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NRL season review and crystal ball Part 4: Manly, Souths, Panthers and Storm

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Roar Guru
5 days ago
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Over the past week, Danielle Smith and I have been reviewing each and every NRL team’s performance in season 2021.

Yesterday, the Roosters, Eels, Knights and Titans were put under the microscope; while last week, the bottom eight were also run through the ringer.

Welcome to our fourth and final instalment as we review the season’s top four, look at the roster changes they need going forward and get out the crystal ball to predict their 2022 fortunes.

To begin with…

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles – fourth
The Sea Eagles were one of the worst teams in history just one month into the 2021 competition; only to end the year with a preliminary final appearance. Manly’s premiership hopes throughout the year were a game of snakes and ladders, rising and falling on the fitness of their superstar fullback Tom Trbojevic.

Once Trbojevic made his first appearance for the year in round six, they were off to the races, losing just six more games for the remainder of the season. They became the most reliant team on one man since the Newcastle Knights in the Andrew Johns era, and that may be what stops them from taking the next step and lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy in coming years.

What Went Right In 2021?
Manly scored a boatload of points and took pleasure in running up the score on weaker opponents, so much so they earned the tag of ‘flat-track bullies’. Thirteen times they were able to score 36 or more points in a game, and they had a streak in the middle of the year where they won three games by a combined score of 172-40 over the Titans, Bulldogs and Cowboys.

Against teams below them on the ladder they won 18 games and lost just three, and they were the first team to have three players score 20 tries in the season in Jason Saab, Reuben Garrick and Trbojevic.

‘Tommy Turbo’ himself turned into a rugby league cheat code as the ‘six again’ rule changes completely changed his football ceiling. He ran away with the Dally M MedalManly only needed to hold their own in the middle and it was enough for them to beat almost anyone once Trbojevic chimed into the backline.

Tom Trbojevic is tackled.

\Tom Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles is tackled during the NRL Qualifying Final between the Melbourne Storm and the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

What Went Wrong In 2021?
Dominant though they were against sides beneath them, the Sea Eagles weren’t mentally tough enough against the Rabbitohs, Storm and Panthers. They came up with a 0-6 record against the top three clubs, and was ultimately what brought them undone in their pursuit for a premiership.

The brilliance of Trbojevic papered over a forward pack that lacked depth once you got to the interchange, so much so that Dylan Walker, a former centre, was playing as a middle-third player with great success against some weaker sides. Against the ‘Big Three’ it became the gimmick that it would ordinarily have been if not for the ‘six again’ rule changes. Being too reliant on one player can only take them so far.

What They Need Most in 2022?
Manly face the toughest challenge in trying to improve their roster for a future tilt at a premiership.

With the Trbojevic brothers and Daly Cherry-Evans taking up so much of their salary cap, finding difference-makers on the margins is always going to be difficult. They need a genuine hooker in 2022, rather than putting Lachlan Croker there and hoping for the best. Manase Fainu hasn’t been available since he was stood down by the NRL, and unless he becomes available for selection, improving their squad by hitting the open market becomes difficult.

Josh Schuster also needs to add a bit more grind to his game and not always be the flashy passer hee is currently. They will be even more dangerous when he realises he can be damaging as a runner.

2022 Crystal Ball
Manly should back up their top-four finish and end up in the exact same spot. No World Cup means Tom Trbojevic should have no off-season fitness concerns, and the squad itself only needs to remain healthy for them to have another great year. But can they take the next step and secure that elusive flag?

Melbourne Storm – third
While they will be missing the likes of Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes for 2022, the Storm are almost guaranteed yet another top-four finish. They went on to great heights immediately after losing Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, so replacing Finucane and Hynes should be a much simpler task.


At times in the 2021 season they looked as though they couldn’t be beaten. They won 19 games in a row, but in the last six weeks of that run you could start to see the wheels slowly falling off. A buoyant Parramatta team ensured they didn’t set a new record win streak, but the loss that will hurt them most is their 10-6 defeat to Penrith in the preliminary final.

The manner in which they were bashed out of the contest was almost shocking to witness, and it will mean Craig Bellamy dives deep into his fountain of knowledge to get the Storm back playing for the premiership.

What Went Right In 2021?
The Storm scored 815 points across the entire regular season, just 24 short of Parramatta’s 2001 tall. Casual fans and some commentators fall into the trap of believing Melbourne still play a boring style as if it is 2008, but for the last six years they’ve been scintillating viewing on a weekly basis.

They had weeks where it looked like a training drill, and when Nicho Hynes emerged to produce more than 20 try assists in the absence of Ryan Papenhuyzen, it had fans thinking, ‘if their back up is better than their starter, what hope does my team have?’

15 of their 19 consecutive wins came by more than 13 points and they finished with a differential of +499, which is impossible if you read it in isolation, but it actually happened.


What Went Wrong In 2021?
They peaked too early. The back end of their winning streak saw them struggle against teams like the Cowboys, Raiders, Sharks and Titans. It indicated they were running out of petrol, and unlike Penrith, they weren’t able to steady the ship.

An easy win over Manly in the qualifying final was, in hindsight, too soft of a game to have heading into a week off and it exposed them to an onslaught in the prelim.

Cameron Munster also had an indifferent season with some off-field issues, and it came back to bite them in the big games.

What They Need Most in 2022?
Munster with a clear mind. He had his untimely controversy in grand final week but a stint in rehab after a difficult year could be what takes his game to the next level. Their playmaking spine were all terrific in 2021, but if they can get Munster to remain on the straight and narrow, they are still every chance of winning the competition in 2022.

Cam Munster

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

2022 Crystal Ball
The Storm should have home games back in Melbourne for 2022 and after not being there for the best part of two years, it could mean they flog some teams at AAMI Park. Consecutive minor premierships are well and truly in the offing.

South Sydney Rabbitohs – runners-up
The Rabbitohs went within a whisker of stealing the premiership from Penrith, but Souths’ fans shouldn’t expect their side to get back there in 2022. The 2021 Grand Final felt like the end of a four-year window in which the club has fallen agonisingly short each time, and they have 11 departures from the grand final squad to replace.

Adam Reynolds’ 10-year career with the Rabbitohs resulted in seven preliminary final appearances, two grand finals and a premiership in 2014. He will leave the club as a genuine legend of the South Sydney club, and finding a replacement for him who can replicate that kind of excellence is going to be almost impossible.


Coach Wayne Bennett will hand the reins to assistant Jason Demetriou, and with a new man at the helm, as well as an injection of youth, the Rabbitohs remain a beautiful mystery for 2022.

What Went Right In 2021?
Souths became one of the greatest attacking teams in the history of the sport in 2021. 775 points across 24 regular-season games might have been aided by the rule changes, but nonetheless it is a remarkable achievement.

They also passed the eye test among neutral fans, becoming the best team to watch play if you didn’t have a dog in the fight. While they were flogged 56-12 in Round 12 by the Panthers, it proved to be the making of them. Their final 15 games of the season following that loss saw them become the best team in the competition without anyone realising it. They had a points differential of +321 across those games, which meant the average margin in all of those games was 21 points. They were also averaging a truly bonkers 36.5 points per game in that span, as well as being ranked third in defence.

What Went Wrong In 2021?
Falling agonisingly short of winning the competition is just about all that did go wrong for the Bunnies in 2022. They did have games earlier in the year where they let in 50 against the Storm and Panthers, but outside of those games it is almost impossible to fault them.

Their winless streak in Melbourne also extended for another year and they decided to move on from Adam Reynolds, despite the halfback playing as well as he ever had. While in the long run that might prove to be a great decision, the short-term effect was one of discontent among their fans.

What They Need Most in 2022?
Lachlan Ilias and Blake Taaffe will need to become really good, really quickly. Taaffe showed he has what it takes to be a good first-grader filling in at fullback for Latrell Mitchell in the finals, but he was found out in the grand final with some of his kick returns. Ilias got just the one game in 2021, but he is going to have to be fantastic for them from the get-go if they want to keep the Premiership window open. Across their whole squad they still have enough strike power to be a contender, so long as the youngsters can contribute.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

2022 Crystal Ball
Expect Souths to fall back a peg or two. They are still a finals-calibre team, but the fall from Reynolds to Ilias at halfback means they feel like either the fifth or sixth-best team in the competition for 2022. With a new coach at the helm, the Bunnies’ premiership window might have just creaked closed.


Penrith Panthers – premiers
For years the Panthers have promised so much as a young up-and-coming club, and 2021 was the year they finally delivered on that. They’ve had a conveyer belt of talent come through the club in the last five years, but it was this group who were able to take the club to their third premiership.

Young teams (take Wests Tigers in 2005) normally have success on the back of brilliant attacking play which isn’t sustainable for a long period; but with Penrith it was their defence that set the tone. In the regular season they allowed an average of 12 points per game, which in a year where points-scoring records were set left, right and centre is truly something to behold.

In the finals it went up a gear, giving up a total of just 10 per game to grind their way to glory.

What Went Right In 2021?
They lifted the trophy, which we have been told might just be a good thing. Nathan Cleary cemented himself as the next great halfback with a Clive Churchill Medal in the decider, while Brian To’o became the most important winger in the competition.

Co-captain Isaah Yeo also announced himself as one of the great leaders with his tough and tenacious play throughout the season and they were the first team to start with 12 straight wins in 25 years. You could fill countless column inches on what went right for them for the next six months, and still be going by the time the footy returns.

What Went Wrong In 2021?
It looked as though it might have been their undoing at one point, and while that didn’t eventuate, the Panthers’ physical style of play left them with a lot of injuries that had to be managed throughout the finals series.

Credit to their conditioning staff for keeping their best side on the field at the most important time, but when they lost 37-10 to the Storm late in the year it had all the hallmarks of a team running out of gas.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

That being said, they won the competition, so it doesn’t matter what went wrong along the way.

What They Need Most in 2022?
Knowing they have a lot of the premiership squad returning and an unshakeable belief in themselves, perhaps the thing they need most is to not play as if every game is their last.

At times if felt they’d hang on for grim death if it meant getting a win, but knowing they have what it takes to win a competition, it could see them happy to rest some of their stars more during the Origin period. Replacing Kurt Capewell on the right-edge also looks to be a big decision; whether Liam Martin takes the role permanently or if Ivan Cleary decides to promote another youngster could be a critical call to get right.

2022 Crystal Ball
Bask in it, Panthers fans; it’s hard to see your team failing to reach a third straight grand final in 2022. What happens on that day is anyone’s guess, but they should join the Storm and Roosters as the only teams in the NRL era to play in back-to-back-to-back deciders.