The biggest issue facing every NRL club in 2021.
The biggest issue facing every NRL club in 2021.

The burning off-season question at your NRL club

The dust might have barely settled on 2020 but the planning for the 2021 NRL season is already underway as the 16 clubs scramble to improve over the arduous summer.

From premiers Melbourne to wooden-spooners Brisbane, every team has new faces and questions to answer as they gear up for another shot at the title.

Here's the burning question your team needs to solve for 2021.

 

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TIGERS - CAN JIMMY THE JET TAKE FLIGHT?

The Tigers are embarking on what feels like their dozenth rebuild as they continue to grapple with the longest finals drought in the NRL with former Penrith skipper James Tamou and journeyman centre James Roberts the two major recruits for 2021. Tamou is solid as a rock and should help shore up the middle but Roberts is a gamble - the 27-year old's talent is beyond reproach, but it's been a while since we've seen it and his 18 months with Souths were chequered by injury and mental health battles.

 

ROOSTERS - WHO PLAYS HALFBACK AND WHAT TO DO WITH CORDNER?

For the first time in a while, the Roosters have to spin a few plates over the off-season. Kyle Flanagan's exit means the door is open at halfback, either for Lachlan Lam or Sam Walker to make it their own, or for Luke Keary to switch from five-eighth. The Boyd Cordner situation will also be closely monitored - given Angus Crichton and Sitili Tupouniua are around, the club can afford to rest their skipper for part of the regular season if need be, but with Crichton off-contract and in line for a pay rise following his strong Origin series there might need to be some tough calls made around the future of the backrow sooner rather than later.

Cordner’s career may be at a crossroads. Picture by Phil Hillyard.
Cordner’s career may be at a crossroads. Picture by Phil Hillyard.

RABBITOHS - WHERE DO THEY FIND THE FINAL STEP?

South Sydney's team is radically different to the one who played under Anthony Seibold in 2018, but the results in the years since have all been the same with the Rabbitohs reaching the preliminary final on all three occasions. The recruitment of Maroons forward Jai Arrow bolsters a forward pack that needed a little more bite, but Wayne Bennett's men have been on the cusp of something for some time without ever really threatening to go over the top and make the grand final. Bennett has forgotten more about premierships than most can ever know, and if anyone can find the answer it's the super coach.

DRAGONS - WHERE DOES JACK BIRD PLAY?

Bird came through the Under 20s at the Dragons before heading to Cronulla and it's been a rollercoaster since for the 25-year old. He won the Dally M rookie of the year award and a premiership, earned a few caps for New South Wales and signed a monster contract with the Broncos that went terribly for both player and club. Now he returns to the Red V at a crossroads, after not playing a game for 18 months and with doubts over his best position. The Dragons need a star, and Bird needs a home - he may spend the first few rounds coming off the bench as he regains match fitness, but landing on a permanent spot (be it at centre, five-eighth, fullback, lock or second row) should be one of his, and the club's, main concerns.

It’s been a rough couple of years for Jack Bird. Picture by Annette Dew.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Jack Bird. Picture by Annette Dew.

 

SHARKS - WHAT TO DO WITH MATT MOYLAN?

 

The James Maloney-Matt Moylan swap at the end of 2017 was supposed to be Cronulla's springboard for the future. Maloney was nearing the end of his career and Moylan, at 26, was entering his prime years with a fresh start after things soured for him at Penrith. Fast forward three years and Moylan is at a major crossroads. The 29-year old has played just 43 games in three years due to a number of injuries and there seems to be no consensus on whether fullback or five-eighth is his best spot in the future or even if he's still in the club's best 17. Given his healthy salary, the Sharks need to find a way to get more out of Moylan or accept it's time for both parties to move on.

SEA EAGLES - WHAT CAN THEY GET FROM TOM TRBOJEVIC?

Short of growing some new hamstrings in a lab or sprinkling his legs with holy water before each match, Manly must do whatever it takes to end Tom Trbojevic's injury troubles. When their superstar fullback plays, the Sea Eagles are premiership contenders and when he doesn't they are not - it really is that simple. Trbojevic has undoubtedly done all he can to end the ailments that have plagued him over the last few years and the luckless Test and Origin star keeps copping a bad roll, appearing in just 19 matches over the past two years.

 

 

PANTHERS - WHO WILL LEAD?

Just as Penrith's winning run into the 2020 grand final was unprecedented, so is their reaction to the 26-20 defeat. The Panthers had forgotten what losing felt like only to cop it right between the eyes on the game's biggest stage. How does that impact the confidence of the young side? How do they replace James Tamou's leadership? Is there another level for them to hit, and can they do it with the weight of expectation? Melbourne's opening half blitzkrieg didn't just deny the Panthers the title, it opened a Pandora's box Ivan Cleary might struggle to put a lid on.

EELS - WHO REPLACES MICHAEL JENNINGS?

Just enough went wrong at the end of Parramatta's 2020 season (Maika Sivo and Blake Ferguson's injuries, Michael Jennings' alleged performance enhancing substance saga) that one can squint and have them among the premiership contenders for next season but it is Jennings probable absence that leaves the greatest hole. Strike centres are hard to come by, and Parramatta relied on the veteran's ability to create something from nothing more than many may admit in 2020.

BULLDOGS - ARE THE NEW BOYS ENOUGH?

After four years out of the finals the Bulldogs might finally have turned a little bit of a corner. Nick Cotric is the club's best recruit in some time and Kyle Flanagan is well worth taking a chance on even if things didn't work out at the Roosters. If they can land Penrith's Matt Burton, all of a sudden Canterbury have a much healthier look about them. Given the Bulldogs have always been high on effort but perhaps a little low on raw talent it still shapes as a challenge for incoming coach Trent Barrett - but at the very least, he has some good raw materials to work on.

 

BRONCOS - WHAT MANNER OF COACH IS WALTERS?

Kevin Walters has been an assistant coach for a long time - with Brisbane, Melbourne and Brisbane again - but his experience as a head coach is minimal. At the top level, all we have to go off is two seasons with Catalans Dragons in 2009-10 and his 12 games in charge of Queensland. It remains to be seen if Walters can bring the best out of Brisbane, or how exactly he'll try and do it, but like Anthony Seibold before him he's been blessed with some tremendous young talents. Even someone as well-liked as the six-time premiership winner won't be able to escape the heat if Brisbane get off to a slow start.

Can Walters be the man Brisbane need him to be? Picture by Peter Wallis.
Can Walters be the man Brisbane need him to be? Picture by Peter Wallis.

COWBOYS - WHAT WILL WE SEE FROM MICHEL MORGAN?

When North Queensland charged into the grand final from eighth spot in 2017, it was on the back of otherworldly performances from Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan. Almost four years later, Taumalolo has continued to bend reality to his will while Morgan has struggled with injuries and ill-form ever since and the Cowboys are yet to return to the finals. In Taumalolo, North Queensland have one of the best forwards of all time but all the metres in the world can't make up for a lack of creativity. Whether it comes from a move to five-eighth, a new halves partner or just a fresh approach, getting Morgan back to his best should be new coach Todd Payten's top priority.

 

TITANS - CAN WE BELIEVE THE HYPE?

Gold Coast already had a hidden gem in Moeaki Fotuaika, then they went out and landed David Fifita, the most dynamic young forward in the sport, and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, who became a star over the course of his maiden Origin series. Throw in the electric AJ Brimson, late-bloomer Jamal Fogarty, a somewhat rejuvenated Ash Taylor, underrated outside backs Brian Kelly and Phillip Sami and the five-match winning streak to close 2019 and the Titans are dealing with something entirely new - the weight of expectation. Because they are hidden on the Gold Coast, few have expected much from the Titans in recent years but everything is different now and all eyes will be on Justin Holbrook's men for 2021.

Fifita could be a landmark signing for the Titans.
Fifita could be a landmark signing for the Titans.

KNIGHTS - WHO PARTNERS PEARCE?

The Knights have landed North Queensland's Jake Clifford on a two-year deal from 2022, but if they can somehow get him for next year it would be a great load off coach Adam O'Brien's mind. Right now, with Tyson Frizell joining an already strong roster and the only missing piece is a standout five-eighth to partner Mitchell Pearce. Kalyn Ponga and Jayden Brailey round out the spine but the cupboard is a little bare when it comes to five-eighths - Kurt Mann enjoyed a strong season but might not have the playmaking skills while Blake Green is 34 and coming off a serious knee injury.

 

WARRIORS - IS BROWN THE ANSWER?

Nathan Brown coached Newcastle for four years when the club was at the lowest point in their history. The former Dragons mentor played a crucial role in securing key recruits like Mitchell Pearce, David Klemmer and Kalyn Ponga but he was unable to convert that into sustained on-field success - the Knights never made the finals under Brown and he left with a win rate just over 25 per cent. No coach has ever been able to get the best out of the Warriors for more than a year or two, they are rugby league's greatest enigma and could well stay that way for some time despite landing star prop Addin Fonua-Blake. Brown has gotten credit for starting Newcastle's rebuild, but the Warriors don't need a rebuild - they need a coach who can bind their talent together and take them to the finals. Anyone can knock down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.

STORM - WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE WITHOUT SMITH?

Even with Harry Grant and Brandon Smith waiting in the wings, the Storm's future in a post-Cameron Smith world is still clouded with uncertainty. After all, Smith has been Melbourne's kingpin for almost two decades now and his (possible) departure leaves something of a vacuum. Who takes over the captaincy? Does Cameron Munster go to another level with more control over the side? Can Grant replicate the form of his rookie season? Regardless if he retires or leaves for another club, Smith will cast a very long shadow.

 

RAIDERS - IS THE BACKLINE TOO SKINNY?

Canberra's back five has been one of their major strengths over the past five years but all of a sudden the Raiders look a little thin out wide. Jordan Rapana is still a capable winger but age and injuries have caught up with him a little while Curtis Scott endured a torrid first season in the ACT and Jarrod Croker suffered a serious shoulder injury that will keep him out for the first few rounds of 2021. Ricky Stuart needs someone like Semi Valemei, Bailey Simonsson, Matt Timoko or Harley Smith-Shields to make a backline spot their own over the summer.

 

Originally published as The burning off-season question at your NRL club



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