Ranking the spines of every NRL team ahead of 2021 season

While there are several crucial components of any NRL team's playing roster, there is perhaps none more important to a side's success than their 'spine' - that is, their fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker.

These players are able to get their hands on the ball more frequently and heavily influence their team's ability to drive downfield and score points. More often than not, the quality of a team's spine will directly correlate to their final position on the ladder.

This is where each club stands prior to the 2021 NRL season:

South Sydney Rabbitohs

1. Latrell Mitchell
6. Cody Walker
7. Adam Reynolds
9. Damien Cook

On paper, I believe the Rabbitohs have the most polished, consistently performing spine. I think each individual offers their own unique point of attack, while complementing each other nicely to form a lethal spine. Latrell Mitchell is perhaps the only member of the spine to have some question marks around him, given his propensity to fall in and out of games, but on his day he is simply unstoppable. Cody Walker offers some dangerous off-the-cuff attack for Souths, with his running game and vision in broken play supporting Adam Reynolds' pinpoint kicking game and organizational tendencies. Damien Cook, finally, can rip opposition defences wide open with his quickness off the mark from dummy-half and is a handy option with the boot. All have representative honours to their name and can handle the big stage.

Melbourne Storm

1. Ryan Papenhuyzen
6. Cameron Munster
7. Jahrome Hughes
9. Harry Grant

Many of us thought the exits of Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk would spell the end of Melbourne's dynasty - and yet, they took home another premiership in 2020. It's only logical to assume the likely retirement of Cameron Smith shouldn't harm Melbourne as much as one may think. This is especially the case when the tantalizing Harry Grant is ready to take the reigns at hooker. Ryan Papenhuyzen has managed to elevate his game to become an elite talent at fullback, while Cameron Munster continues to impress as one of the game's best five-eighths. Jahrome Hughes, finally, may not get the same wraps as his teammates, but he rarely puts a foot wrong and remains an invaluable component of Melbourne's clinical attack.

Penrith Panthers

1. Dylan Edwards
6. Jarome Luai
7. Nathan Cleary
9. Api Koroisau

They fell at the final hurdle, but Penrith had a scintillating season in attack last year. Dylan Edwards missed a chunk of the season to injury, but was still a force at fullback upon his return. Whether he can acquire the necessary passing and kicking games to evolve his game remains to be seen. Jarome Luai was a revelation at five-eighth, proving he can run, kick and pass in his first season as a starting five-eighth. His combination with Nathan Cleary was outstanding, with Cleary notching a career best 17 try assists and coming agonizingly close to taking home the Dally M medal. Api Koroisau's return to the Panthers after four years at Manly was excellent, meanwhile, with the hooker becoming a tackling machine while also threatening defences with darts out of a dummy half and a subtle kicking game. Will they be able to replicate their season without Trent Barrett directing them?

Canberra Raiders

1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
6. Jack Wighton
7. George Williams
9. Josh Hodgson

The Raiders have one of the most exciting attacks to watch, and that is due in no small part to their spine. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was an astute acquisition from the Warriors and has been brilliant at fullback for the Green Machine, while Jack Wighton and George Williams have combined to form a very balanced yet very dangerous halves combination. The challenge for Wighton, however, will be for the star five-eighth to back up his Dally M winning season in 2020 with another strong year to drive Canberra to a premiership. Along with Williams, Josh Hodgson is the other Englishman spearheading the Raiders' spine. He played only nine games last year due to injury, but as one the game's elite hookers, he should strike a beautiful partnership with exciting bench hooker Tom Starling.

Sydney Roosters:

1. James Tedesco
6. Luke Keary
7. Lachlan Lam
9. Jake Friend

Having offloaded the out-of-favour Kyle Flanagan after just one year at the club, the pressure is on for young Lachlan Lam to push the Roosters towards another premiership. Not only was the 22-year-old Flanagan ousted after taking Easts to the minor premiership, the much-hyped Sam Walker is waiting in the wings to take over at a moment's notice. James Tedesco is arguably the best player in the world right now and his combination with livewire five-eighth Luke Keary has been nothing short of brilliant in the time they've played together. Jake Friend, on the other hand, is a potential weak link in this spine, with his ability to play long minutes and skills in attack waning. It remains to be seen what role, if any, 17-year-old fullback sensation Joseph Suaalii will play.

Parramatta Eels

1. Clint Gutherson
6. Dylan Brown
7. Mitch Moses
9. Reed Mahoney

The Eels' spine is certainly an interesting one. Of course, it's among the best in the game, but as has been the case for Parramatta in recent years, it can be very inconsistent. Clint Gutherson might have a case for being one the game's elite custodians, but I'm not sure if he's capable of shifting the momentum of a game in his side's favour and winning it on his own the way James Tedesco or Tom Trbojevic can. Despite being relatively inexperienced, Dylan Brown finds himself in the same boat. While he is a consistent performer, Parramatta is going to need him to take that next step at some point. At halfback, Mitch Moses is the star of this team. A dangerous running game and a much improved kicking game to match, Moses holds the key to the Eels' success in 2021. Up front, Reed Mahoney has proven that he is tough in defence and a spark in attack, and ideally will take another step in his development this year.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

1. Tom Trbojevic
6. Josh Schuster
7. Daly Cherry-Evans
9. Keiran Foran

One of the more intriguing storylines of the 2021 NRL season will be how Manly performs with Daly Cherry-Evans, Keiran Foran and coach Des Hasler all reunited. The makeup of this spine is still up in the air, but Foran is slated to spend a significant amount of time at hooker to accommodate up-and-coming half Josh Schuster. With Foran's health and defensive capabilities questionable at best, his ability to perform at No. 9 will be very interesting. Tom Trbojevic's health has also been a huge liability of late, with another set-back to delay his 2021 season start. When healthy he is among the game's elite fullbacks. Schuster's ability to perform as a rookie and gel with star half DCE is also a question mark, setting the Sea Eagles up for an interesting year.

Gold Coast Titans

1. AJ Brimson
6. Ash Taylor
7. Jamal Fogarty
9. Mitch Rein

The Titans are going to be one of the most exciting sides to watch this year. It was fantastic to see Ash Taylor back enjoying his footy last year, and with a bolstered forward pack laying a solid platform for him, he should again be all smiles in 2021. His ability to reach the elite form that saw him earn his million dollar payday could be the key to the Titans returning to finals football. At the back, AJ Brimson will be full of confidence after a brilliant State of Origin debut for Queensland while Jamal Fogarty needs simply to keep up his calming presence at halfback. Mitch Rein is a decent option up front, but the Titans will want to address that position at some point.

North Queenland Cowboys

1. Valentine Holmes
6. Scott Drinkwater
7. Michael Morgan
9. Reece Robson

After a disappointing season, I can see the Cowboys taking some big strides under new coach Todd Payten. While I'm unsure Valentine Holmes possesses the skill set to become a well-rounded fullback, if he can recapture his form from his time at Cronulla, his entire side will still benefit. It's a similar story for Scott Drinkwater, who needs to clean up his errors in order to hang onto his spot at five-eighth and deliver on the potential he showed at the Storm. Michael Morgan will need to remain healthy as captain, while Reece Robson has been improving very nicely at hooker early in his NRL career.

Newcastle Knights:

1. Tex Hoy
6. Kurt Mann
7. Mitch Pearce
9. Jayden Brailey

When healthy, he is easily one of the most exciting fullbacks in the game, but due to offseason shoulder surgery, Kalyn Ponga is expected to miss the beginning of the season. Tex Hoy is a capable understudy and should fill in admirably. Kurt Mann enjoyed his best season in first grade under difficult circumstances that saw him shift to hooker to cover a mounting injury crisis. His versatility proved invaluable to the club and he was unlucky to miss out on a State of Origin call-up with Queensland. Mitchell Pearce will have to overcome a lot offseason drama and the loss of his captaincy to begin this season, with the manner in which he responds holding the key to Newcastle's fortunes. Meanwhile, after a promising start to his career, Jayden Brailey will be able to pick up where he left off now that he has recovered from his season-ending ACL tear.

Cronulla Sutherland Sharks

1. Will Kennedy
6. Matt Moylan
7. Chad Townsend
9. Blayke Brailey

The Achilles injury suffered to Shaun Johnson late last year will be a big blow to the Sharks as they enter the new season, with Matt Moylan and Chad Townsend making up the halves. Townsend is a solid option at halfback, but the real storyline will be how Moylan performs at five-eighth. Much of Cronulla's success will ride on his ability to remain healthy and have that dangerous presence in attack the Sharks were hoping to get when they first signed him. Will Kennedy has been a solid performer in his appearances at fullback, though I expect Moylan to move to fullback once Johnson returns from injury. Despite his small frame, young Blayke Brailey has been progressing quickly at hooker and will hopefully again improve.

St George Illawarra Dragons:

1. Matt Dufty
6. Corey Norman
7. Ben Hunt
9. Andrew McCullough

Unfortunately, this is a spine that finds itself stuck in mediocrity. With impressive hooker Cameron McInnes going down with a season-ending injury, the signing of Andrew McCullough has been said to be a masterstroke. I disagree. While solid in defence, McCullough offers little in the way of attack and stands in the way of Ben Hunt reprising his role at hooker where he has been vastly improved. Hunt does not come close to warranting his massive price tag at halfback, while Matt Dufty and Corey Norman have been inconsistent at best at fullback and five-eighth respectively. Unless new coach Anthony Griffin can inspire some big improvements, I'd like to see some change at the Dragons.

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

1. Corey Allan
6. Jake Averillo
7. Kyle Flanagan
9. Jeremy Marshall-King

One of the potential big improvers in 2021, Canterbury have made some massive moves in the player market. Corey Allan could finally be the long-term fullback Bulldogs fans have been crying out for since the fall of Ben Barba, while Kyle Flanagan is shaping as the perfect young halfback to spark their attack. Jake Averillo has also been quietly turning some heads as a rookie and will be keen to start in the halves before Matt Burton's arrival. Jeremy Marshall-King, meanwhile, will spend another year at hooker as the Dogs search for their long-term rake. There are so many unknowns in Belmore, but things are finally looking up.

Brisbane Broncos

1. Jamayne Isaako
6. Anthony Milford
7. Tom Dearden
9. Jake Turpin

Despite Brisbane's horror 2020 season, their spine for 2021 doesn't inspire much confidence that they will be particularly impressive. While Tom Dearden and Jake Turpin are solid improvements over Brodie Croft and Issac Luke, much of the team's success will depend on a return to form for Anthony Milford. I also don't expect Jamayne Isaako to hold onto his spot at fullback for long with Tesi Niu waiting in the wings - though that battle could draw out for some time.

New Zealand Warriors

1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
6. Kodi Nikorima
7. Chanel Harris-Tevita
9. Wayde Egan

The Warriors will be hoping to give superstar fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck a perfect send-off in his last season in the NRL. With Blake Green out of the picture, Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tevita will have ample time to work on their halves combination. While I appreciate how dangerous Nikorima is and as excited as I am to see Harris-Tevita develop his game, I think the Warriors may need to look elsewhere to find that star halfback to elevate their attack and steady their entire team. Green was serviceable in this regard, but he wasn't quite the dominant force the Warriors are craving at halfback. Wayde Egan, meanwhile, seems like more of stopgap solution at hooker until they can find a long-term answer.

Wests Tigers

1. Daine Laurie
6. Moses Mbye
7. Luke Brooks
9. Jacob Liddle

There is a fair bit of confusion surrounding the Tigers spine after the departure of veteran five-eighth options Benji Marshall and Josh Reynolds. Exciting rookie of just three games, Daine Laurie has been acquired early from the Panthers and is set to battle it out with Adam Douehi for the fullback/five-eighth spots. With Douehli serving a suspension, Moses Mbye looks likely to move into the halves at least briefly. Mbye and Luke Brooks have been unimpressive to say the least in recent years. Brooks in particular has had several years to mature as a half and deliver on the superstar potential he had earlier in his career, though at this stage it seems as though that day isn't coming. Jacob Liddle may have been unlucky with injuries (and the arrival of Harry Grant) but I do see a bright future for him at hooker when given a chance.