This article was first written for and published by the Roar.
Far too often in rugby league, the word ‘rebuild’ is used as a deflection or as a replacement for the words ‘my team simply isn’t good enough’.
This year’s competition has completely debunked the rebuilding myth, thanks to two teams: the Canberra Raiders and the Manly Sea Eagles.
At the conclusion of Round 20, both these teams sit in the top four and both teams sent a very real message to the rest of the competition that they are serious contenders for the premiership.
The Raiders did this with a huge 46-12 win over the New Zealand Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium and the Sea Eagles with a 30-6 win over the Newcastle Knights, who now find themselves sitting 11th on the ladder.
Heading into this season, some experts may have had the Raiders in their top eight, but I suspect that very few had the Sea Eagles there.
For both these teams, rebuilding has taken a year.
The Raiders recruited exceptionally well. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has lit up the NRL and arguably been buy of the season. Not only has he been exceptional on the field, but he has also committed himself to the community off the field and has developed a cult following.
That cult following is potentially only second to another outstanding Raiders recruit, John Bateman. Aussies are used to seeing our NRL players head over to the Super League and dominate. The reverse is not so common. But there is always an exception to the rule and Bateman has also contributed plenty of aggression, physicality and spark in attack for the Raiders.
Not that spark in attack was a problem for the Raiders last year. In 2018, the Raiders scored 563 points – second only to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Their problem was they conceded 540 points, too, among the worst in the competition.
Ricky Stuart has said that in the off-season the team focused on defence, and it shows, with the Raiders set for a crucial showdown against the Sydney Roosters this weekend.
Another team who has turned it around is Manly. At the start of the year, had anybody heard of players like Reuben Garrick and Manase Fainu? Who would have predicted that Curtis Sironen would have a break-out season?
The difference between 2018 Manly and 2019 Manly is their coach. Des Hasler has turned this team around.
Then, at the other end of the ladder we have teams that are still trying to peddle the rebuild narrative.
The Newcastle Knights have been trying to sell their fans the rebuild story for the last four years.
It’s not acceptable anymore.
The Knights sit 11th on the ladder now. Above them are teams like the Wests Tigers, who on paper do not have a team that competes with players such as Mitchell Pearce, David Klemmer and Kalyn Ponga.
I have heard all the excuses in the world for this team. They are rebuilding. They were impacted by Origin. Leading into this week’s game, people were blaming the poor attitude of Jesse Ramien, who abruptly departed from the club last week.
Judging by the result on the field this weekend, the problem was not Ramien. In the end, these are excuses and, with there being reported salary cap pressure on the team for next year, their squad is likely to lose players rather than gain them.
How much longer can Nathan Brown rebuild for?
The Knights only have two more wins than the Canterbury Bulldogs, who are a team that can use the rebuilding excuse, given the salary cap mess that the new administration was left with.
I’ve even heard that the Brisbane Broncos are rebuilding.
When Anthony Seibold joined the club, I don’t remember this being the narrative. In fact, given the young talent in the Broncos squad, many had this team in the top four.
Now, the finals are a far cry and I wonder how the fans will react given they expect the Broncos to make the finals every single year.
Then there are the perpetual rebuilders, the Gold Coast Titans, who have somehow become worse on the field since they hired Mal Meninga to do a culture review earlier this year and even worse since they sacked their coach Garth Brennan two weeks ago.
Justin Holbrook was announced as the new coach last week on a two-year contract.
Given the state of the Titans at the moment, that doesn’t seem like much time compared to other coaches in the NRL, who have had much more time to change a team’s fortunes.
We have seen this year what a difference a new coach and a couple of fresh faces can make.
So if I’m right and rebuilds don’t take as long as some people think, could we see a remarkably different Titans squad next year?
Manly and Canberra certainly suggest that it’s possible.