Can NRL battlers ever close the gap?
The NRL season is only two and a bit weeks old and already there are fears a gap has opened up between the contenders and pretenders.
After 18 games of action, a bottom eight side from last year is yet to beat a 2020 finalist - and that looks set to continue this weekend.
The Warriors, who finished 10th in 2020, are $4.10 outsiders against the competition heavyweights Canberra Saturday while the Wests Tigers ($3.40) are also unfancied in their clash against Newcastle on Sunday.
The message from former league legend and NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler to the teams that are already lagging behind is simple - go back to basics.
"There is a gap, absolutely," Fittler told The Saturday Telegraph.
"If I can relate it to tennis, the teams that are struggling have been giving a way too many unforced errors, while the good teams don't do that.
"But that comes down to precision with kicking and passing, the whole lot.
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"There is not much that can done about it … the teams that are struggling need to stay patient and work hard."
For former Blues coach Phil Gould, the intensity and skill level in Thursday night's grand final rematch thriller between Penrith and Melbourne only exasperated the gulf between the contenders and the teams that are merely making up the numbers in season 2021.
"We talk about the huge gap between the top and bottom teams in the NRL this year. The gap is even more noticeable when two great teams play each other," Phil Gould said on social media.
"You can see the difference in quality and intensity straight away. The first 10 minutes of this match highlights the quality."
But South Sydney star Benji Marshall isn't willing to write-off any opposition side just yet, not even his former club the Wests Tigers, who have conceded 70 points in the first two rounds against Canberra and the Sydney Roosters.
"For the Tigers, they have played two top four teams … you can't throw the toys out of the cot just yet," Marshall said.
"Give them the opportunity to find their feet. Canberra are a tough team, the Roosters are a tough team. That's just one example.
"Personally, I think it's too early.
"A lot of people are writing teams off after round two … last year there were teams that hadn't won many games after the first couple of rounds and came home pretty strong.
"So I think teams need around five weeks to get it together and see where they are really at."
Five from the eight teams that finished in the bottom half of the ladder, including the Warriors, St George Illawarra, North Queensland, Canterbury and Brisbane all went into the season with new coaches.
Fittler doesn't believe the new coaches have struggled to adapt or prepare their respective sides for the NRL's new restart rules. But Fittler said talent in the NRL is unevenly spread, making it hard for coaches that have inherited weaker rosters to compete.
"I'm not how much of an impact the new rules are having on the teams struggling," Fittler said.
"But coaching is a hard gig. It's just so hard. They would not be sleeping very well.
"All the new coaches took on teams that were struggling, there were no changing of coaches in the top teams, those jobs don't open up often.
Derided as perennial ninth place finishers, the Tigers last appeared in a finals series back in 2011 and the finals pain looks set to continue in season 2021. Coach Michael Maguire was active in the player market over the summer bringing in Daine Laurie, Joe Ofahengaue and James Tamou but after leaking 70 points in two games, Maguire axed centre Joey Leilua, sending a message no one's place in his side is safe. After taking on Newcastle on Sunday then Parramatta in round four, the Tigers face North Queensland, Manly, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast, games Maguire would view as winnable and a chance for his side to redeem themselves from what could be an 0-4 start.
After a win in round one against the Gold Coast Titans, the early signs for the Warriors were promising that Nathan Brown's side could be the biggest improvers this season. While they earned the crucial two competition points, the new coach was left wanting in attack and seeking more from his halves pairing when it came to last tackle options. The concern has only grown after halfback Chanel Harris-Tavita suffered a foot fracture and is out for up to 12 weeks. New recruit centre Euan Aitken will also miss the next two months with an ankle injury.
With David Fifita and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui joining coach Justin Holbrooks' rebuild many tipped the Titans to jag a finals spot in season 2021. But a loss to the Warriors in round one and a win against a Broncos outfit that missed 27 tackles last week, makes it difficult to get a gauge on exactly how the Titans are faring. Holbrooks' pack rotation including Fifita, Fa'asuamaleaui, Mo Fotuaika and Jarrod Wallace can match it with the best sides in the competition, the key for the Titans is unlocking the strike in the backline.
The drums of doom starting beat after the Rabbitohs made easy work of the Dragons in the Charity Shield. But a win against the Cowboys, one where the Dragons showed signs of life and a resilience in defence that had eluded the side in recent years, has given Red V faithful a glimmer of hope. Anthony Griffin's men get the chance to consolidate on last weekend's win against the Cowboys before facing a genuine test against the Knights and the Eels in rounds four and five.
13. SEA EAGLES
The Sea Eagles struggle to win games without Tom Trbojevic on the field, it's a serious problem for coach Des Hasler since the star fullback can't seem to stay healthy. But conceding 72 points in the opening two matches tells a story that goes beyond a key player being sidelined with injury. Defence is an attitude and clearly that attitude isn't where it needs to be for the Sea Eagles to be competitive. A win against the Dragons will go a long way in silencing the talk of unrest at the club after revelations star forward Martin Taupau is being shopped around.
New coach Todd Payten didn't miss in his criticism of powerhouse forward Jason Taumalolo, who is now out until round six with a hand injury, following round one's loss to Penrith. The public baking hardly inspired the right response and the Cowboys now find themselves 0-2 and going into this week's clash against the Titans without playmaker Michael Morgan. Payten's stiffest competition in the next month is likely to be Cronulla in round four but winnable matches against the Tigers and the Bulldogs in consecutive weeks could give the Cowboys a much needed confidence boost.
Trent Barrett has been credited for turning around Penrith's attack but so far the new Canterbury head coach has not been able to imprint that winning formula at Belmore. After scoring only 49 tries last year, one more than wooden spooner's the Broncos, the Bulldogs' attacking woes have continued into season 2021. So far, Canterbury have scored 16 points in the opening two rounds of the season. If Barrett isn't able to jag a win against the Broncos Saturday night, he is facing a 0-5 start with the Rabbitohs and then the Storm waiting for his side in the next two weeks. There is talent in the new spine of Corey Allan, Jeremy Marshall-King, Jake Averillo and Kyle Flanagan, what Bulldogs fans want to know is, how quickly will Barrett turn talent into points.
New coach Kevin Walters hasn't been able to wave his magic wand and fix Brisbane woes, and his debut season in charge is in danger of spiralling out of control. After Saturday's clash with Canterbury, the Broncos face competition heavyweights Melbourne, South Sydney, Penrith and Parramatta - meaning they're every chance of falling to 0-7 if they lose to the Bulldogs. At least Payne Haas will return from suspension next week in a much-needed boost.
Originally published as Can NRL battlers ever close the gap?