The 2021 NRL season has drawn to a close, the Panthers are premiers, the Bulldogs are wooden spooners and there’s plenty to reflect on for the 15 teams that didn’t raise the trophy at the end of the year.
It was a season once again interrupted by COVID, forcing 13 teams to relocate to Queensland for half the year and, for the first time since Super League, there was a grand final in Brisbane.
Without further ado, let’s begin. We will be working out way down the end of season table, starting with the minor premiers.
They won everything bar the premiership this season. A 19 game winning streak, coupled with the best attack in 20 years saw the Storm more than cope with the loss of Cameron Smith. Most people, myself included, have compared the Storm to the New England Patriots, but they’re better than that. The Patriots lost their GOAT and missed the playoffs, the Storm lost theirs and won a minor premiership, coming within a match of the grand final.
But despite the retirement of a future immortal, the story of the season really focussed on the rise of Nicho Hynes. Starting the year he expected to once again play his role from the bench, but ended up spending most of the season at fullback. A severe concussion to Ryan Papenhuyzen meant Hynes shifted into the number one and he acquitted himself so well he landed a contract with the Cronulla Sharks moving forward.
Melbourne bowed out of the premiership race in a hard fought loss to the Panthers in the preliminary final. Their loss was somewhat unexpected and it came about due to a litany of errors and poor execution which you wouldn’t normally say of the men in purple. It was also a game where they perhaps missed the experience of Cameron Smith who, in commentary, was imploring his former side to kick long and kick early, which they never did.
Still, 19 consecutive wins, minor premiership and a preliminary final is hardly a fall from grace. They will bid farewell to Dale Finucane, Hynes and Josh Addo-Carr for next season, but they’ve already nabbed Xavier Coates from the Broncos. It’s hard to see them being anything other than a premiership threat next year.
They went one better than last year and followed through on all the hype. They were duly rewarded at Origin level with six players receiving representative honours. Penrith learnt from their mistakes in the 2020 grand final and were a lot calmer and controlled this time around. Their young players grew and they were able to fill the few gaps that had been left with the departures of Josh Mansour and James Tamou.
There were expectations they would fall at the final hurdle given their very tough run through the finals after Souths bested them in week one. But they survived a titanic battle with the Eels and out-wrestled a mistake-laden Storm.
Their premiership window remains wide open, the question will be whether they can keep the core of their side together over the coming couple of seasons as the Dolphins enter the competition and begin raiding teams for players. But next year looks like they’ll have more than a crack at going back-to-back.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
After three consecutive preliminary finals, the Rabbitohs managed to barge their way into a grand final. It may be a bit of a cliche, but it was really a tale of two seasons for Souths. The before Origin period and after Origin period. Before the representative rounds, Souths leaked points but could outscore most of their opponents. After, they seemed to become a lot tougher defensively while still maintaining much of their potency.
Many expected them to fall apart once Latrell Mitchell was suspended for destroying Joseph Manu’s face, but they seemed to adapt perfectly. Playing Blake Taaffe at fullback ensured Souths could keep their attacking shape, while Cody Walker seemed to grow with the extra responsibility.
It was also a fine send off for Benji Marshall who went from a fringe first grader at the start of the season to the preferred bench utility and occasional starting player. Unsurprisingly most of what Souths did was courtesy of the field position provided by the boot of Adam Reynolds, something they’ll miss next season.
It’s going to be one hell of a test of South Sydney’s depth after they released probably their best halfback in over 30 years over a length of contract dispute. Not to mention the fact Wayne Bennett has headed back to Queensland, leaving Jason Demetriou to fill those very big shoes. He could do worse than have a chat with John Monie about following supercoaches, who had the unenviable task of replacing Jack Gibson at Parramatta in 1984.
Manly Sea Eagles
It was the season of Tom Trbojevic on the Northern Beaches. Without him, they played cluelessly and with him they made it to a preliminary final. The Sea Eagles talisman was the best player in the NRL for 2021 and he capped it with a Dally M Medal. However, despite his exploits, Manly didn’t qualify for the grand final and there are some questions that need to be asked about their other million dollar man Daly Cherry-Evans.
Cherry-Evans is the Queensland and current (although not that current because a Test hasn’t been played since 2019) Australian halfback. How can Manly go from worldbeaters to a basket case when they lose Trbojevic? A team shouldn’t really be falling apart if their million dollar halfback is fit.
Manly will very much be an enigma heading into 2022. So much of their game relied on Trbojevic doing Trbojevic things, and very rarely do you get two of those sorts of seasons in a row. They uncovered some talent in the form of Josh Schuster and Haumole Olakau’atu while Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab both had career years. Next season will likely depend on how they adapt to teams focussing ever more on Trbojevic.
Every week you assumed would be the week this side fell over, and every week they turned up. Their casualty ward was overflowing and most would have assumed they’d tumble to the bottom of the eight, receive a polite round of applause and slide out in the first week of the finals.
Trent Robinson did an amazing job bringing through the next crop of players, especially when you consider he will have neither of Jake Friend or Boyd Cordner next season, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Angus Crichton both stood up to shoulder the extra burden in the forwards.
James Tedesco was simply outstanding in being asked to play both fullback and first receiver. It’s hard to really gauge where the Roosters sit given the number of players injured, but you’d assume a fully fit roster would once again be heading deep into September.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They started the season off strongly, managed to drag themselves through an Origin period that had Junior Paulo play all three matches and Mitchell Moses handed his debut. But Moses’ broken back suffered in Origin then coincided with the wheels virtually falling off as they crashed to four consecutive defeats and dropped out of the top four.
Parramatta then seemed to reset and go again, turning an unconvincing win against the Cowboys, into a dominant showing against the Storm. They weren’t without their injury problems either, with Moses’ fractured back alongside Reed Mahoney also suffering multiple shoulder injuries. They were also dealt the cruel blow of losing both back up hookers in Joey Lussick and Nathaniel Roache to injury at the end of the season, leaving middle forward Ray Stone to deputise at dummy half.
The Eels breathed new life into Isaiah Papali’i who netted the Dally M second rower of the year gong, while Bryce Cartwright seemed to sort himself out. Next season looms as a big test of Parramatta’s junior system as Will Penisini cemented his centre position, while Sean Russell, Samuel Loizou and Solomone Naiduki will battle it out for Blake Ferguson’s spot.
The ultimate question is whether they can turn their late season form which saw them go toe-to-toe with Penrith and Melbourne into a regular standard. They do that, and they’ll be a premiership threat.
It was a bit of a mixed bag for the Knights, but they managed to qualify for the finals for the second year in a row. Injuries to key players throughout the season didn’t help, while the side overall still displayed signs of immaturity. Still, the club seems to be in a much better position than it was under Nathan Brown and Adam O’Brien is getting time to try and turn things around.
Newcastle’s outside backs were perhaps the biggest question mark throughout the year as they were continuously cycling through various combinations. Starford To’a, Enari Tuala, Bradman Best, Hymel Hunt, Kurt Mann, Dominic Young, Gehamat Shibasaki and Brayden Musgrove all featured across the backline.
The Knights at least seem to have nailed down a halves combination after they recruited Jake Clifford mid-season to partner Mitchell Pearce, that’s if Pearce stays in Newcastle. However, they will have to get more creative than a bunch of left side second man plays that rely on some Kalyn Ponga brilliance to score them points. The loss of Connor Watson is going to hurt, but they still have a pretty good forward pack with Mitch Barnett, Tyson Frizell, David Klemmer and the Saifiti brothers all having relatively strong seasons.
Gold Coast Titans
Not since the heady days of Neil Henry and the Jarryd Hayne circus had the Titans made the finals. In Justin Holbrook’s first season he managed to get the side into the eight and they really should have moved into the second week after they butchered an overlap in the final seconds of their elimination final against the Roosters.
They’re definitely not top four material yet as they have a knack for leaking 20 points in the space of 10 minutes, but offensively, they proved to be very damaging when presented the opportunity. David Fifita had his mix of good and poor games. The Titans are hoping he will be a lot more consistent next year.
Moeaki Fotuaika though forced his way into the Queensland Origin side and was a big part of the Titans’ push into September, while Tino Fa’asuamaleaui showed his quality. Jamal Fogarty has departed, as has Ash Taylor while Erin Clark has seemingly nailed down the hooking position.
AJ Brimson is rumoured to be moving into five-eighth alongside Toby Sexton next year as Jayden Campbell lays claim to the fullback spot. They’ll definitely be an exciting team to watch in 2022.
Despite being the first side to dump their coach in 2021, Cronulla came within a final round blow out win by the Titans of making the finals. It’s hard to know what to make of Cronulla throughout this season. They were very up and down while having to deal with injuries across their spine.
Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan all spent time on the bench, while Townsend finished the season at the Warriors before heading to the Cowboys for next year. Johnson is also returning home in 2022. Yet players like Will Kennedy, Connor Tracey, Toby Rudolf and Ronaldo Mulitalo all had strong seasons. If it wasn’t for an eligibility kerfuffle Mulitalo would have played Origin this season.
There are plenty of changes occurring in the Shire heading into 2022. Caretaker coach Josh Hannay is being replaced by Craig Fitzgibbon, Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes are two big recruitments while Cam McInnes, who signed in 2020 and spent all of 2021 in rehab due to tearing his ACL, is arriving in Cronulla.
The Sharks appear to be building a strong squad but much of it is going to rest on a rookie coach.
The team from the nation’s capital just never really got off the ground this year. They started relatively well, winning three out of their first four, but five consecutive losses really put the team under pressure and it wilted. Internal unrest was quick to follow with George Williams being released mid-season, while Josh Hodgson was benched.
They didn’t win back to back games after rounds one and two until rounds 17-19, which kept them in the hunt for the top eight courtesy of a struggling field of competitors. Injuries definitely played a role in the team’s inconsistency with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad managing just six games due to a neck injury, while Hudson Young, Joe Tapine and Jarrod Croker all played fewer than 20 matches. A long term, mid-season suspension to Josh Papalii also didn’t help.
Ultimately, the Raiders have some interesting bits and pieces as well as some issues heading into next season. They have signed both Peter Hola and Jamal Fogarty, but have released Siliva Havili who is often the club’s back up hooker. With Tom Starling being investigated over a fight and Josh Hodgson reportedly being shopped around, the club could find itself without a hooker for next year. It did however unearth Xavier Savage as a backline threat, while Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will be looking to be back to his best next year.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The joint venture was about as effective as most anticipated. There was an early season push into the top four after they won four consecutive games, but that was good as it got. There was a lot of chopping and changing in both the forwards and backs, Matt Dufty was seemingly cast aside while the club didn’t have a ready made replacement. By mid-season the club was in a shambles as 10 players met up for a barbecue and it saw the sacking of Paul Vaughan alongside every other player being suspended.
Mikaele Ravalawa ended up on a first name basis with the judiciary, while Zac Lomax spent half the season injured. An incredibly poor end to the season that saw them lose eight in a row meant they dropped from seventh spot in round 16 to 11th at the end of round 25.
The club has been on a bit of a spending spree, but most of its purchases aren’t of the x-factor kind. It’s obviously taken a punt on some guys like Aaron Woods and George Burgess, hoping they bring more than what their salary suggests, especially seeing as Burgess has a replacement hip. St George will need plenty to fall their way in 2022 if they’re going to be climbing up the ladder.
Every season they promise to do something, and every season that something turns out to be mediocre. Which is what we saw in Nathan Brown’s first year as head coach. The obvious bright point of the season was the unleashing of Reece Walsh who showed he has a bright future ahead. Players like Josh Curran and Bunty Afoa showed continued development, while Ben Murdoch-Masila and Addin Fonua-Blake showed there is a decent foundation in the forward pack.
Some chopping and changing at hooker probably didn’t help though, and the halves were also relatively unstable with the likes of Chad Townsend, Sean O’Sullivan, Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita all getting a crack. Not to mention the departure of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck mid-season. Perhaps the worst part was seeing Kane Evans running out and engaging in some brain explosions, while Warriors junior Isaiah Papali’i went and collected a Dally M for back rower of the year.
The Warriors have lost veteran forward Leeson Ah Mau to retirement, while releasing Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Peta Hiku to the Cowboys. Shaun Johnson though arrives to reclaim his old number seven, Ash Taylor is on a train and trial to reignite his career and the hard running Aaron Pene joins from the Warriors. 2022 may still be a tough year for the club, but hopefully they can display some better consistency.
Where to start with the Tigers this season? The season simply started bad and got worse. Luke Brooks was never really unleashed, the side lacked cohesion on both sides of the ball and they wilted whenever the going got tough. They managed to win two games back-to-back on only two occasions, rounds 12 and 13 against the Dragons and an Origin depleted Panthers and then against the Bulldogs and Cowboys in rounds 21 and 22.
Perhaps nothing epitomizes the crashing and burning of the Tigers season more than their round 25 0-38 loss to the deadlast Bulldogs. We all got a front row seat to the general implosion of the club courtesy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary which didn’t end up painting CEO Justin Pascoe in a great light. At times, the side looked to be coming apart at the seams. They were thrashed 66-16 by the Storm in round 15 as part of a three week streak that saw them concede 144 points.
While the season as a whole provided little to be excited about, the continued improvement of Luciano Leilua was a bright spot, alongside the form shown by Adam Doueihi in the halves. David Nofoaluma once again topped the try scoring tally for the club, while Tommy Talau began to show some of his talent. Zac Cini’s debut added some positivity.
2022 is shaping as a tough year for a side that never got above 11th throughout 2021. Michael Maguire was spared the axe but will apparently get some new coaching staff, alongside Tim Sheens as coaching director. They have also managed to shed themselves of some of the salary cap drains that have curtailed recruitment in recent seasons. That being said, they’ll need a massive shift in attitude and application if they are to be challenging for the eight next year.
It was better than the 2020 season, but still not much to write home about. They showed promise on occasion and possess a relatively blockbuster forward pack when at full strength. However, continued instability across the spine from fullback to hooker pretty much meant they were always going to be battling at the bottom of the ladder. They showed more fight than the 2020 squad, not getting trounced as regularly or as easily, but they were still nowhere near the position they want to be.
Brisbane failed to string any wins together, their seven victories all spread across the year. It’s clear the side lacked leadership, which was epitomised by the fact Brodie Croft, Patrick Carrigan and Jake Turpin all captained the side in Alex Glenn’s absence.
However, 2022 is shaping as a better year. They have cleared the decks with 12 players all heading to new clubs. And of that list, perhaps Xavier Coates is the only one they would have wanted to hold onto. In return, the Broncos have landed Kurt Capewell, Ryan James and the biggest club recruitment in a while in Adam Reynolds.
That’s perhaps the most important part of business the Broncos have completed in years. Reynolds brings experience, alongside a winning mentality, high quality halfback play and one of the best kicking games in the competition. His recruitment alone could see Brisbane back in the eight in 2022.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys never seemed to work out what their style of play was going to be this season. In many respects, they looked to have still been stuck in the playing style of 2015-2017, relying on Jason Taumalolo to simply barge through the middle. That only works if Johnathan Thurston or Michael Morgan are available and if the side has adapted to the new rules. Neither of which happened.
They did promise some improvement early in the season, sitting seventh in round 14 and securing six wins from 13 games. For a club that had struggled, it seemed they may be in for a crack at the finals. But from round 14 on, the season came crashing down. They didn’t win another game until round 24. The mid-season retirement of Michael Morgan no doubt hurt, alongside the heavy casualty ward.
However, the team didn’t look like it was prepared for the way the new rules worked. With Taumalolo playing lock they had no middle ball player, while they were constantly rotating through different halves options.
For 2022 they have gained Peta Hiku and Chad Townsend which are good recruitments. Hiku’s form has been fantastic in the past couple of seasons, while Townsend will give them a senior voice in the spine. Reece Robson continues to improve as a dummy half, and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow possesses an ability to create points with his speed. You would also hope that after a full season back in the NRL, Valentine Holmes will be better next year. Todd Payten, however, will need to work out how to better utilise Taumalolo and gear the side to adapt to a faster paced game.
What’s there to say that hasn’t already been said? It was a painful season for a side that managed just three wins. I doubt I’ve seen a more abject and disappointing team in the past two decades, and I witnessed the 2011-2013 Parramatta Eels. Under Dean Pay the side was uninspiring, yet could turn plenty of matches into a (pun intended) dog fight. They’d drag better teams down to their level and just make it tough. In 2021 that didn’t happen.
From rounds 2-4, they didn’t score a single point, but conceded 28, 24 and 38 points respectively. In round five they managed 18 points, but conceded 52. Against Manly in round 16, the Sea Eagles seemed to be racking up a cricket score, winning 66-0.
It was a side as indecisive and unsure of itself as its head coach. Jake Averillo, Kyle Flanagan, Lachlan Lewis, Brandon Wakeham and Bailey Biondi-Odo all featured in the halves. The hooking position was an issue all season, with very little creativity and threat emanating from around the ruck. Dylan Napa played one good game for the Roosters seasons ago and has never lived up to the hype since, while Jack Hetherington is becoming a frequent guest of the judiciary.
2022 looms perhaps as make or break for Trent Barrett. The Dogs have been the most active in the market, securing Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Matt Dufty, Tevita Pangai Junior, Brent Naden and Paul Vaughan among others. The big question will be whether all of those new players can gel, considering they have shed 15 players, including Nick Meaney who is headed to Melbourne. It’s all well and good to recruit as they have, but they still need to nail down a halfback to partner Burton while, for me, hooker is their biggest concern. Today’s game relies heavily on the dummy half and it almost doesn’t matter how good your backline is, if your hooker can’t get the side around the park.