A Deep Dive into the 2022 NRL season

The men’s NRL returns on Thursday night, kicking off the season with Penrith, who I am told won last year’s grand final, playing Manly. This small market duel is an odd way to start the season but it seems they are actually quite good and no one wants to watch the Broncos lose by 50 to the Eels to begin 2022. That would just leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. There’s plenty of time for that later. Let’s see what might happen in the meantime.

What happened

I’ve written enough about the 2021 season and you can chart my descent into madness from the following selection of my writing, responses to which ranged from indifference to sufficiently viral for NRL.com to steal my output and repackage it with an intellectually dishonest spin:

I had more post-season takes in the The Year in Rugby League Football, 2021.

How it all works

These posts rely on a lot of jargon that I’ve made up which suits my analytics tools but is often dense and hard to parse, even for regular readers. If that’s you, please visit this guide on what each stat means. Also, there’s 1500 words of context around what statistics do and don’t mean at the end.

The main mechanism for assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder. Sometimes the numbers tell what I think will be an accurate story, sometimes they don’t and that’s why there’s 6,500 words of commentary to go with the graphs. You can take or leave whichever bits you like.

Rosters for the Composition metrics are taken from the NRL website as of 28 February and the predicted 1-17 for the Production metrics are based on League Unlimited’s season previews. The engines are based on the top ten non-rookies by their projected TPR, as a rough proxy for the players that are likely to contribute the most production (typically, more than half of a team’s production comes from eight or so players). Players with a 2021 ranking but no TPR did not play in the minimum five games played required for a TPR (no minimum games for WARG). Players are ranked by WARG accumulated while listed in that position only and the best rank the player has is shown (e.g. if a player has played in the middle and off the bench, I’ve shown whichever had the higher ranking).

The Broncos deserved fourteenth place last season. They weren’t particularly good at playing football but, in a marked contrast to the 2020 Seibold-led season, at least looked like they wanted be somewhere in the vicinity of the stadium they were playing in. Being the first team to find out Sam Walker in a 34-16 win over the Roosters, a Milford field goal to seal a 35-22 win over the Knights and an astonishing 22 point comeback against the Titans to win 36-28, were three of the three highlights of a campaign that featured seven, largely earned, wins and not much else.

Pangai is gone and probably not a huge loss given how much time he tended to spend on the sidelines. Milford’s defection to Souths (and subequent legal woes) is likewise an insubstantial change; he was even less interested in being there than most. Coates is a genuine loss but there’s always more money (outside backs) in the banana stand (Brisbane Broncos academy). My fears that the farm system would take years to replenish were not well founded: Cobbo can probably drop the ball as well as Coates can. Speaking of, the farm system had a banner year with two of the three feeder clubs playing for the premiership in the Queensland Cup.

The emergence of Cory Paix as a hooking option will provide an intriguing storyline for the season as he tries to take the jersey from Turpin, a job that shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Finding a parner for Reynolds is another and it seems the Broncos will field an experienced but barely competent five-eighth in Gamble or Kelly, or an experienced five-eighth that hasn’t played in several years in Te Maire Martin, or an inexperienced but barely competent five-eighth in Walters, or an inexperienced five-eighth with potential in Mam. It seems the latter will be there at some point – astonishing, considering he was behind both Kelly and Dearden in state cup at the start of last season – but the question is when and if it is soon enough to destroy his development trajectory. God knows who’s playing fullback but it seems like it might be Niu by default, unless there’s a sudden craving for kick-offs that go out on the full, in which case there’s always room for Jamayne Isaako. In other words, other than the 7, the spine is all over the shop. Recently, it’s been the other way around, so at least that is refreshing.

Over the off-season, Kurt Capewell and Adam Reynolds have joined the team, two of the biggest signings in the club’s recent history. Capewell should provide some much needed reliability at the front and Reynolds, leadership and playmaking at the back. The other signings don’t move the needle significantly and will fill depth roles. Somehow these people fill a surprisingly high number of slots in the Engine because the rest of the roster just hasn’t shown anything in the last two years. In fact, the numbers are quite pessimistic on the Broncos’ chances. Last season, they were the worst squad on paper and managed to finish fourteenth. This season, Brisbane are again the worst squad on paper but, now, somehow, further behind. While the Broncos have added 5 expected Taylors to their average game’s production from last year to this, the Storm have added 36.

In a return to 2019 form, the Broncos’ season is entirely reliant on the performances of Reynolds and Haas and if they get injured, it is going to be extremely grim. I haven’t seen anything in particular from Kevin Walters to suggest he can make up the difference so individual brilliance it is. At the upside, the Broncos are probably just missing the finals. At the worst, they’ll be fighting off the Cowboys in the cellar. Again.

The Bulldogs deserved last place last season, although they perhaps should have made less of a meal of the close games they did lose but even then, those were few and far between with three losses of six points or less. Only three wins for Trent Barrett in his first season back at the helm was not an auspicious start and one would assume that Dean Pay would not have allowed that to happen and the reason we can assume that in his two full seasons, Pay won eight and ten games. There are plenty of people who want the Bulldogs to be good and not enough people really assessing whether Barrett is the man to make it happen. To say I have doubts would be an understatement.

Still, the roster was trash then and it’s noticeably better now. The Bulldogs have done well to be the Sydney club to come to in 2022 and 2023 and get paid. Having cleared the dud contracts off the books from the Hasler-Castle era, Canterbury freed up Phil Gould and others to start writing checks that one only hopes that the salary cap auditor will allow them to cash. Incoming this season are centre-cum-half Matt Burton, known for his giant boot and symbol of the failure of the game’s inability to develop junior talent; Matt Dufty, the unwanted fullback that if nothing – and I mean that literally – else can score tries; Josh Addo-Carr, the much wanted winger drawing a fullback’s salary; Tevita Pangai Jr, he of bikie barber fame and several single-handed Broncos wins and an even greater number of weeks suspended; and solid premiership winner Brent Naden. That’s a major upgrade, patching a number of leaks and an almost entirely new backline. You might fairly be wondering if there’s enough starch in the front couple of rows to really fix the Bulldogs’ lack of go forward, which was a bigger problem last year than their playmaking. Paul Vaughan will help – anything would’ve been an improvement – but if the Dogs’ offload Thompson, as has been rumoured for some time, then that undoes any gains. Only Nick Cotric is notable in the list of Bulldogs losses and that’s because he’s the only NRL-quality first grader in the list.

The rest of the squad is the same one that won three games last season, which will represent at least half of the thirteen starting positions. While the incoming talent upgrades their prospects significantly – a finals spot wouldn’t be out of the question according to the Taylors but is far from reality according to the SCWP – there’s a fairly substantial gap to be bridged just to get from last place to the tail end of the excrementitious pile that occupied the bottom half of the NRL ladder in 2021. Eyes must be already turned to 2023 when further reinforcements turn the Bulldogs back into a finals contender and, if nothing else, a terrible season here will give the board mandate to fire Barrett and find a real coach.

This is the fifth deep dive season preview I’ve done and each year the squad has looked good on paper and the Cowboys have yet to finish above thirteenth place. Paul Green is gone, the legacy of the premiership might be enough to cover some blemishes but it was long enough ago now that there are new young Cowboys fans that weren’t alive in 2015. And yet Jake Granville and Kyle Feldt are still here.

For a change of pace this year, the squad does not look particularly good on paper, mustering only fourteenth best by projected Taylors and hoping for a big contribution from some hitherto unheralded children. Reece Robson, Heilum Luki and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow give the club something to work with but, as previously observed, pretty much every NRL club has a good, young core. Todd Payten didn’t show enough last year and the Cowboys’ future success – let’s not pretend there will be much this season – relies on his ability to mould these kids into players. Not only that, he has to do a better job than everyone else because the Cowboys are so far and so consistently off the pace.

A book could probably be written about how North Queensland have ended up with a halves pairing of Chad Townsend, not good enough for a middle-of-the-pack Cronulla, and Tom Dearden, possesor of three games looking like the second coming of Alfie Langer before regressing to his true state, or maybe Scott Drinkwater, if they don’t end up releasing the latter to the Knights to follow Clifford, as rumoured late last year.

A second volume would be dedicated to the juniors that have slipped through their fingers. We can add Josh Stuckey, the most promising kid by a number of stats coming out of the Cowboys’ farm system in 2021, to that list. North Queensland’s feeders were fourth best of the five systems in Queensland Cup and some distance behind those of the Broncos and Titans in 2021. A rearrangement that sees the best youth prospects assigned to the Blackhawks in Townsville, while senior players will be split between Cairns’ Northern Pride and the Mackay Cutters feels more like deckchair shuffling than any substantive change. Time will tell.

Worringly, the club made no moves in the off-season other than to recruit the aforementioned Townsend, Peta Hiku, rescuing Brendan Elliot from the relegated Leigh and former Norths Devil Jamayne Taunoa-Brown. That’s it. That list isn’t abbreviated for clarity, those are the four incoming players. Considering the club below the Cowboys on the ladder have turned over their entire roster and the club above them on the ladder at least made some decent marquee signings, what exactly do the Cowboys think they can achieve?

*makes loud farting noise*

Shout out to Jono Reuben.

One of my blind spots over the years, reinforced by the stability of the duopoly at the head of the competition, is not believing that things are possible until I’ve seen them happen. As a person who owes a considerable portion of his audience to season previews and predictive statistics, this seems problematic. Consequently, I thought it was far more likely that the Panthers would regress, rather than to go on to win the premiership. That was silly and I was wrong.

Which bring us to the Eels. I’ve never believed that the Eels have had It, the mysterious ether that wins premierships and creates champions. Nonetheless, barring 2018’s bizarre disaster of a season, Parramatta have been in the race, at varying distances to the actual winners, but there nonetheless. This iteration of the Eels have just beaten the Storm twice (and not seen the Storm go on to win the title) and were a Reed Mahoney away from taking down the eventual premiers in the finals.

There’s been a high degree of stability between seasons. Perhaps the biggest loss was Blake Ferguson, first to rugby union and then to Japanese jail from whence he is unlikely to return, and despite a quiet 2021, he was an important component of past Parramatta success. Bailey Simonsson can do a job in lieu and Brad Arthur has shown he can often get the best out of his roster. Mitch Rein, none too exciting, comes in as a depth signing with the much maligned Will Smith heading the other way to the Gold Coast.

It is very much business as usual. If Mahoney continues on his trajectory and Moses and Gutherson stay who they are, then that’s the making of a contending spine and despite the fact that it looks like it isn’t one, it isn’t until it is. Similarly, Brad Arthur hasn’t looked like a premiership winning coach and he won’t until he is one (we could’ve easily said the same thing about Ivan Cleary twelve months ago!) despite bringing the Eels to the brink repeatedly.

The kicker is that they have to do it this year. Mahoney leaves them for the Bulldogs and Josh Hodgson comes in to replace him. If there’s one thing we know about Mitchell Moses, it’s that he won’t play well with another player who likes to do too much with ball in hand. That way lies disaster and a firm shutting of the window on the Eels have been building. It’s now or never.

There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn here between the Knights and the Titans. Both were in severe financial trouble, bailed out by the NRL and then on-sold to private ownership for a pittance. Both teams floundered for a couple of seasons before commencing the dreaded re-build. This season will tell us whether the Knights’ (and the Titans’) rebuild has stalled.

The Knights were sold at the tail end of 2017. The next season lifted them from the wooden spoon to eleventh. The media primed the fanbase for bigger and better things and they finished eleventh again. Nathan Brown got a long overdue (figurative) bullet and Adam O’Brien took Newcastle to seventh for two seasons. It’s been nearly twenty years since the Knights were a relevant force in the NRL (one top four finish in 2006 and one preliminary final from seventh in 2013, since 2002) and the question now is how to move the club into that upper echelon where they can seriously consider contending without the presence of Andrew Johns.

Newcastle had an odd 2021. Their 12 wins belied a points difference that suggested they were more like a 9 win team. Even the more forgiving SWCP had them pegged at 10.5 wins. In a normal year, they would’ve been clear cut candidates to miss the finals. This is doubly baffling as only the Bulldogs scored fewer points. In a season notable for its record setting points hauls, the Knights cracked thirty three times (against the Dogs, Cows and Raiders) and failed to crack double digits five times (against the Panthers, Storm, Eels and Roosters twice). That is an unforgivably poor offence and still, in 2021, they finished seventh and nearly made it to week 2 of the finals. The heavy dose of mean regression, as they surely cannot rely on fluking wins while being that poor with ball in hand with a league average defence, that the Knights should experience will be a handbrake on any upward momentum the club has going into 2022.

Mitchell Pearce has gone to his retirement home in Perpignan and his absence is liable to free up the Knights’ spine. Jayden Brailey and Jake Clifford are genuinely good young players. Dane Gagai has come home to bolster the outside backs, with the exciting prospect of Dom Young and whatever Kalyn Ponga can pull out of his rear, means that the backs might match up well with the well-established qualities of the forwards.

What’s missing is a sense of cohesion and it’s going to be a defining year for Adam O’Brien’s credentials as coach if he can deal with this kind of churn (partly arising from player movements and partly arising from injuries) to not only maintain a soft top eight finish but make an actual push up the ladder. His coach factor of +5 in 2020 is offset by a mean regressing -2 in 2021, so he needs a big positive number to beat the mediocre projections and just to maintain the Knights’ standing. He’s going to have find something special to go further. I’ve had my doubts about O’Brien for a while – he’s an upgrade on Brown but who isn’t? – and its time for rubber to hit road.

The Penrith premiership squad is being slowly chipped away and the Panthers might have lost more than any other club in the off-season. It is as it should be, despite the protestations of the club’s unusually dense CEO. To date, it’s made far less difference than I thought it would. It may be that the core – largely those same men listed above under the Engine – will be able to be accommodated under the salary cap and continue to win football games. Stranger things have happened: the Panthers are the reigning premiers for the first time in nearly twenty years.

Can they go again? Probably not. This is not a “they didn’t deserve to win the premiership” take but rather dusting off the old “it’s pretty hard to win two in a row” take. The same level of desire has got to be there and I can just see Melbourne (last won in 2020), Sydney (2019) and Parramatta (never) being hungrier than Penrith (2021) are. There’s no shame in it, it’s mostly what people are like, and those tiny slivers of difference have outsized impacts on the way the season will unfold if all you care about is who wins on grand final day.

An alternative course of action would be for Cleary to find a new level (somehow) and proceeds to kick the rest of the competition to death. I can envision that as easily as I can see hordes of young Panthers, rising out of the NSW Cup team that lost one game last year, providing youthful enthusiasm and cheap strength that make any lack of desire on the part of the senior premiership-winners irrelevant. It’s basically how they got here in the first place. Ivan Cleary, for his faults, has found a way to channel that feeling into a cascade of points and watertight defence and has two grand finals for his trouble.

The Panthers are hard to rule out, no matter which way you want to slice it, but don’t start as my pre-season favourites.

A tough loss ended what was otherwise a great season for Souths and the zenith of the fifth Bennett NRL coaching tenure. The Rabbitohs spent most of the season sitting in the chasing pack but hit peak form at the end of the season, and powered through the finals. One fewer brain explosion from Latrell Mitchell or one less errant pass from Cody Walker and Souths may have sent Bennett to the Dolphins as a premiership winner (again).

2022 shapes as a season of transition. Jason Demetriou, long the apprentice, takes over as head coach and Adam Reynolds, long the leader and halfback, has left for Brisbane. How the Rabbitohs cope with changes at two of the most critical positions in the organisation will obviously define their season. These changes probably aren’t as big as they seem. Demetriou has been there as long as Bennett has, so should be able to keep the ship pointing in the right direction, but historically the coaches following Bennett have been badly exposed. Henjak, Price, Brown and Seibold combined for a 36.8% winning percentage during their tenures, compared to Bennett’s career 63.3% percentage in the NSWRL+SL+NRL. Funnily enough, Henjak was fired with a winning record, which might be the best we can hope for Demetriou initially (the winning record, not the firing).

The question mark occupying the number 7 jersey is more pressing. Lachlan Ilias played there in the Charity Shield loss to the Dragons, Souths’ first loss in that fixture since 2012. His only NRL appearance came against the Dragons as well, that time winning 20-16, where he produced a TPR of .065. Far be it from me to draw too many conclusions about a single performance, so I won’t. We could add two state cup performances, a measly .021 against the Magpies and .029 against the reserve Knights, which are less inspiring but also not the kind of sample size from which sensible discussion is created. Still, I won’t be setting my expectations too high. He, is like all rookies, projected to have a .098 TPR, which may turn out to be generous. The other trial against the Cowboys saw former Pride and Seagull, Jack Campagnolo, and former Bear and current reserve Rabbitoh, Dean Hawkins, occupy the halves jerseys. Both players have decent state careers (47 and 37 games, respectively), coincidentally both with an average TPR of .094, so there’s at least a fallback position if required.

These two challenges, as small as they may or may not be, are probably enough to shift Souths out of top four but the rest of the team is simply too good to be much lower. They’ll likely sit in the next tier down, beneath the Eels, Storm, Panthers and Roosters, with the Sea Eagles. If things go badly, they’ll mix with the Knights, Raiders and Sharks. Best case scenario might be another preliminary final loss but that, at least, should be seen as a win for the new era.

It was a rough year for the Raiders, the kind we seem to see after they’ve tried to crest the summit and tumbled back down again. That’s reflected in the Raiders’ engine, which has only two top ten players by position. It’s down from four last year, a list that featured Wighton, Papalii, Nicoll-Klokstad and Starling, who all had off years for varying reasons. Nicoll-Klokstad spent most of the season on the sidelines. Starling failed to recapture his 2020 form, producing 70% as many Taylors in 2021 compared to 2020 despite spending 42% more minutes on the field. Wighton looked at times like he’d never seen a game of football before, despite his status as the reigning Dally M Player of the Year.

For a team without dramatic turnover, choosing to cut loose deadweight like Curtis Scott and Dunamis Lui, there’s really two questions:

  1. How good is Jamal Fogarty? (that is, once he returns from a four month layoff)
  2. And can Ricky Stuart get the team back to their best?

Fogarty will be functional and the Raiders is not where halfbacks go to shine under the laser focus of Stuart (and his likely personal view that he was and probably still is a better footballer). Still, Fogarty has to make it work because he is 28 years old and if he’s going to cut it, it’s now. As for Stuart, he’s shown he can do it before and I have few doubts that he could do it again.

I guess that makes me bullish on Canberra (perhaps more ethusiastically when Fogarty returns), although it’s largely for a lack of compelling reasoning as to why not to be bullish, than anything particularly inspiring the mean green machine has to offer. Many of these previews will read like their reviews from the season before because so little has really, meaningfully changed and, in that vein, the Raiders sit in the same group as the Sharks, Titans and Knights, vying for the last scraps of finals football. The order will likely be different this year and the Raiders look as good as any to be there in September.

There wasn’t a lot to like about the Roosters’ injury toll through 2021. They used 34 players, which is the kind of turnover we see from cellar dwellers like the Broncos (36), Bulldogs (35), Warriors and Cowboys (both 34), while the contenders use 30 or fewer. The fact that the Roosters finished fifth and even won a post-season game is testament to the structures in place at Bondi and Trent Robinson’s coaching.

Unfortunately for the rest of the competition, Easts will still have these same structures and same coaching going into 2022. On top of that, they get some of their stars back – like the extraordinarily pale Luke Keary – and will have another year’s experience piled onto their youngsters – like Sam Walker, who should have learned more ways to pass than what the French call la boule arc-en-ciel – and have Tedesco, Manu, Tupou, Waerea-Hargreaves and the star-crossed Crichton. It’s downright disgusting.

They gain some good fringe pieces in Watson, Momirovski and Renouf Atoni, who put up a respectable .100 and 0.3 WARG in his debut season. The Roosters lose no one of consequence, other than Cordner, Friend and the Morrii but we’ve already seen what they can do without them and it was the same as ever and highly embarrassing for three-quarters of the NRL.

The numbers for the Roosters are not crash hot. They noticeably outplayed their Pythagorean expectation and have only the fifth best squad on paper. However and famously, footy is not played on paper, which is why I am more than willing to overlook the statistics, that some nerd made up, to anoit the Roosters with my personal 2022 premiership favouritism.

Maybe Penrith benefitted more from the rule changes but Manly’s visible improvement should have been given more attention. That is, once they got to grips with the new format, because lest we forget that they were an historically bad team for five rounds and then became an historically good one for the rest of the season. This ABC article wondering why there was such a disparity between the top and bottom teams, which included the Cowboys (bad), Bulldogs (very bad) and Sea Eagles (good, actually), captures the vibe in early April nicely. Reuben Garrick – yes, him – would finish the season as the first player to break 300 points and Tom Trbojevic would set all kinds of statistical markers, on the way to a top four finish and a flaccid preliminary final loss against Souths.

The numbers are heavily, irresponsibly so if my eye is any judge, leaning in Manly’s favour. Trbojevic, Tom wrecked all sorts of grading curves, largely by playing a key role in Manly putting the boot in to weaker teams. Refer to the 66-0 demolition of the Dogs in round 16 that was so thorough and catastrophic, it was the tipping point against the six again. Cherry-Evans, Garrick and others went along for the ride. Realistically, I think they are now overrated, in the very literal sense of the word that their ratings are higher than what I expect they are capable of producing in 2022.

The Sea Eagles were nowhere near premiership contention last season, even on their good days (although they gave the Eels a good battering in round 22), so one would think they need to have made some improvements to be in the contending group. They have made one signing: Ethan Bullemor. While I have a lot of time for Bullemor’s big man speed and footwork, he is extremely unlikely to be the guy to take this team to a new level. Similarly, I doubt shipping several players off to England is really going to matter that significantly.

The coach is the same, the core players are the same but the rules are a bit different and I think the stars would absolutely have to align for the second year running for their to be a repeat of 2021’s heroics. Sure, they may not start so slowly but this team very much exceeded its ceiling, one of Hasler’s gifts but is typically followed by a harsh reversion in the following year. Witness the collapse of 2020, following the success of the duct taped 2019 team. Missing the finals would be a bridge too far but the Bunnies might be a better candidate for this year’s top four, if there are any places going.

Cronulla has done a reasonable job of transitioning from their premiership-winning veteran side into a new era. The last remnants of the 2016 crew will have their contracts expire this season and the men that Cronulla expect to take them forward are signed up for multiple years. Then they’ve layered on top of this a risk in putting the house on new coach Craig Fitzgibbon – who comes with wraps but what are they worth really? – and Nicho Hynes.

Hynes is an obviously talented player (I’ve been on this bandwagon since 2019) but it is extremely unlikely that he will maintain the same output he did last season. Instead, he will need to find his footing in a new environment, shoulder the burden of being The Man and find new depth to his game. He won’t be able to blow a 3 or 4 man overlap every week. He has enormous shoes to fill in replacing Shaun Johnson’s production at a position he is likely less suited to, with an unfamiliar system around him. Conversely, people might have forgotten that Cam McInnes is coming to the Shire, which should be a nice boost. He signed for the Sharks a year early and then spent the last season on the sidelines, healing his ACL. If nothing else, he should be fresh and motivated.

I think the compelling thing about the Sharks is how few brand name players they have. Matt Ikuvalu and a surely-nearly-retired Andrew Fifita top their Engine, presumably out of statistical aberration and padding, rather than any genuinely valuable production. Then we hit McInnes and Hynes and then, some guys. Guys like Tracey, Ramien, Kennedy and Talaki who can all do the job well enough but aren’t considered stars (yet). One of the key deciding factors in how 2022 pans out for Cronulla will be who takes the big steps up into the limelight. Alternatively, they may all play well, grinding out an existence that sees them finish sixth to tenth and, due to the lack of splash, attract very little attention in doing so but the foundations are laid for the Sharks’ next era.

I actually wanted to give this a vibe of moving down but it was a stretch because that implies some sort of substantial change. At worst, the Storm are moving from a top two lock to maybe a lazy top four or five finish and I’d like to say something like “I’m not sure they’ve quite got the squad to match the pace of the Panthers, the Roosters’ roster won’t resemble a hospital ward this year and the Eels have shown they can at least keep up with the Storm, all of which makes finishing in the top echelon that much more difficult”, but the Storm repeatedly find a way. Likely they will again this year and, if nothing else, they start as the paper favourites. The Sims have them at $3.50 to win the whole thing and its only March.

Xavier Coates is a good in for Josh Addo-Carr. Munster needs to refind his form, especially if he has dealt with his demons (referring to his personal issues, not his drug habit because who cares) and decided that Melbourne is home for the time being. Bellamy is immortal. Hughes is great and Papenhuyzen is too, if he can keep his axons from shearing completely apart. Harry Grant and Brandon Smith are two of the best five hookers in the game and that tandem is going to rip teams apart. It’s a hell of a spine, following a hell of a pack with some outside backs taped on for good measure.

Half the team seems to be destined for the Dolphins next season which is probably both a blessing and curse. The Storm offload veterans looking to get paid and, in years past, this gap would be filled with cheap talent fresh out of Queensland Cup. The issue is that both Storm feeders – the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Easts, sorry Brisbane, Tigers – had dismal showings in 2021, finishing eighth and eleventh respectively. As it does every year, it will pay to track the Tigers’ and the Falcons’ results as a proxy for the health of the Storm’s talent conveyor belt. Another season of 9-8 and 4-12-1 might be indicative that reinforcements are not coming this time. But that’s really a 2023 problem.

The Tigers continue to limp along, maddeningly finishing in the third quarter of the ladder season after season. If the club were to bottom out, a la the spoon winning Broncos and Bulldogs, it would at least give someone the mandate to clean house and bring in some fresh expertise. Then again, maybe it’s better to be in the purgatory forever than face the nauseating depths of a three win season.

There is hope on the horizon but it’s not for this season. This year’s recruits – especially Jackson Hastings – don’t appear to serve a particular purpose, having landed before a series of real signings came in for 2023 and/or before Luke Brooks’ career was spared from an (probably merciful) execution. I’m sure they’ll find space for Oliver Gildart but it remains to be seen if a back can make the leap from Super League to NRL. At best, the Tigers can hope for consolidation under Maguire after his job was seemingly in real danger after last season and then it turned out to be a paranoid exercise in identfying the disloyal, which doesn’t bode particularly well for the culture of the Wests’ front office.

In the time that I’ve been doing these write-ups, I’ve always expected the Tigers to fail disastrously and to date, they haven’t. Wests would often defy the projections and take a terrible team to ninth place. Last year, the opposite happened and a ninth place projection turned into an insipid thirteenth place finish. My question is whether that represents a break – refer to the aforementioned paranoid exercise – or an aberration. The former would represent a spoon and the latter would see a soaring return to just missing the finals.

At the very least, the Tigers can firm up the bones of the side for next season when real talent lands. Doueihi is in the top half of the league at his position but he’s the most productive player they have by some margin. There are a couple of kids with potential but they’re at the point where they need to show the fans something to hang their hats on. The rest probably just keeps them above the real problem clubs.

People will tell you the Titans had a good season but they did not. Making the finals is a result that will blind people to the idea that process is more important than results, especially if you’re coming from where the Titans are coming from. It should not be lost on the fans, the media (although it will be) and the wider world that a team that loses fourteen games and only wins ten is not normally post-season material. It’s only due to the even greater incompetence of the Sharks and Raiders that the Titans were able to play finals with such an atrocious record. And then they lost to the North Sydney Bears in week one. What a waste of time.

They let their captain go to the Raiders for more money. Their former million dollar man found a better offer at the Warriors, washed for all money and the Titans unable or unwilling to redeem their pet project. They don’t seem to have an actual first grade hooker. Is it Erin Clark? There’s a lot of cap tied up in David Fifita (whose early season form kept the Titans from being a real disaster zone) and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, which means they’re going to rely on some combination of prospects – Brimson, Sexton, Campbell, Boyd, maybe even Shallin Fuller – to deliver wins and where have we seen that go wrong lately?

Outside of some strong forwards, it’s all just so flimsy. Some clubs would be able to make this work or dig themselves out of this hole and some coaches could probably apply a magic touch to spellbind this into a coherent team. Based on their history to date, the Titans are probably not that club and Justin Holbrook is probably not that coach.

However! The Titans played like a 12-12 team in 2021. Their points difference was only -3. Their SCWP difference was positive. Holbrook had a dud start on the Coast but might have come good last year. The Sims, for whatever reason random numbers ever seem to favour a specific outcome, absolutely bloody love the Titans. Can’t get enough of them. The Titans have more wins coming than the Eels somehow and I have checked the spreadsheets multiple times. Perhaps this is all the proof you need that this is just astrology for dudes.

Nathan Brown stinks. I have to say this every year. The Warriors began 2021 as the sixth strongest team on paper by projections. They finished it the twelfth best team and for umpteenth time, a Nathan Brown team grossly underperformed expectations and their own capability. This year he gets to start with the twelfth best squad which, despite being only marginally behind the apparently divine Titans, is expected to be down in the dumps with the worst of them based on how they actually played last year. That’s before we consider how much of a handbrake Brown has been.

I, for one, would like to hope that this becomes apparent to the people who matter but here we are. Like the Bulldogs, the upshot for the Warriors is if this is a terrible season, they might be able to turf Brown and find someone, literally anyone, else. What is Adam Mogg up to these days? I’m sure Rohan Smith would like a NRL job. Hell, give John Morris a call.

Until the Warriors resolve this, there’s little point in hoping for much out of the returned Shaun Johnson because this team is also considering running Chanel Harris-Tavita at fullback. This move is either pure idiocy or a deception, which is itself so idiotic that they may as well make the move because both options equally reflect how little I think of management.

Reece Walsh will defect to the Dolphins Football team at some point in the year, if Kalyn Ponga doesn’t beat him to it first. That’ll be fun.

At least the Warriors can look forward to playing in Auckland again, after two years away. That’s something.