The grand final’s done and dusted and with the Mad Monday atrocities drawing to a close, so here’s a quick A to Z guide to remind you of what you saw in the 2021 NRL season.
A. Academy Award
It seems that players will do almost anything to gain an advantage these days and the latest blight on the game is the dive feigning injury, particularly crusher tackles. In a tight field, the Academy Award this year goes to well-known leading man Blake Ferguson in Parramatta’s semi-final loss to Penrith. Take a bow, Blake.
B. The Bunker
I still hate the Bunker and so do you if you’re fair dinkum. The sooner the NRL scraps it, the better the game will be.
Has there ever been a season with so many serious and often season-ending injuries? Every round seemed to bring more bad news and towards the end of the season there were enough players out injured to fill a whole club 30-man squad.
The NRL had more than their fair share of dopes again this year as so-called professional players failed to behave professionally. From the far too numerous COVID breaches, to Adam Elliott’s bathroom antics, Lachlan Lewis’ innovative eBay activity, and finishing the season with four players covered in white powder and another charged with possession. Well done guys.
Brian To’o had a season to remember: the best winger and metre-eater in the game with daylight second, a State of Origin series win, a premiership, and getting engaged to his sweetheart after the grand final following a very public proposal. A wonderful year that couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Many unsuspecting tipsters had the Canberra Raiders somewhere near the top of their choices for 2021 premiers, but hopefully they didn’t put their houses on it, as the Raiders soon morphed into the Canberra Faders, comfortably finishing in tenth place thanks to having a worse for and against than both the Titans and the Sharks. I don’t think they’ll be anyone’s tip for 2022 premiers somehow.
G. ‘Gus’ Gould
Finally, Gould has confirmed what we’ve all suspected when he advised that only those who have played the game can understand the game. Luckily the mere mortals among us have Gus to explain what we’re watching.
H. High contact crackdown
The NRL finally grew a pair, deciding to enforce the rule book for a change, and took on the head-high tackle merchants in a long-overdue crackdown. Unfortunately, it neither lasted long enough nor went far enough, and by season’s end the usual suspects were back at it, and the HIA now appearing to be optional, and primarily a vehicle to gain a couple of extra interchanges.
This seems to be the biggest bugbear for coaches and fans this year, as the referees’ rule interpretations varied significantly, not only from week to week, but also within a game. Just compare the refereeing in the finals to the rest of the season. Confusion reigns!
J. Alex Johnston
A couple of years ago some genius at the Rabbitohs thought it would be a good idea to move the then 24-year-old Alex Johnston on in order to save salary cap dollars or something equally as stupid. Fortunately that never happened, and he went on to score am incredible 53 tries on Souths’ left wing over the last couple of years, including 30 this year from just 22 games, which now stands as the third highest tally of all time after Easts’ Dave Brown’s 38 tries and Newtown’s Ray Preston’s 34 tries. It makes you wonder how many he would have scored if he’d played in all 28 games for Souths this year. It also makes you wonder how many tries Tom Trbojevic with 28 tries from just 18 games would have finished with if he’d played in all 28 games for Manly.
K. Ashley Klein
His back-to-back performances in refereeing the Souths versus Roosters debacle involving Latrell Mitchell’s hit of Joey Manu, and the sin-bin-athon between the Titans and the Warriors confirmed for me that Ashley Klein is no longer up to first grade standard. And yet the NRL see him as the second best ref. Gee, you’d hate to be third on their ladder of mediocrity.
L. Latrell Mitchell
So there we have it, Souths lose the grand final by two points. How different things might have been for the red and green if Mitchell was wearing the number one instead of the ineffectual rookie Blake Taaffe. Souths win for sure with Mitchell on the field. He’s the most destructive ball runner in the game, can make a break from virtually anywhere and could have terrorised some of the less experienced Penrith backs. Hang on… isn’t that all of them? While he tends to go MIA in some games, Mitchell is a big-game specialist and would have got the Bunnies home. Let’s hope, for Souths’ sake, that he works on his discipline issues in the off-season.
M. Manly’s back three
Has there ever been a back three that finished the season with so many tries and goals between them? I doubt it. Jason Saab 26 tries, Tom Trbojevic 28 tries, and Reuben Garrick 23 tries and 121 goals. Incredible! I wonder if they can repeat the trick next season?
N. Next man up
The Roosters must have walked under several ladders while holding a black cat each in the off-season. I can’t recall a side that had so many season-ending injuries to key players. The ability of their remaining players to keep stepping up and doing a job for the team is commendable, and it was an outstanding achievement to make it as far as the semi-finals. The fortitude shown this year will stand them in good stead in the future.
NSW regained Origin ascendency by blasting Queensland off the park in Games 1 and 2, scoring 76 points to Queensland’s six. NSW coach Brad Fittler strangely gave up any chance of a NSW clean sweep when he selected flaky debutante Mitchell Moses and the hopelessly out-of-form Jack Wighton in the halves for Game 3, instead of the in-form Souths pair of Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker.
Congratulations to the Penrith Panthers for an outstanding season and a well deserved third premiership. No flashy big blow-out scores for them in the last three games though, with winning margins of just two points, four points and two points respectively. What won it for them in the end was the self-belief of their young team, defence, and the ability to bash the opposition forwards for three weeks in a row. Great stuff.
Despite the fact that Queensland lost the very first, and hopefully last, three home game Origin series, they have so far done far better against COVID than the southern states, and their success has allowed the game to go on. Thanks Queensland. We may never see another season where the entire Origin series, and every finals game, is played in Queensland.
So close and yet so far for South Sydney. After holding off Penrith 16-10 in the first week of the finals, and then destroying the resurgent Manly 36-16 in the preliminary final, Souths looked like they had the momentum heading into the grand final. Unfortunately, the boys from Penrith had other ideas and never let Souths into the game. The final 14-12 scoreline in favour of Penrith was a surprise though, as the Panthers dominated for most of the game. I wonder if a post Wayne Bennett/Adam Reynolds Souths can bounce back and go one better next year?
Just like most years, the Melbourne Storm set the pace for most of the season and won yet another minor premiership. They breezed through week one of the finals with a 40-12 contact training run against Manly but then ran into something uncomfortable in the shape of the Penrith Panthers in the preliminary final, losing 10-6 in an error-ridden game after losing both Brandon Smith and Christian Welch early in the match. Harry Grant didn’t have the answer, and Cameron Munster’s form could be described as dusty at best. Would they have lost this game if Cameron Smith was still playing? I doubt it.
This has been the year in which Tom Trbojevic has announced to the world that he is a unique talent, destroying Queensland in Origin, and then dragging the Manly team off the bottom of the ladder almost single handedly, and taking them as far as the preliminary final. Some of his stats in just 18 games are just off the scale:
• 28 tries
• 28 try assists
• 33 line breaks
• Average 209 running metres
Surely he can’t play this well again next year? Surely?
U. Ugly incidents
Like every other season, 2021 had its share of ugly on-field incidents, and the three on the top of my list were:
• Round 9 – Parramatta’s Dylan Brown knees Roosters Drew Hutchison in the back as he slid over the try line, resulting in Hutchison being rushed to hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung. The incident was somehow only placed on report, with Brown subsequently copping a three-game suspension while Hutchison spent the next six weeks on the sideline.
• Round 10 – St George centre Tyrell Fuimaono hits Melbourne’s Ryan Papenhuyzen high and late putting the Storm star out for eight weeks and leaving him badly shaken. Fuimaono is sent off and subsequently suspended for five matches.
• Round 24 – Souths’ Latrell Mitchell breaks Roosters centre Joey Manu’s face, ending his season and leaving Manu with three metal plates in his head. Mitchell is eventually sin-binned and subsequently receives a six-week suspension, effectively ending both his season and Souths’ chances of winning the premiership.
V. Paul Vaughan
For as long as the game of rugby league is played there will never be another player to have his $800,000 contract torn up for hosting a BBQ. Hall of Fame material right there.
W. Wooden spoon
The Bulldogs seemingly had their eye on this unwanted trophy since they were narrowly pipped by the Broncos last year, and despite some valiant attempts by some equally disappointing teams to race them to the bottom, the Dogs ended up taking the spoon in a canter, or whatever dogs do, winning just three games for the second year running, and finishing with a points differential of negative 370 points. Let’s hope for better days for the Bulldogs and their supporters next year.
X. Xavier Coates
Yet another talented junior has got away from Brisbane, but don’t panic Broncos fans, 33-year-old David Mead still has a year to run on his contract. Good enough to play five Origin games for Queensland by age 20, watch out for Coates to go to the next level at Melbourne where he will actually receive some coaching on both how to defend and how to win the aerial battle for the ball.
The continually whingeing fans who spend countless hours telling the world that the referees, the Bunker, Peter V’landys and almost any rule change are solely responsible for their side’s failings. Give it a rest.
The sound you make soon after listening to either the droning tones of Michael Ennis on Fox, or the unintelligible Sonny Bill Williams on Channel Nine. And yet, they’re both still preferable to Gus Gould.