We’re 12 rounds into the 2021 NRL season, and with the first split round next weekend, it’s a good time to assess the 16 teams’ fortunes so far.
Who is preparing for a premiership run, who are the top eight bolters, and who can start booking their end-of-season trips?
Penrith (12-0) = While there were concerns about how the young Penrith side would back up from the grand final loss, they’ve quickly blown those concerns away, with 12 straight wins. Aside from the tight Storm win, they’ve dominated everyone, occasionally playing with them like a mischievous big cat before slamming Mjölnir down and putting them away. The big question is how they’ll go during Origin, especially with key players backing up? While they may drop a game here or there, they should skate to the minor premiership. Anything other than a premiership (during the 30th anniversary of their first premiership) would be a huge disappointment.
Melbourne (10-2) = When Cameron Smith finally retired after taking all off-season to make up his ruddy mind, many wondered how the Storm would cope without him? While they looked rusty at first, they soon clicked: the Good Friday mauling of Brisbane sparked a run of nine straight wins. Again, they’re morals for the top four, and should be grand finalists again, where all the AFL-obsessed Victorians will suddenly jump on the social media bandwagon (this doesn’t include the actual Storm diehards who regularly rock up to AAMI Park in their purple gear to support the boys, or the interstate fans). On a more serious note, they may be based in Queensland for the short term due to Victoria’s latest COVID-19 outbreak.
Parramatta (9-3) = After another quick finals exit in 2020, Parramatta are shaping for another top four finish, with nine wins from their first 10 games, though they had two big losses to fellow top eight teams Manly Warringah (round 11) and South Sydney (round 12). While they beat Melbourne early in the season, they still have to play Penrith twice and the Storm again. The big question: can they perform in September – when it matters – or will they fall out in straight sets again?
South Sydney (9-3) = Tipped as a premiership threat, Souths had justified the hype, before a couple of big losses. They lost their first game against Melbourne, then won seven in a row. However, their second loss to Melbourne (50-0) and their loss to Penrith (56-12) were huge reality checks. Technically, Souths may as well start planning their end-of-season trip, as no club has won the premiership after conceding 50 points in a game. Can they buck this trend, especially with most people tipping another Penrith vs Melbourne grand final? A big win over Parramatta in round 12 (with hat-tricks to Alex Johnston and Dane Gagai) would’ve helped put fans at ease.
Sydney Roosters (8-4) = While the Eastern Suburbs boys have been smashed by injuries and suspension (with Brett Morris out for the season after a torn ACL in the round eight win over Newcastle), they’re still in the top four mix. While they had an upset loss to Brisbane in round 11, they rebounded with a 44-16 win against Canberra in round 12. Can they snare a vital double chance?
Manly Warringah (6-6) = It’s amazing how one player can turn a team’s season around. Manly were fodder last year after missing Tom Trbojevic for most of the year. With Turbo out for the first month of 2021, Manly started 0-4 before Daly Cherry-Evans kicked them to a vital 13-12 over the Warriors. Then Turbo came back and Manly started their incredible run into the top eight. They’ve won six of their last eight games, with some smashing wins over the Titans (36-0), the Wests Tigers (40-6), Brisbane (50-6), and Parramatta (28-6). The Eels win was extra special after club legend Bob Fulton had passed a few hours earlier. At this stage, the red-hot Sea Eagles should plays finals, and might be a top four smokey.
North Queensland (6-6) = The Cowboys have raced into the top eight contention after losing their first four games. They’ve beaten the Wests Tigers, Canterbury-Bankstown, Canberra, Brisbane, Newcastle, and the NZ Warriors. Rounds 17 to 19 (Souths, the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne) will really test them. If nothing else, 2021 has been a huge improvement on the last couple of years.
St George Illawarra (5-7) = After a horrible 2020, the Dragons weren’t expected to improve in 2021. While they looked to be comfortably in the eight, they lost their last three games (Melbourne, Cronulla-Sutherland, the Wests Tigers) to cling onto eighth spot. The second half of the season will be the test, with games against Manly Warringah (round 18), Souths (round 20, round 25), Penrith (round 22), and the Sydney Roosters (round 23).
NZ Warriors (5-7) = While the Warriors were everyone’s second favourite team in 2020, they’ve fallen back to the pack in 2021; though they’re still in the finals mix and can be sensational on their day, they haven’t strung consecutive wins together yet. Arguably the highlight of their season was the ridiculous “Hand of Roger” win over Canberra in round three: one of the most bizarre games of footy in recent memory. The Raiders raced to a 31-10 lead despite only having only one healthy interchange player after losing Joe Tapine (ankle), Ryan James (HIA) and Sebastian Kris (HIA). Then, the Warriors charged back and led 34-31 with two minutes left. Canberra went for one final Hail Mary play, with Jordan Rapana trying to score in the corner, but Roger Tuivasa-Sheck stopped the try and saved the game. The bigger question for the Warriors: when can they return home?
Gold Coast (5-7) = After some big off-season buys, the Titans (who finished 2020 with five straight wins and narrowly missed the eight) were favoured to make the finals. Halfway through 2021, the Titans are just outside the eight. While they’ve looked brilliant at times, they’ve also had some bad losses. Yes, they’re a lot better than the last few seasons, they’re not quite the force that some expected. They’ve had strong wins against Brisbane (round two), North Queensland, and Newcastle. This has been offset by disappointing losses to the NZ Warriors, South Sydney, Brisbane (round eight), and Penrith. The round eight loss at Lang Park was a massive letdown: the Titans raced to a 22-0 lead after 15 minutes and looked like winning by 100! Nearly 50 minutes later, they trailed 36-22, and while David Fifita tried to will them back into the game, it was too late. The Titans have a nasty stretch from rounds 13 to 15 (Melbourne, the Sydney Roosters, Manly Warringah); then they play Parramatta in round 18, Souths in round 22, and the Storm again in round 23. Based on that run home, they’ll do well to finish in the top eight.
Newcastle (5-7) = Like Canberra, Newcastle have performed below expectations, especially after a drought-breaking finals appearance last year. After winning their first two games, Newcastle have won just three games since, beating Cronulla-Sutherland, coming from 16-0 down to beat Canberra, and coming from 10-0 to beat Manly Warringah. They still have to play Parramatta (round 13), South Sydney (round 14), Melbourne (round 18), and the Sydney Roosters (round 19). With that run home, it’s hard to see them making the finals.
Cronulla-Sutherland (4-8) = Like Newcastle, Cronulla-Sutherland have underwhelmed after making the finals in 2020. After a strong start (including an opening round win over St George Illawarra, a huge win over North Queensland and an unlucky loss to Canberra), the Sharks lost six straight games, broken by a dramatic Golden Point win over the Dragons, and then a thumping win over the Gold Coast. Could this be the kickstart they need?
Wests Tigers (4-8) = There’s a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and the Wests Tigers underwhelming everyone and frustrating their fans. While the running gag is the Tigers finishing ninth, they’ll be lucky to get that far in 2021. They did enjoy two big wins over Newcastle (Magic Round) and St George Illawarra (round 12), scoring over 30 points in both games. Arguably the most disappointing loss was to North Queensland: meant to be a celebration of the late Tommy Raudonikis, the Tigers trailed 28-6 at half-time and were booed by frustrated Leichhardt fans. While they responded in the second half, it was too late.
Canberra (4-8) = After a tremendous effort to make the 2020 preliminary final despite crucial injuries and a lot a travel, many expected Canberra to be premiership contenders. Along with the nostalgic thrill of Canberra Milk returning as their major sponsor (and the popular 1994 replica heritage jersey), hopes were high at Bruce Stadium. While they were a promising 3-1 around Easter (their only loss the aforementioned Warriors game), it all fell apart from there. Since the Easter Saturday night win over the Titans, Canberra have lost seven of their last eight. These losses were lowlighted by incredible second half collapses: they led Parramatta 12-10 at halftime and lost 35-10; North Queensland 24-6 (losing 26-24), South Sydney 16-14 (losing 34-20), and Newcastle 16-0 (losing 24-16). In less that two months, The Milk have plummeted from title favourites to struggling to make the eight. If that’s not bad enough, Canberra have had more off-field drama than a badly written soap opera, compounded by George Williams leaving the club after the heavy Melbourne Storm loss. Even worse news is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad being out for all but the rest of the season, as his injury against Penrith started the rot.
Brisbane (3-9) = After “winning” their first wooden spoon in 2020, the Broncos hoped that hiring favourite son Kevin Walters as coach would restore some pride. While they’ve only won three games so far, there has been some promising signs, including the comeback win over the Titans (see the Gold Coast section for more information) and the upset win over the Sydney Roosters. However, heavy losses to Melbourne (twice), South Sydney, Parramatta, and Manly Warringah suggests they’ve got a long way to go. At least they’ve got Adam Reynolds’ arrival in 2022 to look forward to.
Canterbury-Bankstown (1-11) = With a few big signings, there were some hopes that the Bulldogs might be a finals chance in 2021. Unfortunately, they look almost guaranteed to win the wooden spoon. They’ve been brave, but have lacked the experience/points-scoring/composure etc to win. They should have beaten Canberra in Magic Round, when they led 12-8 after the Raiders were briefly down to 11 men, but the Raiders – for once – found a way back. At least the Bulldogs should have a brighter 2022, with Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Burton coming to Belmore.