A Deep Dive into the 2022 Queensland Cup & QRLW

For my 300th post on pythagonrl.com, we’re down to brass tacks. The real deal. The big dance. None of that phoney baloney NRL. It’s time for Queensland rugby league.

This year’s men’s Queensland Cup, the Hostplus Cup, kicks off at 3.30pm on Saturday, March 19 with the Brisbane Tigers facing the Tweed Seagulls and runs for 20 rounds. The women’s QRLW competition kicks off the following Saturday at 1.20pm with Wynnum Manly versus Burleigh and runs for seven rounds.

This year, the QRL has arranged for the Hostplus Cup, QRLW and junior comps to be streamed through Cluch at qplus.tv. A subscription is $50 per year. Given the issues with broadcast continuity and graphics last year and I believe that only some games will have commentary this year, I think it’s best to set your personal expectations low and let them rise gently as time goes by but that’s still a bargain nonetheless.

And this year, covid is still a thing but that’s in two indirect ways. For the women, the pandemic delayed last year’s NRLW premiership into 2022, which will see rounds five through seven and finals will clash with the first five rounds of this year’s QRLW premiership. That means, to begin with at least, we’ll be missing the top names in the women’s side of the sport from the state competition. We don’t know how that will affect the balance of power among teams nor who will then return to play after the NRLW is over, which itself might be impacted by when teams are eliminated. For the men, the pandemic means expanded 24-man NRL squads, just in case someone gets a last-minute case of the rona, so when the Cowboys, Titans, Warriors and Broncos leave south-east Queensland, they’re taking extra fringe first graders that would normally play the weekend in Cup. Clubs are going to be less reliant on their feeder allocations and more on the guys who play for match payments.

As will become clear, I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s very exciting.

What happened

After the 2020 season was ruined by the pandemic, it was a relief to have real football back in 2021. That wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from our infectious friend. A 19 round season was cut short to just 17 rounds and finals were delayed by two weeks. This meant that the real premiership ended a week after the NRL grand final, with that game playing support act to the QCup preliminary finals at Suncorp Stadium. What novelty!

In the end, Norths broke a premiership drought that had lasted 23 years. The Devils did so with a mix of clever coaching, astute signings and some luck: the recipe for success of any Queensland club. They, and Wynnum Manly, were the two clear best sides all year and we were treated to an excellent grand final.

The bottom of the ladder fell away in a concerning way. The Tigers, Jets, Capras and Cutters combined for just 12 wins and 4 draws. At least the Jets and Capras can blame a lack of NRL affiliation but the Tigers and Cutters may prefer to lean on rule changes that, instead of leading to blow out scorelines, simply caused very predictable results. So lopsided was the competition that the top nine of fourteen all had winning records. We can only hope that will close up this year.

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.

Sims are based on SCWP only. While we have a very good data set for Queensland Cup and an equivalent but much smaller set for QRLW, the uncertainty around rosters (both of club retentions and feeder allocations) makes any sort of Taylors-based analysis difficult. That means the sims (and the commentary!) more or less reflect what happened last year – the good teams are expected to be good and the bad teams bad – with some mean regression applied and because the spread of teams is not as bad as the NRL, they tend to be rather flat. The Sims are for novelty purposes only.

Men: Luke Page has retired, closing a fairly significant chapter in Bears’ history. Jamal Fogarty, the hero of 2019, has been in the NRL for some time now, which leaves Pat Politoni, Sami Sauiluma and Guy Hamilton to lead a bunch of fresh, unproven faces around the field. Keep an eye out for Iszac Fa’asuamaleaui, younger brother of Tino. He starts on the bench in round 1. It perhaps goes without saying that I still expect the Bears to be good anyway.

Women: Burleigh and Valleys were in a class of their own. The Bears only loss in 2021 came in the regular season against Valleys but they reversed the result in the grand final, claiming an historic win. However, they are now missing Tamika Upton, Lauren Brown, Zehara Temara, Chelsea Lenarduzzi, Millie Boyle and more. While I’d think the dissolution of their only major rival, likely to split their talents among the remaining Brisbane teams, would be a boone to the point of annoiting them premiership favourites, I also have no real idea of how they plan to fill a gap of that size. The U19s are currently 2-0 and finished last year 3-1.

Sick highlight from 2021

(Unfortunately Fuller is out for the year with a fractured tibia)

Men: The Blackhawks are the place that the Cowboys are now stashing their under 23s prospects. Whether this is a misguided attempt to recreate the 2005 premiership success of the North Queensland Young Guns remains to be seen. This is a significant change of pace from previous years, as the Blackhawks have been home to the Cowboys’ prime fringe players which led to a sustained period of success. Perhaps that will be a thing of the past but the Blackhawks also made the under 20s grand final last year, suggesting there’s plenty of youthful enthusiasm to be channeled by the ever reliable and Kumul hero Kyle Laybutt, Khalifa Faifai-Loa and Jaelen Feeney. If nothing else, it suggests perhaps a change of expectations for the club, who made the grand final in their first season in 2015 and have been contenders most years since but have failed to deliver a title to Townsville.

Women (t/a North Queensland Gold Stars): The Gold Stars were the clear third best team in 2021’s premiership, off the pace of Burleigh and Valleys, but ahead of Wests and Tweed. Their best players managed to find a home at Newcastle in the NRLW, so they will be down on troops, in particular star Romy Teitzel. They did manage to run a star studded Burleigh close in the semi finals, losing 18-16, which suggests they might actually have the edge coming into 2022, having lost fewer stars than the top two but having already been better than the rest of the competition.

Sick highlight from 2021

(This is actually from the under 20s grand final, which the Blackhawks lost in golden point, but it’s a great passage of play)

Men: The easiest thing to predict in world sport is that the Central Queensland Capras will finish in the bottom two of the Queensland Cup. They’ll be thrown a lifeline by the newly-minted NRL Dolphins next year, latching on as a feeder club, but until then, we’ll set the over/under on number of wins at 1.5 (they’ve averaged 5.7 wins each season with 0.7 draws since the inception of the Queensland Cup). In this week’s edition of Let’s Remember a Guy, Jonus Pearson is playing centre for the Capras in round 1 in a dire warning of what can happen when you wash out of the NRL.

Women: Chelsea Baker was the Capras’ star recruit for 2021 and she played five-eighth, as Central brought up the rear, 2-5, and finishing ahead of only the Valkyries but snatching a surprising early win over Wests. So, despite playing only seven games, the women’s side won more games than the 1-14-2 record that the men managed over 17 rounds (which was still not as bad as 2015, which was a clean 1-22). Baker’s now retired so we’ll see what the balance of the Capras, including Tamika Upton’s second rower sister, Sharni, have to offer.

Sick highlight from 2021

The Capras were behind by four at half time and played the last half an hour with a player sent off. It was their only win in 2021. You can watch the full game here. It really is some phenomenal grit.

Men: I honestly don’t know what to make of the Cutters’ week 1 lineup other than to note the promotion of some Colts players and the continued and reassuring presence of prop Ross Bella. Ata Hingano left them mid-last season for the sunny climes of Leigh. The Cutters have been ordinary since 2016 (perhaps no concidence they’ve struggled since Townsville entered the competition), averaging just 5.8 wins a year and haven’t finished out of the bottom three since 2017. I’ll happily chalk them up for another round of something like that again this season.

Women: See Gold Stars, under Blackhawks

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: The hiring of coach Rohan Smith several years ago has turned the Devils from a middling into a force to be reckoned with, and then eventually premiers. This should probably attract the attention of NRL teams looking for a bit of smarts but it won’t. A lot has to be said for the presence of players like Danny Levi (now in Super League) and Tyrone Roberts (now with the Broncos for some reason) and Jono Reuben (Dragons) who gave the Devils the necessary boost at various points in the season. Jack Ahearn will be the lynchpin once more for this side, notionally serving at halfback but likely to drift between there and fullback as suits his skillset. Kierran Moseley joins from the Jets after a couple of career years at number 9 and will be a handy pick up. They won, so I’d be ok if Norths go back to sleep for another 23 years but I think they’ll be in the mix again.

Women (t/a West Brisbane Panthers): West Brisbane had a roster curiously devoid of heavy hitters for 2021. There was former Jillaroo Caitlin Moran and Bronco Julia Robinson. Sara Sautia is now also a Bronco and Lauren Dam has joined the Titans, so between that and managing to finish fourth, albeit 3-4, was a pretty respectable outcome for the Panthers. With the removal of the NRLW players, we’ll see if Wests find the field somewhat more level in 2022 and can leverage their lack of brand name players to their advantage.

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: well la-di-da, if it isn’t the big NRL club, stooping to play in the slums of the Queensland Cup. A backline that features Trai Fuller, Jack Beehag, Ed Burns (formerly of Wynnum) and Cameron Cullen might be one of the better rosters insulated against the whims of NRL assignments. Wait, is that Dunamis Lui at prop? Righto, Mr Big Shot’s decided to come and play. It will be an interesting year to see how the Dolphins manage the transition from state to the big show and whether future signings, like Valynce-Mikaeri Crosby-Te Whare, start to make appearances in Teamlist Tuesday this year.

Women: curiously non-existent

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: Three teams finished 2021 with weird disparities between their actual points difference and their SCWP difference: the Jets (-196 and -7, respectively), the Magpies (+71, -39) and the Falcons (+58, -60). For the latter two, we could draw a couple of conclusions. Firstly, perhaps these teams prefer a bend-but-not-break approach to defence, allowing considerably more metres and breaks than they gained but without the corresponding points. Secondly, perhaps these teams were remarkably lucky to win as many games as they without having done the hard yards. Thirdly, the changes in team composition thanks to covid and injuries at the level above, coincided with games with particularly large margins, one way or the other. At the very least, we should temper expectations of this Falcons team until we can figure out which one it is. Certainly, the dropoff was surprising. The Falcons return with Nat McGavin, Luke Polselli and are captained by Tyson Smoothy at hooker. This should be the year that Smoothy puts the rugby league world on notice, if he ever is going to, in the same way that Brandon Smith and Harry Grant did before him.

Women: N/A

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: The Hunters turned over a new leaf for 2021, after a disaster of a 2019 campaign which followed so soon after their premiership in 2017. I liked that, despite basing themselves at Runaway Bay, they turned up to play extremely aggressively and Jokadi Bire seemed to poised to follow the likes of Edene Gebbie and Justin Olam out of the Hunters, sideways to somewhere else in Cup and then on to the NRL until he nearly died. This season the Hunters arrive in 2022, returning again to Runaway Bay, without Ase Boas for the first time in what feels like living memory, and a host of other senior players for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. In come a dozen hot shots from Digicel Cup, looking to make their mark on the competition, and two new assistant coaches to Matt Church. It feels like a lot of churn but until the Hunters find top line spine players, they’ll probably be making up the numbers.

Women: Elsie Albert seems to be doing rather well.

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: With the exception of the Hunters, who have a nation of 8 million at their disposal, there’s not much to recommend any Queensland Cup club without a NRL affiliation. The ‘pathways deal’ with Newcastle seems to have fallen by the wayside and replaced by an arrangement with… Salford?

In a post-pandemic world, a world in which the NSWRL still has its undies bunched about NSW NRL clubs teaming up with Queensland Cup clubs (despite its obvious benefits!), this could look really smart under the right circumstances. Super League could benefit greatly from the talent lying relatively idle in Ipswich and Central Queensland, many of whom would jump at a full time professional opportunity. I doubt anything like this will ever emerge because the financial barriers and cultural inerita at both ends will likely make it irrelevant in the short term and prohibitive in the long. In the meantime, the Broncos and Storm have recently re-upped their feeder arrangements and the Jets appear ready to ride out another couple of years until a NRL affiliation opens up at Red Hill, or the Titans or Dolphins decide they need a third team, or the Warriors realise they need a replacement for Redcliffe.

I don’t see much happening until then. Coach Ben Cross has been given more power to shape the club as its new head of football but without the cattle and funding support from a NRL club, there’s only so much that can happen.

Women: N/A

Sick highlight from 2021

We can’t all win all the time, so to play spoiler and deny the eventual premiers the first one-loss QCup season, that is a thing of beauty in itself. You can watch highlights here.

Men: I can’t fathom them playing at Marsden State High School for half of their home games. Surely there’s somewhere else in Logan that would be more suitable than a school if you wanted to nod to the Scorpions half of the “merger”? It’s not even a private school like Iona College with (what I assume are) fancy facilities. Anyway, Souths Logan will probably finish 9-10 or 10-9 and will devleop a talented kid that will play for the Broncos in the next two years along the way (e.g. Isaako in 2018, Niu in 2019, Mam in 2021). Shout out to Cruise Ten. Might make week one or two of the finals. This is the way.

Women: The Magpies started 2020 with a strong team featuring Meg Ward, Elsie Albert, Amelia Kuk, Hayley Maddick, Nikita Sao and Steph Hancock, then the season was cancelled after one game and they were later runners-up in the quasi-replacement Holcim Cup with Ali Brigginshaw and Tamika Upton. A return in 2021 was aborted at the last minute due to a lack of player numbers and what was left was combined with the excesses at other clubs into the ultimately unsuccessful Valkyries team. We do not yet know which version of the Magpies is turning up this season: the star studded of 2020 or the clumsily failure of 2021.

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: If I’m perfectly honest, I never pay that much attention to the Pride. By my count, the Pride had four “TV” games last year, compared to seven for PNG, Souths Logan and Burleigh and less than half of Wynnum Manly. It’s easy to forget about a team whose average finishing position from 2015 onward is 8.5 in a fourteen team competition and Cairns is far from Brisbane without the foreign glamour of the Hunters. Plus “Northern”: why can’t you be Cairns? Should be good for a mid-table finish.

Women: See Gold Stars, under Blackhawks

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: The Seagulls of the Tweed variety are primed for a big season. Last year’s efforts were surprisingly good, finishing top four and going on a deep finals run ending at Suncorp, and have built on the heavier investment made by the Titans in recent years. The Seagulls fielded Titans prospects Toby Sexton and Treymain Spry in 2021, as well as oddities like lesser known Talor Walters and Will Brimson, which sound like knock-offs of their more famous relatives, and will be steered by captain Lindon McGrady and potential first grader (not sure how much longer he gets that title) and Tintin look-alike, Tanah Boyd.

Women: You’d think a team featuring Georgia Hale, Rona Peters, Tarryn Aitken and Jaime Chapman would do quite well at state level, certainly better than the 2-4-1 return that Tweed got for their efforts. The far less heralded mud-and-bloods finished fourth with a 3-4 record to make the finals. I think Tweed would be right to be disappointed with that and expect more this year, noting that of course all of the above players are in the NRLW.

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: It wasn’t that long ago that Wynnum Manly were a middling Cup team after back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012. Some tweaks behind the scenes and a refurbishment at Kougari and the Seagulls have suddenly become a powerhouse. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been matched with success at the senior men’s level and now they’ve lost all of their most talented footballers that weren’t signed to the Broncos: Berrell’s gone to the Sharks, Campagnolo to the Rabbitohs, Hoeter to the Broncos and Burns to the The. Whether Caleb Daunt, formerly of the Capras, and Luke Gale, not that Luke Gale, have enough to make up the difference remains to be seen. The Seagulls still have talismanic halfback Sam Scarlett, Matiu Love-Henry and Luke Bateman, so there’s still the bones of a good squad here.

Women: Wynnum’s women’s team is brand new and I fully expect that they will divy up the available players from the now dissolved Valleys team. With the Broncos not likely to be finished in the NRLW for another month, that suggests there should be a noticeable swing between the first and second half of the QRLW competition, presuming any of the Broncos stars deign to slum it in state cup like they did last year. The U19s team has only played one game at time of writing, a 36-10 win over Souths Logan, and finished 2-1 last year, with a +68 points difference.

Sick highlight from 2021

Men: It’s hard to imagine the Tigers staying that bad for that long. That is, unless you’ve been paying attention and noted that this team hasn’t won anything – despite multiple grand finals appearances – since forever. There is a huge influx of players coming, I count fourteen, including the highly rated centre BJ Aufaga-Toomaga and astonishingly, Gerard Beale. Former Pride and Tigers journeyman Linc Port has been released in what is a comprehensive turnover of the roster. I can’t tell you whether they’ll be good or not but the Tigers certainly couldn’t be any worse. Jayden Nikorima makes his return to Cup at five-eighth on behalf of the Storm.

Women: The Tigers and Tweed were also-rans in last year’s QRLW. Only one Tiger seems to have made the cut for the current NRLW season, Jessikah Reeves, and it’s doubtful she’ll get any game time with the Broncos. So the upside seems to be minimal disruption but the downside is that probably represents the talent level the Tigers had. There’s so much flux in the women’s game that could easily change, especially with the exponential growth in juniors and the dissolution of Valleys. At the time of writing, the Tigers’ U19s side was 2-0.

Sick highlight from 2021

(note that it was not Lumelume but Ieremia)