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Opinion

The 2021 reality for most NRL fans: Give up or pray for a miracle

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Expert
21st July, 2021
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“Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend, hope can drive a man insane.”
“Hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things, and good things never die.”

This exchange of polar opposite mindsets between Ellis Boy “Red” Redding and Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption is a very apt description of the two primary mental approaches of NRL fans that support neither the Melbourne Storm and the Penrith Panthers: write off this season or pray for a miracle.

The two leading sides are at such short odds to win this year’s premiership that a punter would have got better value backing Winx in a boxed trifecta in 2019 than they will backing the NRL’s clear front runners.

While the Storm certainly look like the more likely right now, the return from injury of Jerome Luai and Nathan Cleary should see that tussle become very tight once more.

But what of the rest of us fans? Why would we care? What hope do we have?

Sweet f*** all.

It’s like we are at the Colosseum backing the Christians. A good day is when your side doesn’t give up 50 and it is someone else’s team’s players who have disgraced themselves.

Most games should have a genuine handicap start to make them interesting.

In spite of this state of affairs, there are so many of you out there who still actually carry some hope that your boys can actually get a decent result in season 2021…

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For some, that good result is avoiding the wooden spoon. Others hope their side can make the finals.

A preliminary or grand final appearance is the dream for some. And a precious few still actually think they can lift the trophy this season.

Most of you are kidding yourselves.

Your team stinks and they have no chance. And any chance it might somehow manufacture, Gerry Sutton and Henry Perenara will dismantle in a flurry of six-again calls, bizarre send offs and half-assed video reviews.

Anyway, I’ve run the rule over all the 14 2021 NRL also-rans to tell you the best each side can expect by season’s end.

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South Sydney Rabbitohs
The hope: That a full strength Rabbitohs can beat anyone
Best finish: Premiers
Worst finish: 5th
Prediction: Preliminary final exit

The Rabbitohs have only lost three games in season 2021. Three.

Only problem: two were to the Storm and the other was to the Panthers. And two of those losses saw them concede 50 points.

Now, usually that mark means that a side will not win that year’s title. However, in their Round 9 50-0 loss at the hands of the Storm, the Bunnies were missing Cameron Murray, Adam Reynolds and Latrell Mitchell.

Adam Reynolds of the Rabbitohs

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

You take any sides three best players out and they’ll struggle. However, the Round 11 56-12 belting handed out to them by the Panthers only saw Murray missing.

My point is this: at full strength I believe that the Rabbitohs could jag a win against either of the Storm or the Panthers. They might just be the side to break the ’50 points conceded’ rule too.

But it’s a long shot. They’ve got an honest puncher’s chance.

Parramatta Eels
The hope: That Gutho really is the King and Moses will finally arrive in the finals
Best Finish: Premiers
Worst finish: 6th
Prediction: Top-four finish and then out in straight sets again

The Eels actually beat the Storm back in Round 2 in a very gritty performance that told many of us that maybe the Blue and Gold now had the necessary grit to finally breakthrough for premiership glory.

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They’ve lost just four games this season: to the Dragons, the Sea Eagles, the Bunnies and narrowly to the Panthers in Round 16. So, on the surface of it, the Eels are a challenger.

They’ve got some really superb players in Reed Mahoney, Junior Paulo, Ryan Matterson, Isaiah Papali’I, Maika Sivo and Clint Gutherson. Further, Dylan Brown has started to really become the player he was mooted to become.

However, something is not quite right yet. It is close, but it isn’t quite there. I’m not sure what the magic element is that they need to push them into genuine contender status but whatever it is, they need to add it before this team is to triumph.

Dylan Brown of the Eels passes the ball

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Sydney Roosters
The hope: James Tedesco inspires a Jarryd Hayne 2009-like run of unstoppable form and victories
Best Finish: Preliminary finalists
Worst finish: 6th
Prediction: Knocked out in the second week of the finals

Earlier this season, I compared the Roosters to the Terminator, as they just seem to keep being awesome in spite of the relentless injuries and set backs that have beset them in 2021.

However, while they certainly have the ability and mindset to knock off any team on their day, I can’t see them getting to the last game of the year this season without major misfortune befalling their better positioned opponents.

There is no question that James Tedesco, Victor Radley, Jared Warea-Hargreaves, Joseph Manu and Daniel Tupou are all A-grade talent. Further, they are backed up by some really solid and professional players.

But to win a premiership, your halves combination really needs to be a special and bonded unit. As much as I see heaps of promise in Sam Walker and Drew Hutchison, they aren’t there yet.

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Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
The hope: That Tommy Turbo continues to sweep all before him
Best Finish: Premiers
Worst finish: Miss the eight
Prediction: Knocked out in the second week of the finals or the prelim

Anyone else remember that Manly lost their first four games of the season? They were happy times, simpler times.

Then Tom Trbojevic came back from injury and they’ve won ten of the next 13 games. Lots of people – myself included – had wondered just how good Tommy Turbo is and whether his presence could actually right the awful Brookvale ship.

Well, we got our answer: he is sensational and he makes meat and potatoes players in his team look like stars. He is the best player in the game right now.

Tom Trbojevic runs the ball

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Then the likes of Haumole Olakau’atu, Josh Schuster and Morgan Harper have exploded as good players to complement the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans, Martin Taupau and Reuben Garrick. On their day, they are running up some huge scores and the Brookvale faithful are getting really excited about their chances.

They are talking themselves up as the only real chance to upset the Panthers or the Storm. And they could. But they won’t without a huge slice of luck. Their side, the complete 17, just isn’t up to that standard.

So, unless Gerry Sutton gets majorly six-again happy in their favour and Tommy goes berserk, the Sea Eagles can’t compete in the grind to the level that is necessary yet.

But things do look good for the future.

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St George Illawarra Dragons
The hope: That Hook can steady the ship and get things back on track
Best Finish: 7th
Worst finish: Bottom four
Prediction: Just miss the finals

The Dragons do have some stiff competition for the best self-destruct of season 2021 from the Wests Tigers, Canberra Raiders and Newcastle Knights. However, thanks to the Shellharbour BBQ, I’m backing them to take that title.

Just when it seemed like they might have got themselves in a position to play consistent football and play finals, they’ve gone off and punched themselves repeatedly in the face.

They’ve got a run home that sees them play the Rabbitohs twice, the Panthers and Roosters in their last seven games – there is a chance that they’ll lose all seven and possibly finish in the bottom four.

With Paul “Fail Mary” McGregor already gone and Peter Doust already ousted, whose heads will the Kogarah/Wollongong Showground faithful now call for? Is it time to “hook Hook”?

Surely not…

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
The hope: To scramble into eighth spot
Best finish: 7th
Worst finish: Bottom four
Prediction: 12th spot finish

The Sharks hang in the top eight courtesy of 14 points better differential over the Raiders. They’ve won only seven of their games so far this year, further highlighting the massive gulf between the top six and the rest.

Josh Hannay

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

While they are one of the two sides to have beaten the Panthers this year, that feat was achieved with the Panthers missing their full Origin contingent. They have not beaten another team in the top six.

Further, they’ve lost to the Bulldogs and Broncos. Their big chance is that their seven game run to the finals includes four games against bottom four sides. However, one win is all that separates the Sharks from the bottom four so that doesn’t mean so much.

If they do make the finals they’ll exit in the first week.

Canberra Raiders
The hope: To scramble into the eight
Best finish: 7th
Worst finish: bottom four
Prediction: 9th spot finish

The Canberra Raiders’ 2021 season is best compared to a toxic dumpster fire going over the falls and blowing up a puppy sanctuary at the bottom. What ever could go wrong, has.

Injury has robbed them of their star fullback and now their up-and-coming wunderkind. COVID has seen them lose their starting halfback, whom much of their planning was built around. Players have been lost to off-field indiscretions. A string of bad results have also resulted in a fair bit of internal dialogue, as well.

Safe to say that any realistic hope the Green Machine had in 2021 had flown out the door by around about Round 8.

Having said all of that, they’ve just won two games in a row for the first time since the opening rounds of the season. Their run home sees them play the Sea Eagles, Storm and Roosters, but if they can win four of their final games they might just make the finals. However, are they in any shape to actually compete if they do?

Ricky Stuart

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Newcastle Knights
The hope: To get into 7th spot
Best finish: 7th
Worst finish: Bottom four
Prediction: 8th spot and out in first week of the finals

How much better do the Knights look with Kalyn Ponga in the side? A lot.

However, the cold hard truth is that their only win against a top-eight side this year was against the Sea Eagles in Round 12. The way the Storm took them apart last round bodes very poorly for their chances of making the eight.

However, the only top eight side they play on the run home is the Roosters. They get the Broncos twice and the Bulldogs too. The Knights could well go on a run. However, the chances of them having an impact on the finals is tiny.

Gold Coast Titans
The hope: The squad starts achieving its potential and the hit the finals in top form
Best finish: 7th
Worst finish: Bottom four
Prediction: 10th spot

This is a side of putting on big scores but unable to stop them. The list is actually pretty good, with strong players in most spots. However, it hasn’t quite jelled and they’ve only managed six wins so far.

They are a real chance of winning four of their last seven on paper. However, their effort against the Eels last start was nowhere close to the mark in reality.

While they may get wins in the next three rounds, any momentum will be brought to a shuddering halt by the Rabbitohs and Storm after that. They could make the finals but if they do they are likely to get shellacked in the first week.

Wests Tigers
The hope: To get into the finals
Best finish: 7th
Worst finish: Bottom two
Prediction: 9th or 10th spot

Haven’t the Wests Tigers been given a kicking this year? Every chance journos have had, they’ve sunk the slipper. Apparently there are “cultural issues”.

Rubbish. The Wests Tigers are victims of circumstance.

Everything good they develop gets flogged and the players they can keep aren’t quite as good. Then when results go badly it’s a free-for-all internally and externally.

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The club needs to stick by Michael Maguire as he is the best chance they’ve got. That and the NRL actually ensuring an effective salary cap. I know which one is more likely.

Apart from playing the Sea Eagles and Panthers, they’ve got five winnable games coming up. And their cattle isn’t too bad. They might just make ninth.

North Queensland Cowboys
The hope: To get into the finals
Best finish: 8th
Worst finish: Wooden spoon
Prediction: Bottom four

Todd Payten is a very good coach and he chose to go to the Cowboys. The side has shown flashes of capability but has now lost five games on the trot, without a win since May. All of their wins have come against fellow bottom eight sides.

With three games against top-eight opposition to come, they’ll need to win all of the other four and hope results go their way to make the eight.

That’s a forlorn hope. The best they can do is limit the damage.

New Zealand Warriors
The hope: 8th spot
Best finish: 8th
Worst finish: Wooden spoon
Prediction: Bottom eight

Only five wins for the season is pretty dire. They’ll get a few more on the way home but it won’t be enough to make the finals.

Last week’s backs to the wall effort against the Panthers showed great heart. They should try and preserve that for season 2022. They may get a few more wins on the way home.

Brisbane Broncos
The hope: To get out of the bottom four
Best finish: 10th
Worst finish: Wooden spoon
Prediction: Bottom two

Put a fork in them, they’re done. Their capitulation against the Wests Tigers last week shows they just aren’t going to be competitive this year. The Kevolution has been rescheduled for 2022.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
The hope: To avoid the spoon
Best finish: 15th
Worst finish: Wooden spoon
Prediction: Wooden spoon

There has been a lot more spirit to the Doggies of late but they’ve only managed to beat the Dragons and the Sharks this year. They’ll jag a win or two but it won’t be enough to get them away from the spoon.

The Blue and White faithful will be heartened by the strong recruitment drive and be actively willing 2022 to come.

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