William Hewett: How your favourite team, Kiwi stars stack up for NRL 2021 season

OPINION: The NRL season is upon us, with NZ Warriors looking to make the playoffs with their new signings and coach Nathan Brown, while Melbourne Storm will aim for rare back-to-back championships.

Here’s how the teams stack up for 2021, in projected finishing order:

1. South Sydney

Last season: Sixth

Prediction: Under master coach Wayne Bennett, Souths have been a team full of attacking spark and have added consistency to their game.

They took time to adjust to the new rules after play was suspended due to COVID-19, but when they did, they were almost impossible to stop, highlighted by their 60-8 thrashing of the Roosters.

Player movement has been limited at the Rabbitohs, with Queensland forward Jai Arrow their biggest off-season signing from Gold Coast.

In Wayne Bennett's last year as South's coach, they should kick on from their sixth-place finish to take out the minor Premiership in 2021.

Kiwi to watch: Souths are not stacked with Kiwi talent, but former New Zealand captain Benji Marshall will be determined for a big year. The 36-year-old was a shock addition to the Rabbitohs squad and just how Bennett uses him will be interesting.

Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker are locked in for the halves spots, so Marshall will battle from the bench, where he's named for round one. 

2. Melbourne Storm

Last season: Second

Prediction: The Storm are always there or thereabouts at the business end of the season, and you can't count them out this time around.

Just how they react to the loss of the great Cameron Smith will be interesting, but they do welcome back livewire Harry Grant - fresh from a standout rookie season with West Tigers and a thrilling State of Origin debut.

They've also locked away the core of their squad, so they'll be settled and out to go back-to-back.

They will come up just short of a minor premiership, but anything can happen at finals time. 

Kiwi to watch: Jahrome Hughes capped off his first season at halfback with a championship, but can he step up and go even better?

With Cameron Smith gone, the spine will have to step up and take responsibility, and Hughes may just go to another level. 

3. Canberra Raiders

Last season: Fifth 

Prediction: Ricky Stuart's men are becoming a consistent top-six side and after a strong 2020 season without star hooker Josh Hodgson, they've proved they're not a one-trick pony.

The return of the dynamic Englishman should see them move to another level, and with Daily M winner Jack Wighton still hunting for his maiden premiership and blockbusting forward Josh Papalii in career-best shape, the 'Green Machine' will be a tough side to stop.

Joseph Tapine in action for Canberra Raiders
Joseph Tapine in action for Canberra Raiders. Photo credit: Getty

The losses of Nick Cotric and John Bateman will hurt, and just how they are replaced will be critical for success.

They'll compete for the minor premiership, but will fall short late.   

Kiwi to watch: Joseph Tapine is coming off a career-best season, when he managed four tries, 52 tackle busts, 648 tackles and a staggering 1042 post-contact metres.

The strong, hard-hitting ball carrier will be a menace for opposing sides, with very little difference between his best and worst performances, and he should be in for a big 2021. 

4. Sydney Roosters

Last season: Fourth

Prediction: With scapegoat Kyle Flanagan gone, all eyes will turn to his replacement in the halves. Lachlan Lam gets the first crack, but whether he's good enough to help the side to a third premiership in four years is yet to be seen.

The bigger loss will be captain Boyd Cordner, who is out for at least 12 weeks with concussion. The Roosters will always be powerful side, but the lack of experience at five-eighth and without their inspirational skipper, they'll have to settle for fourth in a tightly contested ladder. 

Kiwi to watch: The Rosters are another side stacked with Kiwi talent, but with Joseph Manu eying a switch to fullback - potentially at the Warriors - the 24-year-old is in for a big season, as he tries to impress potential suitors for a big-money offer.

Joseph Manu in action for Sydney Roosters
Joseph Manu in action for Sydney Roosters. Photo credit: Getty

The Kiwi had nine tries in 2020 - a career best - but he'll want double figures, not only in four-pointers, but also in try assists to showcase the creative side of his game.

5. Penrith Panthers

Last season: First

Prediction: Last season's minor premiership winners - and some would say surprise packets - are in for a tough ask to repeat their heroics in 2021.

With the core of their squad returning, they should be up there again, as they hunt their first premiership since 2003.

The loss of key players James Tamou, Josh Mansour and Zane Tetevano will harm their chances this campaign, and with no big additions, the Panthers will rely on young players coming through to take their spots.

The streamlined squad will hurt Penrith, who will come up short in their quest for a top-four spot. 

Kiwi to watch: The Panthers aren't stacked with Kiwi talent, but with James Tamou off to Wests Tigers, James FIsher-Harris will be asked to step up and shoulder some of the workload previously carried by their skipper.

After a huge last campaign, when he recorded a career-best 1534 post-contact metres, the 25-year-old will want to continue his barnstorming form into the new season.

James Fisher-Harris in action for Penrith Panthers
James Fisher-Harris in action for Penrith Panthers. Photo credit: Getty

6. Parramatta Eels

Last season: Third

Prediction: The Eels are a side with so much potential, yet to deliver, and 2021 looms as more of the same.

Just whether Clint Gutherson and Mitchell Moses can carry their side to the top four remains to be seen, but the lack of any high-quality signings means they'll slip out of the top four and down to sixth. 

Kiwi to watch: Dylan Brown had a breakout season in 2020, before finishing the campaign with an injury that stifled his form.

He'll be better for the experience and the young Kiwi will look to take his game to the next level, providing that much-needed spark to take some of the burden off Gutherson and Moses.

7. NZ Warriors

Last season: 10th 

Prediction: The Warriors have been one of the most active teams in the player market, bringing in a host of new players, especially in the forwards.

On paper, they have a top-four pack and should give their backs go-forward to spark the attack. 

If new coach Nathan Brown can get his rotation right with his big forwards, then the Warriors will be able to use their backs to great effect. With Ken Maumalo and David Fusitu'a back, they should cause carnage all season.

The New Zealand side will look to use the new rules to their advantage and I see them cracking the top eight for the first time since 2018. 

Kiwi to watch: In his last season for the club, captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will want to go out on a high.

After a quiet year with his stats on the field, he'll hope the new forwards will give him more space to use his explosive footwork to tear defences apart. 

8. Newcastle Knights

Last season: Seventh 

Prediction: The Knights will start the 2021 season ravaged by injuries and will have to play catch-up for most of the season with a host of their stars out.

Kalyn Ponga, Edrick Lee, Hymel Hunt and Lachlan Fitzgibbon are all unavailable, so they'll want to limit more injuries in the first half of the campaign.

The key will be the back half of the campaign and if everyone is fit, they should finishing strongly and just sneak into the eight.  

Starford Toa scores for Newcastle Knights
Starford Toa scores for Newcastle Knights. Photo credit: Getty

Kiwi to watch: With the Knights light on Kiwi talent, there aren't many to choose from, but one to keep an eye on is wing Starford To'a.

To'a has made a bright start to his NRL career, scoring five tries in eight games. With Lee and Hunt out, the Kiwi will get first crack on the wing to impress coach Adam O'Brien. 

9. North Queensland Cowboys

Last season: 14th 

Prediction: After three years of bottom-four finishes, the Cowboys are due for an upturn in form.

Their best signing for 2021 might not be a player, but new head coach Todd Payton. After being thrown the toughest first assignment you could get, he turned the homeless Warriors from a sorry club to one supporters on both sides of the Tasman were proud to support.

The key will be keeping captain Michael Morgan fit and getting the best out of barnstorming forward Jason Taumalolo. The back-line will either be explosive or out of sync, with Payton still figuring out his best combinations.

Jason Taumalolo in action for North Queensland Cowboys
Jason Taumalolo in action for North Queensland Cowboys. Photo credit: Getty

Without a doubt, Valentine Holmes and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are bound to excite, but just getting the right combination will be the key.

Kiwi to watch: How can you go past Jason Taumalolo? The massive lock had a quiet year by his standards in 2021, so will hope to bounce back.

With only 53 tackle busts - his worst since 2013 - he'll want to explode under Payton. 

10. Gold Coast Titans

Last season: Ninth

Prediction: The Titans were another club highly active in the player market and one of the most talked-about sides in the off-season.

Pundits have them making the top eight, with Justin Holbrook doing a terrific job and recruiting magnificently, but they still lack X-factor in the back-line. Ash Taylor and Jamal Fogarty are inconsistent halves, while hooker Mitch Rein is consistent, but not spectacular and could be the downfall for the Titans.

Talk has centred around whether Cameron Smith would sign, but the former Storm hooker has finally called time on his career and the Titans might now wonder 'what if'.

Kiwi to watch: Captain Kevin Proctor is the Kiwi to watch in the Titans side. After a stop-start season for the 32-year-old, he'll be out to lead his side to the top eight for the first time since 2016.

Kevin Proctor is sent off against Cronulla Sharks
Kevin Proctor is sent off against Cronulla Sharks. Photo credit: Getty

He's be joined by high-profile signings, but just how he leads the side will be crucial to their success. 

11. Cronulla Sharks

Last season: Eighth

Prediction: Another of last season's top eight that could miss out in 2021.

The loss of creative spark Shaun Johnson will be key and really hamper their attack. With aging forward Aiden Tolman the only notable addition, this could be a long year for Cronulla.

They didn't beat one top-eight side in 2020 and will only go backwards, as teams that finished below them improve. 

Kiwi to watch: After two breakthrough seasons, Braden Hamlin-Uele will want to lead the Sharks side back to the top eight.

With so many teams improving around them, the barnstorming Kiwi will be instrumental, if the Sharks are going to keep their spot in the eight. 

12. Canterbury Bulldogs

Last season: 15th 

Prediction: The Bulldogs have all the ingredients for a much-improved 2021 season.

The additions of Corey Allan, Kyle Flanagan, Corey Waddell and Nick Cotric will provide a much-needed boost and X-factor to a 'Dogs side that so desperately needed it.

After a season when they clearly had the weakest roster, but worked hard to restore pride to the club.

New head coach Trent Barrett, who was the catalyst to Penrith's brilliant attack last season, should guide them up the ladder, but this campaign may be one season too soon in their quest for a top eight spot. 

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in action for Canterbury Bulldogs
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in action for Canterbury Bulldogs. Photo credit: AAP

Kiwi to watch: Former Kiwis captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will be key to the improvement of the Bulldogs, with Barrett putting a big focus on the attack during the off-season.

DWZ will want to get back to his best, after scoring only four tries in the past three seasons.

13. Brisbane Broncos

Last season: 16th

Prediction: Last season's underperformers will want to prove the doubters wrong under new head coach Kevvie Walters.

But with David Fifita, Darius Boyd, Joe Ofahengaue and Andrew McCullough out the door, the task will be too tough for Brisbane. With so much focus on how they'll go, the weight of expectations will be too much and the Broncos seem doomed for another disappointing season. 

Kiwi to watch: Jamayne Isaako will get first crack at the fullback spot in Walters' first squad. The 24-year-old Kiwi is an exciting talent, who'll want to get back to his 2018 form, when he scored 11 tries.

With the loss of club legend Boyd, all eyes will be on the Kiwi's performance in the No.1 jersey. 

14. Manly Sea Eagles

Last season: 13th 

Prediction: This pick may surprise many, but Manly will struggle in 2021.

Injured fullback Tom Trbojevic is already out for about six-weeks, Manly proved in 2020 they can't play without him. Add in the loss of influential forward Addin Fonua-Blake and I can't see the Sea Eagles not struggling in 2021. 

Kieran Foran suffers another injury for the Bulldogs
Kieran Foran suffers another injury for the Bulldogs. Photo credit: Getty

Kiwi to watch: One signing who will help is Kiwi Kieran Foran, who was a bright spot in a Bulldogs side that struggled last season. He'll enjoy teaming up with his former halves partner Daily Cherry-Evans and if Manly are to do anything in 2021, much will depend on them.

15. West Tigers

Last season: 11th 

Prediction: West Tigers look set for another bumpy season in 2021 under NZ Kiwis coach Michael Maguire.

The spine is a real area of concern, with considerable pressure on Luke Brooks, who has played 148 games for zero finals appearances. Harry Grant was instrumental in the Tigers attack last time round, and his loss should see them struggling to avoid the wooden spoon. 

Kiwi to watch: Young wing Asu Kepaoa is the Kiwi to watch in the Tigers side, after making a promising start in 2020, with four tries in five appearances.

16. St George Dragons

Last season: 12th 

Prediction: New coach Anthony Griffin has a tough job ahead of him, if he is to restore pride back into the 'Red V'.

After two bottom-four finishes, the Dragons will be out to prove people wrong, but with the loss of key players Euan Aitken, Tyson Frizell and Korbin Sims, they'll struggle again and pick up the first wooden spoon in the club's history. 

Poasa Faamausili in action for the Warriors
Poasa Faamausili in action for the Warriors. Photo credit: Photosport

Kiwi to watch: After two seasons with the Roosters, new signing Poasa Faamausili was loaned to the Warriors for four games in 2020 and will want to take that impressive form into 2021.

William Hewett is a Newshub online sports producer. Join us for live updates of the Warriors' 2021 NRL campaign, starting 5pm Saturday against Gold Coast