On the flipside, Manly’s one-point win over the Roosters was as hard-fought as ever, as was the Broncos’ 22-18 win over the Rabbitohs.
What I’m getting at is, some games will be kind of normal, but we will see far more blow-outs than we would normally expect as concentration wanes. Particularly as the season wears on.
I also think lower-ranked clubs will be gapped by better teams. When their seasons are gone, what will motivate the Titans, the Bulldogs and the Warriors?
St George Illawarra, too, for that matter. How can they get revved up if they quickly fall out of it? The coach is under pressure, star forward Tyson Frizell is leaving. They can’t do it for the fans when they can’t see them. They might tell themselves they’re doing it for them, but when things are going bad in an empty stadium, where will the resilience come from?
Which is why mental toughness will reign this year. Week in, week out. In games and at training. Who’s up for it?
Away from training and playing, living a weird life in lockdown won’t be easy to deal with – especially if society is getting back to normal, but the life of a player is not.
Players rely on support networks away from football. They talk of “switching off” and “needing relief” from the pressure. This year, there will only be pressure – pressure from your under-pressure coach, pressure to not stuff-up the NRL’s lockdown laws, pressure to train and play, pressure to stay home, pressure from family and friends to see you. This will be very real.
Many players won’t have the motivation levels of their coaches. That’s a fact. Coaches will be as driven as ever, but some players won’t be quite on the same page.
Some will struggle for motivation before games. Maybe in the first few rounds back they won’t, but after that they will. There are 18 more rounds before finals after all. If all are played with no crowds, it’ll get stale pretty quick when you’re 15th on the ladder.
Some will battle through games – the mind will wander. That happened to the Wests Tigers and the Titans in round two. You could see both sides weren’t switched on as their respective games got away from them.
Mental toughness will reign this year. Week in, week out. In games and at training. Who’s up for it?
Look for the experienced coaches to quickly grasp the enormity of the mental challenge. The Roosters are in a hole with no wins, but Trent Robinson is a master of the mind. He’ll have plans in place to unlock his players’ brains. As will Wayne Bennett, Des Hasler, Ricky Stuart and Craig Bellamy.
Anthony Seibold’s Broncos hit the ground running with two wins, but will he have the right stuff to keep Darius Boyd focussed and his wayward crop of supremely-talented young guns on point? One-in, all-in.
What of Michael Maguire’s famous intensity? Can he marry that with techniques to keep the players up in these weird times? Maybe his relentless intensity will carry the day.
Will Ivan Cleary’s seemingly relaxed attitude work wonders right now?
What of new coaches Adam O’Brien (Knights) and Justin Holbrook (Titans)? What will they draw on if the season starts going pear-shaped?
One of the great things about this season is, all going well, it won’t be interrupted by State of Origin. It’ll be week-in, week-out for 18 weeks until we hit the finals. Players will not be able to target the mid-year bye for a breather, as they have all done for years. We won’t have that strange six-week period of patched up teams.
This all adds up to make this year’s premiers as deserving as any in the past. It won’t be, and should never be, classified as an “asterisk” premiership.
The premiers will have dealt with more hurdles than any winner in the past.
Neil Breen is a sports reporter on the Sydney News Team for 9News Australia