Drugs, feuds, chaos: Why 2021 will be another wild ride
The one thing guaranteed about the NRL season is that it will be another year of madness, outrage, controversy and scandal.
Coach sackings, player misbehaviour, drugs, feuds and referee rage … we can already see Twitter exploding...
BREAKING: Another star tests positive to cocaine.
REVEALED: Brad Arthur axed. Shane Flanagan to coach Parramatta Eels.
JUST IN: Freddy Fittler dumped as NSW Blues State of Origin coach.
EXCLUSIVE: Mitchell Pearce to join the Wests Tigers.
OFFICIAL: Adam O'Brien walks out on Knights to replace Craig Bellamy at Melbourne Storm.
Strap yourselves in ladies and gentleman. 38 sleeps to go.
Here are potentially the 20 biggest story lines.
Kayo is your ticket to the best sport streaming Live & On-Demand. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
NRL players now have an open license to use cocaine and escape harsh penalties as long as the drug is used 'out of competition.' This could get ugly.
Penrith Panthers star Brent Naden took cocaine on the night before playing in the grand final, tested positive, but it was considered 'out of competition'.
'In competition' is apparently only match day. Just don't take it after midnight!
Rather than show initiative and lead the way, the NRL is supporting WADA's softening of the anti-doping rules.
This is despite the fact cocaine has been considered a performance-enhancing drug by medical experts. It is also illegal.
Naden won't miss a game for using the drug. He faces a suspension only for breaking the NRL biosecurity bubble to get his hands on it.
Two-year suspensions, like Wendell Sailor copped back in 2006, have been reduced to a month.
In Naden's case, he served his time during the off-season.
The old super coach is finishing up at the Rabbitohs at the end of the season and won't wait until October to make a decision on his future.
In other words, the great man could have two jobs at the one time.
There is where it could get messy, like his Brisbane departure in 2018 when he was sprung double-dipping and already planning at Souths while still at the Broncos.
Bennett will be 72 in January next year but wants to coach, not be a head of football.
Channel 9 has only two seasons to run on their broadcast deal.
No one at the network cares that Kerry Packer once fought the World Series Cricket and Super League wars for the best content in Australian sport.
They are now into the rah rahs, tennis and netball.
The door is ajar for Channel 7, Channel 10 or a big streaming service. Standby because the NRL won't wait around for two years to do a new deal.
Freddy is great for State of Origin. No-one is better at promoting the series. No-one works as hard in the community and in charity areas.
Still, he lost the unlosable series last season against 'the worst Maroons team in 40 years' and needs to win this year to keep his job.
Getting team selections right (carrying a utility on the bench) will be a good start.
It will be a much tougher assignment because the Maroons have Kalyn Ponga and David Fifita back after missing last year.
Storm's premier coach will make a call on his future in the next few weeks. He is expected to stand down as head coach but is tipped to become a director of football at the club.
This is where it gets interesting and could have a knock-on effect on the Newcastle Knights.
Adam O'Brien is highly regarded by all at Melbourne Storm, especially by Bellamy and the owners.
He might be contracted to the Knights until the end of next season but that means nothing in the madness of the NRL. The Knights will have to move quickly to put it to bed.
What role will Gus play? Will he interfere? Will he get on with Nathan Brown better than he did with Anthony Griffin and Ivan Cleary at the Panthers or Ricky Stuart at the Roosters all those years ago?
We shall be watching with great interest.
Can they make the finals for only the second time in 10 years? How will they spend Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's $1 million?
Off contract at the end of the season and there's still no moves from the Sharks on an extension.
This is one that could blow up early. It's a bit strange because Morris has made the finals in his two seasons with just an okay roster.
The Sharks have a $2.5 million war chest for 2022 with Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan, Shaun Johnson and others coming off contract.
They need to be chasing quality players now but it's difficult with the uncertainty around the coach. Good players want to know who will be carrying the clipboard. There is talk the Sharks have already had discussions with Penrith Panthers assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo.
It's a tough school when you've finished 4th, 16th, 5th and 3rd in the last four years, but still don't get any job security. The Eels want to win a comp, not just make the finals and then bomb out.
Sounds ridiculous but he almost needs to make the grand final to be assured of continuing.
Considering his roster compared to the Roosters, Storm, Souths and the Raiders, it's crazy for the board and management to have such high expectations.
Read the above …
There is already talk Flanagan could be the man to take over at the Eels.
There are few in the game as capable as Flanagan at rebuilding from ground zero. Example. Peptides to a premiership at the Sharks.
He has learnt from past mistakes and will pick up another head coaching role for sure.
All eyes will be on his first touch of the football, probably in round 13.
Another head knock has to be in the back of his mind.
Will he be as fearless? Will he be as brave?
Will he think twice about involving himself in the more dangerous areas of collisions and impact?
He is sometimes too courageous for his own good.
The voice of the game. The greatest rugby league caller of all time.
Rabs turns 78 in June and can't go on forever.
He will make the much anticipated call on his future in the next couple of weeks.
The problem for Channel 9 - and the game - is that Fox Sports have all the next best commentators locked down.
No player will be under the spotlight more than the 31-year-old Knights halfback who is just three games shy of his 300th appearance.
Had a disappointing 2020 and an off-season from hell, forced to stand down from the captaincy, Pearce has been offered only a one-year extension - and a 50 per cent pay cut.
There's a sneaky tip that the Wests Tigers will offer him more cash and more years.
Like Cordner, Turbo Tom is under a medical cloud and probably just one hamstring injury away from serious questions being raised about his long-term future.
He has to stay fit if the Sea Eagles are to have any hope of making the play-offs.
No doubt Kevvie will bring back passion and hunger to a club that has developed a shocking culture in recent years. (Although we love the weekend story of players making a citizen's arrest to save a woman from domestic violence.)
Whether Kevvie has the coaching skill and expertise to improve the football team is another matter.
The Broncos will be a huge story, especially north of the border.
We can't recall a teenage schoolboy with such a boom reputation. This 17-year-old is supposed to be the next Israel Folau, Latrell Mitchell or Greg Inglis.
One big question we have is how the hell are the Roosters going to fit him in to their star-studded team? Talked about as being used as a fullback, centre or winger for the Roosters, Suaalii faces top-shelf competition in any of those positions with James Tedesco, Daniel Tupou, Joey Manu, and the Morris boys all standing in his way.
Pre-season strength tests at the Roosters indicate he is physically ready. If he does get a run early, he'll be backed into $1.04 to win the Dally M rookie of the year award.
The NRL dumped Bernard Sutton as referee's boss at the end of last season after threats of a revolt in the ranks and claims of nepotism.
His replacement, Jared 'Horse' Maxwell, was an odd choice given he was axed from the bunker as a video referee for the big games at the end of last season for mistakes in the finals.
No doubt there will be the usual blow ups.
A 20-year-old giant on more than $1 million a season means big-time exposure and close scrutiny on and off the field, not just from Gold Coast Titans fans but across the game. He faces huge pressure, week in, week out as the face of the club.
Still the biggest superstar in rugby league. But is he a centre or a fullback?
Can he get his Blues Origin jersey back. Can he regain his Kangaroos jersey for the World Cup?
Peter V'landys wants a second Brisbane team. What Peter V'landys wants, Peter V'landys gets.
An announcement will be made mid-year for a 2023 launch.
Free-to-air TV networks in upcoming negotiations need to know there will be four teams north of the border.
Some things are impossible to predict: eg Covid, bubbles and biosecurity.
The greatest game of all never sleeps.
Originally published as Drugs, feuds, chaos: Why 2021 will be another wild ride