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 whether Melbourne Storm can continue their incredible success next year, should everyone be excited about the State of Origin and the rebuild happening at Belmore.
Can the Storm win it again in 2021?
Darren: Melbourne Storm continue to amaze with the way they produce title-contending teams each and every season. The big question hanging over them now is whether their inspirational leader Cameron Smith will return for another season. The Storm coped with the departures of superstars Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, so there is no reason to believe they can't move on without Smith. They already have two of the game's best dummy-halves lining up in Harry Grant and Brandon Smith. As good as those two already are, they will need time to fit in with those around them and acquire the instincts that made Smith so influential. However, no one slots new players into key positions as well as Storm coach Craig Bellamy. I don't think they can win it in their first year without Smith, but I didn't believe they could win it this year either. They'll almost certainly continue their run of playing finals football in 2021.
Christian: Surely we all know better by now than to bet against the Melbourne Storm. If they can win a COVID-interrupted NRL season while operating out of the Sunshine Coast, away from their families and friends and without a home ground, there really isn't much that can stop them. Logic dictates that Melbourne simply should not have won the premiership this year - and yet, here we are. Before the Sydney Roosters managed it in 2018-19, I would have said winning back to back premierships in the modern NRL era was little more than a fantasy. But now, it seems like a very real possibility, regardless of whether Smith chooses to play on in 2021. Given the sheer ability and potential of his backups in Dally M Rookie of the Year Harry Grant and fan-favourite Brandon Smith, I would go as far as saying Melbourne could be an even better attacking side. Of course, an enormous amount of leadership and steel in defence is lost when reverting from a legend like Cam Smith to up and coming star, but it will allow the Storm to take advantage of a true running threat from dummy half for the first time in many years. As long as Craig Bellamy is at the helm of the club, anything is possible.
Should everyone be excited about the upcoming State of Origin?
Darren: It has been a late-finishing, interrupted season, with last week's Grand Final seeming a lifetime away from the start back in March. State of Origin is being played post-season for the first time ever and there is a lot of work being done to ensure the excitement levels are high for the three-game series starting in Adelaide next Wednesday. The fact that the first game will be played in Adelaide is in itself a risk when it comes to getting a crowd together and generating interest. State of Origin is always popular, but the other question this year surrounds just how competitive the Queensland team is going to be. On paper the Blues have a much stronger line-up and there is a very real possibility that Game 3 will be a dead rubber, played on a steamy mid-November Brisbane night. It will be a real test of Queensland fan dedication to see if they can still fill Suncorp Stadium. Having said that, we all know that State of Origin is never played on paper and the Maroons have a lot of pride.
Christian: I was very concerned that a post-season State of Origin series would suffer from serious rugby league burnout. But here we are several days removed from the Grand Final and I'm still excited that Origin is so soon. The Blues will head into the opener as deserved favourites, even with Tom Trbojevic unavailable and injury clouding the availability of gun fullback James Tedesco. After so many years of lacklustre talent all over the park for NSW, it's almost unnerving to see so much depth at every position. Queensland's backline, meanwhile, is suffering. Star fullback Kalyn Ponga has already been ruled out, as has Kyle Feldt and Valentine Holmes, with the trio replaced by AJ Brimson, Xavier Coates and Phillip Sami - all fine players in their own right, but not in the same stratosphere as those in the NSW squad. Regardless, with Wayne Bennett at the helm, the Maroons will be confident that they have more than enough firepower to cause an upset, giving us all plenty of reason to tune in on November 4th.
Flanagan, maybe Addo-Carr - are the Bulldogs building a Top 8 team for 2021?
Darren: Incoming coach Trent Barrett has started the necessary rebuild at the Bulldogs, looking to hit the ground running in 2021. The Bulldogs have suffered from a weak spine for the past few years and the acquisition of Kyle Flanagan is certainly a powerful step in the right direction. The possibility of throwing the fullback's jersey on Josh Addo-Carr will also have fans excited. Still they are missing the key ingredient to a strong spine, a hooker. Jeremy Marshall-King has been tried and has shown glimpses, but he is far from being a premiership threatening dummy-half. There have been whispers of the club pursuing Brandon Smith, should Cameron Smith stay on for another season at the Storm. If Cameron Smith does retire or leave, Brandon Smith will still be in a tussle for the No. 9 jersey at the Storm with Harry Grant returning. If the Bulldogs can somehow nab Brandon Smith or even Cameron for that matter, then we can start taking them seriously as a finals threat.
Christian: Make no mistake, Kyle Flanagan offers an enormous upgrade over the current crop of halves talent the Bulldogs have on their roster. He will immediately displace Lachlan Lewis and Brandon Wakeham, who have been largely unable to kick the Bulldogs' attack into gear, and will likely form a partnership with veteran five-eighth Blake Green, assuming the injured ex-Knight does indeed arrive at Belmore for 2021. There is always concern when a smart, successful team like the Roosters releases a young and promising playmaker so early into his contract, but at $250,000 for his first year, the third-highest point scorer for 2020 is certainly worth a punt for the struggling Bulldogs. The possible addition of Josh Addo-Carr, meanwhile, would make for one of the most exciting Canterbury backlines since the days of Ben Barba in 2012, though I maintain that he seems more suited to the flank than at fullback where the Dogs should make a home for emerging star Jake Averillo. The Melbourne Storm winger seems like something of a luxury signing, however, and priority needs to be given to securing the signature of his teammate Brandon Smith as well as forgotten Penrith half Matt Burton. The Bulldogs are building nicely, but the top eight seems just out of reach for now.