Picking my 2021 top eight

This post was first written for and published by the Roar.

s a footy fan, this week is almost the best part of the season. You can feel the anticipation!

Before the first whistle has blown, anything is possible.

No matter the trial form, right now almost everyone thinks that their team can win the premiership (except perhaps St George Illawarra fans).

As an Eels fan, it usually takes a couple of weeks before I am brought back down to earth with a tremendous thud, but right now I’m still holding onto hope of my club featuring in the first week of October.

Round 1 is always exciting because footy is back, but even more so this year given the disruption we all became accustomed to last year. Many of us couldn’t cheer on our team on in 2020 and that was hard. I’m looking forward to a more normal season and I can’t wait to get back into the stands.

As always, the question for this week is who makes the finals.

Is it just me or does this get harder and harder? It feels like there are always around four teams that are classed as ‘certainties’ with seventh and eighth spot always being hardest to pick.

But it should be hard. It signals how close the competition is and how almost every club is in the hunt.

So here is my 2021 top eight. I’m certain about the top four teams, but after that it becomes a lottery:

Jaxson Paulo of the Rabbitohs scores a try

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

South Sydney Rabbitohs
Canberra Raiders
Melbourne Storm
Sydney Roosters
Penrith Panthers
Parramatta Eels
Gold Coast Titans
Newcastle Knights

We talk about premiership windows and Souths are well and truly within theirs.

They came so close to making the grand final last year and with new additions like Josh Mansour, who will help the Bunnies come out of their own end, and Jai Arrow, who is just an exceptionally gifted footballer, the team has only got stronger.

Barring injury to key players like Latrell Mitchell, Adam Reynolds or Cody Walker, I can’t see what will stop them this year. They have the coach, the players and the depth, making them a triple-threat.

The Raiders are another team with incredible depth. Consider that Ryan James may not even make the run-on side and that even with Corey Harawira-Naera and Corey Horsburgh unavailable, that the team has no trouble filling their spots. Even without John Bateman, I still expect Canberra to make the grand final.

I continue to be in awe of the Roosters and the Storm. Both teams will make the top four, despite significant changes to their rosters.

The Chooks’ halves are unsettled, but with the immense talent still at the club, they will still be tough to beat. Victor Radley will remind us why he was such a fundamental part of this team in 2019.

Victor Radley of the Roosters celebrates victory with Jake Friend of the Roosters.

Victor Radley (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Melbourne are a team that fans continue to write off, more so this year without Cameron Smith and without Harry Grant for the opening few rounds.

But under Craig Bellamy, the Victorians will find a way. The incredible thing about them is how well each player knows their role and how strong they look, no matter who is unavailable.

Penrith and Parramatta both make my eight, but at the same time, I can see both teams crumbling.

The Panthers have lost experience and some depth, including James Tamou, Josh Mansour and Zane Tetevano, and this will no doubt impact what is still a young and inexperienced team.

The Eels have been in the mix for the last couple of years but consistently struggle to match it with the top teams. It’s make or break for Brad Arthur this year; either his charges progress to Week 3 of the finals or it may be time to start looking for a new coach. Much of that pressure will rest on the shoulders of Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown.

The final two spots were difficult.

I picked the Titans because they finished just outside the eight last year and have become much stronger with the signings of Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita. It took Justin Holbrook some time to settle his squad last year, but after that they started playing some exciting football. This is their time to make the playoffs.

The Knights just snuck in too, but much of their fortunes will rest on the prospects of Mitchell Pearce, whose contract has just been extended until the end of 2022.

Mitchell Pearce doing the double teapot.

Mitchell Pearce of the Knights (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

As for the teams just missing out?

The next couple of spots on the ladder will be filled by the Wests Tigers, Cronulla Sharks and Brisbane Broncos.

Then we get closer to the bottom.

A team that is causing much debate is the New Zealand Warriors, who are many people’s smoky for the top eight. But with Nathan Brown as a coach, I cannot see how this will happen.

I also expect to see Manly towards the bottom of the ladder, with the Dragons finishing with the wooden spoon.

Now let’s get into the season and see how credible my claims are come September.