Rarely has Brisbane faced a bigger off-season. After missing the finals the past two seasons, questions are being asked at Red Hill – about the coach, the players and the club at large. Here’s every club’s biggest issue leading into 2022.
As NRL teams return to the training paddock, it’s time to take a look at the burning issues that could make or break your club’s season in 2022.
Whether it’s a battle for a starting spot, a coach under pressure, questions relating to roster management, or how easily star recruits adapt to their new surroundings, these are the storylines that will dominate the coming summer.
Is Kevvie cut out to be an NRL coach?
Kevvie Walters won five premierships as a Broncos player so he knows exactly what it takes to be a winner. But there is no hiding from the fact that the jury is still out on whether he is going to make it as an NRL head coach. While he did a sound job cleaning up the mess after Anthony Seibold, the expectation for next year is that the Broncos should at the bare minimum make the top eight. That’s coming directly from Ben Ikin and it is totally reasonable given the talent already in this roster along with the addition of Adam Reynolds, Kurt Capewell and Ryan James to provide direction and leadership. An out-of-work Paul Green will also be watching on with interest.
Has more off-field trouble hijacked another Raiders pre-season?
With a pending court date and a possible NRL suspension hanging over Tom Starling’s head for alleged offensive and threatening behaviour, it will be a dangerous gamble if the Raiders go through with the anticipated trade with Wests Tigers for Josh Hodgson. Even if they pick up Jacob Liddle in return, Starling’s alleged actions have again put his team in a precarious position. It’s the last thing Ricky Stuart needed after the disruptions of last year, and especially given Hodgson’s unfolding situation. The Raiders have another young gun dummy half in Adrian Trevilyan coming through but he is considered a good season of NSW Cup away from being NRL ready.
Will Trent Barrett meets Gus Gold’s expectations?
When Barrett came across from Penrith it was with a huge rap for the work he did as the Panthers’ attack coach. Unfortunately it just didn’t transition with the players he had to work with at the Bulldogs. But the injection of some of the game’s most lethal attacking talent in the shape of Matt Burton, Josh Addo-Carr, Brent Naden and Matt Dufty will mean there will be no excuses if the Dogs don’t fire in 2022. And Phil Gould has shown previously, with Ivan Cleary and Anthony Griffin, that he can have a trigger finger when results, or even the style of play, doesn’t meet his expectations.
Will Fitzy copy Craig Bellamy’s play book?
While the expectation is Cameron McInnes will play lock and Dale Finucane front row, it wouldn’t surprise me to see McInnes tag team with Blayke Brailey out of dummy half at some stage next season, just like Bellamy did with Brandon Smith and Harry Grant. I don’t buy the talk it won’t make a difference if Finucane plays prop or lock. He’s spent his life playing lock for a reason, just as McInnes has been a hooker. Regardless, I think Fitzy will make a great coach and the Sharks have squad to be a top four threat.
Is a four-game rookie playmaker really ready to drive Titans towards top four?
The Titans made a huge blunder making Ash Taylor their marquee man before he was ready and paying him a ridiculous salary. Now they have made another big call by handing Toby Sexton the keys to this team before his 21st birthday, and after only four NRL appearances. The exit of Jamal Fogarty as well as Taylor also leaves Justin Holbrook with an incredibly young and inexperienced spine that includes Jayden Campbell at fullback, AJ Brimson moving to five-eighth, and Erin Clark the starting dummy half with Storm recruit Aaron Booth off the bench . It sure looks exciting, but I can’t see them being a serious threat with such a lack of experience in key positions.
Can Turbo do it all again, or will he get some assistance?
How often do you see a player have a run of form like Tommy Trbojevic had in 2021 and then back it up the following season? Think Jarryd Hayne in 2009. Ben Barba in 2012. Johnathan Thurston was the last player to win back-to-back Dally Ms (in 2014-15), and before that it was Andrew Johns (1998-99). There is nothing to suggest Turbo can’t do what he did last year. But as Melbourne showed when it mattered most, if you can stop Turbo you can stop Manly. Surely that should be enough to get his teammates to take on more responsibility next season.
How do you fit in Grant and Smith?
There was mail after the season that Harry Grant was growing frustrated with his role as the back up to Brandon Smith. While there is talk Smith might move to lock next season following Dale Finucane’s exit, Nelson Asofa-Solomona is also pushing for that No.13 starting jumper. On form this year it would be a massive call to move Smith out of starting dummy half because that is where he is also best suited, but is that the best for Harry? Probably not.
Can Joey turn Ponga into the new Locky?
Mitchell Pearce’s exit is a tough blow, but the way the veteran playmaker finished the season you just knew his time in the NRL was up. And there might not be a better time for Adam O’Brien to make the call and shift Kalyn Ponga into the halves, just like Wayne Bennett did many years back with Darren Lockyer. I have no doubt if Ponga stays at fullback his best football will still be ahead of him. However, working with Andrew Johns as he transitions into the halves could be what takes the Knights to the next level, especially if they don’t find a better option to take Pearce’s place.
Will Taumalolo be allowed to return to his former role?
Todd Payten obviously had a plan when he set out to change the way Jason Taumalolo played but it backfired badly. Now the question going into the pre-season is whether Payten will persist with trying to turn Taumalolo into an edge forward, or swallow his pride and let Taumalolo go back to being a big minute middle who was arguably the most damaging forward the game has ever seen up until the point he had his power taken away. Either way, if Taumalolo is ineffective it doesn’t make the Cowboys a better team.
Will contract talks sink Eels’ chances of drought-breaking title?
If Reed Mahoney had been fit for the final series who knows how things would have panned out for Parra in that tough prelim final loss to Penrith. But hopefully Brad Arthur can bottle that belief he had his team playing with because if he can he will have a team capable of going all the way in 2022. Though the real issue could be how the club negotiates its way through these potentially dangerous contract talks that could easily disrupt team harmony, especially if certain players feel they are being treated with a lack of respect.
Has winning a premiership gone to the young Panthers’ heads?
Their post grand final celebrations went down like a lead balloon with the NRL hierarchy. Some say it was just a case of boys being boys, other see it as a sign of arrogance. Whatever you think, Ivan Cleary has to come up with a plan to make sure it doesn’t spill over into the pre-season. As we have seen with premiership winners in the past, even the most minor dip in attitude can be fatal. There will also be a huge focus on Nathan Cleary’s recovery from shoulder surgery as he pushes to be fit for the start of the season.
Can Demetriou defy the Bennett curse?
Not one coach that has ever followed in Wayne Bennett’s footsteps with immediate success. And losing Adam Reynolds only makes Jason Demetriou’s challenge even tougher. Throw in the fact the Rabbitohs have made the past four prelim finals (including this year’s grand final) and it wouldn’t shock me to see them drop a peg or two down the ladder in 2022. I expect to see Anthony Milford partner Cody Walker in the halves to start the season with Lachlan Ilias the long term replacement for Reynolds. I really think the Milford/Walker partnership could work, but I still struggle to see how it will be better than Reynolds/Walker.
Will Hook’s Moneyball recruitment strategy pay dividends?
Plenty of people seem to be lining up to see Anthony Griffin fail next season. But I actually think his bargain buying strategy to bring in seasoned forwards like Aaron Woods and George Burgess will make the Dragons a better team than they were this year. ‘Hook’ has put together a stacked pack of experience that is really going to encourage some strong competition. And when you throw in some of the most talented juniors coming through I think the books’ have got it completely wrong making the Dragons $51 rank outsiders to win the premiership.
How long for the Keyary/Walker combination to click?
Luke Keary turns 30 next year and is returning from an ACL knee injury, which is never easy. Factor in how much faster than game has got since he was sidelined and you start to get an understanding of the huge challenge ahead for him. But once he finds his rhythm, I just can’t wait to see how Keary teams up with young Sam Walker next season, with their speed, flair and ability to play eyes-up footy. Throw James Tedesco and Joey Manu into the mix and I reckon if there is a standout threat to Penrith going back-to-back then the Roosters are it.
Who becomes a face of Warriors without RTS?
First they lost Roger Tuivasa-Schck, now they’ve missed out on Joey Manu. What that does is throw a truck load of expectation onto Shaun Johnson’s shoulders as he returns to his former club on half the salary he was on previously, but probably with more responsibility than ever before. I get the feeling this could be another really tough season coming up for the Warriors who have been so brave for the past two years but still haven’t made the finals.
How will Sheens take to Madge’s style of coaching?
Tim Sheens is one of the great football brains of any era and he will responsible work out soon enough who is for the mess at the Tigers. Whether it be certain players, or Michael Maguire’s style of coaching, the administration that has been overseeing the club, no one will be pulling the wool over Sheens’ eyes. I reckon he’d probably know by now who needs to stay and go, but making those changes will be the trick. While the Tigers have been selling the message that everyone is all smiles now Sheens has arrived, I have no doubt there will be some nervous individuals heading into what is going to be a long hot summer.
Originally published as NRL 2022: The burning questions and roster facing every team this off-season