I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as ready for an NRL season to start as I am in 2021.
It’s that special feeling you get when you know there’s soon going to be some match-related things to talk, write and argue about rather than the bollocks and non-event stories rugby league excels in during its downtime.
But no other sport does chaos quite like rugby league. It’s ingrained in the sport and how it operates. Sometimes it’s treated as some kind of badge of honour – sometimes it looks to be a miracle anything gets done at all. You could say the game thrives on it, much as we wish it wouldn’t. It’s part and parcel of your rugby league life.
And there were a couple of things that popped up last week that could have an impact further down the road.
Cooper Cronk was outed holding paid positions at both the Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm, bitter rivals who would have intentions of playing each other as late as possible in the season.
Cronk is an assistant coach in Sydney and on occasion will also be a mentor to Storm halves Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster in Melbourne.
‘Mentor’ is what the Storm call it anyway. But the photos they posted on Twitter sure looked ‘assistant coach’ to me.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because Cronk is professional enough not to let his jobs cross over to such an extent he’d compromise himself or one of his employers. Look at how he works on Fox League, where he’s one of the sharpest analytical minds and holds nothing back.
He’s a two-time premiership player and life member at both teams, and the Melbourne Storm award their feeder club player of the year the Cooper Cronk Medal. It’ll be interesting to see which club pulls rank when we get to the pointy end of the season.
Billy and Coops led training yesterday ????????
— Melbourne Storm ???? (@storm) March 3, 2021
A coach working with two teams in a season is one thing, but 2021 is likely to give us more players actually turning out for two teams in one season.
I love player movement. Love it. I understand that many people don’t, but every year I’ll keep pushing my barrow that the average NRL career is around 48 games, barely two seasons, and players should be able to go wherever they can whenever they can. If you begrudge a player doing what they can to maximise their cash while they put their long-term health at risk, then you just don’t get it.
Last week the NRL announced they’d pushed back the deadline for clubs to finalise their 30-man roster from 30 June to 1 August.
Canberra, South Sydney, New Zealand and North Queensland had already filled their 30 roster spots before this decision was made, which means it looks like they’ve planned themselves out of being able to work creatively within the new system.
What makes this change interesting is that, according to the reporting, a player can now sign with a club for the final five rounds of the regular season and be eligible to feature in the finals series. This has caused a lot of hysteria involving hypothetical situations, but it seems to be the same 30 June rule, just a month later.
So how will this play out? Contracts permitting – and that’s the key here – it’ll probably be similar to American sports leagues like the National Football League and Major League Baseball, whereby contending teams feast on the better players of those who are out of the finals picture and/or who might see an opportunity to get rid of some salary cap pressure.
The best chaos-causing scenario for 2021 would be a top-four side nabbing a free agent named Cameron Smith when he comes back from his extended Queensland holiday to slot in at hooker for a shot at another title. You’ll be able to hear the heads popping everywhere, but it’ll all be completely within the rules.
Speaking of extended holidays, the New Zealand Warriors have confirmed they’ll be based (read ‘stuck’) on the New South Wales Central Coast until 21 June – nearly three months longer than they’d hoped – because of COVID-19 and the open-and-shut flux of the trans-Tasman travel bubble.
It sucks the Warriors can’t go home, but at least this time they have family members over with them. Last year under the caretaker stewardship of Todd Payten they were able to fight their way to an 8-12 record, and they won the hearts of many with their resilience and attitude.
But that was then and this is now. Can they find that inner strength again? If results go sideways – or even if they go well – is the NRL putting the right support in place for the club to recover financially, and what’s happening to look after the players’ wellbeing and mental health?
New Zealand’s travails will undoubtedly go under the radar because it’s the Warriors. They’ll say nothing but, ‘We’ve got no excuses,’ but is there going to be any action to back the team? Another season of condescending ‘haven’t they sacrificed so much to do the game a favour’ talk won’t cut it.
I can’t wait for this week to end and real games to start. I can’t wait to see the fallout from week to week and I can’t wait to see how 2021 plays out. Bring me all of that glorious rugby league chaos.
Happy Round 1 everybody!