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Stefano Utoikamanu

The Warriors have come within a whisker of knocking off the Storm for the best-rated pack in the NRL.

In the latest Your Say, fans have given the defending premiers a narrow win over both the Warriors and Raiders.

In a wide-open race, Melbourne finished top despite attracting just 15 per cent of the vote. The Warriors finished with 14% and Canberra 13%.

It is the rating of the Warriors that is the standout here. The arrival of Addin Fonua-Blake, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Kane Evans has already proven popular.

Best forward pack

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Broncos

The first three weeks of the season will be tough without the suspended Payne Haas but even when the Origin prop returns the Broncos still look undermanned upfront with David Fifita and Joe Ofahengaue moving on.

The wooden spooners need young bucks Thomas Flegler and Patrick Carrigan to go to another level in 2021 and veteran Alex Glenn to stay injury-free and defy Father Time if new coach Kevin Walters is to restore pride at Red Hill.

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Raiders

John Bateman is a massive loss but the experience of former Titan Ryan James will help ease the blow of losing the rugged Englishman.

Apart from farewelling Bateman, the Green Machine has a stable pack full of big-game players, led from the front by Josh Papalii, who churned out 148 metres per game in 2020 and still found the energy to run down Jamal Fogarty in one of the highlights of the season.

The return of hooker Josh Hodgson at No.9 brings creativity and leadership while back-rowers Elliott Whitehead and Joseph Tapine are elite competitors.

Sea Eagles

Martin Taupau will need to produce big minutes and big numbers every week in the absence of Addin Fonua-Blake, who has joined the Warriors. Taupau leaves nothing in the tank and is sure to relish his role as forward leader and he’ll have the inspirational Jake Trbojevic spurring him on.

Curtis Sironen will get through a power of work and former Tiger Josh Aloiai can be an impact player. Mature age rookie Andrew Davey is a toiler but he’s got massive shoes to fill with Joel Thompson having moved on to Super League.

Storm

Even without young powerhouse Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and all-time great Cameron Smith the defending champs still boast a pack the envy of the 15 clubs trying to run them down.

Maroons sensation Harry Grant slots straight into Smith’s No.9 jersey and looks set for a massive season while Jesse Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi, Christian Welch and Dale Finucane will ensure the standards remain as high as ever.

And when the starting props need a break, Craig Bellamy has wrecking balls Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica at his disposal.

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Sharks

A quick scan reveals what looks a great mix of experience and youth. Wade Graham is one of the most skilful forwards in the game, Andrew Fifita and Aaron Woods have proven themselves on the Test stage and the off-season arrival of Aiden Tolman provides a workhorse in the middle third of the field.

Then we have a handful of promising youngsters led by the likes of Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Jack Williams and Briton Nikora. If they all fire, watch out.

Bulldogs

New coach Trent Barrett showed how important Dylan Napa is to his plans when he knocked back a Penrith proposal for him to be part of a deal to get Matt Burton a year early. Napa now needs to repay that faith.

The addition of Jack Hetherington and Corey Waddell will add some much-needed competition for spots. Englishman Luke Thompson should be much-improved in his second season in the NRL and captain Josh Jackson remains an ultra-reliable edge forward.

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Knights

David Klemmer, Daniel Saifiti and Tyson Frizell are as strong a forward trio as you’ll find. All three wouldn’t look out of place in Kangaroos jerseys.

There are some hard workers among the remainder of the available forwards, but that star trio will need to lead the way if the Knights are to make the finals once again. Hooker Jayden Brailey and utility forward Connor Watson need to be weekly contributors.

Cowboys

One-man wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo will again carry a heavy load. Provided the likes of Josh McGuire and Jordan McLean set a strong platform, the Tongan great should remain the best running forward in the game.

Depth is not a strength, but that can be helped if Coen Hess can wind the clock back a few years. New coach Todd Payten needs to uncover a gem or two.

Eels

Junior Paulo's rise in recent years has been impressive. If he can maintain, or even improve on, his 2020 output the Eels are off to a great start.

One thing coach Brad Arthur will want is increased consistency and increased availability from Nathan Brown. The lock can be a game-changer when at his best. An already strong back row will be boosted by the arrival of Isaiah Papali’i.

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Titans

This pack looks set for an extended period of success. David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui are two of the best young forwards in the comp, and while 2020 Queensland Maroon rep Moeaki Fotuaika is a few years older than that pair, his best days are also still ahead of him.

When you add the veteran nous of the likes of Kevin Proctor, Jarrod Wallace and Herman Ese’ese you have a great unit. Also, watch out for Jaiman Joliffe to further build on last year.

Panthers

They did make last year’s grand final, but the pressure will be on the Panthers in 2021. They lost a mountain of experience with the exits of James Tamou and Zane Tetevano.

That means young prop Moses Leota and Spencer Leniu will need to become weekly contributors.

If they can provide support for James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo, edge forwards Viliame Kikau and Liam Martin can turn on the sparkle.  

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Rabbitohs

The arrival of Maroons forward Jai Arrow will help a South Sydney pack that surpassed expectations in 2020.

Liam Knight, Thomas Burgess and Tevita Tatola were strong in the middle and Cameron Murray is one of the best young ball-runners in the game. Damien Cook is as good as they come at hooker and Jaydn Su’A showed plenty of promise in 2020.

Dragons

Can Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan be Origin-standard players again? They need to lead with their actions in 2021. If they can, St George Illawarra could surprise. If not things aren’t looking great. They’ll be hoping for big things from recruit Poasa Fa'amausili.

The loss of inspirational skipper Cameron McInnes for the season is a huge blow - his leadership and workrate will be hard to replace.

Roosters

It’s not often a rival pack gets the better of the Roosters. They’ve got all their bases covered with middle forwards Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Lindsay Collins and Isaac Liu.

The return of Victor Radley and back-up hooker Sam Verrills will be welcomed. There are doubts over the availability of co-captain Boyd Cordner for potentially the first half of the season due to the head knock suffered in last November's Origin series opener.

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Warriors

The 2021 Warriors pack will not be lacking for size. The addition of Addin Fonua-Blake, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Kane Evans to a forward group that already includes Tohu Harris, Leeson Ah Mau and Eliesa Katoa provides a fair indication of the way the Warriors will play.

The challenge now is to combine that brute force with some guile.

Wests Tigers

What will the arrival of James Tamou, Joe Ofahengaue and Stefano Utoikamanu do a side that hasn’t been good enough to make the finals in recent years? They should improve, but whether that’s enough to land a spot in the top eight remains to be seen.

Hooker Jacob Liddle has big shoes to fill following Harry Grant’s superb 2020 season in black, gold and white before his return to Melbourne.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.