Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game. This week they look at the 2020 NRL season's most disappointing team, the most surprising team and the new experimental rule changes.
Which team was the biggest disappointment of 2020?
Darren: I think both the Bulldogs and Dragons would have been major disappointments for their fans. Both teams failed to improve in any facet of the game, both clubs blamed the head coach, sacking Dean Pay and Paul McGregor respectively mid-season, only for the same players to continue struggling right till the very end. The Bulldogs finished off their 2019 season strongly, giving coach Pay and his players a reprieve amid fan expectations of a return to the finals in 2020. It was pretty clear from the first game of 2020, and early in the season resumption that those fans would be left disappointed again. Of course, the Dragons and Bulldogs only finished above the Titans in 2019, while the Broncos finished in the Top 8. Their disgraceful tumble down the ladder really started with the 58-0 thrashing by the Eels that saw them crash out of the 2019 finals. They won their first two games of 2020, but something went badly amiss during the coronavirus break. They sacked coach Anthony Seibold and still the players seemed to show a complete lack of interest in competing. They take this trophy with both hands, it will no doubt take pride of place next to their first ever wooden spoon.
Christian: There are certainly a few teams that entered the 2020 season with big expectations and simply failed to live up to them. Wests Tigers for example, have been left brokenhearted after finishing ninth in both 2019 and 2018, and will struggle to even reach those heights in 2020. Coach Michael Maguire's second year in charge raised top eight aspirations, yet the team has somehow managed to regress in 2020. After finishing sixth last year and emerging as a dark horse for the premiership midway through 2020, fans were excited about the Sea Eagles under Des Hasler. It is true that they have been hampered by injury at times, but to possibly finish as low as 14th won't go down well in Manly. However, there is no doubt that the once great Brisbane Broncos deserve the title of 'biggest disappointment' after an absolutely diabolical season. They limped into the top eight the last two years but fell off a cliff in 2020, with a clueless coaching staff and an indifferent playing group leading the club to its first wooden spoon.
Which team was the biggest surprise of 2020?
Darren: I'm going out on a limb in selecting the Roosters for this one. After winning their second-straight premiership last season, halfback Cooper Cronk retired and star centre Latrell Mitchell departed for the Rabbitohs. Never mind, up stepped Kyle Flanagan who now leads the competition for points scored and a wily old centre by the name of Josh Morris who is having one of his finest seasons in the game. Fans of other teams would have been hoping for a reprieve from the Roosters' onslaught and it has surprised many that they look to be just about unstoppable yet again this year. With Luke Keary playing brilliant football and James Tedesco continuing to be James Tedesco, they really should notch the first hat-trick of titles since Parramatta did it in the early 1980s. They still have to get past the Storm and Panthers, but if the Roosters do that they will have achieved something I didn't think was possible these days.
Christian: Again, there are a few candidates that are deserving of this award. Even though they won't make the top eight, I don't think anyone would begrudge the Warriors winning this title. After sacking coach Stephen Kearney early in the year, Todd Payten did an extraordinary job to bring together a highly competitive team of players separated from their families in another country. No one thought the Warriors were capable of this. It's a similar story for the Titans under Justin Holbrook, who look dangerous each week and currently reside in ninth despite comfortably finishing dead last in 2019. With some big signings next year, the Titans will finally be a side to watch out for. The Knights too have done well under new coach Adam O'Brien to finally elevate themselves into the top eight for the first time since 2013 after so many years of pain. And yet, it is impossible to not give this award to the Penrith Panthers, who have risen from ninth in 2019 to a minor premiership in 2020 while looking unbeatable at times. Ivan Cleary has done an incredible job with this team, bringing through a number of impressive rookies and elevating his son Nathan to Dally M favouritism.
What do you think of the new rule experiments?
Darren: No doubt buoyed by the perceived success of the 'six again' rule introduced this year, the NRL are determined to fine tune the game even further. I generally urge caution when fiddling around with a game which has been successful for so many years. You only have to look back as far as the 90s to watch games that almost appear to be a completely different sport. That has partly been due to the improvement in player preparation and coaching techniques, but also through the countless tweaks to the rules. It is open to debate as to whether we have a better product now than we did in the early 1990s. The latest changes to be trialled include reviewing every try, scrapping scrums for touch-finding kicks and banning backs from scrums. It makes sense to get ever try call correct, limiting the number of scrums in the game also makes sense, but I think the last of those three has the most merit. It was said that once the scrum stopped being a genuine contest for possession, its only real purpose was in removing all the trombones from the wood-wind section. Coaches started experimenting with big forwards charging onto the ball from the five-eighth position, with opposition coaches countering with forwards in the defensive line. Now with backs banned from the scrums, they have to make sure all the forwards remain attached for as long as possible, to let the backs have some room to move and create their magic.
Christian: In order to avoid further incorrect try decisions like the one that saw South Sydney's Jaxson Paulo incorrectly awarded a try after stepping into touch, the NRL will allow the bunker to review all tries until the ensuing conversion is attempted. I actually like this idea - not only will it ensure more correct decisions are made, but it will also avoid wasting any time unnecessarily. It will be interesting to see this rule change used in practice, as it could add or possibly detract from the drama and emotion among players and spectators when a decision is reversed. Elsewhere, the NRL looks to be interested in salvaging the scrum by ensuring only forwards can partake in it. This is another fun experiment that could see the return of true backline plays from the back of a scrum and make for some interesting strategic decision making in both attack and defense. In the case of kicks into touch, however, scrums will be replaced by a simple handover, which should save time and promote fatigue for defenders. Overall, I'm very excited by the potential of these rule changes, and if nothing else, it will give us all a reason to watch the meaningless games this week.