In the ten years since 2010, the NRL Premiership has produced seven different title holders. The powers that be will tell you that this is evidence of the salary cap. Successful teams produce higher profile/salary players, which makes retaining stars difficult.
The periods that teams can retain their strongest squads and legitimately challenge for the title is commonly referred to as a Premiership window.
Of course, clubs such as the Roosters and the Storm seem to have been immune to roster weakening. With four grand final appearances apiece in the last decade, and three and two titles respectively, their windows seem permanently open.
Outside of those powerhouses, nine other clubs have featured in grand finals over the last ten years. Though windows have obviously extended to the majority of clubs over this period, within a single season there are typically only four to five genuine contenders.
In examining the strengths, weaknesses and coaches of each roster, I’ve determined the five clubs who I believe to be in that Premiership window for the 2020 season.
The tricolours are looking to become the first club to achieve a three-peat premiership since the mighty Eels teams of the early 80s. They’ve retained the core of their back to back team, so who’s to say a third title isn’t possible.
Team strengths are easy to spot – Tedesco, Keary, Friend, the pack. You get a strong platform, a near faultless defence, and the team is guided intelligently around the park.
It’s difficult to deny the credentials of Trent Robinson. With three titles from only seven years of top grade coaching, the runs are on the board. Though it can be claimed that he’s always had quality players at his disposal during those years, he undoubtedly understands what it takes to win a title.
There are still question marks hanging over the team. You can’t lose a halfback like Cooper Cronk and not be impacted. Flanagan seems promising, but he remains largely unproven. The departure of Mitchell removes firepower out wide but I can’t help but think that they already have someone in mind to add to the roster.
Like all teams, injuries will play a role. Without Cronk, this squad cannot afford to lose Keary or Tedesco for an extended period. If they stay healthy, the Roosters go very, very close. If they don’t, they won’t be there on the big day.
In the old days, they used to say that you had to lose a grand final to win one. It provided you with the experience and the hunger to take the next step. Impressively, the cries of being gypped in the 2019 grand final came from outside the Raiders camp rather than from within. To me, that demonstrated the maturity and resolve in the camp.
The team strength lies in their depth. Williams and Scott have been added to the grand final team. Outside of the top 17, they can call on the likes of Bateman, Collins, Havili, Oldfield, Sutton, Williams and Young.
Even though he’s previously won a title with the Roosters, the 2019 season was arguably Ricky Stuart’s career best coaching performance. He remained passionate yet found focus and composure when it was most needed. Undoubtedly, he knows that he has a serious football team on his hands.
The question mark over the Raiders might also be their strength. English recruit George Williams is an unknown quantity at NRL level, and that’s a big gamble to take with a halfback. That said, they’ve pulled the right rein with other Super League signings so the chances are that this bloke will be a success.
The Raiders aren’t just looking at a Premiership window, they’ve jimmied it open and have one leg hanging through it. Their roster runs deep enough to withstand the injuries that typify most seasons, and it’s difficult to see them finishing outside of the top four. I’ll list them as title favourites.
Unquestionably one of the yardstick teams for most of their history, you underestimate the Storm at your peril. Since 2011, Melbourne have finished outside of the top 4 just once. You don’t talk about windows with that club. They reside permanently in a glass house which is impervious to stones..
Like the Roosters, it’s easy to identify the strength of the Storm’s roster. Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster and a powerful pack. Throw in defensive structures and attacking shapes that have served them well for just on two decades, and stability is at the heart of their success.
Consistent results have cemented coach Craig Bellamy’s place in the upper echelon of rugby league coaches. His long term tenure with the Storm has been a symbiotic relationship. Now in his 18th season with the club, it took him ten years to win his first genuine premiership, but it’s difficult to imagine any other coach achieving the same results as Bellamy over that period.
Can we place question marks over the Storm’s depth? Nobody could replace what Cameron Smith brings to the team, but he’s another year older and the likes of Harry Grant or Brandon Smith could surely expect more game time. Melbourne’s backline could be their Achilles heel, with uncertainty around centre and halfback.
This could prove to be a challenging year for Bellamy. It feels like a rebuild season, and only their consistent history keeps the Storm listed as a Premiership window club. Just.
Since 1986, have the Eels commenced as genuine Premiership contenders in any season? In truth, probably only 2001. Forget 2009. The Eels should have won the title that year, but it would have been on the back of a freakish run of late season form, with Jarryd Hayne providing much of the momentum. Like the Tigers in 2005, success would have been an anomaly rather than something which was sustainable.
The Eels strength lies in its strike power. The backline is arguably one of the most potent in the premiership. A rookie winger can only become the leading try scorer if he’s a special talent and/or the players inside him are doing an outstanding job. The forwards have been strengthened with the addition of quality recruits – Campbell-Gillard and Matterson.
Coach Brad Arthur is entering his seventh season in charge of the Eels. He inherited a side which “earned” the spoon in consecutive seasons, and were it not for the points stripped in 2016, the team would have qualified for finals football for three of the six years. He’s earned a reputation as a player’s coach and the current squad is arguably the strongest of his tenure.
Based on 2019, there are doubts as to whether the Eels have the defence needed to win a title. They’ll need to find greater resilience when things don’t fall their way in matches, which is a matter of attitude more than individual ability.
Decent depth and versatility within the roster will help the Eels manage any injury challenges. Ryan Carr (full time) and Andrew Johns have strengthened the coaching staff from 2019. A top four finish should be the goal for a team with the talent to reach the grand final.
A Sea Eagle flying under the radar. Sounds cliched but it’s exactly what Manly did through the early part of 2019, but by the second half of the season pundits were tipping them as genuine contenders. A similar misjudgement won’t be made this season.
Though the stars of the team were undoubtedly DCE and the Turbo brothers, Manly’s strength last year was their capacity to perform without key players at different stages of their campaign. They were very unlucky not to progress to the grand final qualifier, even without Tom Trbojevic.
Prior to 2019, there were plenty (myself included) who had written off Des Hasler as a coaching has-been. I’ve been forced to change my tune. Perhaps there’s something to be said about being in charge of the club you’re passionate about – see also Stuart and Arthur. Whatever the reason, Dessie’s knows how to deliver a Premiership and his methods still appear to be relevant.
Identifying the Sea Eagles’ weakness is a no-brainer. The departure of Koroisau and the “no fault stand down” of Fainu has left a gaping hole in their dummy half stocks. Without the service of a quality number 9, there might be question marks about the effectiveness of powerhouses like Taupau and Fonua-Blake.
Even without a quality hooker, any side which boasts three current Origin stars, a premiership winning coach and a quality pack must be a chance of finishing in the top four. For that reason they remain inside that Premiership window.
There we have it. I expect this year’s grand finalists to be found in the aforementioned clubs.
Naturally, supporters of all clubs will begin the season full of optimism about their chances. And sometimes the stars align for opportunities to fall their way. Outside of roster strength and coaches, the draw, injuries, and luck can all be factors. That said, it’s rare that a club will come from the clouds to take the title.
Of course, it’s possible to validate the claims of other teams to feature ahead of some that I’ve named.
That’s the beauty of footy. Everyone has an opinion.
(credit to the NRL and the clubs for the images used)