Biggest questions your club must answer in NRL trials
The unprecedented COVID-interrupted NRL calendar has thrown greater importance on the upcoming trials heading into the 2021 season.
The late finish to the 2020 competition and the post-season State of Origin series has resulted in a vastly shortened off-season, putting trial matches already on the horizon.
The pre-season schedule will not be as packed as recent years with most clubs only opting for one NRL hitout before the 2021 campaign begins in March.
The recent COVID outbreaks across New South Wales and the possibility of players re-entering the bubble could also wreak havoc with the trial matches with the full schedule subject to change.
All trials played before February 27 will involve players with fewer than 12 matches of NRL experience.
Here's how your club is looking in the lead-up to the new season and they key problem they need to solve in their maiden outings for 2021.
Trials: February 27 v Cowboys (7pm AEST at Dolphin Stadium, Redcliffe)
Burning question: What do the halves look like?
The Broncos have a new man in charge with Kevin Walters taking over from Anthony Seibold, but the five-time premiership-winning player must solve many of the same problems that baffled his sacked predecessor. Chief among them is what to do with his halves - Anthony Milford's best football feels like it happened some time ago, but his talent remains indisputable and unlocking the 26-year old's best football shapes as Brisbane's best avenue for success in 2021. Of equal concern is who feeds the scrums - does Walters give Brodie Croft another chance or back impressive youngster Tom Dearden?
KFC SuperCoach insider: Will cheapie Jordan Riki be the man to fill David Fifita's 80-minute gap on the edge? SuperCoaches hope so.
Trials: February 18 v Dragons (5:30pm AEDT, PointsBet Stadium - players with 12 games or less from 2020)
February 27 v Panthers, (7:30pm AEDT at Panthers Stadium)
Burning question: Who replaces Michael Jennings?
Parramatta have gone to market to fill out their squad for 2021 but the pickings were a little thin when it came to outside backs. Tom Opacic, a robust, wholehearted performer who has put together some underrated football for North Queensland, has joined the club, as has journeyman Michael Oldfield and the two seem likely to go up against impressive youngster Haze Dunster to start the season at left centre. The Eels have been patient with Dunster's development, only giving the 21-year-old his debut as Jennings' replacement in last season's semi-final loss to South Sydney. It might be something of a coin flip in the end - Opacic has more experience in the position, Oldfield has superior attacking class and Dunster appears to be the future.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Mitch Moses' SuperCoach production plummeted in 2020. Can the mercurial half find his mojo ahead of the 2021 season proper?
Trials: February 12 v Dragons (5:30pm (AEDT) Netstrata Jubilee Stadium (players with 12 games or less from 2020))
February 27 v Bulldogs (6pm (AEDT) at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium)
Burning question: What can they get out of Matt Moylan?
Moylan has battled injuries throughout his time at the Sharks and they well and truly got the better of him in 2020. The former Panthers skipper was restricted to just eight matches and by the end of the season it was hard to say he was still part of Cronulla's best 17. Be it at fullback or five-eighth, Moylan has plenty to prove in 2021 given his hefty pay packet.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Have to piggyback here - the form of Matt Moylan is the thing every SuperCoach will be watching in the trial.
Trials: February 27 v Eels (7:30pm at Panthers Stadium)
Burning question: Can they avoid a grand final hangover?
Penrith's unbreakable confidence was what helped them amass their mighty winning streak in 2020 and they rode that wave all the way to the grand final before they were dismantled by the Storm. The impact it'll have on the young squad, especially now former skipper James Tamou has left, remains to be seen.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Charlie "Forbes Ferrari" Staines is the most popular player in the game. If he can deliver even half of his 2020 output, he's a bargain.
Trials: February 27 v Broncos (7pm (AEST) at Dolphin Stadium, Recliffe)
Burning question: What can we expect from Valentine Holmes?
North Queensland's pack is still very strong and have enough talent in the halves to land on a winning combination but their greatest concern should be Holmes. The former Shark and New York Jet did well as a winger in his first season back in the NRL but his time at fullback was less inspiring as he showed little of the form he displayed as a Shark. If Holmes can't be the talisman he once was after another pre-season it won't be fatal given there's plenty of talent at Todd Payten's disposal but the Cowboys need to know if Val will be about town or if the town will be about Val.
KFC SuperCoach insider: With the Cowboys having a host of second-row options, Tom Gilbert and Shane Wright represent value if they can grab a starting role.
Trials: February 27 v Warriors (6pm (AEDT) at Oaks Oval, Lismore)
Burning question: Who plays hooker?
Do not adjust your settings - the Titans have become a very trendy pick to make the top eight based on their excellent finish to 2020 and an exceptional recruitment drive headed by two of the NRL's best young forwards in David Fifita and Tino Fa'asuamalueai. But dummy half is still not a strong position for the club with Mitch Rein, Tanah Boyd and Erin Clark all failing to make the role their own last season. Landing on the right choice shapes as Justin Holbrook's biggest calls of the pre-season.
KFC SuperCoach insider: He's been on SuperCoach watchlists for three seasons and two surnames: is 2021 the year Greg Marzhew (formerly Greg Leleisiuao) breaks into the NRL?
Trials: February 27 v Storm (5:30pm AEDT) at Casey Fields, Melbourne)
Burning question: What is the club's best spine?
Hooker and five-eighth were a problem for the Knights all through 2020 - not because they didn't have the talent to cover the two positions, but because some truly appallingly luck struck down whoever pulled on the six or nine jersey week to week. Kurt Mann, Mason Lino, and Blake Green all spent time at five-eighth while Mann, Jayden Brailey, Andrew McCullough and Connor Watson all packed down at hooker. Brailey looks set to start the year as the club's top rake while Blake Green's expected elevation to the captaincy seemingly puts him in the box seat to partner Mitchell Pearce in the halves.
KFC SuperCoach insider: No matter the position, if Connor Watson starts then he is SuperCoach relevant. Off the bench he's a no-go zone.
Trials: February 28 v Tigers (5pm (AEDT) at Leichhardt Oval)
Burning question: What does the spine look like?
In theory, Manly should know exactly how things will fit together in 2021. Tom Trbojevic will be fullback, Kieran Foran reunites with Daly Cherry-Evans in the halves and Cade Cust likely gets first crack at hooker. But games are not played in theory - Trbojevic has struggled with hamstring injuries for some time now, Foran's continued career is a fight against the body which seems determined to betray him and Cust is inexperienced at dummy half. If it all falls into place it could be heady days for Manly, but there's a lot that needs to fall the right way.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Another team in need of a new second-rower and SuperCoaches will hope new recruit Andrew Davey shows plenty against the Tigers.
Trials: February 20 v Tigers (6:30pm (AEDT) at Kirkham Oval, Camden (players with 12 games of less from 2020))
February 27 v Raiders (5:30pm (AEDT) at Leichhardt Oval)
Burning question: Who plays halfback?
With Kyle Flanagan out, the Roosters have a vacancy at the scrumbase with three main contenders for the job. Sam Walker looks to be the club's long-term halfback, but given he'll only be 18 when the season begins it may be too early for the young Queenslander. Lachlan Lam showed some good signs last season but may be too similar in style to Luke Keary to compliment the star five-eighth while Adam Keighran could be a steady bridge until Walker is ready with the former Warrior also solving the club's goalkicking issue. Trent Robinson could also pull a fast one and switch Keary to halfback and play one of the trio at five-eighth.
KFC SuperCoach insider: The Roosters score plenty of tries, which means their goalkicker scores plenty of points. With Flanagan gone, who takes the kicking tee?
Trials: February 20 v Roosters (6:30pm (AEDT), Kirkham Oval, Camden (players with 12 games or less from 2020))
February 28 v Sea Eagles (5pm (AEDT) Leichhardt Oval)
Burning question: Who makes their top 17?
The Tigers have sneakily put together one of the best recruitment drives in the NRL with James Tamou, Joe Ofahengaue, James Roberts and Stefano Utoikamanu giving the club improvement across the park. It also helps create depth and competition for spots, especially in the forwards, which the Tigers haven't had for some time. If both trial matches go ahead as scheduled it'll be a godsend for Michael Maguire - he'll want as much data as possible before he makes the choice on who plays in Round 1.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Can base-price hooker Jake Simpkin earn enough minutes to be relevant, will Roberts earn a start? Plenty to watch in the trials.
Trials: February 27 v Dragons (6:30pm (AEDT) Glen Willow Sports Complex, Mudgee)
Burning question: Who starts in the back row?
With Latrell Mitchell set to return at fullback and Jai Arrow joining from the Titans, the only real spot up for grabs at South Sydney is at second row. Should Wayne Bennett keep Cameron Murray on an edge, as he did at stages in 2020, it opens the door for Arrow to move to lock and Tevita Tatola or Liam Knight to start at prop. However, if Murray stays in his preferred role in the middle and Arrow pushes upfront new recruit Jacob Host could land a spot on the left edge.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Cody Walker averaged an incredible 111.8 points per game over the final five rounds. Can he continue that when Latrell Mitchell returns from injury.
Trials: February 27 v Roosters (5:30pm (AEDT) at Leichhardt Oval)
Burning question: Who replaces Jarrod Croker?
Canberra are low on experience in the outside backs but high on upside. Harley Smith-Shields, Matthew Timoko and Semi Valemei all made their NRL debuts last season and will come into contention for Round 1 should Jarrod Croker miss some time with a shoulder injury. Timoko and Smith-Shields will likely duke it out for the spot and the club's sole trial could be the proving ground that helps Ricky Stuart make his decision.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera are duking it out to replace John Bateman. Whoever wins the battle becomes worthy of selection.
Trials: February 12th v Sharks (5:30pm (AEDT) Pointsbet Stadium (players with 12 games or less from 2020)
February 18th v Eels (5:30pm (AEDT) at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium (players with 12 games or less from 2020))
February 27th v Rabbitohs (6:30pm (AEDT) Glen Willows Sporting Complex, Mudgee)
Burning question: Where does Ben Hunt play?
Hunt is one of the highest-paid players in the NRL, which makes him an easy target when things go wrong for the Dragons, but shuffling between halfback, five-eighth, hooker and the bench put him in a tough position in 2020. The Queenslander still views halfback as his best spot and new Dragons coach Anthony Griffin was the first coach to give him consistent starts at the scrumbase when they were together at Brisbane in 2014, but it remains to be seen exactly where Hunt will begin the season.
KFC SuperCoach insider: There is a CTW job up for grabs. SuperCoaches want one of Max Feagai or Brayden Wiliame to make the position their own in the trials.
Trials: February 27th v Sharks (6pm (AEDT) at Netstrata Stadium)
Burning question: What can Trent Barrett make of Kyle Flanagan?
Flanagan was a point scoring sensation in his junior days and played some good football in his initial time in first grade with Cronulla, but his time at the Roosters was turbulent to say the least. Under enormous pressure from the start, Flanagan was dropped midway through the year and while he returned for the finals series the Tricolours opted to move on from the 22-year old. Given Barrett's role in helping Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai become one of the competition's best halves pairings he seems the man most likely to salvage Flanagan's confidence.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Jake Averillo has a SuperCoach-friendly style of game. All eyes will be on whether he gels with Flanagan in the halves.
Trials: February 20th v Warriors (7:15pm (AEST) at Dolphin Stadium, Recliffe (players with 12 games or less from 2020))
February 27th v Knights, (5:30pm (AEDT) at Casey Fields, Melbourne)
Burning question: Will Cameron Smith be there?
Given we're now into the new year, it seems more and more likely by the day that Cameron Smith won't be playing on in 2021 and the Storm will have to get by somehow with only Harry Grant, the reigning rookie of the year and a Queensland Origin player, and Brandon Smith, the New Zealand Test hooker, as their options to replace him. Other clubs would kill for those sorts of issues. And yet, until Smith officially calls time on his glittering career there's no reason to shut the door on him saddling up for a 20 season in Storm colours.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Reimis Smith and Isaac Lumelume are leading contenders to replace departed right winger Suliasi Vunivalu. Hopefully the trials indicate who coach Craig Bellamy prefers.
Trials: February 20 v Storm (7:15pm (AEST) at Dolphin Stadium, Recliffe (players with 12 games or less from 2020))
February 27 v Titans (6pm (AEDT) Oaks Oval, Lismore)
Burning question: Does Tohu Harris play middle or edge?
Harris was counted as one of the best second rowers in the competition when he was at Melbourne but the 30-year old has been flying under the radar since linking with New Zealand in 2018. A move to the middle last year proved to be a revelation for Harris and he was consistently the Warriors' best in a very difficult season. However, Nathan Brown has plenty other quality middles, including Addin Fonua-Blake, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Leeson Ah Mau and Bunty Afoa, as well as new recruit Kane Evans. Throw in the lack of quality options when it comes to edge forwards and moving back out wide looks to be the move for Harris.
KFC SuperCoach insider: Add Jazz Tevaga to the middle-forward logjam at the Warriors. If Tevaga starts at lock, he's a gun. Off the bench he's a no go.
Originally published as Biggest questions your club must answer in NRL trials