We’re on the other side of Christmas, so you know what that means — the 2022 NRL season is all but upon us.
It might still be a couple of months until Penrith host Manly to officially kick off the new campaign, but we’re in the thick of it now.
It won’t be long until there are trial matches and late transfers, and plenty of season previews that’ll have you thinking that this year, by God, is going to belong to your team.
Hope springs eternal in the summertime, and following on from our series of off-season previews here’s the biggest question the top four teams from last year need to answer if they’re to take out the premiership in 2022.
Manly Sea Eagles
Question: How do they take the final step?
Answer: If history is any guide, we have seen the best of Tom Trbojevic. His 2021 season was remarkable, exemplary and right up there with the greatest individual campaigns any player has ever had in the history of rugby league.
He’ll be very good again in 2022, of that there seems to be little doubt, but you can’t bank on someone scoring 28 tries in 18 games and generally seeming like a player from another universe. It’s just not repeatable, even for Trbojevic, and expecting him to be better again, or even match his performance from 2021, is asking too much. He will still be one of the best players in the competition in 2022 but demanding a second miracle season is setting him up to fail.
So for Manly to rise up and win the title, they need to make up the distance in the margins. That might be in continuing to develop Josh Schuster’s combination on the left edge, or it might Lachlan Croker continuing to improve at hooker, but it’s worth keeping an eye on rising props Taniela Paseka and Sean Keppie.
For some time now, the Manly middles have gone as far as Jake Trbojevic and Martin Taupau could take them but the new rules have not been kind to Trbojevic and Taupau will be 32 in January with over 200 NRL games at prop under his belt. Manly’s downfall in their preliminary final loss to Souths was the middle third of the field, which was exacerbated by losing Keppie early to concussion.
The Narellan junior improved vastly as the season went on, with his toughness and physicality shining through towards the back end of the campaign. Paseka, the largest Sea Eagle of them all, is 24 and has always been blessed with prodigious physical gifts but he is beginning to really put them all together and is nearly at the age when front-rowers traditionally play their best football.
If the hard-nosed duo can continue their improvement, it’ll make Manly that little bit stronger in the middle and when you add that to their dazzling spine and merciless approach to scoring points it’s a frighting prospect for any side.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Question: How close can Blake Taaffe or Lachlan Ilias get to Adam Reynolds?
Answer: If you really want to know the value of a good halfback, look what happens when you don’t have one. Think about the Raiders who came after Ricky Stuart, or the Eels who came after Peter Sterling, or the Cowboys that came after Johnathan Thurston. It can be years, or decades, before a club comes across another franchise guy.
For ten years, the Rabbitohs didn’t have to worry about it at all, because Adam Reynolds was consistent enough and skilled enough to always be the answer, but now they’ve been plunged into uncertainty.
Taaffe has something about him with ball in hand, that was clear from his time filling in for Latrell Mitchell at the back, and Ilias could be a good fit because his skill set is similar to Reynolds’, but whoever Jason Demetriou goes with has to shoulder the burden of expectation from the jump.
Such is South Sydney’s attacking prowess they rarely need to kick their way out of trouble, but as the Melbourne-Penrith preliminary final — or to a lesser extent Penrith’s win over Souths in the grand final – showed was that a top-class kicking game, or at least the ability to flip the field, still makes the difference when it really counts. That’s another point for Ilias, purely because he’s got a solid kicking game already while Taaffe is more known for his running and passing.
Regardless, so long as Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker, Damien Cook and Cameron Murray are here, Souths should be aiming for title 22 and while all four of those players will help make the transition easier (Murray’s work from first receiver will become even more important) the Rabbitohs need Taaffe or Ilias to be able to swim in the deep end from the second they hit the water.
Question: Can they do it again?
Answer: Penrith were broken down to their most basic elements in their run to the grand final – resolute defence, Nathan Cleary’s kicking game, athletic carries and an unbreakable will to fight and fight and keep fighting for as long as it took to get the job done. There is no doubt that such mental strength and intensity was fuelled by the club’s 2020 grand final defeat – vengeance is as good a motive as any when it comes to rugby league – but keeping your seat at the top of the world is often harder than getting there in the first place.
The Panthers have nothing left to prove, and other clubs have already started picking them off just to get a small piece of what Ivan Cleary has created out west. Penrith will still be among the premiership contenders, and they have the talent to go back-to-back, but sometimes a peak isn’t the first in a mountain range. Sometimes a premiership stands alone, not as the start of a dynasty but as a singular, shining achievement.
There are a couple of minor roster questions – Stephen Crichton did so well on the wing in the finals, with the yardage of the back three driving Penrith to victory in each of their final three finals games, but he will likely move into the centres, which opens the door for the quick but slight Charlie Staines to get another chance at locking down a starting spot.
Liam Martin is an Origin calibre player, so he can replace Kurt Capewell without a worry, but his impact on the bench will similarly be missed. As the club showed with Matt Burton last year, it won’t be an issue that Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau are leaving but it does put a ticking clock on the time this roster has together.
Given what they’ve achieved in the past two years, it’s reasonable to assume Cleary and the rest of the club’s brains trust can solve these issues, but that’s not really what the premiers need to overcome.
In 2018-19, Trent Robinson’s Roosters showed it wasn’t impossible for a team to go back-to-back in the modern era, but that took the effort of the Tricolours’ lives and a couple of breaks along the way. Penrith can do it, they have the team for the job, but after the Panthers fought against the world in 2021 and won, now they must win the fight against themselves.
Question: What boost will they get from playing at home?
Answer: Here’s a worrying stat for the rest of the NRL – Melbourne haven’t gone two years without appearing in a grand final since 2014-15 and the last time they lost a preliminary final (2019) they rebounded and won the premiership the following year. The Storm, simply put, do not miss often, and even if they do they don’t miss for long.
Despite their shock loss to Penrith a game short of the grand final, Craig Bellamy won’t need to change much given the Storm have continued their dominance through every conceivable obstacle they’ve faced over the last two seasons and while there are kinks to iron out, like the Brandon Smith situation and Nelson Asofa-Solomona’s vaccine status, the Storm are not prone to distractions. What could prove to be a serious boost is the chance to play regular matches at AAMI Park for the first time in almost three years.
Because they’ve been so good away from home it’s easy to overlook they’ve played just seven matches in Victoria over the past two seasons. The fact they’ve been able to keep on trucking is a credit to the culture Bellamy has built, but they can still get better if they’re playing out of Melbourne every other week, a truly horrifying prospect for the rest of the league.
Of course, the seemingly endless COVID variants could well take that away from them once again, but even then it’s not fatal. The smart money says the Storm will keep doing what they always do, and with a point to prove after they missed out in 2021, they’ll have the fire of a contender without the weight of being a defending champion. The machine rolls on, and woe betide anyone who gets in their way.