so good, and expecting to breeze through the regular season so easily again, is unrealistic.
This season will be longer than last, back to 26 rounds. There will be more travel too now that COVID and borders have settled. They will have to negotiate an Origin period that is likely to feature some of their biggest names, and a fair bit of experience has headed out the door over summer in the likes of Zane Tetevano, James Tamou and Josh Mansour.
Youth is a great asset to the Panthers and will continue to serve them well, but it also means they are likely to be more inconsistent than the battle-hardened Roosters or Rabbitohs. This young squad is yet to have their mettle tested with a run of losses or injuries – and that test must surely come at some stage this year.
It will be another good year for the Panthers, building on what they have learnt in a very unique 2020, but they are a way off being a team who you can rely on, and with some other teams boasting a bit more experience and consistency over time, I’m having them finishing just inside the top four.
5. Canberra Raiders
The Raiders are at a fork in the road. They had an enormous 2019, and came damn close to winning the premiership but were denied by the Roosters. Last year they made a very solid account of themselves to get back to a preliminary final where they were just outclassed by the Storm on the night.
They look like a team that is either ready to take that next step into being premiership winners or fade back into the pack where they are always close enough but just not quite good enough.
Josh Hodgson is the biggest headline for them going into this year. They got by without him last year, and on the back of Jack Wighton and George Williams they were a strong side. The hope is that now he can pick up where he left off and get them further this year.
All the teams I have put above them though just seem to have a little more going for them. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did better than fifth, with still plenty of positives for the Green Machine. Their only real weakness might be in the outside backs where they have lost Nick Cotric and whether Jarrod Croker and Jordan Rapana have their best footy behind them. They have also lost John Bateman, a real leader of the pack.
With the travel they always have to do, and opposition now expecting more of them each and every week, I just don’t know whether the Raiders have those championship qualities, or if the window is now closing for them.
6. Gold Coast Titans
The Titans look like a team that are ready to get back in finals footy. Justin Holbrook seemed to be getting some consistency out of this side to close out 2020, and with some fresh faces and some direction they may be in for a big 2021.
Ash Taylor looks to finally have a good foil in Jamal Fogarty. They have settled on a dummy half in Mitch Rein, and they have one of the most exciting fullbacks in the league in AJ Brimson. They also have a monster pack headed up by marquee signing David Fifita, with size, skill and experience.
They don’t have a great deal of depth, but could make some moves up the ladder mid-season as Origin takes its toll on other teams. The pressure is once again on Ash Taylor to deliver, it isn’t the greatest back line in the comp but he has always been a good provider. With some consistency in who is standing next to him, and around him in key positions he needs to make this team his own.
The lower part of the ladder is always a logjam. The Titans don’t want to be talking about mathematical chances at any point. They should be aiming to start fast and be getting points on the board early. They do need to make strides during Origin with likely very little Origin representation.
Their fans have waited long enough for a bit of success – ten years without a finals win. They have some exciting talent coming through and enough going for them to reach September.
7. St George Illawarra Dragons
This one may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Dragons have a decent squad that probably just needed some rejuvenation after they had grown stale under Paul McGregor.
Anthony Griffin is not capable of delivering a premiership to the Red V. But he has been good in the past at early successes with the teams he has coached.
His mandate would have been to get this team fit and excited to be playing footy once again because they do have some talent in their ranks.
Ben Hunt and Corey Norman seem like very emotional players who are at their best when they feel confident and happy in their roles.
With plenty of chopping and changing under McGregor and a pretty intense spotlight, it wasn’t hard to see why they lost their way.
The Dragons also have a back line that does look capable of points. Matt Dufty has always been a speedster, and a try scorer. Zac Lomax is nearly pushing for a Blues jumper and Jack Bird will be eager for a big campaign after an injury-plagued few years.
Another team that may have very little to do with Origin and could string some wins together. They may only just sneak in but that Anthony Griffin has some answers to this side’s woes, if only in the short term.
8. Wests Tigers
Ah, the Tigers. Ten years out of the finals, and wandering in the wilderness. Seemingly always hovering around the cusp of the top eight only to see their place slip away right at the end of the season.
They looked good at times last year – really good some weeks. But consistency eluded them and that is so important in the NRL. They could easily match teams below them, but could very rarely mix it with the big boys. Their best player was on loan from another club, and at times their culture was called into question.
They have picked up a couple of quality players though, James Tamou and James Roberts, and hopefully will have a more settled team this year after plenty of chopping and changing last year.
Once again this year comes down to Luke Brooks, for so long promising so much but yet to deliver. The 26-year-old halfback should now be at the very peak of his powers.
Benji Marshall was very good for the Tigers last year, but the failure to re-sign him points to a desire by Michael Maguire for others to now step up. Marshall very much ran the show last year, and this is a show of faith in Brooks that it is now his turn to take over the reigns and show what he can do.
The Tigers now look a bit more like they are starting to build the roster they want. Maguire inherited a squad off Ivan Cleary with some very questionable signings. The bottom line is that it takes some time to make a team your own. James Tamou being named captain is a testament to the leadership qualities he has, and how important Maguire thinks he is to this squad.
The Tigers won’t be a tremendous force this year, but they will be well coached, consistent and competitive. Everyone now has an understanding of what Maguire wants, and if I dare to say it, are on the bus. It will be a finals berth for the Tigers by the slimmest of margins.