Why the 2020 NRL title race will be the toughest in history


It would prove to be an honesty test. How many players were able to stick to the disciplines and routines to maintain their strength and fitness over the past couple of months?

In this day and age, we’d expect a very high percentage of players to be quite diligent about their work. I expect most of them returned to training in excellent shape. It’s why I believe the coaches and players only required a couple of weeks of normal practice to get ready for competition football again.

Which brings us to a more important question: how many players didn’t do the right thing during the enforced lay-off? This could be the key to how your team resumes this weekend.

We will soon be able to identify the players who are off the pace.

The challenges don’t end there.

This season will be like no other. A revamped premiership draw means there will be less games, so those teams that got off to a bad start all those months ago are already significantly disadvantaged under the new schedule.

Roosters captain Boyd Cordner sat out the opening two rounds before the season was shut down.Credit:Getty

Remember, too, a team such as the defending premiers, the Roosters, took the odds to resting captain Boyd Cordner for the first couple of games, believing there would be plenty of time to round up the leaders over the next six months.

This season will also represent an arduous test of stamina, given we have 18 weeks of continuous football, uninterrupted by byes, split rounds and the State of Origin series.

By the time we get to the finals in October, many players will be carrying injuries on to the field just to keep their clubs competitive. No breaks and super-intense football every weekend, because the results will be so important in this shorter competition, will make this 2020 NRL premiership race an exhausting physical examination.

Already we’ve heard Brisbane coach Anthony Seibold float the idea of rotating his roster each week, presumably to share the workload across his top 30 players. By managing individual workloads, Seibold would hope to have his best possible side fresh, fit and ready for a finals assault come October.

Players and referees will have to cope with 18 weeks of continuous, intense football.

Players and referees will have to cope with 18 weeks of continuous, intense football.Credit:NRL Photos

In theory, this sounds like a very sensible and professional approach. However, a lot will depend on the results each weekend and how well they are placed on the ladder. First priority is to win enough games to get to the finals. If you are precariously placed on the ladder, it’s pretty hard to be rotating your team each weekend when you are in desperate search of a victory. You will want your best 17 out there on the field scratching for a result.

If the Broncos are able to get themselves into a strong position on the ladder over the next couple of months, the idea of them rotating their top squad becomes a very sensible one, indeed.

Another issue is that fringe players need to be playing football. It would be suicide to run with the same 17 players every weekend for 18 weeks. If injuries strike during the finals, you could find yourself stuck with players who have played very little football.

Loading

This is why it’s imperative the NRL organises a second-tier level of football right now, so that all players in the top 30 squads, plus their six young development contracted players, get to play competitive football every week to keep them match ready when called upon to play the NRL.

You can’t just play the NRL competition without having a competitive senior level of competition to support it.

Squad depth could be a huge advantage under the new competition schedule. Being able to rely on capable, young, talented players to come into the NRL and perform immediately will be a huge asset. This certainly plays into the hands of teams such as the Panthers, Raiders, Broncos and, to a lesser extent, perhaps the Sharks, who have all maintained terrific player development programs over the years.

Clubs without strong depth will suffer if injuries strike.

Not having the usual Origin interruption will also be significant.

Every year around representative football time, the club competition goes into something of a lull while elite players are otherwise engaged in Origin or Test football. This is a period where many young players make their NRL debut. Fringe players get more game time replacing their more high-profile teammates.

It’s non-stop, every week, stand-and-deliver club football from go to whoa. Only the strongest will survive.

The Origin period is also a time when teams towards the bottom of the ladder can win a few games against the leading teams, who are weakened by Origin representation. Every year we see one or two teams make a winning run during Origin, because they are closer to full strength than other clubs.

There will be no mid-season reprieve this year. It’s non-stop, every week, stand-and-deliver club football from go to whoa. Only the strongest will survive.

Now, add into this equation the fact several teams will not be playing on their home grounds. With teams grouped into competition “hubs”, playing out of selected venues, some teams get to enjoy familiar surroundings, while others will be constantly on the road.

Obviously, the New Zealand Warriors face the greatest challenge here. The sacrifices this club has made to keep the competition going should never be underestimated, nor forgotten.

Without crowds attending the matches, it will be interesting to see if home-ground advantage is maintained.

It will be a real test for those coaches and players constantly playing away from home in sterile environments without the normal atmosphere created by fans.

Back in my coaching days, I never wanted my team to be looking at home-and-away games as an advantage or disadvantage. In fact, we had a saying: “Anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

I wanted this to be a part of our character. You should be ready to walk into any environment, under any conditions and still perform well enough to get a win. Never feel comfortable simply because you’re playing at home. Never feel intimidated because you’re playing in a hostile environment.

The Raiders remain a strong chance of going one better than last season but the revised draw will challenge them.

The Raiders remain a strong chance of going one better than last season but the revised draw will challenge them.Credit:AAP

That’s the mentality a professional footballer should have, at all times.

Which of the teams will deliver under these circumstances in season 2020?

At the start of the year, I predicted the Raiders were the team to beat. After their grand final appearance last year and looking at the age and experience of their roster, I just felt this was Canberra’s chance to win a premiership since 1994.

I still think they are a great chance, however this task will be more difficult under the new schedule and venue system.

I tipped the Roosters to be their greatest challengers, in a repeat of last year’s decider. I must admit I’ve cooled on them a little.

In the opening two rounds it was obvious the losses of Cooper Cronk and Latrell Mitchell will not be easily overcome. While halfback Kyle Flanagan is an outstanding young talent with a bright future, it will be an amazing effort if he can steer the Roosters towards premiership glory at such a young age.

The recruitment of experienced centre Josh Morris from the Sharks is timely. Obviously, he can’t replace everything Mitchell provided, but he will at least ensure the Roosters don’t lose games down his side of the field.

Despite being 0-2, I’m confident the Roosters will play finals football. I’m just not sure we’re going to see a hat-trick of premiership wins.

Loading

The Panthers and Eels have tremendous appeal now that the competition has been adjusted. Both have favourable draws. Both teams will be in the finals. With the age of their rosters and the fact that both teams are on the rise, they could hit October with great momentum, enthusiasm and self-belief.

The Storm always have to be respected. Getting to play their home games in Melbourne is huge for them. I’m just not sure what depth they have underneath their top 18 or 20 players.

Outside of these teams, I see few realistic premiership contenders. I will be shocked if one of the above teams doesn’t win the competition.

Mind you, I have been shocked before.

Stay safe and healthy everyone.

The footy is back! Enjoy.

Most Viewed in Sport

Loading



Rugby

Related posts

Make a comment