NRL 2021: Who has the Easiest/Hardest Start to the Season?

The NRL has pencilled in a full 25 rounds for this season. Assuming we get through this one without disruption, the Stats Insider model has dissected the draw to give us the Strength of Schedule for each team.

As mentioned this time 12 months ago, six of the eight clubs in the Top-8 after Round 5 in 2019 were still in there at the end of Round 25. The same scenario occurred between Round 5 and Round 20 last season too.

"It's only Round 3".

"It's still early."

We hear the same thing every year, but early-season struggles make for a difficult 25-round campaign. Those tipped to be on the fringes of the Top-8, in particular, need early wins in preparation for a poor patch later in the year.

A game in Round 2 is worth the same number of competition points as a game in Round 22. Here, we rank the overall difficulty of each club's full draw from hardest to easiest with a specific look at the first five rounds of the 2021 NRL season.

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Brisbane Broncos

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 2.8
Round 1-5: Eels, @ Titans, Bulldogs, @ Storm, @ Rabbitohs

Talk about a rough start for 2020's wooden spooners.

The Brisbane Broncos face three Top-8 teams across the first five rounds, as well as a Titans side who finished on a five-game winning streak and are widely tipped to play finals football this year.

Many anticipate an improvement for this group in 2021. There's no denying the talent within the squad, while Kevin Walters' influence over the side since taking over as head coach has been largely positive so far. He will need the influence to turn into an early win or two, though.

With the toughest schedule in the NRL, it won't get any easier for the Broncos after a difficult opening five rounds.

Parramatta Eels

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 1.3
Round 1-5: @ Broncos, Storm, Sharks, @ Tigers, Dragons, 

The NRL draw is a strange beast. Playing some teams twice, others once, one team twice in a month, no away trips to one ground or another for consecutive years are all part if it. It's strange, to say the least. Still, it tends to even itself out over the long run.

Awarded the easiest draw ahead of the 2020 season, the Parramatta Eels kick-off 2021 with the second-hardest in the competition.

With the wooden spooners in Round 1 and defending premiers in Round 2, we're going to get a good idea of where the Eels are at to start the year.

They started last season in hot form before falling away in the second half. It could be a similar story in 2021 with Parramatta's draw to end the year featuring the Storm (twice), Panthers (twice), Roosters, and Rabbitohs.

If early-season results are being explained away with "it's only Round x", the Eels will struggle to come close to repeating their 2020 ladder position.

Melbourne Storm

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.7
Round 1-5: Rabbitohs, @ Eels, @ Panthers, Broncos, @ Bulldogs

The Melbourne Storm haven't lost a Round 1 game since 2004. Craig Bellamy is the master of preseason preparation, and the Storm work hard to plant themselves in the top-four of the ladder as early as possible. They will need to if they're to pick up their usual early wins in 2021.

The Rabbitohs make for a difficult first-up challenge before playing away to the Eels and Panthers. While the Broncos and Bulldogs shouldn't be a problem for this Storm outfit, the Roosters and a second match against the Rabbitohs soon follow.

Cameron Smith's retirement and Harry Grant's injury add an interesting wrinkle to the start of Melbourne's season. Still, winning four of their first five looks the most likely scenario.

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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.6
Round 1-5: @ Knights, Panthers, @ Broncos, Rabbitohs, Storm

Welcome back to head-coaching in the NRL, Trent Barrett.

A visit to Suncorp Stadium, where they haven't won in their last six games, is the easiest fixture the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs face in the first five rounds.

To make matters worse, the Bulldogs are a combined 5 wins and 22 losses throughout the opening nine rounds of the last three seasons. Their second win of the 2020 season didn't come until Round 11.

The Bulldogs have a better team on paper this season. However, with a new coach, a turnover in faces in key positions and an especially difficult schedule to start, Canterbury's early-season struggles look set to continue for another year. 

Sydney Roosters

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.3
Round 1-5: Sea Eagles, @ Tigers, @ Rabbitohs, Warriors, Sharks

Broadcasters want blockbusters. As a result, the Sydney Roosters play the Panthers, Storm and Rabbitohs twice in 2021. They also have the fewest 7+ day turnarounds (12) of all 16 teams. It translates into one of the more difficult schedules in the NRL.

The Chooks do, however, face a relatively comfortable start to the season.

Facing the Rabbitohs at Stadium Australia is the Roosters toughest test. One they will be up for knowing it could determine a 5-0 start to the season.

Trent Robinson has a couple of different areas to work through. Primarily, nailing down his halves partner for Luke Keary. Lucky for him, he has been given three of the worst six defensive teams from last season (Sea Eagles, Tigers, Sharks) to run at in the first five rounds.

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St George Illawarra Dragons

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.3
Round 1-5: Sharks, @ Cowboys, Sea Eagles, @ Knights, @ Eels

The St. George Illawarra Dragons need all the help they can get in 2021. Their roster leaves a lot to be desired, and their chances of winning the wooden spoon have only increased based on their pre-season form. However, Anthony Griffin has been awarded a somewhat friendly draw early on.

Facing the Sharks without Johnson and Sea Eagles without Tom Trbojevic are wins. While the trip to North Queensland in Round 2 is a difficult prospect, the Dragons only leave Sydney once again (to Newcastle) until Round 10.

A quick scan of Top 8 predictions starting to flood social media suggests the Dragons are the team footy fans fear the least. A couple of surprise wins early on might change that general theme, though.

Wests Tigers

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.0
Round 1-5: @ Raiders, Roosters, @ Knights, Eels, Cowboys

The Strength of Schedule model has identified a balanced draw for the Wests Tigers in 2021. 

The problem: It doesn't start to balance out until later in the season.

Visits to Canberra and Newcastle while facing the Roosters and Eels at home makes for a tough opening month. Depending on Todd Payten's influence on the Cowboys, Round 5 may not be a breeze either. With the Rabbitohs to come in Round 6, there's a good chance the Tigers face an uphill climb into the Top 8 just six weeks into the new season. 

Hope will still remain, though. Penrith is the only 2020 Top 8 team on Wests draw following their Round 17 bye.

Canberra Raiders

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.1
Round 1-5: Tigers, @ Sharks, Warriors, @ Titans, @ Panthers

The Canberra Raiders have an excellent opportunity to pile up early wins in 2021. They should kickoff as favourites in Rounds 1-4 and have produced often enough in big games recently to be a good chance at tipping over the Panthers in Round 5.

The Panthers and Storm are most commonly talked about as probable Minor Premiers. The Rabbitohs and Roosters need to be considered there too. However, with a friendly draw to start the year and an appealing run of games while players are out on State of Origin duty, the Raiders are in a position to finish Round 25 at the top of the NRL ladder.

Gold Coast Titans

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.1
Round 1-5: @ Warriors, Broncos, @ Cowboys, Raiders, Knights

A new era for the Gold Coast Titans kicks off in 2021. Their five-game winning streak to finish last season looks as though it could extend to at least eight too. 

The Titans are likely to be favourites in each of their first three games to start this season. From there, they will spend much of the following five rounds at home with a trip to Mudgee along with a drive up the M1 their only games away from Cbus Super Stadium until Round 9.

They're the talk of the town at the moment. Adding Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and David Fifita to the 17 is enough for most people to consider the Titans a Top-8 team. Provided they make the most of their schedule to start the year, the Gold Coast's finals drought should come to an end.

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.4
Round 1-5: @ Dragons, Raiders, @ Eels, Cowboys, @ Roosters

The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks are without Shaun Johnson until at least Round 5, and possibly not until Round 8.

Given his influence on the attack last year to finish with an NRL-high 23 try assists, winning two games before he returns to play the Roosters in Round 5 could be considered a success. If the side can't pick up wins before his latest return in Round 8, Johnson and the Sharks then face the Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs in consecutive weeks.

We could be putting a line through the Sharks as a Top-8 team after 10 rounds if they don't start the year well.

Penrith Panthers

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.5
Round 1-5: Cowboys, @ Bulldogs, Storm, @ Sea Eagles, Raiders

The Penrith Panthers will feel relatively comfortable with their draw to start the season. With a target on their back following a Grand Final appearance in 2020, the Panthers play out a healthy balance of games they 'should' win along with two matches against the Storm and Raiders that will act as a measuring stick to their premiership aspirations.

The re-match against the Storm will be circled on calendars across Penrith. That match lands in between two expected wins against the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles. Depending on Tom Trbojevic's recovery from his latest hamstring injury, the Panthers may also have the added benefit of playing Manly without arguably their best player.

Penrith are primed to start the 2021 season well. It's not until the last six weeks when the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Eels all pop up on the schedule that they face a lengthy period of tough matches.

New Zealand Warriors

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.6
Round 1-5: Titans, Knights, @ Raiders, @ Roosters, Sea Eagles

First of all, it's worth noting that the New Zealand Warriors schedule difficulty rating is calculated under the assumption their home games will be played at Mt Smart Stadium from Round 5 onward. Unfortunately, that looks increasingly unlikely.

The Warriors will instead play their home games in Gosford. Playing eight games at their home away from home on the Central Coast last season, the Warriors split them for four wins and four losses. There is an avenue to claim a moral victory in at least two of those four losses, too.

Back-to-back 'home' games against middling teams on the 2020 ladder provide the Warriors with a handy start to the year. They'll want to pick up at least one early win with the Raiders and Roosters to come in the following fortnight.

It's shaping as another tough year for the Kiwi club. While they have the fifth-easiest schedule now, it will change slightly - for the worse - when they are inevitably forced to stay in Australia beyond Round 5.

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South Sydney Rabbitohs

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.6
Round 1-5: @ Storm, @ Sea Eagles, Roosters, Bulldogs, Broncos 

Despite playing the Panthers, Roosters and Storm twice each this season, the South Sydney Rabbitohs have the fourth-easiest schedule in the competition. They're already among the favourites to win the premiership, and with this, the Rabbitohs will surely be in the hunt for the Minor Premiership towards the back-end of the season.

Early on, a blockbuster against the Storm provides starved footy fans with the perfect platform to overreact to any result - win or lose. Should the Bunnies find themselves losing a second game in Round 3, the knives will be out and doubts cast over their premiership credentials. 

However, South Sydney's schedule through the Origin period against the Knights, Broncos, Tigers, Cowboys, Bulldogs, Warriors and Dragons presents as an opportunity to either a) make up for a slow start or; b) pullback enough wins to climb up towards the top of the ladder.

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -1.0
Round 1-5: Roosters, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Panthers, Warriors

For better or worse, Tom Trbojevic IS the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at the moment. They are a different team with him on the field, one that will challenge for the Top 8. Without him, they struggle to find enough points to win games.

His latest hamstring injury has come at a terrible time. With Trbojevic missing games against the Roosters, Rabbitohs and possibly the Panthers if there is any delay to his rehab, it's not difficult to imagine the Sea Eagles starting the season 0-4. They'd struggle to reel in the Top 8 from there, even with the third-easiest schedule.

North Queensland Cowboys

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -1.3
Round 1-5: @ Panthers, Dragons, Titans, @ Sharks, @ Tigers

The North Queensland Cowboys visit an excellent Panthers side in Round 1 but do enjoy a string of winnable games to start the year. It's an important time for the new head coach, Todd Payten.

With positions still to fill in the outside backs and an overhaul to their attacking structures, including a minutes-reduction for Jason Taumalolo, the Cowboys can't afford to drop too many games while searching for the winning formula. A favourable schedule early on provides Payten with the platform to try new things while also picking up wins if he can trigger an improvement to their 26 points conceded per game in 2020 (15th).

Newcastle Knights

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -1.4
Round 1-5: Bulldogs, @ Warriors, Tigers, Dragons, @ Titans

The Newcastle Knights dealt with several long-term injuries to key players in 2020 and still played finals football. Now, they've been given the easiest draw in the NRL.

By only facing the Rabbitohs, Panthers and Storm once, the Knights are avoiding up to three tough games they'd kick off as underdogs.

To start the year, each of their opponents throughout the first five rounds failed to make finals football. Extending the lens out to the Sharks in Round 6, each of Newcastle's first six opponents sit below them in the Stats Insider Futures Model's 'Make Top 8' percentages.

Like 2019 when a poor start to the season ended up costing the Knights a spot in the Top 8, the opening six rounds in 2021 are crucial to their finals chances.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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