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 which team will win the 2020 premiership, which team has shown the most promise ahead of the 2021 season and whether Kevin Walters is really the answer to the Brisbane Broncos' woes.
Who wins the lot from here and why?
Darren: For most of the season I suspected the Roosters were on track to collect that elusive hat-trick of titles, but last week's effort against the Rabbitohs rang some alarm bells. They have suffered some key injuries and have experimented with their halves combination and to their credit have looked very good at times, but this was not the time for a complete breakdown of their defensive structures. The Panthers have one obstacle to overcome and they will surely be crowned premiers for the third time in the club's history. They are a young side with the potential to be overcome by the bright lights and attention that go with the NRL finals, particularly the Grand Final. A lot of their players have won Grand Finals together in the lower grades and half Nathan Cleary has performed well in State of Origin, the ultimate test under pressure, so they should be alright. Their biggest challenge could come from the Storm, who excel at this time of the year. Both the Storm and Roosters have plenty of experience at winning the big games, if the Panthers can overcome that edge, they will win the lot.
Christian: The way I see it, this finals series is essentially a two-horse race between the Panthers and Storm. Both sides have been clinical and lethal throughout the entirety of 2020 and have done an excellent job to adapt to the unique disruptions that this year brought, whether it be the COVID break or the significant rule changes. The Eels and Roosters have threatened for premiership favouritism at times, but have lacked the killer instinct required to survive a finals series. The Roosters in particular look to be step off the pace that saw them claim back-to-back premierships - they'll need to find an extra gear somehow to complete a miraculous three-peat. As is the case every year, it will take a truly special team to win the competition from outside the top four without the benefit of a week's rest or a second chance after an opening week loss. While I wouldn't go as far as to say they have no chance, the Raiders and Rabbitohs will have to do very well to contest for the premiership, even in spite of how good they looked last week. The Sharks and Knights, however, look like they are going to be very fortunate to be playing finals football at all after they were completely out-enthused by an extremely understrength Raiders side and the bottom-eight Titans, respectively. If I'm picking a winner today, I simply cannot go past the attacking flair and incredible depth of the Panthers.
Who has shown the most promise for season 2021?
Darren: Aside from the Titans who had a brilliant late run, I thought the stranded Warriors showed a lot of promise for next season. They welcome new coach Nathan Brown who has had a lot of success in Super League, indicating he can handle a new environment and he will be keen to continue the good work of Todd Payten. The club has a long history of underachievement, but through 2020, they showed that when they put their heads down and work together, they can beat anyone. Half Chanel Harris-Tavita showed a lot of promise and when Roger Tuivasa-Sheck returns from injury they should form a lethal combination off the back of some dominating forwards. They have always struggled with tempering their natural flair to keep mistakes to a minimum, and that will be one of Brown's biggest challenges.
Christian: I am absolutely thrilled about the prospects of the Gold Coast Titans next year after they ended their 2020 season in outstanding fashion. To be honest, after so many years of watching the club wallow at the bottom of the ladder, suffer from the underwhelming performances of big money players and struggle to keep their head above water financially, it's refreshing to be excited about their chances for once. Justin Holbrook had the Titans firing on all cylinders throughout the latter part of the season, bringing the club agonisingly close to their second finals berth since 2010 and first since 2016. The club has exceeded all expectations anyone had for them, rising from the embarrassment of a wooden spoon last year to ninth place this year. With AJ Brimson showing superstar potential at fullback, Ash Taylor finally looking to enjoy his football in the halves and Moeaki Fotuaika leading the forwards with ferocity, the Titans look to be fulfilling their potential. When David Fifita, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Herman Ese'ese join Fotuaika up front, the Titans pack will surely be one to fear. In further good news, the club was also able to offload the contracts of Ryan James and Shannon Boyd, both of whom where occupying significant chunks of the salary cap while hardy featuring on the field.
Is Kevin Walters the man to turn the Broncos around?
Darren: Walters has the unenviable task of taking over the dumpster fire that the Broncos have become through the 2020 season. His coaching resume is not that impressive, so it's hard to know whether he has the tactical nous to change their playing style to any great degree. It is hoped that he can instil some pride in the Broncos jersey, something that has been sadly lacking all year. As a former star of the club, he has to turn back the clock on the culture to the days where some of the greats would give their left arm to play for the Broncos. Through 2020 the players seemed more concerned with future earnings and making their lives more comfortable by ousting a coach they didn't find agreeable. If Walters can get the Broncos players running through brick walls for him he will have solved half the problem. From there he has to find some young talent to play in the key positions of fullback, five-eighth, half-back and hooker.
Christian: If his State of Origin coaching performances are anything to go by, I can't see Kevin Walters inspiring much change in a Broncos squad that is lacking talent and confidence. After inheriting a legendary Queensland Maroons side and winning his first two series in charge, Walters would lose the services of the irreplaceable Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk. Without his team of champions, Walters has since been largely unable to strike a blow against New South Wales, and I expect similar results at the Broncos. Based on historical evidence, Walters performs admirably as a coach when he has incredible players at his disposal - a luxury he will not have in Brisbane. I believe the pedigree of the Cowboys' former premiership-winning coach Paul Green should have gotten him over the line, but if early reports are to be believed, the signature of Walters will come with the added bonus of Craig Bellamy as the club's coaching director sometime in the future. If that is the case, I completely understand the thought process of the Broncos board. I think the combination of Walters and Bellamy significantly outweighs the prospect of Green steering the ship on his own. Regardless, you do whatever it takes to get the Storm supercoach to work for your club.