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Making the leap: NRL clubs poised to take the next step in 2021

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9th March, 2021

The Melbourne Storm host the South Sydney Rabbitohs as season 2021 of the National Rugby League finally gets underway. But first, Part 4 of my season preview series.

Here, we’ll take a look at four NRL teams who are primed for bigger and better things this year.

Gold Coast Titans
Key additions: Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Storm), Herman Ese’ese (Knights), David Fifita (Broncos), Patrick Herbert (Warriors), Sam McIntyre (Tigers)

Key subtractions: Jai Arrow (Rabbitohs), Shannon Boyd (retired), Ryan James (Raiders), Young Tonumaipea (rugby union), Bryce Cartwright (Eels), Keegan Hipgrave (Eels), Dale Copley (Broncos), Nathan Peats, Tyrone Roberts (released)

Recap of 2020: the Titans were a pleasant surprise in an otherwise crummy year. Widely tipped for the wooden spoon, the perennial underachievers lifted under first-year coach Justin Holbrook to finish ninth.

A five-game Anthony Maroon-inspired winning streak was the exclamation point on a successful season.

Most pleasing was the individual development of certain players. Front rower Moeaki Fotuaika led the club in run metres (2464) and announced himself as a representative-calibre prop, Jamal Fogarty went from being confused as the frontman of Creedence Clearwater Revival to an integral part of his team’s attack, and AJ Brimson burst onto the Origin arena with a performance that had Queenslanders asking “Kalyn who?”

Alex Brimson of the Titans

AJ Brimson (Getty Images)

And how about Ash Taylor? Two years ago, the Titans’ million-dollar halfback missed two months of football while dealing with personal issues and was eventually demoted to reserve grade. Under Holbrook, Taylor looked refreshed and energised, and played some of his best football in years.


Despite these overwhelming positives, the Gold Coast still showcased glaring weaknesses.

A total lack of creativity out of hooker made their attack sluggish and predictable, which was compounded by a lack of strike power on the flanks. Don’t get me wrong, I love Anthony Don as much as the next bloke, but he needs to provide more. Only three teams scored fewer points in 2020.

Regardless, 2020 will be remembered for one thing – Holbrook finding his forever home. The club had high expectations of the former St Helens boss and nothing they witnessed last year will have curbed their enthusiasm.

Outlook for 2021: the NRL is littered with poorly managed clubs who get themselves into salary-cap strife by splurging on overpriced free agents. Although the Titans had to take out a second mortgage to fund their off-season spending spree, it feels like money well spent.

In signing Fifita, Fa’asuamaleaui and Herman Ese’ese, the Gold Coast have completely transformed their roster. Adding these monsters to the likes of Fotuaika, Jarrod Wallace and Kevin Proctor instantly gives them one of the strongest packs in the competition.

The addition of Patrick Herbert adds depth to a backline in need of warm bodies, but it’s the dummy-half position that’s really giving Mal Meninga migraines. Irrespective of the smother campaign being broadcast out of Robina, the Gold Coast have kept money aside for Cameron Smith and – if available – they’d snap him up in a heartbeat.

The only real concern is an over-reliance on Fifita. A graduate of the toxic Broncos finishing school, the Titans will be hoping he’s got that rubbish out of his system.

With the Panthers, Raiders, Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs already firmly entrenched in the top eight, the Gold Coast will be battling it out with the likes of Newcastle, Manly, Parramatta and Cronulla for the remaining spots.


If the forwards can stay healthy and the spine continues to develop, the club could finish as high as sixth in 2021.

Melbourne Storm
Key additions: George Jennings (Eels), Reimis Smith (Bulldogs), Harry Grant (Tigers, loan deal over)

Key subtractions: Suliasi Vunivalu (rugby union), Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Titans), Paul Momirovski (Tigers, loan deal over), Cameron Smith (released)

Recap of 2020: the Storm entered last season in their accustomed manner – with everyone doubting that Cameron Smith, Craig Bellamy and the Melbourne dynasty could continue to be successful.

Smith was too old. Cameron Munster was too erratic. Ryan Papenhuyzen was too small. Jahrome Hughes was too structured. Brenko Lee was too Brenko Lee.

In previous years, Bellamy used this doubt as motivation. But when the pandemic hit, the Storm’s ruthlessly rigid off-season program was thrown into disarray. Instead of making excuses, Bellamy seized this uncertainty and transformed it into adversity. Isolated in the hellish surrounds of the Twin Waters resort on the Sunshine Coast, he galvanised his squad in the face of extreme sun-drenched hardship.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy

Storm coach Craig Bellamy (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

With their minds focused and their skins freshly tanned, the Storm set about doing what they do best – winning football games. Their number one ranked attack (27.2) and number two ranked defence (14.3) propelled them to their fifth consecutive top-two finish and ultimately the club’s fourth premiership.


While the Camerons Munster and Smith were key, it was the emergence of a new crop of superstars which drove much of the success.

Justin Olam and Fa’asuamaleaui played well above their station, but most impressive were Papenhuyzen and Hughes. Both were fighting for their positions in the squad only 12 months ago, and now each is a top five player at his respective position.

Outlook for 2021: Melbourne’s decade of domination was defined by a manufactured halfback in Cooper Cronk, a lightning-quick fullback in Billy Slater, and a creatively crafty hooker in Cameron Smith. They arrived at the Storm as nobodies and retired as future Immortals.

The ‘big three’ may have finally departed, but the club’s football factory continues to pump out quality.

Bellamy tinkered with the settings of his 3D printer and he must be thrilled with the results. In Hughes, Papenhuyzen and hooker Harry Grant, the Storm have seamlessly replaced their legendary trio (if only he hadn’t binned that Greg Inglis template).

The Storm were often criticised for the weak supporting cast given to their superstar spine, but that certainly isn’t the case in 2021. Munster, Josh Addo-Carr, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Dale Finucane, the Bromwich brothers – and that’s just to name a few. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches.

With the competition’s strongest roster, the game’s greatest coach and a well-worn blueprint for success, it’s hard to picture what can stop the Storm clinching back-to-back premierships in what will likely be Bellamy’s last season in charge.

Canberra Raiders
Key additions: Harry Rushton (Wigan), Ryan James (Titans), Caleb Aekins (Panthers), Albert Hopoate (Sea Eagles)


Key subtractions: John Bateman (Wigan), Nick Cotric (Bulldogs), Michael Oldfield (Eels), Sebastian Kris (released)

Recap of 2020: it just wasn’t meant to be in 2020.

Overhyped by the brainless rhetoric that ‘you’ve got to lose one to win one’, experts were falling over themselves to declare the Green Machine as morals to take the next step. However, a series of events unfortunate enough to make Lemony Snicket blush conspired against them.

It started with COVID. On the resumption from the mid-season break, the Raiders found themselves at a competitive disadvantage. The requirement for them to travel to Sydney by bus for home games and then leave the state immediately after severely impacted their ability to prepare for, and recover from, each game.

Despite this hardship, the club started the season well, recording five wins in the opening eight rounds. But when chief playmaker Josh Hodgson was ruled out for the season in a Round 9 loss to the Storm, it felt like the Raiders were cooked.

Jack Wighton had other ideas. The Dally M medallist revelled in the increased responsibility of leading the attack, putting to bed any misconceptions that he’s masquerading as an NRL-calibre half. Wighton carried his side to win nine of their next eleven games, finishing the season in fifth position.

Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

And then it ended with COVID.


Due to border restrictions enacted by the Queensland government, the Raiders were forced to travel to their preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium on gameday. While this inconvenience only slightly hampered their preparation, it was more than enough for an opportunistic Melbourne.

Outlook for 2021: you get the feeling that the Raiders might have taken last year personally. And no one can perceive a slight against them and blow it wildly out of proportion better than Ricky Stuart. He’ll have his men seething at the very mention of 2020.

Stuart will know that 2021 represents his best chance to win a premiership as coach of the Raiders. In Wighton, Hodgson, George Williams and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Canberra have arguably the best spine in the NRL. Their blend of blistering speed, ferocity and sublime touch makes them a unique proposition for the opposition defence.

The addition of experienced prop Ryan James, alongside veteran forwards Elliot Whitehead, Sia Soliola and Josh Papalii will perfectly complement the unbridled enthusiasm of their young metre-eaters.

And don’t be surprised if Joseph Tapine is being talked about as one of the premier edge forwards in the competition by season’s end.

With a settled off-season and a more relaxed itinerary, the Green Machine will be primed for a premiership tilt. They are a more complete side than the one who lost to the Roosters in the 2019 decider and they’ll be hungry for revenge.

Penrith Panthers
Key additions: Robert Jennings (Wests Tigers), Matt Eisenhuth (Wests Tigers), Jaeman Salmon (Eels), Scott Sorensen (Sharks), Paul Momirovski (Wests Tigers)

Key subtractions: Jack Hetherington (Bulldogs), Caleb Aekins (Raiders), James Tamou (Wests Tigers), Josh Mansour (Rabbitohs), Zane Tetevano (Leeds Rhinos), Daine Laurie (Wests Tigers), Dean Whare (Catalans)


Recap of 2020: not since Ren McCormack cut loose in the small town of Bomont has a young man got into such strife for dancing. But aside from Nathan Cleary’s pandemic boredom-buster, the Panthers had a magical run in 2020.

Their key players stayed healthy, a lack of licensed establishments kept their youngsters on the straight and narrow (for the most part), and the COVID-19 scheduling changes could have been penned by Ivan Cleary himself.

Penrith played 16 of their 20 regular season games in Sydney, with one of their four road trips being a quick jaunt to Gosford. Such limited travel was a clear advantage in terms of preparation and recovery compared to other premiership contenders like Canberra and Melbourne, both of whom faced severe logistical challenges.

The Panthers made the most of their viral leg-up, reeling off 15-straight victories en route to the minor premiership. Their attack was as crisp as it was lethal, with Nathan Cleary and Jarmome Luai piloting Penrith to 26.7 points per game. Centre Stephen Crichton burst onto the scene after scoring 17 tries in 23 games and hooker Api Koroisau had the best season of his seven-year NRL career.

However, the improvement in their defence was most impressive. From 2015-19, the Panthers conceded an average of 19.5 per game. In 2020 they decreased that number by a whopping 7.6, giving them the stingiest defence in the competition.

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Outlook for 2021: at the heart of Penrith’s recent success has been their ability to execute at speed. Whether it’s rushing up in defence or busting the line in attack, they’ve managed to harness the enthusiasm of their youthful squad and are using it to blow opposition sides off the park.

Many believe this aggressive and up-tempo style of football is not sustainable, especially with teams looking to knock the Panthers off their perch, but with Penrith returning 11 of their starting 13 from last season’s grand final, they’re every chance of making it back to the decider.

Fairly or not, the burden of clearing that final hurdle falls squarely on the shoulders of Nathan Cleary.

The Penrith No.7 was magnificent at times last season, yet still faced harsh criticism for failing on the biggest stage. It’s a niggling narrative which has followed him since his ineffective early Origin outings.

But Cleary won’t have to do it alone. With a supporting cast littered with state and international representatives, his biggest challenge may be learning to take a step back and let the likes of Luai, Koroisau and Crichton do their thing.

They’ll be tough to beat.