What has more drama, excitement and intrigue than the Bachelor, Married at First Sight and the Amazing Race combined? That’s right, it’s the NRL. Warriors-stan Justin Latif gives his season predictions and a run down on the latest dramas encircling each club.
The NRL season kicked off last night, the start of what promises to be another 29 weeks of gloriously brutal, emotionally charged, gladiatorial battle.
And beyond the pitch, there are bound to be enough dramatic storylines that play out between players, coaches, their families and fans to fill up the scripts on any daytime soap opera. Drug scandals, brawls, arrests and jilted lovers all featured during this off-season. But yesterday, all the off-field shenanigans of these highly paid young men became a distant memory (apart from those still awaiting scheduled court appearances), as the focus returned to watching 26 players chase a Steeden ball around a 68m by 100m grassy field in some suburban backblock of Sydney.
It’s worth noting that the women’s four-team competition, which doesn’t start till October, is just as tough, given the players are paid considerably less, as well as having less time and resources to prepare for what is an equally brutal competition.
So who has a chance this year in the men’s comp – and beyond the NZ Warriors, who are the teams to watch, particularly from a Kiwi perspective? Here’s my totally unscientific predictions of who’ll finish where at the end of the season, from last to first place, as a well as a round-up of some of the latest scandals.
16. St George Illawarra Dragons
It will be all about rebuilding for the Dragons this year, after a stuttering 2020 saw the club sack talismanic coach Paul McGregor, replacing him with ex-Broncos coach Anthony Griffin. Griffin, who hasn’t had a head coaching gig since 2018, needs to find a way to get former Broncos stars Corey Norman, Ben Hunt and Andrew McCullough to play like they did for their old club. Unfortunately for the supremely talented Norman, he will miss the opening match after getting suspended for his role in a late night street fight while defending a friend who was being racially abused in Cronulla.
15. Brisbane Broncos
Oh how the mighty have fallen. This once-great club finished last in 2020, sacking their coach Anthony Seibold, and off-loading a number of star players. Before Seibold’s departure, he was the subject of wild and unsubstantiated rumours about himself and his family, leading Seibold to employ European cybercrime experts to investigate their source. Despite Seibold’s departure, the Broncos’ latest off-season hasn’t gone much better, as reports of punch-ups between staff continue to plague the club.
14. Manly Sea Eagles
The former club of NZ reality TV regular Matthew Ridge finds itself in the unenviable position of being very reliant on a very injury-prone superstar by the name Tommy “Turbo” Trbojevic. The brilliant fullback, with chronic hamstring issues, pulled a muscle in a “bathroom” accident. However, it didn’t help that footage also emerged of him racing a member of the public following a Saturday night drinking session. Both the club and Trbojevic deny his injury was caused by the late-night high jinks, but it’s not a great look. Fun fact: the club’s tough-as-nails five-eighth Kieran Foran is the son of Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran.
13. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
This is a club stacked with stars of the future who probably need another year of development. However, with newly appointed Trent Barret as coach, they are expected to improve quickly. One interesting storyline to follow is the falling out Barret has apparently had with his old mate Ivan Cleary since leaving the Penrith Panthers, where the pair worked together, which is being exacerbated by Barret trying to sign Panthers players to his new club.
12. North Queensland Cowboys
This talented side has the added bonus of playing in the uninhabitable sun-drenched climes of Townsville. They also pinched the Warrior’s superb interim coach Todd Payten. However, the club relies heavily on the enigmatic Michael Morgan and inconsistent Valentine Holmes, who were both well below their best last year. If these two can rediscover the kind of form they showed in 2015 and 2016, maybe they’ll make their way into the top eight. And the only drama swirling around the club of late, is a bizarre story involving the club’s doctor, who allegedly provided anti-anxiety medicine to the husband of a club employee, after the man found text messages about a toilet tryst between his wife and a Cowboys player.
11. Cronulla Sharks
The Sharks are the competition’s perennial battlers, who have been blighted by sex scandals, drug cheating allegations and money woes in the past, but seem to have avoided the gossip pages in recent years. This season, with an ageing forward pack and the absence of their Kiwis’ halfback Shaun Johnson to a long-term injury, I think they’ll struggle to score points, and as a consequence fall outside the top eight.
10. West Tigers
The Tigers, led by Kiwis’ coach Michael Maguire, have assembled a quality side, with strike power across their line-up. However, question marks remain over young halfback Luke Brooks, whose slated potential to be one of the competition’s best is yet to materialise. If he plays well most weeks, then a playoff spot beckons, otherwise, it might be another disappointing season for the western Sydney-siders. What’s even more disappointing has been a recent homophotic social media post made by Tigers’ player Shawn Blore, leading Auckland trans activist Jaycee Tanuvasa calling out the player to publicly apologise.
9. Newcastle Knights
This prediction may surprise some, given the talent filling up the Knights’ roster, but I suspect the Mitchell Pearce scandal over the summer may have rocked the club more than we realise. Pearce, the club’s pivotal halfback, was forced to relinquish his captaincy after a sexting scandal involving a club employee, which resulted in his wedding being cancelled. It’s also rumoured Pearce broke his thumb in a street fight. Such a disruptive off-season is bound to impact the rest of the club.
8. New Zealand Warriors
In some ways it’s hard to justify this prediction, given all the external factors detracting from the Warriors’ chances. The club is currently based out of Terrigal on New South Wales’ central coast, due to there being no two-way travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand. The side isn’t expected to play at home until July 2, which will be 673 days since their last home game. But given the number of savvy off-season buys, this could be “the year” (we do say this every year though) we see the side return to the playoffs. One other factor in the Warriors’ favour is having 14 players on the final year of their contracts. Hopefully the incentive of wanting to prove their market value will ensure a number of players produce career-best form.
7. Gold Coast Titans
With rugby league legend Mal Meninga pulling the strings, the Titans have assembled a stellar line-up of up-and-coming super stars, namely Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fafita. This won’t be their year to win it all, but they certainly have the firepower to beat most teams and with highly rated Justin Holbrook as coach, many are expecting big things from this regular under-achiever. The club will also be sweating on the NRL’s latest salary cap investigation into its dealings, and hoping Fafita can stay out of any further off-field trouble, after he was caught trespassing on private property late last year.
6. Parramatta Eels
For whatever reason, the Eels seem to melt under the pressure of Sydney’s media spotlight more than most. So despite dominating large chunks of last season, the boys from Parramatta fell away badly towards the end of last year, while still finishing a credible third. Scandal never seems to be too far away from this club, and currently star centre Michael Jennings is fighting allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs. But even without Jennings, the side still has one of the NRL’s best coaches and is full of quality players who should be able to guide this team back into playoff contention.
5. Penrith Panthers
The Panthers won an incredible 17 games in a row last year and fell agonisingly close in the grand final. The pressure to repeat this stellar season might be too much for this young side. Another difference from last season is that the club was rocked by off-field scandals during their 2019/2020 off-season, but this year they’ve only had one player embroiled in drug-related dramas. Given their incredible success last year, the lack of disruption this time around might have a counter-intuitive effect on the side.
4. Sydney RoostersThe biggest story at the Sydney Roosters this off-season was whether a 17-year-old school kid will be allowed to play for them. Under current rules, Joseph Suaalii is not able to play until he’s 18, but such is his talent, the club has applied for an exemption for him to suit up for the first grade team. The club has even employed the services of a former junior phenom by the name of Sonny Bill Williams to mentor Suaalii. Regardless whether the monstrous winger does play or not, the Roosters already boast a side dripping with talent and should be a lock for one of the top four positions.
3 – Melbourne Storm
Despite winning the competition last year, I can’t help thinking that losing the G.O.A.T. to retirement (Greatest Of All Time – Cameron Smith) will have a discernible impact and they’ll only get to third on the table, which would be seen as a failure by Storm standards. Key to their success is Waiheke-born Brandon Smith. Smith, whose parents were cleaners, moved to North Queensland as a 14-year-old to pursue his NRL dream. While he’s a larrikin off the field, on it he’s the ultimate competitor, who plays multiple positions and has the potential to drive the Storm back into another grand final. If he stays fit, alongside fellow party-boy Cameron Munster, watch out.
2. Canberra Raiders
The Raiders have gone for an interesting recruitment strategy of picking a lot of Kiwis and British players. Combine that with Ricky Stuart’s street-fighter mentality to coaching, and you have a team that loves to be the underdog and uses that tag to great advantage. They also possess a number of young players entering their prime. I predict they will finish second, and potentially win the grand final. The only major scandal at the club this off-season was four development players had to be sacked after getting into a drunken brawl and then lying about it.
1. South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs have been building for a few years now and with Wayne Bennett in his second year at the club, they are ripe for taking that next step towards being title favourites. They also have great depth, so injuries won’t hurt them, like other clubs. The biggest scandal surrounding the club was the potential for their former captain Sam Burgess to return this season. But following a positive cocaine test and being sentenced to a two-year community corrections order after a fiery run-in with his ex-wife’s father, the club might be relieved he’s decided to take up a role on an Australian reality TV show instead. If the Rabbitohs win it will also deliver the best fairy-tale finish for New Zealand rugby league fans, as Whakatāne-born Kiwis legend Benji Marshall is hoping he can win a second premiership in his last year in the NRL.