Another chaotic season of the NRL has come to an end with the Penrith Panthers claiming the 2021 title in an unprecedented final at Suncorp Stadium.
And so now it's time to look back at how all the team's fared in another COVID-19 affected season. From the Melbourne Storm's record streak, the Roosters' injury crisis, and the so-called Canberra faders - this season had it all.
Ladder finish: 2nd. Regular-season record: 21-3
At the top of the class, the Penrith Panthers realised their full potential by adding a third Provan-Summons trophy to the club's cabinet. A potent mix of youthful exuberance and seasoned hard-heads, the Panther's focus on local talent development is really paying dividends. The Mountain Men were unbeaten until June when the Origin period struck, with seven of Penrith's players selected for the state sides. Suffering only two more losses in the regular season, the Panthers finished second while battling a number of injuries to key players including Nathan Cleary. Their defence was the best in the league and lifted them through the long route to the decider, beating the Melbourne Storm along the way. They have lost a few stars for 2022, but should be up there challenging for back-to-back titles.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Ladder finish: 3rd. Regular-season record: 20-4
It was the tale of the post-Dubbo resurgence as the Rabbitohs flew into finals on the back of a 13-match winning streak, before falling heartbreakingly short of the 2021 title. South Sydney started the season as a premiership favourite, but hopes of a deep finals run looked dim as they conceded more than 50 points to both Penrith and Melbourne within three weeks. It marked a turning point in the Rabbitohs' campaign as they topped every attacking category since June, while their defence also improved. After three straight preliminary-final losses, Wayne Bennett's side reached the grand final without their star fullback Latrell Mitchell - showing they have the depth to challenge again next season. Only they need to find a suitable replacement for halfback Adam Reynolds who was key to their success this season.
Ladder finish: 1st. Regular-season record: 21-3
The Storm began a new era without the 'Big Three' with another minor premiership and a record 19-match winning streak, but ultimately fell short of a fifth title. Melbourne saved their worst performance until last as they bowed out of finals to the Panthers, leaving them to rue a massive missed opportunity as another three stars exit the club for the 2022 season. Despite falling short of the decider, the Storm was the most clinical side in 2021 after finishing the regular season with a leading 815 points. Notably Melbourne scored 40 points or more in 11 wins, with their 66-16 thrashing of the Wests Tigers a manifestation of their mid-season dominance. Craig Bellamy's side also overcame the loss of star fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen for eight rounds due to concussion, while also battling without Cameron Munster, Harry Grant and Dale Finucane at stages during the season. The Storm finished with the best attack and second best defence of 2021, with the minor premiers still a contender next season with Bellamy at the helm.
Manly Sea Eagles
Ladder finish: 4th. Regular-season record: 16-8
After a bleak 0-4 start to the season, the Sea Eagles rose with the return of Tom Trbojevic to become one of the leading sides of 2021. Trbojevic was a revelation for Des Hasler's side as he finished the regular season with 25 tries and 27 try assists in 15 matches en route to the Dally M medal. But Manly were more than a one-man team this season despite how much 'Tommy Turbo' dominated the headlines, with Reuben Garrick leading the NRL with points and goals scored this season - while the club unearthed talents such as Jason Saab and Josh Schuster. There's a lot to like about this young side that'll be a genuine contender for years to come, but after falling 0-6 to the other top-four teams this season they still have a lot to learn ahead of 2022.
Ladder finish: 6th. Regular-season record: 15-9
Brad Arthur's Eels exited at the semi-final stage for the third consecutive season, but this time it felt different as they finally found some resolve at crunch time. It was a rollercoaster campaign for the Eels as they rode the high of a top-four placing for the majority of the season, before falling to sixth at the business end of the regular rounds. Their slump of form left Parramatta fans with a sense of déjà vu as the Eels succumbed to four straight losses in round 19-22. The loss of hooker Reed Mahoney hit them hard in their bid to reach week three of finals, but on a positive note Isaiah Papali'i turned out to be a golden buy and claimed NRL Backrower of the Year. The Eels will need to maintain a consistent form next season to build momentum into finals, which could have proved the difference this campaign.
Ladder finish: 5th. Regular-season record: 16-8
Trent Robinson's side managed to find a way into the semi-finals in a season marred by injuries, retirements and suspensions. The Roosters went from hunters to the hunted following an injury toll that forced Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Brett Morris into retirement - while Luke Keary, Lindsay Collins and Joey Manu suffered season-ending injuries. It's a testament to the team's 'next man' mentality to finish in fifth spot, with Captain of the Year James Tedesco leading the way as the Roosters blooded nine debutants. Teenage sensation Sam Walker shone at halfback while Ben Marschke, Egan Butcher and Fletcher Baker featured in their first semi-final. Joseph Suaalii also had his first taste of NRL action before becoming injured in July. Should the Roosters be fully fit next season, they'll certainly be a title contender with their now-experienced youngsters and returning stars a threatening mix for 2022.
Ladder finish: 7th. Regular-season record: 12-12
The Knights reached back-to-back finals series for the first time in 17 years, but their week-one exit marked another season where they failed to deliver on their potential. Notably Adam O'Brien's side was hit with an injury crisis that saw them endure lengthy stints without key players such as Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. Newcastle was among a five-team log jam for the last two finals spots in round 19, but showed resolve by winning five straight matches to finish the regular rounds at seventh. With a season record of 12 wins, as many losses and a -143 points differential however, it still didn't look pretty. Should the Knights stay healthy next season, they could turn into a finals force with more time on the field as a unit. They gain another attacking weapon with Dane Gagai returning to the club, while former Dragon Adam Clune adds depth to their halves.
Gold Coast Titans
Ladder finish: 8th. Regular-season record: 10-14
The Titans sneaked into the finals series with a mere 41 percent win rate, with Justin Holbrook's side starting to find their brand of footy in the second year of his tenure as the club's head coach. There was much improvement in attack as they finished the season with the fifth most tackle breaks (856) and line breaks (142), while they also scored the sixth-most amount of points with 580. Although star recruit David Fifita claimed a club record of 17 tries for the season, the Titans are still working out how to tap into his best in this side. The Gold Coast showed resolve in their one-point loss to the Roosters in the elimination final, with the team arguably just a play away from week two of the series. The next challenge for Holbrook is to solidify their spot in finals with a higher, and safer, ladder position in 2022.
Ladder finish: 9th. Regular season record: 10-14
Cronulla fell agonizingly short of a finals finish on the back of a tumultuous season, which started with the sacking of coach John Morris in the lead into round six. Following his departure, which copped a lot of heat, the Sharks lost five matches in a row which included the Bulldogs' first win of the season. Their disruptive season then worsened by the loss of halfback Shaun Johnson and skipper Wade Graham due to injuries. But their campaign was arguably doomed from the start it was all about their next one - with the club making way for Craig Fitzgibbon's arrival in November. The future looks promising with Storm stars Nicho Hynes and Dale Finucane joining the club, while they also picked up Cam McInnes from the Dragons.
Ladder finish: 10th. Regular season record: 10-14
It was the season that no one saw coming as the Green Machine went from finals glory to missing out altogether. On the back of reaching the 2019 Grand Final and the preliminary final in 2020, nothing went right for the Raiders this season as Ricky Stuart's men fell flat and finished 10th. There were second-half fade-outs, out-of-form stars, injuries, social media jibes and the dramatic exit of George Williams to summarise the chaos that was Canberra this season. The Raiders missed English second-rower John Bateman on field, while the absence of Jarrod Croker and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad due to injury was felt. Canberra will need to find a suitable halves partner for Jack Wighton as they look to kick back into gear next season.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Ladder finish: 11th. Regular season record: 8-16
It was another false dawn for the Dragons as they breathed fire on barbeques and burned the end of their 2021 season. St George Illawarra failed to win another match after the infamous COVID-19 breach, with the fallout leading to Paul Vaughan being sacked and a dozen players suspended. Although the business end of the season was bleak for Red V fans, the beginning showed some promise as Anthony Griffin's side flew to a 4-1 start with wins over the Eels and Sea Eagles. Tariq Sims, Ben Hunt and recruit Andrew McCullough earned Origin selection, while Jayden Sullivan, Tyrell Sloane gained valuable first grade experience. The Dragons will need to turnaround the tumultuous season in 2022 from both on and off the field perspectives, with respect from fans at a low.
New Zealand Warriors
Ladder finish: 12th. Regular season record: 8-16
In their second season based outside of New Zealand, the Warriors failed to secure a finals berth but the foundations are set for 2022. Nathan Brown's new look side was decimated by injuries this season, with key players such as star recruit Addin Fonua-Blake featuring in only 15 matches this season while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck exited the club mid-season. The Warriors fell to a seven-match losing streak in rounds 12-19, while they lost their final three matches to be knocked out of finals contention. The standout of their season was the masterstroke signing of rookie Reece Walsh, who was a revelation for the side at fullback. It'll be exciting to see what he can do with halfback Shaun Johnson next season.
Ladder finish: 13th. Regular season record: 8-16
The NRL's longest finals drought continued for another season as the Tigers struggled and fell to a lowly 13th-place finish. Talk of Michael Maguire's future was constant as he failed to bring out the best of his squad, with the boos of the Leichhardt Oval faithful in April a sign of just how fed up Wests fans have become. Their 66-16 loss to the Storm was a hard blow in an already dismal season, with their defence once again a weakness. There were signs of promise with a breakthrough win over the depleted Panthers, while the forms of a fit Adam Doueihi, Danie Laurie and Stefano Utoikamanu were standouts.
Ladder finish: 14th. Regular season record: 7-17
Following their worst season in club history, it was a baptism of fire for Kevin Walters in his inaugural season as an NRL coach as the Broncos finished 14th. Their defence kept them near the bottom of the ladder as they conceded 695 points, with 40 points or more scored against them in seven losses. The lack of stability in the halves was again a huge issue for the Broncos as Walters used eight different combinations with Brodie Croft, Anthony Milford, Tyson Gamble, Karmichael Hunt and Albert Kelly. But that should be resolved next season with Adam Reynolds' arrival at Red Hill, while Kurt Capewell will add another dimension to their attack from the centres. With Ben Ikin returning to the club mid-season at head of football, the Broncos rebuild has already begun and they should string more wins together in 2022.
North Queensland Cowboys
Ladder finish: 15th. Regular season record: 6-18
There's not much to like about a season book ended by losses as the Cowboys failed to lift out of the bottom four and fell to 15th. Todd Payten's side started their campaign 0-4 and ended it with only one win after their Origin bye. Losing Michael Morgan to retirement early in the season was a hard hit to handle, but on a positive note it does give them some salary cap room for the future. Payten needs to work out how to best use Jason Taumalolo, as well as where Valentine Holmes fits in position-wise in this team. The arrival of Chad Townsend will add extra depth to their halves stocks next season, but how he fits in with five-eighth Scott Drinkwater and halfback Tom Dearden is another question altogether. The Cowboys face an uphill battle to lift off the bottom in 2022, with teams around them showing greater signs of development.
Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
Ladder finish: 16th. Regular season record: 3-21
Class dunce, after winning just three games all season under new coach Trent Barret. Despite adding a couple of new players for the season the Bulldogs went backwards from an ordinary 2020 season. Their inability to score points was staggering considering Barrett's attacking reputation. The club and its fans are placing their faith in the recent player clean-out ahead of the 2022 season. They have some big name stars joining in 2022 with the likes of Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Tevita Pangai-Junior and Matt Dufty - but it is up to Barrett to bring them together as a winning team.