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My five fearless predictions for the 2021 NRL season

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Expert
8th March, 2021
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The trashy tabloid journalists are frothing at the mouth, Peter V’landys is talking about unnecessary rule changes, and all fans are full of optimism and hope.

It can only mean one thing… no, not that the NRL season is about to begin; rather, that it’s time for my annual fearless predictions for the season!

O’Connell: My five fearless predictions for the 2020 NRL season

There’s a slight sense of deja vu with this year’s predictions, because I actually feel like a lot of the things that happened in last year’s season might, bizarrely, happen again. So get used to seeing that word ‘again’, again.

It’s also worth noting that over the last three seasons, I’m sitting on a strike rate of 68 per cent* for my predictions, so feel free to sell one of your kids – or kidneys – in order to have a punt on the following…

(*Quick PSA: my maths is a little, shall we say, generous? So take that 68 per cent claim with a massive grain of salt and remember the most responsible form of gambling, is no gambling at all.)

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And away we go!

1. Penrith win the minor premiership, make the grand final, and… lose again
The Panthers are deep, talented and well coached. They’ll be the team to beat once again during the season, and will qualify for their second straight grand final.

Where, sadly for the men and women at the foot of the Blue Mountains, they will lose once again.

I’m just not confident in their halves when the pressure is cranked all the way up to 10, which it certainly is in a ‘granny’.

Panthers fans can defend their team all they want, but whether the narrative around the likes of Nathan Cleary is fair or not is completely irrelevant.

The fact is that the narrative does exist. So until they can silence the doubters and prove them wrong, the question marks will remain.

2. Jack Wighton goes back-to-back and wins the Dally M Medal… again
I was quite bemused by all the noise last year that Wighton’s win was somehow ‘shocking’ and should result in an overhaul to the Dally M voting process.

Nathan Cleary was the deserved favourite, but he wasn’t that much better than Wighton that it was a boilover. Wighton had a great season too.

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In fact, I expect him to have an even better season this year, and join Johnathan Thurston and Andrew Johns as the only back-to-back winners of the medal in the NRL era.

Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton of the Raiders (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

3. Queensland win State of Origin… again
I really didn’t like what I saw from New South Wales in last year’s Origin series. Every cliché about Queensland having a better grasp on what Origin football is all about seemed to ring true, as the Blues were complacent, out-hustled, and lacked the killer instinct required to win the series.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the Blues have more talent that the Maroons, but it’s not balanced across a starting 13. This is highlighted by the fact they squeezed players into the centres who aren’t centres, weren’t sure who their best five-eighth was, and seemed to want to pick 28 fullbacks in their squad.

Queensland will take a lot out of last year’s win, and they’re also likely to have more talent to call on, with injuries and end-of-season fatigue not impacting their selections this time around.

4. The Bulldogs miss out on the finals… again… but in the last round of the season
As a Dogs fan, I usually tend to avoid making any predictions about my team, either through fear of being labelled bias, or because I’d be shooting myself in the foot. But these are meant to be fearless predictions, so it’s time to be fearless!

The Dogs will be much improved this season, and most of it comes down to the recruitment of Kyle Flanagan. Canterbury have long been starved of a quality, goal-kicking playmaker, and the new half ticks those boxes.

Flanagan doesn’t have to be elite just yet. If he’s solid and plays each game, that would already be a vast improvement on what the Dogs halves have delivered in the previous years.

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With a new coach, and some new talent, it’s a new dawn out at Belmore and I can see the Dogs pushing for the finals, before falling agonisingly short in the last round of the year.

5. The Wests Tigers ‘win’ the wooden spoon
I can’t tell if I actually believe this pick, or I just like needling, as this is sure to have me on the outer with my in-laws and best mate, all of whom are rabid Tigers supporters. But what can I do?

The Tigers are going to suck. It’s that simple.

My old Twitter friend/foe Will Sinclair keeps talking up how smart the Tigers have been in the off-season, by not spending their money on big name duds, but instead wisely investing in unheralded recruits. That’s exactly what you say when you miss out on all the good players.

The only real danger to this prediction – other than me getting egg on my face – is the Dragons. Or the Cowboys. Which is a textbook example of how to alienate three fan-bases in one prediction. Oh what the hell, I may as well go for four: the Warriors will be horrendous as well.

Bonus prediction – the ladder
1. Panthers
2. Storm
3. Rabbitohs
4. Roosters
5. Raiders
6. Knights
7. Eels
8. Titans

9. Bulldogs
10. Sharks
11. Broncos
12. Sea Eagles
13. Warriors
14. Cowboys
15. Dragons
16. Tigers