Burning issues facing every NRL club in 2020
WITH a full pre-season to prepare for another NRL year, clubs will be desperate to resolve any worries heading into the opening round.
We take a look at the burning issues facing every NRL club in 2020.
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Will Melbourne's era of dominance end if Cameron Smith retires?
If Cameron Smith does call time on his illustrious career we'll find out very quickly just how influential he was to Melbourne. Should he hang up the boots, the Storm still have an exceptional roster with Kiwi international Brandon Smith starting at hooker. It's hard to see how they can better this year's impressive season without their superstar rake though. There will likely be a decent sized transition period as they become accustomed to life without the man who the majority of their game revolves around. But with a succession plan sure to already be in place, Craig Bellamy will be prepared for his exit. The Storm may fall back a few pegs next season, but it may be a case of one step back, two steps forward from beyond 2020.
What impact will Cooper Cronk's retirement have as the club aim for a historic premiership treble?
Cronulla recruit Kyle Flanagan has the daunting task of replacing Cooper Cronk at the Roosters. It's not all doom and gloom, with Cronk expected to take up a coaching role with the club in 2020 to help mentor the rookie. This will ensure a smooth transition for Flanagan who doesn't exactly have to set Bondi alight. In the twilight of his career at the Roosters Cronk focused his efforts on organising the stars around him and maintaining his kicking prowess, while his running game took a back seat. Flanagan only has to do the same at halfback, the role isn't overly complicated. Direct the troops, and get clean early ball to the magic men outside him. The difficulty will be in nailing his kicking game. If he can get that right the rest should fall into place.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
What will the ramifications of Sam Burgess' retirement be?
Sam Burgess faced extended periods out in 2019 due to injury and suspension, and in that time the Rabbitohs lacked an aggressor. Tom Burgess did his best to ignite the pack, while Cameron Murray relies more on craft and enthusiasm rather than intimidation. The club will need somebody to step up to instill mongrel in the pack without Burgess. His exit means the club will also be without a captain with John Sutton also calling time on his career on the back of Greg Inglis' mid-season retirement. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for the club who may be due for a facelift despite recording admirable preliminary finals exits the past two seasons. Adam Reynolds would likely be considered the front-runner to lead the club in 2020. The high-profile retirees also open two vacant back-row spots. Expect the club to make a back-row signing to fill one role, with Tyson Frizell already linked to a move from the Dragons.
Can George Williams buck the trend of failed English backline imports?
Canberra will be hoping incoming halfback George Williams can break the long line of failed English backline imports. The likes of Sam Tomkins, Zak Hardaker and Joe Burgess have entered the NRL with strong reputations but failed to leave their mark before making early returns to the UK. The club is hopeful Williams can translate his Super League form Down Under and provide the X-factor to help the Raiders go a step further than the 2019 decider. History suggests Williams may have a hard time acclimatising in the nation's capital, however Ricky Stuart's eye for an English star is yet to miss the mark, despite all being forwards thus far.
Is Mitchell Moses capable of transforming the Eels into title contenders?
After years of inconsistent football, Mitchell Moses was finally able to string together a succession of strong form in 2019. The reward was a finals appearance for Parramatta and the Dally M Halfback of the Year mantle for the man himself. The challenge now is to back up the stellar season and lift the Eels into the top four. It'll help having a more seasoned Dylan Brown next to him in the halves, with the pair coming together nicely as a combination in their first season together. Moses holds all the keys to this blue and gold outfit, so it's vital he matches his feats of the past season.
MANLY-WARRINGAH SEA EAGLES
Widely regarded as overachievers in 2019, can Manly prove it was no fluke with a fully fit Tom Trbojevic on board for the season?
Manly exceeded expectations in 2019 with a stunning finals run that was ultimately cut short by an injury plague. The question now is whether they can soar to greater heights or if they're destined to fall back to the pack. Many will tip a regression for the Sea Eagles, however the prospect of a fully fit Tom Trbojevic suggests Manly are capable of improvement in 2020. Regarded as misfits last season, the likes of Brad Parker, Reuben Garrick, Brendan Elliot and Corey Waddell are far more seasoned first-graders giving fans another reason to believe they can back up their exploits. The future of Manase Fainu is unclear, but his potential absence would leave the club extremely short in the hooking ranks.
Can the Sharks rediscover their hard edge?
It's harsh to say Cronulla lost their killer instinct in 2019, but we've become so accustomed to their grit that they appeared underwhelming at times. Five losses by two points or less is a fair indication of a softer edge appearing in the Shire. Former players often suggest the difficulty in being coached by a man you once played beside, so for this reason alone John Morris has a tough gig. Whether it contributed to their slightly disappointing season remains to be seen. Cronulla have a side ready to compete for another NRL premiership, particularly with a cast of stellar rookies now gaining a year of experience. If they can rediscover the steel they've become renowned for and avoid the injury toll that plagued their previous campaign they can give the competition a shake.
Can Anthony Milford lift to end debate surrounding Brisbane's spine instability?
Brisbane fan or not, let's hope the spine can sync up to end the constant debate around their best combination. For this to happen, Anthony Milford needs to rediscover his dynamic running game, and Tom Dearden needs to mature, quickly. A fully fit, light-footed Milford is enough spark for Brisbane to lean on in flat periods. The 18-year-old Dearden has shown in a brief period his comfort at the top level, so it's vital he builds on his limited experience and learns to effectively guide Brisbane around the field. He should be analysing Cooper Cronk the entire pre-season and emulate his actions to the best of his ability. Brisbane need a leader, he doesn't have to be aggressive or threatening, he just needs to steer his side around the park, a task far easier said than done.
Can they finally break their eight year finals drought likely without their best player of 2019 Ryan Matterson?
It's hard to see 2020 being the year the Tigers crack finals football for the first time since 2011. Ryan Matterson starred last season and has only scratched the surface of his capabilities, if he leaves the club's back-row depth will take a major hit. Benji Marshall impressed last season but turns 35 before round one and Robbie Farah's retirement heaps pressure on whoever wins the hooking role with the injury-prone Jacob Liddle (ACL) missing the early stages of the year. The loss of Esan Marsters is a massive blow to a side that year after year seem to be hunting for a source of strike-power. With minimal movement on the recruitment front it'll take a master piece of coaching from Michael Maguire to catapult his side into the top eight.
With James Maloney gone, can Nathan Cleary take the reins and turn Penrith into a premiership force?
Outgoing five-eighth James Maloney missed just two games for Penrith in 2019. The second of the two was in round 21 against Cronulla. In that game Nathan Cleary ran the show on his own, he scored a try, set up a further two and won three repeat sets. For optimistic Panthers fans it was a glimpse into what the future of the club had in store with Cleary taking the reins. The club are heavily invested in the young halfback, incredibly still just 21-years-old, so with 79 games experience and Maloney out of the picture we could really see just how good the man is. Cleary isn't a flamboyant player, he's learning the craft as a meticulous game manager but still has a long way to go. But arguably for the first time in his career we will get an accurate gauge of what he really has to offer.
Can the spine come together after years of instability?
Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson, Mitchell Pearce and a Slade Griffin/Danny Levi hooking combination managed just a handful of games together in Newcastle's spine in 2018. In 2019, Mason Lino entered the frame as Watson made a shift to hooker, causing more instability across key positions. Together, they can be a potent attacking unit, but they've struggled to produce their best on a week-to-week basis since linking up. Another full pre-season together, and hopefully the off-field affairs sorted, should give the quartet few excuses entering the new season. While they obviously don't possess the same quality, the Knights need look no further than the Roosters for a blueprint on how to combine. The two spines have players with similar styles and attributes in each position, despite an obvious class difference. If the Knights can emulate the fast-paced configuration of the Roosters big four it can hopefully rectify their form lapses, which will go a long way to a much-needed finals berth in 2020.
Can Dean Pay find a way to spark Canterbury's lacklustre attack?
Despite a late season resurgence to finish 12th, the Bulldogs ended the season comfortably boasting the poorest attacking record in the league. It's hard to blame any individual due to the club's well noted salary cap mess, but it's again a concern in 2020. Kieran Foran's body continues to fail him, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak isn't regarded as a creative fullback, and hooking recruit Sione Katoa won't bring the spark they need to trouble the scorers. The squad are inspired under Dean Pay, their defensive structures are admirable, but points are again an issue. The focus of Pay's pre-season will likely be offence, but whether they have the calibre of player to trouble the NRL's most resilient defences remains a serious question. Perhaps a fully fit Foran was to be the only solution, but his body seems to be hanging by a thread after another serious shoulder injury while playing for New Zealand.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
What is the club's best spine combination?
Outside of Roger Tuivava-Sheck, the Warriors spine in 2019 was in a constant state of instability. They began the year trying to determine their best halves combination, but failed to settle on a partner for Blake Green. Adam Keighran, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Kodi Nikorima all failed at different stages to lock down the role that was primarily filled by the Brisbane recruit. The now departed Issac Luke won't be available at hooker leaving the spine make-up again shrouded in mystery. Green played an underwhelming season but will be the seven in round one, while Nikorima is likely to be his partner. Harris-Tevita is again the wildcard and can force Stephen Kearney's hand for a starting role with a big pre-season. The loss of Luke isn't too detrimental, but selecting the right man to replace him will be tough. As per late 2019, Jazz Tevaga could switch from lock to hooker, while Karl Lawton and Nathaniel Roache have both impressed in limited opportunity. While they have depth in each position, nailing the combination early is critical.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
Can the expected arrival of Valentine Holmes turn the Cowboys into a premiership contender?
Valentine Holmes possesses the speed and attacking prowess to at least get the Cowboys edging back into the premiership conversation. Prior to his NFL departure he developed his ball-playing at rapid speed upon making a permanent move to fullback for Cronulla. Scott Drinkwater was an astute pick-up late last season, so it'll be interesting to see how Paul Green injects him should Holmes arrive. It isn't expected Holmes would find his form from the end of 2018 immediately, but in the prime of his career and having missed just a season out of the game it shouldn't be far away. He won't be the Cowboys' saviour, but the fact they've kept hefty cap space available for him despite his previous ongoing commitment to the NFL shows how badly they believe they need his unique attributes. Add in Esan Marsters and the side have the strike out wide they've desperately sought for a number of seasons.
ST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Will Paul McGregor still be the Dragons coach at the end of the season?
Despite the loss of star playmaker Gareth Widdop, the Dragons still boast a roster capable of shaking the competition. 2019 was a disastrous season for the Red V, and few people have been able to pinpoint exactly why. The club themselves have used the Jack de Belin saga as an excuse, but that seems a case of scapegoating rather than finding a genuine fault. While perhaps a tad tough, when on the surface everything on field appears reasonably okay, the finger generally has to be pointed at the coach. If the Dragons start slowly it'll again be Paul McGregor's head on the chopping block, except this time it's hard to see him getting 'the full support of the board'.
GOLD COAST TITANS
Can Justin Holbrook convert his English success to the embattled Titans?
Admirably, Justin Holbrook is giving up the crown of English rugby league to resurrect the jesters of the NRL. It'll be an immense change of scenery for the new Titans coach who comes to the NRL with a stellar resumé from his time in the Super League. While albeit a touch weaker than many NRL rivals, the Gold Coast roster should at very least be competitive week-to-week. Holbrook's first job in charge will be to take a leaf from Dean Pay's book in inspiring his squad to play for him. The majority of players within the squad have at one point or another appeared to have an attitude not equipped for professional athletes. With the help of Mal Meninga, Holbrook needs to adjust the club's culture to enable the progress of the onfield success. It's a fairly daunting task ahead for a first time NRL coach, so hopefully the public gives him time to work his magic.