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NRL season review and crystal ball Part 1: The cellar dwellers - Bulldogs, Cowboys, Broncos, Tigers

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Roar Guru
6th October, 2021
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This is Part 1 in a series reviewing the NRL season that was. First up, the teams that were perennially near or at the bottom of the ladder.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

They were once a perennial powerhouse of the NRL, but the Canterbury Bulldogs’ premiership drought is set to enter an 18th season. While they haven’t played finals in five years, there is plenty of reason for their fans to be optimistic in 2022, but should they be expecting a return to the eight?

Any time you can recruit Josh Addo-Carr, John Asiata, Matt Burton, Matt Dufty, Brent Naden, Tevita Pangai Jr, Paul Vaughan and Braidon Burns in a single off-season, you’ve got to be happy with your haul. Newcastle in 2018 had a similar recruitment turnover and it only delivered nine wins, so will that be the destiny for the Bulldogs or will they end their finals drought?

What went right in 2021?
It’s a complete intangible, but they gave incredible effort every week despite winning just three games all season. They realistically got as good as they could have hoped for when you look at their 2021 squad back before a ball was kicked.

The Dogs led the competition with an 80 per cent completion rate and made the fewest errors, but with no established players in the spine and a mix of players on bad contracts or young up-and-comers around them, it meant they posed little threat to troubling the scorers on a consistent basis.

Their season did see the emergence of the likes of Aaron Schoupp and Jake Averillo, who will both be expected to be contributors on a weekly basis next season having both come through the club’s junior pathway system.

Jake Averillo passes the ball

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The club’s salary cap finally got back into somewhat decent shape after many overpaid players were either moved on or had their deals expire, giving them a blank canvas to work with. The Bulldogs also ended the season on a bright note with a sensational 38-0 win over the Wests Tigers.

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What went wrong in 2021?
It was almost a case of what could go wrong, did. A COVID-19 protocol breach mid-season saw mass suspensions in the squad and it resulted in a 66-0 loss to the Manly Sea Eagles. It highlighted the lack of depth in the squad as well as the lack of natural talent from top to bottom, which has been a problem for more than just Trent Barrett’s reign at the helm.

The Bulldogs finished 16th in total run metres, total points and line engagements, while finishing 15th in offloads and post contact metres. They also only got 14 games out of their big recruit Nick Cotric and got nowhere near what they would have hoped from Kyle Flanagan and Corey Allan.

What they need most in 2022
With a roster overhaul, they need as little injury disruption as possible. History has shown that squads who have a lot of turnover within an off-season tend to struggle with continuity and combinations.

The first thing outside of injury fortune they need is for there to be no discourse around coach Trent Barrett’s future. He needs to show quickly he deserves to be a coach at NRL level and he needs continued support from Phil Gould and the rest of the board.

For the Bulldogs to have a good 2022 season on-field, they will need Matt Burton to be playing at a level that demands State of Origin selection and Kyle Flanagan be solid enough to not force the coaching staff to have to drop him three times in a season.

In the, forwards they’ll need Pangai Jr to realise his full potential and lead from the front. If he can be the physical force and off-loading presence they’ve desired for a long time, they will cause teams plenty of headaches.

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2022 crystal ball
The Bulldogs will be much improved on talent alone but the mass infusion of talent means they’ll have some weeks where it looks a little choppy and it will cost them at the back end of the season. There is no shame in going from 16th to tenth in 12 months and it would actually indicate they’ve put some good building blocks in place for longer term success.

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North Queensland Cowboys

The North Queensland Cowboys have the greatest metre-eating forward the game has seen in the middle of a ten-year contract in Jason Taumalolo and they’ve been shambolic over the last four seasons. In his first season under Todd Payten, he looked unhappy and suffered from niggling injuries all year and he finally gave away the ‘best forward in the game’ title after a stellar six-year run at the top.

The Cowboys have been stuck in the bottom four ever since their magical run to the 2017 Grand Final and their demise has been highlighted by the talent they’ve let go that has prospered at other NRL clubs. They face an uphill battle for the 2022 season but the sudden retirement of Michael Morgan does give them some salary cap flexibility for future seasons.

What went right in 2021?
Despite finishing 15th, they were well in the mix to play finals after 12 games. They had a run of eight games where they went 6-2 before their bye and they scored 26 or more points in five of those wins. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow gave fans a reason to tune in each week, announcing himself as a genuine star of the competition with his play in the centres and later fullback, which earned him a State of Origin debut for Queensland.

Kyle Feldt also had one of his best seasons on the wing as he continues to score tries at a strike rate of 0.66 per game across a career of more than 150 games. They just need to find more strike players to pair to complement those two.

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Reece Robson at hooker also had a terrific year and was in their top five players every week. He turned into a good scoring threat inside attacking 20 around the ruck.

What went wrong in 2021?
Everything. Name a statistical category and they were mediocre at it.

They couldn’t get the ball up the field and they finished 11th in total tries, as well as being third in missed tackles. They are a young team who got worse the longer the season went and it culminated with a ten-game losing streak.

It appears that even though they’ve been in the doldrums since the retirement of Johnathan Thurston, there is still plenty of dark days ahead. They also got some decisions off the field completely wrong that will affect their future.

A transaction they’d like to have back is releasing Jake Clifford early from his contract to bring in Tom Dearden. Clifford was playing great football at the time and didn’t want to leave, so why did they upset the apple cart just as they were finding form?

Jake Clifford of the Cowboys offloads the ball

How big a mistake was letting Clifford go to the Knights? (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Early in the year, they announced the signing of Chad Townsend from Cronulla, making the signature of Dearden even harder to understand. Two halfbacks who play the same style left many scratching their heads.

What they need most in 2022
Unless Jason Taumalolo proves that 2021 was an anomaly and he becomes the force of nature he is capable of being, they simply have no shot at being competitive and won’t trouble anyone on a consistent basis. Todd Payten needs to establish an identity when they have the football and they need to find more defensive toughness and not play as though they are just waiting to get the ball back.

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2022 will be a building block season in Townsville.

2022 crystal ball
Sadly for their fans, it looks like a return to their foundation years and they appear primed for a season where they could be the wooden spooners. The conundrum in the halves, the lack of grunt in the forward pack and the terrible defence on the edges has all the hallmarks of a horror season.

Brisbane Broncos

The Brisbane Broncos showed towards the back end of 2021 they were on the right path to being a successful club once again. After the Anthony Seibold era went so poorly, Kevin Walters got the playing group back to basics and taught them how to fight for the jersey.

They defeated the Roosters despite being $13 outsiders at the Sydney Cricket Ground and pushed the Grand Final-winning Panthers all the way to the 80th minute in both of their games.

They had some rough days, which rebuilding sides often do, but the signings of Adam Reynolds and Kurt Capewell give the Broncos the experience they need to take the next step.

What went right in 2021?
Payne Haas proved he might be the most underpaid player in the competition, playing in such a way that prop forwards were just never meant to. If a linebreak was made or a try needed to be saved, it was Haas getting back there to help out after carting the ball forward tirelessly.

Payne Haas.

Payne Haas is one of Brisbane’s best (Matt King/Getty Images)

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Kobe Hetherington also proved later in the season to be a player of promise at lock forward, stiffening up their defence in the midfield and providing some aggression which inspired teammates. Selwyn Cobbo and Herbie Farnworth in the three-quarter line provided a good blend of pace and power, while Kotoni Staggs was able to get some games under his belt at the back end of the year which should help him have a big 2022 season.

What went wrong in 2021?
Like any rebuilding side, they lacked consistency and it saw them leak a lot of points at different stages. They gave up 40 or more points in seven different games and they only managed 77 total tries, which was good enough for 15th.

Being third in offloads on the surface looks good, but if you don’t know how to create chances on the back of it, you’re just playing hot potato for the sake of it. Without having the same halves in the team each week, their attack on some days would get far too sideways and lacked the ability to punch holes in the defence.

What they need most in 2022
Tom Flegler, Patrick Carrigan, Kobe Hetherington, Jordan Riki and Rhys Kennedy all need to take another step in their development. If they remain just as they are now, they won’t be able to get Adam Reynolds playing on the front foot and they’ll fail to get a return on their big investment.

Kurt Capewell will be a terrific addition to give them a hard, line-running back rower that can give them options on the edge, and they’ll need someone to put their hand up to claim the hooking role. Jake Turpin has regressed in recent years and it presents a fantastic chance for Cory Paix to make the jersey his own as he showed the potential to transition full time from the halves.

2022 crystal ball
They’ll finish just outside the eight but are more than capable of turning seven wins into ten or 11. The Adam Reynolds kicking game will cover a lot of warts and they’ll play in a lot of close games as a result.

Wests Tigers

To have not played in a finals series in a decade where there is a salary cap and half the teams make it is just about impossible to do. Sadly for Tigers’ fans, that is their reality, and if you stretch out the entire history of the joint-venture, they’ve only made finals in three of their 22 years of existence.

They shocked the world when they didn’t sack coach Michael Maguire after all the signs looked as though they’d spear another head coach, but is that perhaps a sign the club is trying to build a foundation of stability? The 38-0 loss to the Bulldogs in the final round was as dark a day the club has had on the field, but did that signal rock bottom and they can now move forward?

Tigers head coach Michael Maguire

Michael Maguire lives to fight another day (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

What went right in 2021?
Adam Doueihi and Daine Laurie. That’s the list.

Doueihi was simply sensational at five-eighth and any time something good happened on the field for the Tigers, he was usually at the centre of it all. Laurie also made an immediate impact at fullback and within four weeks became one of their most important players and a cornerstone piece for their future.

Laurie did break his ankle in the final month of the season on a run through the mid field off an offload, but it was this kind of play that showed his next step as a player. From the start of the season he was great on the edge at sniffing out chances, but he has the potential to be damaging through the middle-third. Later in the year they got some good performances out of Stefano Utoikamanu, Shaun Blore and Tommy Talau.

What went wrong in 2021?
In 14 of their 24 games, they gave up 30 or more points. No team will ever compete for an NRL title with defence as poor as that.

While he won their player of the year award, they need more from Luke Brooks, who now holds the unenviable record of having played the most games for a halfback to never play a finals match. The Tigers were only eighth in line engagements and if they want to be successful they need Brooks taking the ball deep into the line to create some deception.

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They had the third most decoy runs of any team in the competition but were relatively anaemic in attack, which is a complete anomaly when the Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs rounded out the top four in that category.

What they need most in 2022
Belief, hunger and a long hard look in the mirror. At some point the players have to stop the rot and have some pride in their defence as professional footballers. They also need to buy in to what the new coaching staff are selling to them.

There were suggestions they had quit on Maguire throughout the year but the club bas backed the coach, so now it’s up to the players to take accountability.

2022 crystal ball
Unfortunately, it will be an 11th season of the finals drought. They just don’t have enough good players throughout their squad and unless they can add more pieces, the improvement will largely have to come from within the four walls.

Oliver Gildart is an England Test player but outside backs from the Super League have had a hard time of it in the NRL, so it would be wrong to expect big things from him. Where Jackson Hastings and new addition Tyrone Peachey slot into the 17 is anyone’s guess, but if 2021 proved anything it’s that teams can afford to play smaller line-ups.

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