The NRL is set to enter its 113th season with the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging in the air. While Australian life is returning to normality, the game will still have to contend with the possibility of COVID restrictions and crowds will no doubt be limited at the start of the year.
With that said, the clubs are looking forward to a regular season regarding scheduling with even the Warriors preparing for home games for the first time in nearly 18 months.
2020 Position: 1st
Finish: Runners Up
The Panthers head into the 2021 season as one of the hunted. They dominated the competition in 2020, losing only once during the regular season and cruised into the grand final with the expectation they would win their third Premiership. However, they found themselves up against a very experienced Melbourne Storm who jumped out to a 22-0 lead before the Panthers rallied late in the second half to make it a contest in the final minutes. There are many questions surrounding Penrith heading into this season.
They are no longer underdogs with an outside threat at a Premiership so teams will be hunting them. How will a fairly young side that has lost James Tamou and Josh Mansour (a combined 425 games) cope with the pressure? Will they be able to continue improving? How does Ivan Cleary manage the weight of expectations on his young team? How does Nathan Cleary pick himself up after dual defeats in the grand final and State of Origin Series? They will still be a top side in 2021, but how much they can improve on 2020?
2020 Position: 2nd
Melbourne added another trophy to the cabinet in 2020 as they rampaged their way into the back end of the season. Led by messrs Smith and Munster, the Melbourne juggernaut crashed into a young Panthers side on grand final day and showed them how to go from the regular season into the finals and win the Premiership. As always, Melbourne plucked players like Brenko Lee and Nicho Hynes from relative obscurity and turned them into champions.
The elephant in the room is clearly, what’s the deal with Cameron Smith? The NRL’s most capped player is still yet to sign a new contract with the Storm with plenty of suggestions he’s heading to the Gold Coast Titans. Waiting in the wings of course are Harry Grant and Brandon Smith who are both keen to make the number nine their own. While both are fine options, the loss of Cam Smith would be akin to Don Bradman retiring. There is no replacing a player of his quality and influence and it would be the hardest test of Craig Bellamy’s career since he arrived in Melbourne nearly two decades ago.
2020 Position: 3rd
Finish: Finals Second Week
Parramatta finished in their highest position since the 2005 minor premiership. But it was a season that promised so much more at the start. Early leaders of the competition that hit the ground running following the restart, they faded at the back end as it seemed fatigue and injuries caught up to them. Parramatta have not progressed past the second week of the finals since 2009 despite finishing in the top four twice since then. When they led against the Rabbitohs in week two of the finals, they seemed to be setting up a showdown with Penrith the following week until it all came crashing down.
The Eels have been active in the player market this season, releasing a large chunk of their 2020 squad and investing heavily in their juniors while also recruiting two backups for hooker Reed Mahoney. Perhaps their biggest concern is the replacement for the suspended Michael Jennings who is yet to find out the result of his B sample after testing positive for a banned substance on the morning of Parramatta’s final match of the year. The spine of their squad though remains intact while their forward pack is one of the most impressive in the competition.
2020 Position: 4th
Finish: Finals Second Week
The Roosters were unable to complete their threepeat in 2020 after bowing out against the Canberra Raiders in the second week of the finals. An injury crisis in the middle of the year that claimed Sam Verills and Victor Radley for the season threatened to completely derail their campaign. But performances from the likes of Luke Keary, Daniel Tupou, James Tedesco and Angus Crichton helped drag the side to another top four finish.
The question for the Roosters this year is, is the veil of invincibility slipping? The Panthers managed to defeat them in a finals match while the side also capitulated against the Rabbitohs in the final game of the regular season. They released Kyle Flanagan at the end of the year while captain Boyd Cordner is set to miss about half of the season while he recovers from concussion symptoms. The core of Trent Robinson’s side is beginning to age with Jake Friend dealing with injuries while Luke Keary has also had his own concussion issues. They will remain one of the competition favourites, but will they return to their usual high standards?
2020 Position: 5th
Finish: Preliminary Final
A massive casualty ward including hooker Josh Hodgson threatened to completely derail their season. Fortunately the likes of Siliva Havili and rookie Tom Starling filled the breach while halves George Williams and Jack Wighton clicked. The major driver for the Raiders was their forward pack with Josh Papalii leading Dunamis Lui, Joe Tapine, Elliott Whitehead and Hudson Young.
For 2021 the club looks well prepared to take another crack at the Premiership they fell short reaching one in 2019. They possess a strong middle with the return of Josh Hodgson alongside the emergence of Tom Starling giving even further creativity to the dummy-half position. It’s a credit to the club they finished 5th with their injury list in 2020 and they’ll be hoping they have better luck on that front. Meanwhile the continued improvement of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and the revelation of Semi Valemei means the Raiders possess plenty of punch in their backline.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
2020 Position: 6th
Finish: Preliminary Final
‘Member when they said Wayne Bennett was finished? ‘Member when the Rabbitohs were going to be lucky to make the finals? I ‘member! At the age of 71 the master coach is entering his 34th consecutive season as an NRL coach and he still appears to have the magic. Souths went within a game of another grand final. The club dealt with the retirements of Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess surprisingly well. The arrival of Latrell Mitchell helped with the loss of Inglis but when the young fullback tore his hamstring tendon late in the season Corey Allen stepped into the breach.
It’d be a brave person to write a Bennett coached team off yet again. Josh Mansour has arrived from Penrith to add depth to a backline that, at times, was only just holding together due to injury. Adam Reynolds is the ying to Cody Walker’s yang and Damien Cook looms as another massive threat with the new rule changes this season. Souths can also look forward to the arrival of Jai Arrow who will add even more to their middle alongside Cam Murray and Junior Tatola.
2020 Position: 7th
Finish: Finals First Week
Newcastle had a season that promised so much but delivered so little. Early on they sat in the top four before tumbling down the table and managing to scramble into seventh. They were effectively cannon-fodder for the Rabbitohs in week one of the finals. They also seemingly had a curse on their number nine with their hookers dropping like flies including mid-season transfer Andrew McCullough. They also struggled to nail down a halves partner for Mitchell Pearce while Kalyn Ponga was hot and cold at fullback.
2021 looms as a make or break year for Adam O’Brien. Another finals appearance could see him offered a contract extension while missing the playoffs could see the calls for his sacking emerge rather quickly. The Knights possess a relatively strong squad with the likes of Ponga, Pearce, David Klemmer and the Saifiti twins all putting in impressive performances throughout 2020. They’ll be expected to be more consistent in 2021.
2020 Position: 8th
Finish: Finals First Week
The Sharks were lucky the season wasn’t full length otherwise they probably wouldn’t have scraped into the top eight. Similar to the Knights they were bundled out in week one of the finals. Cronulla looked like an ageing team at times throughout the 2020 season and had to deal with injuries to the likes of Wade Graham, Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan. Andrew Fifita’s physical game appeared to catch up to him and was seemingly supplanted by young gun Braden Hamlen-Uele.
Cronulla is at a crossroads in 2021. They have some young if not unproven talent coming through while their veterans are seemingly battling to get on the field each week. This season could be a rollercoaster for a side that has become a regular in the finals across the past seven years. While they have signed Cameron McInnes for 2022 they haven’t been very active in the player market this time around with their biggest name being Aiden Tolman. The added controversy surrounding Shane Flanagan and the ongoing doping case with Bronson Xerri probably doesn’t help.
Gold Coast Titans
2020 Position: 9th
The Titans are the side with possibly the largest upside in the competition for 2021. They came charging home with a wet sail in 2020 to miss out on the finals by only two points. They put the seventh placed Knights to the sword in the final round of the competition and have a look and feel of a team ready to leap into 2021. Jamal Fogarty breaking into the NRL appeared to compliment halfback Ash Taylor while AJ Brimson gave the competition a glimpse of his game breaking ability.
The Gold Coast have perhaps the two biggest recruits of 2021 in Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita. Their additions add a massive amount of firepower to their forward pack. Tino was one of the Storm’s best in 2020 and he was rewarded with a winning Maroons debut. Fifita meanwhile had some injury concerns but when he played he was easily Brisbane’s best and most damaging player. The challenge now will be for coach Stephen Holbrook to harness all the talent at his disposal and have the Titans charging into the finals for the first time since 2016.
New Zealand Warriors
2020 Position: 10th
The Warriors were the reason the NRL season went ahead. Without their sacrifices the game wouldn’t have been able to restart. The fact head coach Stephen Kearney was sacked so soon after the resumption of the season is further testament to the side’s professionalism and the fabulous work done by caretaker and now North Queensland Cowboys head coach Todd Payten. While they may not have made the finals they saw the season as somewhat of a success.
2021 looms as a chance for the Warriors to re-enter the finals with games seemingly set to return to New Zealand for the first time since 2019. The recruitment of Addin Fonua-Blake and Kane Evans adds plenty of size to their middle while they snapped up Bayley Sironen from Souths. This season will also be the final for captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who will head to Rugby Union for a tilt at a spot with the All Blacks and a crack at a Rugby World Cup. Chanel Harris-Tevita seemed to mature across the season while also striking up a partnership with Kodi Nikorima.
2020 Position: 11th
The Tigers dropped from their customary ninth to 11th in 2020 in a season that saw flashes of brilliance mixed with far too much mediocrity. Luke Brooks seemed a long way from the 2018 Dally M Halfback of the Year while reliable middle Alex Twal spent parts of the season on the sideline. They did however bid farewell to Benji Marshall with the Kiwi and Tigers legend not having his contract renewed and so he’s landed at South Sydney. Shaun Blore though was a revelation in the forward pack. Chris Lawrence also retired as a lifelong Tiger.
The joint venture has been busy in the player market, welcoming Stefano Utoikamanu alongside James Tamou, James Roberts and Joe Ofahengaue. It seems the pieces are there for Michael Maguire to have a finals-quality side but there are plenty of questions over his side. There are questions over who will be his fullback while supposed first choice centres James Roberts and BJ Leilua are as likely to lose you a game as they are to win one.
St George Illawarra Dragons
2020 Position: 12th
As an Eels fan who has seen his fair share of head scratching recruitment, I have to say St George has raised the bar (or should I say lowered). They endured a pretty torrid 2020 that saw them lose James Graham mid-year while they continue paying Jack De Belin to sit in the stands. Matt Dufty had a solid finish to the year while Ben Hunt excelled when he shifted to hooker and Cam McInnes to lock. The mid-season sacking of Paul McGregor though seemed to have the opposite effect it had on the Warriors when they lost Kearney.
For 2021 they have luckily recruited Andrew McCullough whose signing caused much consternation initially. However, McInnes tore his ACL during the pre-season effectively ending his season before it started. Their recruitment has also seen them sign the likes of Daniel Alvaro and Kaide Ellis. Jack Bird also effectively returns home from a torturous time in Brisbane. Anthony Griffin will have his work cut out for him down in Wollongong and they will be battling to make it into the top eight.
Manly Sea Eagles
2020 Position: 13th
Manly suffered through one of their worst seasons in their history and their worst under Des Hasler. They won only seven games and conceded the third most number of points behind the Cowboys and Broncos. The club was hit hard by injury with star fullback Tom Trbojevic sitting out a large chunk of the year due to hamstring and shoulder injuries. They also had to deal with the absence of Manase Fainu while also releasing Apisai Koroisau at the end of 2019 leaving them light on in the hooking position.
Hasler will be hoping for a bounce back season in 2021. The club welcomes Kieran Foran back into the fold while Andrew Davey arrives from Parramatta after impressing in the middle of 2020. Fainu’s court case is still hanging over his head and he remains suspended while Dylan Walker is also dealing with another arrest but will be permitted to play. Manly saw Addin Fonua-Blake head to the Warriors and will be looking to Taniela Paseka to fill the gap. Much of the club’s fortunes will hang on the fitness of Trbojevic and Foran.
North Queensland Cowboys
2020 Position: 14th
Ever since they dragged themselves to the 2017 grand final, the Cowboys haven’t looked the same. Jonathan Thurston retired in 2018 and since then Michael Morgan has struggled with his fitness. 2020 was yet another disappointing year for the team from Townsville. Coach Paul Green was sacked mid-year and replaced by club legend Josh Hannay. Injury to Jason Taumalolo also heavily impacted the side that also had to do with a revolving door for a backline due to injury.
2021 perhaps gives some light to the Cowboys with the recruitment of Todd Payten. The former Warriors coach is known for being blunt and his recent honest appraisal of JT13’s defensive struggles indicates he won’t be changing his tune up north. There were suggestions Paul Green had grown part of the furniture in North Queensland and a new coach could light a fire under the side. Payten’s comments suggest he won’t be asking as much of Taumalolo as Green did. The arrival of Reece Robson at the Cowboys in 2020 means they will have a more threatening hooker while Valentine Holmes will hopefully have a better feel for the game with a full season under his belt.
2020 Position: 15th
The Bulldogs struggled through a very disappointing year that saw Dean Pay out the door. His mid year replacement, Steve Georgallis didn’t fare much better, winning only two of 11 games. There were plenty of concerns for the Dogs heading into 2020. They lacked a genuine game breaker, their forward pack didn’t seem to instil fear in their opponents and their spine looked disjointed. To their credit, despite struggling throughout the year, they did put in plenty of effort and pushed higher ranked sides to their limits. They by no means were giving up.
The Bulldogs, like the Titans, have been active in the player market. They’ve grabbed Nick Cotric, Kyle Flanagan, Corey Allen and Jack Hetherington. They will have a stronger side than 2020. The question for them is who partners Flanagan and will they gel with Jeremy Marshall-King and Allen in the spine? They will also hope Luke Thompson comes back firing after being suspended at the end of 2020. And Trent Barrett will hope to make a better fist of a head coaching role after his tumultuous time at Manly.
2020 Position: 16th
There is no other way to describe Brisbane’s 2020 season than disgraceful. They lurched from disaster to disaster. Following their end to 2019 which saw them flogged 58-0 they were dispatched 59-0 by the Roosters when they came back from COVID lockdown. The season didn’t improve much from there. Teams were seemingly lining up to put a score on them and they looked beaten after 20 minutes. Anthony Seibold was rightly sacked. Darius Boyd retired at the end of the year, although his form was far from the Origin-level he once reached.
It’s hard to see where the improvement is going to come from for Brisbane under Kevin Walters. They’ve lost David Fifita who, despite his limited game time in 2020, was their best player when on the field. Joe Ofahengaue has also departed. They did recruit John Asiata from the Cowboys however they also lost Andrew McCullough. They’re not sure of their halves while Jamayne Isaako seems set to occupy the fullback spot which he did a less than stellar job of in 2020. One thing is for sure, Walters will be under intense pressure from the go. He’s a rookie but Brisbane doesn’t tolerate failure. Perhaps their best piece of business was recruiting Dave Donaghy as their CEO from the Melbourne Storm.