Report Card: Grading All 16 NRL Club's Seasons
The 2021 NRL season is in the books and sights are already set on 2022. But first, we're looking back on what the Stats Insider Futures model laid out to start the year and handing out grades for all 16 teams.
Note that not every A, B or C is created equal. An A for one team may have been a C for another depending on the expectations set for them before Round 1 and the results that followed.
2021 NRL Grades:
Win Grand Final: 0.7%
Minor Premiers: 0.2%
Make Top 4: 2.8%
Make Top 8: 14.3%
2021 Results: 14th - 7W, 17L, -249PD
The Brisbane Broncos improved more than their record suggests.
While there was talk about this group under Kevin Walters being worse than it was throughout the Anthony Seibold era earlier in the year, there is a sense of hope and optimism around the club heading into 2022.
The Broncos finished the season well after casting aside some of the deadwood. While some of that 'deadwood' was of premium quality, it didn't fit in with what Walters wanted to achieve. Instead, a new group has been ushered in: Selwyn Cobbo, Herbie Farnworth, Tom Flegler, Payne Haas, Kobe Hetherington, Tesi Niu, Jordan Riki and Kotoni Staggs are the future. Keenan Palasia, Brendan Piakura, TC Robati and Xavier Willison are also waiting in the wings and approaching regular first-grade appearances.
Walters eventually made the necessary adjustments in the middle of the field for the Broncos to win three of their last seven games. Their losses had come at an average of 25 points per game up to Round 17. The four matches lost to finish the year came by six, eight, one and eight points (ave 5.75). It all started in the middle and with a focus on speed and mobility. It's where the focus needs to be heading into 2022 if the Broncos are to provide Adam Reynolds with the sort of dominance through the middle he can play behind.
Set with the goal of improving the general feel around the club and improving on-field performance, the Broncos earned a pass mark for the year.
Win Grand Final: 7.7%
Minor Premiers: 7.4%
Make Top 4:
Make Top 8: 70%
2021 Results: 10th - 10W, 14L, -97PD
The Canberra Raiders kicked off the 2021 NRL season as the fifth team on the list.
While the Panthers, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Storm stood out as the top four premiership contenders, the Raiders separated themselves from the Eels, Titans, Knights and Sea Eagles as the best of the rest.
In the end, the Raiders spent just eight weeks inside the Top 8 and never more than one week at a time after Round 5. Tipped as minor premiership smokies given the consistency of prior seasons and the cohesion of a playing group that remained largely intact, the side that backed up their 2019 Grand Final appearance with another Preliminary Final in 2020 was nowhere to be seen.
Cohesion is always underrated in rugby league. Perhaps that is because it is difficult to measure and predict? After all, no model could tip the falling out between the club and George Williams which resulted in the Englishman leaving the club mid-year.
Losing Williams is a big part of Canberra's disappointing season, but it's not the only reason they fell short of expectations. Their one-dimensional attack averaged just 20 points per game. A lot of that came down to the one-dimensional Jack Wighton failing to add a different element to his game from the season before. With the attack struggling to score and the middle managing just 1,590 running metres per game (11th) the Raiders gave up 52.4% possession every week. In a competition that was built upon pressure and possessions, the Green Machine didn't give themselves a chance too many times this season.
With high expectations and a side that should have produced a lot more regardless of personnel and injury issues, the Raiders disappointed more than any other team this season.
Win Grand Final: 0.7%
Minor Premiers: 0.2%
Make Top 4: 3.6%
Make Top 8: 16.9%
2021 Results: Wooden Spoon - 3W, 21L, -370PD
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs never for a second looked like a Top 8 contender and it only took a month to cut their 16.9% down to 1.3%.
"The first month of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 2021 season is one of the worst months of football we've seen from any side in recent memory." - Your Team's Chances Of Winning The Premiership (After Round 5)
Kyle Flanagan's high-profile signing translated into three weeks without a try as Canterbury's 1,394 running metres per game saw them play on the back foot every week.
The Bulldogs didn't display a lot of improvement throughout the year. Their usual fight and ability to turn up with the intention of pushing the opposition every week produced three wins and some better performances later in the year, but ultimately, their 16th-ranked attack (14.2 points per game) offered little across 25 rounds while the 14th-ranked defence (29.6 points conceded per game) cracked too often.
There is a world where the Bulldogs could finish 16th but display positive signs of growth and improvement. However, that didn't happen in Trent Barrett's first year in charge. He is welcoming some top tier talent in 2022 but hasn't given them anything to build on.
Win Grand Final: 1.8%
Minor Premiers: 0.9%
Make Top 4: 9.0%
Make Top 8: 32.4%
2021 Results: 9th - 10W, 14L, -36PD
Just as they did in 2020, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks started the season poorly. They won just one of their first five matches before sneaking into the Top 8 in 2020. A year later and two wins across their opening ten matches proved too much of a hurdle, falling short of finals footy after losing to the Storm in Round 25.
The slow starts are a concern. However, to be in contention for finals football so late in the season despite a regular turnover in players and staff is something the Sharks can celebrate. That resilience and ability to bounce back is something incoming coach Craig Fitzgibbon can build on in 2022.
The Sharks played some shockers throughout the year: 18-12 loss to the Bulldogs, 48-0 loss to the Panthers, 26-18 loss to the Broncos, 18-16 loss to the Warriors. But amongst the head-scratching performances came those that kept the hopes of finals football alive: Four wins in a row between Round 11 and 15, 44-24 win over the Bulldogs, 50-20 win over the Tigers.
Will Kennedy has become one of the most reliable performers in the NRL. Blakye Brailey provides them with consistency at dummy half while Fitzgibbon sorts through Nicho Hynes, Braydon Trindall, Connor Tracey and Luke Metcalf in the halves next season.
The forward pack, while limited in the skills department, is hardworking and managed 1,674 running metres per game (6th) despite the inconsistent results overall.
To have been a mathematical chance of making the Top 8 so late in the season is a considerable achievement and lays a platform for an improved 2022.
Gold Coast Titans
Win Grand Final: 3.4%
Minor Premiers: 2.3%
Make Top 4: 16.7%
Make Top 8: 47.2%
2021 Results: 8th (Week 1 Finals loss) - 10W, 14L, -3PD
In a season that saw three ten-win teams in contention for a Finals spot, the individual talent and game-winning ability of the Gold Coast Titans got them over the line.
Plenty has been made of David Fifita's paycheck and the frequency at which he checks in and out of games, but he has already dragged the Titans into a Top 8 spot they would otherwise have missed had he not been signed.
The Titans became too reliant on Fifita at times. Their attack could be defined as 'give it to David and see what happens' more often than not. However, when you have the NRL's leader in tackle breaks (155) who scored a club-record 17 tries this season, you can get away with feeding the beast and hoping for the best.
Blowing leads or allowing the opposition to ride waves of momentum is an issue that needs to be addressed over the summer. Their willingness to move the ball proved successful at times but came at the expense of compressing and tiring the opposition middle defence which may explain some of the poor periods throughout the year. Finding a balance between moving the ball and getting more yardage from the middle forwards will be key in 2022. The pieces are there, though. Jarrod Wallace, in particular, added some variation to his game this year.
Justin Holbrook will need to explore different ways the Titans can attack in 2022, but overall, they achieved what they set out to do and ended the finals drought.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Win Grand Final: 3.1%
Minor Premiers: 2.2%
Make Top 4: 16.2%
Make Top 8: 46.5%
2021 Results: 4th (Preliminary Final loss) - 16W, 8L, +252PD
The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles rollercoaster started with the worst opening four weeks in the club's history before scoring a club-record 744 points on their way to a Preliminary Final.
It's a season that will be remembered as 'The Tom Trbojevic Season' for years to come. The 25-year-old proved the difference to win the Dally M Medal through 28 tries, 28 try assists, 33 line breaks, 124 tackle breaks and a whopping 209 running metres per game.
Manly's reliance on Trbojevic became more evident in the finals as the Storm and Rabbitohs found ways to minimise his impact. However, the emergence of Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau'atu, Jason Saab, Morgan Harper and Sean Keppie along with proven performers in Jake Trbojevic, Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran give Des Hasler pieces to work with moving forward.
The Sea Eagles managed to fall grossly short of expectations to start the year before finishing better than anybody expected. Their development in 2021 will put them firmly in the premiership conversation for 2022.
Win Grand Final: 16.7%
Minor Premiers: 18.2%
Make Top 4: 58.0%
Make Top 8: 86.3%
2021 Results: 1st (Preliminary Final loss) - 21W, 3L, +499PD
The Melbourne Storm produced one of the best regular seasons in NRL history.
Their attack scored an NRL-high 33.1 points per game as Jahrome Hughes cemented himself as one of the best halfbacks in the game, Brandon Smith took his opportunity with the #9 on his back, Ryan Papenhuyzen played himself into State of Origin contention and Nicho Hynes earned himself a career-defining payday.
Only the Panthers performed better defensively. Conceding just 13 points per game, the Storm produced the 12th-best defence in the NRL era despite a regular turnover of players throughout the year.
But in un-Storm-like fashion, Craig Bellamy's side saved their worst for last. Their 10-6 loss to the Panthers in the Preliminary Final is still a shock to think about. As well as Penrith played, to see the Storm make 16 errors and struggle to compose themselves highlighted what they lost with the retirement of Cameron Smith. Dominant and doing it easy across their 19-game winning streak, Melbourne didn't respond well enough to the pressure Penrith applied to them later in the season.
While an outstanding and entertaining season, it's also one Melbourne will learn from when they look back on what they could have done differently against Penrith.
Win Grand Final: 3.4%
Minor Premiers: 2.8%
Make Top 4: 19.2%
Make Top 8: 47.7%
2021 Results: 7th (Week 1 Finals loss) - 12W, 12L, -143PD
The 2021 Newcastle Knights ended up as one of the most difficult teams in the competition to assess.
They played finals football and did so while navigating lengthy periods without two of their best players while also incorporating a new halfback into the side halfway through the year - sounds good.
They also scored just 17.9 points per game (15th), conceded 24 points per game (8th) and finished with a -143 points differential which is the second-worst of any finals side in the NRL era. The only team with a worse differential is the 2002 Raiders who only played finals football due to the Bulldogs being stripped of competition points - not so good.
How the Knights structure their attack will be a summer-long talking point. Only the lowly Bulldogs scored fewer points per game with Newcastle's poor efficiency inside the opposition 20-metre line of particular concern.
Kalyn Ponga still dominates down the left edge where the Knights scored 51% of their tries. Although, there was a clear plan to explore down the right side more often this season. That may explain some of their struggles with the ball along with the rotation of players through the spine.
The true impact of this strange yet possibly valuable season of struggle won't be felt until 2022. In the meantime, making back-to-back finals appearances after kicking off on the fringes at 47.7% is a notable achievement regardless of the finer details on how they got there.
North Queensland Cowboys
Win Grand Final: 1.9%
Minor Premiers: 1.0%
Make Top 4: 10.6%
Make Top 8: 36.4%
2021 Results: 15th - 7W, 17L, -288PD
The North Queensland Cowboys sat relatively pretty at 7th on the NRL ladder after Round 14. Having not played particularly well up to that point, they had an opportunity to his their straps and cement a spot inside the Top 8. Instead, Todd Payten's side proceeded to lose ten consecutive games and 11 of their last 12 to finish a disappointing 15th on the ladder.
Every team has their injury struggles at some point. The increased fatigue in the game has only made it more of an issue across the competition. However, injuries don't begin to justify a defence that leaked 31.2 points per game.
Even in matches Jason Taumalolo, Scott Drinkwater, Valentine Holmes and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow could link up to score points, North Queensland rarely did enough defensively to earn the competition points. Of the seven games the Cowboys won in 2021, they allowed the opposition to score 20+ points in five of them. The only victories that came on the back of a half-decent defence came against the Broncos (14th on the ladder) and Bulldogs (16th).
Mix in the strange use of Taumalolo and there aren't too many positives to carry out of this season for the Cowboys. Payten has a lot of work to do.
Win Grand Final: 5%
Minor Premiers: 3.9%
Make Top 4: 22.8%
Make Top 8: 55.7%
2021 Results: 6th (Week 2 loss) - 15W, 9L, +109PD
If you'd said the Parramatta Eels would end their season with a Week 2 Finals loss for the third consecutive year (and fourth in five years) before Round 1, the assumption was that Brad Arthur would be out of the job and the club on the hunt for a new head coach. Instead, Arthur has signed an extension with the club signalling their belief that he is the man to take them to the next level.
Whether or not that proves to be the right move remains to be seen, but Parramatta's end to the 2021 season feels different to the rest. Their Round 24 win over the Storm is one of their best performances in years and highlighted what they can do when playing their best: Crash the middle (3rd in running metres), win the possession battle (3rd in possession %) and defend well (4th in defence). They took that game plan into the finals to beat the Knights in Week 1 before falling to the eventual premiers 8-6 in Week 2.
Following an inconsistent, albeit relatively successful two seasons, the Eels uncovered their blueprint for success in 2021.
Win Grand Final: 17.7%
Minor Premiers: 20.5%
Make Top 4: 61.8%
Make Top 8: 87.8%
2021 Results: 2nd (Premiers) - 21W, 3L, +390
The Penrith Panthers flew out of the blocks and looked as though they would never lose again while winning their first 12 games of the season. It wasn't much of a surprise nor a cause for concern to see them struggle through the State of Origin period and through a stretch without Nathan Cleary. However, their defeat to the Rabbitohs in Week 1 of the finals followed by a closer-than-expected win over the Eels in Week 2 had most writing them off against the Storm in Week 3.
Oh, how wrong we were...
The Panthers dominated possession all year to average 52.2% per game (4th). Their 1,805 running metres (1st) and 2.2 forced dropouts (1st) translated into 31.5 tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game (1st). Playing with the second-best defence in NRL history conceding just 11.6 points per game, Penrith could afford to be patient with the ball knowing they wouldn't need much to finish on top. It's what allowed them to beat the Storm in the Preliminary Finals and proved to be the winning formula as they suffocated the Rabbitohs to win the Grand Final.
Among the favourites to win the premiership at 17.7% before the season kicked off, it didn't quite go as planned. They don't draw pictures on the Provan-Summons Trophy though.
"2021 Penrith Panthers"
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Win Grand Final: 17.7%
Minor Premiers: 18.1%
Make Top 4: 58.9%
Make Top 8: 86.6%
2021 Results: 3rd (Grand Finalists) - 20W, 4L, +322PD
The South Sydney Rabbitohs' season will be remembered for what it could have been rather than what it was following their Grand Final defeat.
Slow to start the season, the Rabbitohs eventually caught fire to win ten games in a row with all but one won by more than 13 points. They averaged an outrageous 38.1 points per game as Cody Walker amassed 33 try assists for the season with Alex Johnston the main beneficiary for his NRL-high 30 tries. Having conceded 50+ twice across the opening 11 rounds, the Rabbitohs gave up only 14.2 points per game up to the Grand Final.
That mid-season version of the Rabbitohs looked like genuine premiership contenders.
Then Latrell Mitchell's shoulder connected with Joey Manu's face and it all changed.
Given what we know now and the struggles in which the Rabbitohs faced getting out of their own end but the ease they scored once finally getting up the field in the Grand Final, it's not difficult to imagine Mitchell being the difference on the day. Now they're losing two Queensland State of Origin reps and one of the best #7's in the game for next season.
Whether or not this was South Sydney's best chance to win or they find a way to make up for the departing players in 2022, their 2021 season deserved to last through to Grand Final Day where they came within one or two plays of lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy.
St. George-Illawarra Dragons
Win Grand Final: 0.8%
Minor Premiers: 0.5%
Make Top 4: 5.5%
Make Top 8: 22.0%
2021 Results: 11th - 8W, 16L, -142PD
The St. George-Illawarra Dragons surprised everybody to be 5-4 after Round 9. A popular pick for the wooden spoon and just a 22% chance of playing finals football, Anthony Griffin's side spent 18 of the first 20 rounds inside the Top 8.
They never looked entirely comfortable, though. With or without BBQ Gate, the Dragons weren't a finals quality side. They averaged just 19.8 points per game (11th) while conceding 25.7 points per game (11th). In yardage - another typical indicator of a Top 8 side - the Dragons finished up at 15th with 1,539 running metres per game.
It's unfair to call the start of the season a fluke - you can only beat what is in front of you. For the most part, the teams around them on the ladder didn't beat those in front of them which extended the Red V's time in the Top 8. Overall, the lack of quality in the side came through as the Dragons lost their last eight games of the season to finish 11th.
The Dragons overachieved to start the season, but their disrupted end evened out their 2021. Still, it's fair to say the Dragons exceeded expectations. They may face similar expectations to start 2022, though.
Win Grand Final: 17.2%
Minor Premiers: 19.9%
Make Top 4: 59.5%
Make Top 8: 86.9%
2021 Results: 5th (Week 2 loss) - 16W, 8L, +141PD
The Sydney Roosters kicked the season off as premiership contenders and you could see why despite their 6th-place finish and heavy defeat to the Sea Eagles in Week 2 of the finals.
To lose two captains to retirement, their key playmaker, an Origin prop, a winger who scored 11 tries in seven games along with a mind-boggling number of in-game and medium-term injuries throughout the year and still compete through to the second week of September is an incredible achievement.
Most impressive in defence, the Roosters conceded 21.3 points per game (6th). Cohesion is crucial to defence. Knowing the player inside you and being able to premeditate and react to their movements is the difference between a good and bad defence.
The Roosters used 34 players throughout the year. The only teams to use more: Warriors (12th), Broncos (14th) and Bulldogs (16th). Most teams can't cope with the turnover in players let alone have depth players step up and make an impact. Fletcher Baker, Egan Butcher, Drew Hutchison, Adam Keighran, Ben Marschke, Daniel Suluka-Fifita, Ben Thomas and Naufau Whyte stood up throughout the year to fill the void while James Tedesco, Joseph Manu and Sam Walker put the team on their back.
Craig Bellamy ended up winning Coach of the Year but there is a strong argument that Trent Robinson should have pinched it.
It may not feel like it now, but 2021 has the potential to be a crucial part of Sydney's next premiership.
New Zealand Warriors
Win Grand Final: 1.8%
Minor Premiers: 1.3%
Make Top 4: 11.8%
Make Top 8: 38.1%
2021 Results: 12th - 8W, 16L, -171PD
The New Zealand Warriors were involved in an NRL-high 13 'close games' in 2021. NRL.com considers a close game to be one decided by 0-6 points.
Of those 13 games, the Warriors won just six of them. Their seven losses in close matches, while not expected to win all of them, defined their season.
Some of that comes down to inexperience. Some can be put down to injury. However, both play a part in the major issue that plagued the Kiwi clubs season: A lack of cohesion.
Whether it was a key player missing time to injury or the best fullback in the club's history being shifted to the wing to accommodate an 18-year-old, Nathan Brown didn't make many attempts to build cohesion in the side when he could and it cost them dearly.
Their attack without Chanel Harris-Tavita should be all the club needs to see to justify an early extension. Shaun Johnson will only be able to do so much if the backline outside him doesn't start to develop some consistency.
The Warriors middle showed promise at times but injuries to Addin Fonua-Blake and near-weekly suspensions for Matt Lodge after his arrival kept a lid on the development and, again, cohesion.
Only the Broncos and Bulldogs used more players than the Warriors' 35 throughout the year and it translated into a defence that leaked 26 points per game. When your attack is already inconsistent and only averaging 18.9 points per game at the best of times, a flimsy defence proves even more costly.
There is too much talent in this side to barely threaten the Top 8 after kicking off the season at 38.1% to play finals footy. Mishandled throughout 2021, Brown needs to identify his best 17 early into 2022 if this side is to compete.
Win Grand Final: 0.9%
Minor Premiers: 0.5%
Make Top 4: 6.9%
Make Top 8: 25.3%
2021 Results: 13th - 8W, 16L, -214PD
Optimism is a drug the Wests Tigers faithful are all too familiar with and it peaks in the weeks leading up to Round 1. It was no different this year, then the footy started.
One win across the first seven rounds all but ended hope of ending the finals drought then and there.
Michael Maguire tinkered with his side to varying levels of success. He foolishly moved Adam Doueihi from five-eighth out to the centres for six weeks. Stefano Utoikamanu, on the other hand, developed into an exceptional young prop and blossomed after Maguire installed him in the starting line up from Round 18 onwards.
There are positives scattered throughout the year. Perhaps it's those positives that Maguire highlighted during the meeting that saved his job. One issue he can't escape is the Tigers defence.
"Defence" is used loosely here because that would imply it was something the players considered when running onto the field. Their energy in attack didn't translate into an active defence in the slightest as the Tigers conceded 29.8 points per game and some of the softest tries you'll ever see.
Neither the players or coach are blameless for yet another disappointing Tigers season. Both played their part in a frustrating 25 rounds. Still, a new year and new signings will bring with it a new wave of optimism to start 2022 and the 2021 campaign will be another pushed to the back of the memory bank.
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