The 2021 NRL season is almost upon us, and with it comes the chance for the game to return to some semblance of normalcy after what was a messy 2020.
As always, there has been a raft of head coach changes, moves in the player market and a familiar barrage of players claiming to be 'training the house down'. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of off-season scandal and we're ready to take on another footy season.
Without any further ado, here's the teams we feel will most improve and those set for the biggest declines in 2021.
Ladders - teams on the way up
Gold Coast Titans
I've been very excited about the Titans' prospects in 2021 for some time - I think they'll be one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the league. Signing coach Justin Holbrook has proven to be a masterstroke, with the former halfback bringing the club forward in leaps and bounds in his first year at the helm. AJ Brimson, Ash Taylor and Jamal Fogarty were outstanding as the Titans' chief playmakers in 2020, and behind a bolstered forward pack, should only improve. Speaking of which, David Fifita and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui are two excellent purchases up front and should be the cornerstone of their pack for years to come. They join the likes of Moeaki Fotuaika and Kevin Proctor to form a surprisingly intimidating forwards room for the first time in recent Titans' history.
Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
They were in salary cap hell for years but finally - finally - the Dogs look like they're on their way back to greener pastures. By no means is it a quick fix, but the Bulldogs have been very aggressive in the player market, securing the signatures of Nick Cotric, Kyle Flanagan, Corey Allan, Jack Hetherington and Corey Waddell, while adding Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Burton for 2022. The way in which these new recruits gel under new coach Trent Barrett - who himself is somewhat of a gamble - remains to be seen, as does the performance of a forward pack that still appears to leave a little to be desired. They may not quite reach finals football, but if nothing else, they will certainly improve on their lackluster 15th place 2020 finish.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
This is a side that I struggle to poke any holes in. Between Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds and Damien Cook, their spine is among the most talented and most experienced in the entire league. All bring something unique to the table, and under Wayne Bennett, have proven that they gel together very well. Josh Mansour is a welcome addition to an already-talented backline while Jai Arrow will assist in beefing up the middle of the field alongside Thomas Burgess, Cameron Murray and Tevita Tatola. There's plenty of size and talent on the bench, and in Benji Marshall, Souths will also have excellent playmaking depth and a veteran presence/mentor in Redfern. They are my bold(ish) tip for the minor premiership and will finish well above their 6th place standing in 2020.
Snakes - teams on the way down
With just seven wins, 14 losses and some very underwhelming performances, I think the Tigers were very lucky finish 2020 as high as 11th place. They've since been able to recruit some relatively big names in James Roberts and James Tamou over the offseason, but at this stage in their respective careers, I don't expect a lot of production. It seems like the Tigers have been waiting a lifetime for halfback Luke Brooks to join former teammate Mitch Moses in making that leap into stardom, but eight years into his career, it just isn't coming. Utility back Moses Mbye is about as inconsistent as they come, and with some sincere uncertainty at fullback and a lack of starch in the forwards, I can certainly see the Tigers taking home the wooden spoon for the first time in their history.
There is no doubt that the Panthers had a brilliant season in 2020, losing only one game on their way to a minor premiership and Grand Final appearance. Their attack was borderline unstoppable all year. Without offensive architect Trent Barrett, however, I question whether Penrith's squad can enjoy a similar miracle run this year - especially one that is as free from injury. It's foolish to think the mountain men won't feature in finals football, but with several valuable depth players departing and so many elite rivals improving their roster, I'm not expecting the Panthers to quite reach the top four again.
Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
With star half Shaun Johnson slated to miss several weeks to begin the season, Matt Moylan is expected to be relied upon to steer the Sharks around the park offensively - alongside Chad Townsend. He will have to become the chief creative playmaker, given Townsend, fullback Will Kennedy and hooker Blayke Brailey don't seem to have the required skillset. Though he may be the most creative of the four, I simply cannot see Moylan thriving in this role. His poor injury history will prevent him from playing his most effective position of fullback, while he lacks the kicking and passing game to be a truly dominant half. Add in a bench that I expect to lack any serious impact and very few moves in recruitment, and the Sharks shouldn't be playing finals football this year.