Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.
Has Craig Bellamy surpassed Wayne Bennett in discussions about the greatest rugby league coach ever?
Lucie: No doubt Craig Bellamy is the best coach of the decade, but the longevity and multifaceted success of Wayne Bennett's career cannot be triumphed in the GOAT debate. At this stage anyway. Bennett, 71, has seven titles and 877 club matches under his belt since taking the helm at Red Hill in 1988. He's shown his formula works at multiple clubs, having coached premiership-winning teams in the Broncos and Dragons as well as leading the Knights and Rabbitohs to finals. Then there's five Origin series wins, plus leading Australia and England at Test level. It's a hard resume to beat, but the difference is that Bellamy has created a powerhouse in the Melbourne Storm and stuck to it. In his 19 seasons at the Storm, he's won 343 of 490 matches at 69.9 percent and led the club to nine grand finals - officially winning three. While Bellamy had the luxury of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk in his roster, the last few seasons has seen the rise of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Josh Addo-Carr, Jesse Bromwich, Harry Grant, Brandon Smith and recently Nicho Hynes. It seems as though any player who joins the Storm is destined for success under Bellamy's gaze. With another five years in Melbourne ahead of him, he could surpass Bennett in the GOAT discussion based on results.
Darren: There is very little doubt that Craig Bellamy is an incredible rugby league coach, you only have to look at how well Melbourne Storm are playing this year to appreciate how much influence he has at the club. Many believed that the end of the Smith/Slater/Cronk era would see the Melbourne club tumble down the premiership ladder, as they struggled to replace such generational playing talent, but the Storm haven't missed a beat. Bellamy has such belief in the systems he employs that players who looked average elsewhere slot straight into the team and blossom into stars in their own right. Wayne Bennett has the runs on the board though when it comes to GOAT discussions and his ability to bring success elsewhere shows his versatility and his command as the ultimate man manager. Bellamy has signed on for another five years at the Storm, but may only coach for one more year before transitioning into more of a Football Manager role. I really would have liked to see him coach elsewhere, maybe at the new Brisbane club when it is introduced, just to see if his skills translate in a completely different environment. For now Bennett retains the crown, and may never be topped.
Should the players have been given the option to play at the Rugby League World Cup?
Lucie: Australians and New Zealanders should have been given the option to play at the Rugby League World Cup instead of withdrawing the teams entirely, under the condition that COVID-19 related obstacles could be overcome. It's a complex situation on two fronts; the first being the health risks associated with traveling to England when the number of daily cases remain in the thousands. Then there's the two-week quarantine on the return home (albeit the UK Government was willing to cover), which would then affect the start of the 2022 NRL season. But isn't it counterintuitive to not send the teams while many of the NRL's stars can still play? The decision to pull out the Kangaroos and Kiwis does not affect the English internationals, plus others are eligible for Tier 2 nations. James Tedesco can play for Italy, David Fifita can switch to Tonga, while the likes of Jarome Luai and Josh Papalii headline those eligible for Samoa. So if a bunch of NRL stars decide to play in the World Cup, then aren't clubs somewhat back to square one? I think players should have had a choice on whether to travel to the UK with an understanding of the risks. And if not enough were willing, then the Kangaroos and Kiwis could have filled the remaining vacancies on their rosters with Super League-based players. This is all, however, under the conditions of an IRL biosecurity bubble for the duration of the tournament.
Darren: These are unprecedented times for sports organisations across the world. We are still in the grips of a global pandemic the likes of which none of us has seen before. The question of how important it is to continue sport has been asked time and again over the past 12 months. The survival of many codes has been key to their continuance, as has been the need for people to retain some form of normality in their lives. We currently sit locked in our homes watching the greatest gathering of athletes in the world in Tokyo, where the Olympics carry on in empty stadiums under strict COVID mitigation conditions, despite dire local pandemic conditions. Billions of broadcast dollars were one of the main drivers in ensuring that the Olympics went ahead, there might not be such a hefty incentive to push forward with a Rugby League World Cup. When the NRL's survival is on the line, England seems a long way away. The ARL had to make a decision and based on how the virus is currently spreading through Australia and borders are being clamped shut, they decided not to send a team. It seems the sensible thing to do would have been to postpone the World Cup for a year, when hopefully vaccinations rates will allow a return to more normal travel conditions.
Considering recent signings, how do the Sharks look, as far as being premiership contenders for 2022?
Lucie: The Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers train won't be slowing down soon, but this new-look Cronulla side is definitely in top-four discussions. Dale Finucane is the latest star to commit his future to the club, following on from Storm teammate Nicho Hynes and Dragons skipper Cam McInnes. He and the latter are already leaders and will take the side into a new era under coach Craig Fitzgibbons, who has a strong resume behind him as Roosters and NSW assistant. Considering the Sharks have scrambled into finals for the last two seasons amid financial woes and club drama, it's not a bad record to launch from once the house is in order. This team could turn it around within a year. While I don't think they can beat Melbourne and Penrith for the title, they'll be a top-four challenger with the likes of Finucane and Hynes headlining Fitzgibbon's roster. It's worth noting that the duo and Will Chambers come from a Storm side that's dominated the last decade, bringing a winning culture to a club which has struggled with that of late.
Darren: The Sharks are making some astute roster moves as they await the arrival of new coach Craig Fitzgibbons next season. You can never go wrong skimming the cream off the top of the Melbourne Storm roster, as long as you take proven performers, as some former Storm players can struggle out of the purple jersey. Nicho Hynes and Dale Finucane are great buys, the kind of players you can build a solid premiership threat around. Add to that pair one of the NRL's most competitive hookers in Cameron McInnes and they have the makings of a very strong team. Whether Fitzgibbon can get them to the levels of the Storm, Panthers, Roosters and Rabbitohs is yet to be seen, but on talent alone they should be a real threat. The only other team to be so heavily involved in the player market has been the Bulldogs and they are starting from the very bottom. The Sharks have at least had some success this year as they look like limping into the finals again.