Melbourne Storm will go in search of their third Grand Final success in five years when the NRL season gets underway on March 11. Can the Storm retain, or will someone else come in and steal their crown? BettingPro.com’s NRL expert picks out his top predictions and tips for the upcoming campaign.
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The 2021 NRL season is just around the corner and we are still not sure whether or not Cameron Smith will still be at defending champions Melbourne Storm.
There has been speculation for a long time that the legendary hooker will leave the Strom, but at the time of writing, no official announcement has been released. Melbourne have already recalled hooker Harry Grant from his loan at Wests Tigers, but is he ready to lead the Storm to glory?
If Melbourne have a chance of winning their fifth official title – they have won six but two were stripped for salary cap breaches – then they will need the guile and experience of Smith. Without him, I cannot see them winning the Grand Final.
Storm will be there and thereabouts like they always are, but I believe this season will be the most competitive we have seen in years. Honestly, there are at least six teams that are capable of winning the NRL title this season.
NRL Tips – Grand Final Winner: Penrith Panthers @ 5/1 Sky Bet
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Penrith Panthers were the best team in the NRL right up until the Grand Final. The Panthers ended the weekly rounds on top of the ladder with 18 wins, one draw and just one defeat as the won the Minor Premiership by five points ahead of Melbourne Storm.
They honestly looked unbeatable, but they could not scale that final obstacle as they went down 26-20 at the hands of the Strom after a terrible first half showing which saw them trail 22-0 at the break. They launched a comeback in the second half – winning that period 20-4 – but it wasn’t enough to win the title.
It was shame that they left their worst performance of the season for the biggest game, but I believe it will stand them in good stead this year. They have an outstanding coach in Ivan Cleary, and he is capable of pushing his team that step further.
They have lost the likes of Jack Hetherington, James Tamou, Josh Mansour, Zane Tetevano and Dean Whare, but they still have a squad that boasts the likes of Nathan Cleary, Stephen Crichton, Viliame Kikau, Apisai Koroisau and Robert Jennings.
The weight of their success will land squarely on the shoulders of Nathan Cleary. The 23-year-old always seems to find himself under intense scrutiny because his dad is the head coach, but he is a quality player and is more than capable of guiding the Panthers to Grand Final glory.
NRL Tips – Minor Premiers: Canberra Raiders @ 10/1 Sky Bet
Just because you finish top of the NRL ladder after the weekly rounds, it doesn’t guarantee you will win the Grand Final or actually get there, but it gives you a strong chance.
Penrith Panthers were head and shoulders ahead of everyone last season, they won the Minor Premiership and made it to the Grand Final. Unfortunately for them, the first half was their worst performance all season and they found themselves 22-0 down at the break. They fought back in the second half, but it wasn’t enough as they went down 26-20.
I expect Penrith to be up there again, but I don’t think they will finish top of the ladder. My pick in 2021 is Ricky Stuart’s Canberra Raiders. Many will think that the Green Machine will be weaker since John Bateman left to return to Wigan in the Super League, and that is true, but fellow Englishman George Williams will be the key to their success this season.
Williams was a success in his first season, and he will grow in confidence as the year goes on, and I am backing him to drag the Raiders kicking and screaming to the Minor Premiership.
NRL Tips – To Finish Bottom: St George Illawarra Dragons @ 4/1 William Hill
You don’t know how hard it is for me to write this, but I believe that St George Illawarra Dragons will end the 2021 NRL season with the wooden spoon as the worst team in Australia and New Zealand.
Now, I need to paint a picture, the majority of English rugby league fans have an Australian team. Back in the eighties, my team was Illawarra Steelers, but in the late nineties they were forced to merge with St George to become St George Illawarra Dragons.
I decided I couldn’t abandon the Steelers, so I moved along with the franchise. Now, that is quite difficult because I am from Wigan and we do not like any team called the Saints. I have spent years explaining I am a Steelers fan and do not support Saints, I just couldn’t switch teams like that.
This is why it is hard for me to predict they will finish bottom of the table. Off the field problems has seen star player Cameron McInnes not even offered a new contract and allowed to join fierce rivals Cronulla Sharks from 2022 onwards, but he has also since picked up a season ending injury before the campaign has even started.
He will be a massive loss, and new coach Anthony Griffin has a massive job on his hands. The joint franchise has never finished bottom, but something is wrong at the club and I honestly do not think that Ben Hunt is the man to lead this team to any form of success. It will be a long, hard campaign and I am reluctantly backing them to finish bottom.
NRL Tips – Regular Season Top Try Scorer: Maika Sivo @ 10/1 Sky Bet
It’s safe to say that there will be plenty tries scored throughout the whole NRL campaign, and once again we should have an intriguing battle.
Five tries for South Sydney Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston in their final weekly round game against Sydney Roosters saw him overtake Kyle Feldt at the top of the try scoring charts with 20 tries – he then went on to score three more in the play-offs to take his overall tally to 23.
But we are just on about the tries that are scored in the regular season, and this year I am going for Parramatta Eels’ 105kg winger Maika Sivo to outscore all his rivals and sit pretty at the top of the charts.
The 27-year-old managed to score 15 tries for the Eels, and he will be eager to add a few more to that total in 2021. He is a beast, and can score tries from anywhere, so I will be cheering him on each week.