NRL season review and crystal ball Part 3: Titans, Knights, Eels and Roosters

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Last week Harry Ramage and I reviewed the teams that finished outside of the eight.

Click here to read about the Bulldogs, Cowboys, Broncos and Tigers.

And here for the review on the Warriors, Dragons, Raiders and Sharks.

Today, I’ll be going through the teams who made it into the finals with only one roll of the dice up their sleeves. This is part 2 of looking back at the 2021 NRL season, focusing on the teams who finished fifth -eighth on the ladder.

Gold Coast Titans – eighth
On the last day of the regular season, I’m sure most of the Titans players were preparing for Mad Monday. But after a 44-0 thrashing of the New Zealand Warriors, the Gold Coast boys leapfrogged their way into the finals.

After a year that showed glimmers of promise, their season will be remembered for a pass that went right instead of left.

What Went Right In 2021?
Patrick Herbert’s pass. No, just kidding.

There were a few players who really stood up for the Titans. Corey Thompson and Jamal Fogarty had solid seasons.

And I was impressed with some of the big boys. Moeaki Fotuaika – I see big things for him in the future. And of course, Big Tino Fa’asuamaleaui. I think he would have to go down as one of the buys of the season. He was just next level and deservedly earned himself the club’s Player of the Year Award.

And the Titans had some young blood come through that made their marks. Toby Sexton had a fantastic debut match and when given the chance to stay in the top side never looked back.

And how good is Jayden Campbell? Wow. No DNA test required there.

What Went Wrong In 2021?
Lack of consistency. One week they went down to the Roosters by a field goal, the following week they had that embarrassing loss to Manly 56-24, and then the following week they smashed the Raiders 44-6.

They never more won than three games in a row. They were the only team in the top eight to have lost more games than they won.

Defence was an issue. 11 of their losses the opposition scored over 20 points.

Injuries to key players like AJ Brimson and Anthony Don, who had to retire early, made life tough for the Titans.

Same with their big dollar players not earning their paycheques. Ash Taylor was a shadow of his former self, and I’m sure I will get criticised for this, but David Fafita was a bit of a letdown too. When he was on, he was unstoppable, but when you are the marquee player on big dollars, you need to be at your best every time you step onto the field. One of our Roar Guru’s calls him “Lazy Davy” and I think many would agree.

I also don’t think the team capitalised enough on being one of the only clubs who got to play at home in front of their fans during the Covid Bubble.

Alex Brimson of the Titans

AJ Brimson (Getty Images)

What They Need Most in 2022?
Consistency and to tighten up on defence. They have cut ties with Mitch Rein, Ash Taylor and Tyrone Peachy but still have a great squad. And they need Fifita to be the player everyone knows he can be EVERY week.

It will also be interesting to see who Justin Holbrook plays at fullback after Campbell was sensational in the number 1 jersey in Brimson’s absence. It’s thought that Brimson may move to number 6 and Campbell stays at the back. If their spine can stay the same throughout the year, that will have a huge impact.

2022 Crystal Ball
I think they will be out to prove that they didn’t Steven Bradbury their way into the top eight this year. Had Herbert passed inside to Fifita it would have been the Titans playing Manly in the second week of the finals, and who knows what could have happened.

If they don’t work on their defence, they don’t make the eight. But stranger things have happened.

Newcastle Knights – seventh
I will try and keep my red and blue coloured glasses off for this one.

Much like the Titans, the Knights fluked their way into to finals with a -143 points differential. They won a few games they shouldn’t have, but also lost games that they should have won too.

What Went Right In 2021?
After missing last season to an ACL injury, having Jayden Brailey on the field gave the team direction and leadership.

The mid-season gain of Jake Clifford was a Godsend for the Knights, and he started to form a great halves partnership with Mitchell Pearce.

Mitch Barnett and Tyson Frizell were both Mr Reliable, and Knights Rookie of the Year Brodie Jones was just a delight to watch. Whatever position he needed to fill, whatever he was asked to do, he just did it. Can’t wait to see how well he develops over the next few years.

But for me, it was the Saifiti Brothers. Absolute workhorses who gave everything they had each and every week. While Daniel was in the headlines more for being the Knights co-captain and starring the Blues Origin team, Jacob worked just as hard and tough as his twin brother in the Knights jersey, and rightfully won this year’s Danny Buderus medal.

What Went Wrong In 2021?
It wasn’t until late in the season that Adam O’Brien was able to pick his first-choice spine. Halfback Mitchel Pearce was out for 10 weeks with a torn pec, and fullback Kayln Ponga missed the first few rounds and then many more throughout the season due to various injuries.

Add to that injuries to Bradman Best, Lachlan Ftizgibbon and a mid-year forced retirement to Blake Green, the Knights always found it hard to field their best team.

But putting injuries aside, the Knights were their own worst enemy. It was a case of ‘The curse of the one-man team’. When Ponga wasn’t playing, there was never much more than one man hit ups on show. When he was on the field, everyone looked at him to do something. He wasn’t at 100per cent fitness, so there was no way he could carry everyone else.

They left it up to him when he was there and didn’t have the belief in themselves to get the job done when he wasn’t.

Defence was a sore point, with the opposition scoring an average 23 points per game against the Knights.

And I’m not ready to talk about Connor Watson going to the Roosters.

What They Need Most in 2022?
To try something different in attack. The Knights plays and fifth tackle options became so predictable. Hopefully Dane Gagai can bring his brilliant form from this season at Souths to the Knights. The experienced centre will undoubtably help the young backline. His signing, as well as young Adam Clune from the Dragons, will assist with depth in the squad that seemed to be lacking this year.

And, like so many other teams, to stay injury free. Even though the young ones like Dominic Young and Stratford To’a did their best to step up, a full-strength squad makes all the difference.

2022 Crystal Ball
I don’t want to sound biased, so I will leave this section to Peter Sterling, who believes the Knights will be big improvers next season.

“I think Newcastle have got a lot to offer next year. You keep their players healthy, Ponga has got to play all their games, so too Mitchell Pearce.

“I think if you give Jake Clifford another pre-season working alongside Mitchell Pearce…Jacob Saifiti’s coming on in leaps and bounds as well.”

Is it too early to buy grand final tickets?

Knights fans

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Parramatta Eels – sixth
Every year is going to be their year, and then, it’s not. It’s been 35 years without a premiership, so anything outside of winning the grand final looks like failure.

Many fans are starting to agree with Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights – “If you’re not first, you’re last”. They were so close this year, and I believe very unlucky to not get the win over the Panthers in the second week of the finals.

What Went Right In 2021?
Isaiah Papali’i was just on fire. He had a sensational season, played in 25 games, made just under 1500 post contact metres and had a tackle efficiency of 94.2per cent. All of which earnt him the Dally M Award for Second Rower of the Year, as well as Parramatta’s Player of the Year Award.

The usual suspects went well. Captain Clint Gutherson was electric in attack and seemed to be everywhere. Mitchell Moses continued to grow in confidence, and Reed Mahoney was fantastic all year before he was injured.

Youngsters Haze Dunster and Will Penisini stepped up and did not disappoint. Junior Paulo was a wrecking ball, Maiko Siva was unstoppable, and Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown were consistently strong up the middle.
Their season will also be remembered for beating the Melbourne Storm twice.

And special mention goes to Jake Arthur’s debut. When he and his dad Coach Brad Arthur embraced and cried together after the game, if that didn’t pull at the heartstrings nothing will.

What Went Wrong In 2021?
You just never knew which team is going to get off the bus.

Like always, the Eels started off the season well, winning their first four games, but they seemed to really lose their way in the second half of the year. The Eels had four losses in a row, including a 56-10 thumping at the hands of Manly, and a 40-12 one against Souths.

Gutherson talking down to his players on the field was not a good look, rumours of infighting started to circle, as well as the security of coach Brad Arthur’s position.

Loosing Reed Mahoney towards the back end of the season hurt. He was one of the stars for the team all year, and young Ray Stone and Will Smith just couldn’t quite fill the void.

Many believe that Arthur made the wrong call in the elimination final against Penrith by starting Shaun Lane instead of Papali’i. As earlier mentioned, he was the Dally M Second Rower of the year, and he played just 35 minutes at prop.

And Blake Ferguson’s starring role in the motion picture “Pretending to be Injured” was just woeful.

What They Need Most in 2022?
To play at the end of the season the same way they do at the start of the season.

Dylan Brown also needs to aim up. Moses needs a five-eighth to run the ball and take some pressure off him.

And hopefully with Brad Arthur signing on for a few more years, that will help settle the team.

2022 Crystal Ball
They will finish comfortably in the top eight, but after that who knows. They are a team that should have some silverware from this century, but just can’t seem to bring it all together when it counts.

But if you ask an Eels supporter, they will tell you with certainty, “2022 will be our year!”

Sydney Roosters – fifth
Watching Roosters games this year was like watching the first scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Bodies dropping everywhere. Whether you like the team or not, you must give credit to how well they did with so much of their salary cap sitting on the sidelines.

What Went Right In 2021?
James Tedesco. With so much carnage around him, The Dally M Captain of the Year led from the front and helped guide so much inexperience as best as he could. He steadied the ship and got the Roosters to the finals – you could not have asked anymore from him.

James Tedesco

James Tedesco (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

When someone else was ruled out, Coach Trent Robinson was ready with the next up-and-comer. Players like Fletcher Baker, Drew Hutchison and Adam Keighran, who only got their chance in the top grade due to injuries around them, played like they had been there for years. And then there was Sam Walker, who was rightfully named Dally M Rookie of the Year.

As a whole, the Roosters just never gave up. It didn’t matter who was injured, who was available, or how much experience they had, whoever was picked in the 17 that week just went out there and played their absolute hearts out.

And of course, they bought Connor Watson for next season who will be an invaluable number 14. (I’m still not ready to talk about it).

What Went Wrong In 2021?
So. Many. Injuries. And Victor Radley.

Let’s just go over some of what Trent Robinson was dealing with. Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend were forced into early retirement. Luke Keary and Lindsay Collins both did their ACL’s in Round 3 and never returned. Brett Morris joined the injured ACL group in Round 8 and eventually moved over to Cordner and Friend’s early retirement circle.

A sickening tackle that resulted in Drew Hutchison having broken ribs and a punctured lung saw him sidelined for eight weeks. Joseph Suaalii, Billy Smith and Matt Ikuavlu all got ruled out late in the season with injuries, and we all know what happened to Joey Manu.

Then we come to Radley. He was suspended for a total of eight games this season. In the very memorable loss against the Broncos in Round 11, he had a game full of high tackles and brain snaps. He was put on report four times and sin-binned twice, all which led to a 5-week suspension. When the Roosters met the Broncos again in Round 22, Radley was put on report for a dangerous charge down tackle on Albert Kelly. He was then suspended for another three games.

I can only image how much blood pressure medication Robinson was on this year.

What They Need Most in 2022?
No injuries. Really, that’s it. They are a top-class side, and all they need is to have their players fit and available.

Look at what they did this year, they came 5th with a bunch of kids and made it to the second week of the finals. They don’t need to change anything to their playbook.

2022 Crystal Ball
Firing on all cylinders, the Roosters breeze into the Top 4. But losing the likes of Cordner, Friend and the Morris Brothers, it may take another year or two of growing the young ones before they make a grand final.

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