NRL Round Table: 2021 season review, what's next

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts have taken a look at the burning issues in rugby league and tried to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not have matched yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

What do the Rabbitohs need to do to go one better in 2022?

Lucie: It's not a rebuild as such for South Sydney - but overcoming the loss of coach Wayne Bennett, Adam Reynolds, Dane Gagai and Jayd'n Su'A is just the start on the road to the 2022 title. With those players' time at Redfern coming to an end on Sunday night, the odds are not in the Rabbitohs' favour to return to the Grand Final -- let alone win it -- next season. Bennett led the club to back-to-back preliminary finals and used his master mind to reach the summit without star fullback Latrell Mitchell, but ultimately he fell short of delivering what he came to the Rabbitohs to do: win a premiership. Although he's built the foundations for sustained success in his three-year stint at Redfern, the club will feel the loss of halfback Reynolds, to the Broncos, even more. His combination with Cody Walker, which is the longest serving halves pairing in the NRL, has been vital to the team's results in recent seasons. Reynolds' successor at No.7, whether it's Blake Taaffe, Lachlan Ilias or Anthony Milford, needs to use the offseason to find out what works best with Walker, so the club is not so much on the back foot come round one. The Rabbitohs have a long road ahead of them in 2022, and if there's any hope of taking the next step, it starts with Jason Demetriou's first day as head coach.

Darren: I honestly can't see the Rabbitohs making the Top 4 next season, although I was guilty of underestimating them for most of this season as well. You don't lose a coach of Wayne Bennett's calibre and a halfback of Adam Reynold's ability at the same time and come back stronger the following season. Blake Taaffe has shown a lot of promise in his short time in the top grade this season and he might well go on to be as good as Reynolds in the No.7 jersey for the Bunnies, but it will take time. Jason Demetriou will have to settle into the coaching role as well, no doubt keeping a lot of what Bennett installed, while adding his own flavour. The Rabbitohs are putting a lot of faith in their juniors, not in chasing stars from elsewhere. That's all very well, but it's a gradual process and they have more holes appearing with the additional departures of Dane Gagai, Jayd'n Su'A and Braidon Burns. There will be a lot of weight on the shoulders of team leaders Damien Cook, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell next season. They will win more than they lose and more than likely play finals football, but making it to the Grand Final and winning it this time, will probably be beyond them.

Is this is the start of a Panthers dynasty?

Lucie: Although few dynasties have been forged on the back of Grand Final success, there's merit in suggesting we're in the midst of witnessing the start of the Panthers' reign. Penrith has been dominant for two seasons now and show no signs of slowing down in 2022 with their current roster, as well as the structures the club has in place. Although they lose Kurt Capewell, Brent Naden and Matt Burton next season, Ivan Cleary has a production line of talent just waiting in the wings. The Panthers also have youth on their side with an average age of 23.76 - so the likes of Nathan Cleary should have a decade left at the elite level if they stay fit and in form. However, the ascension of the Panthers as a dynasty does also depend on how their retention battle fares in the next few seasons. With success comes an increase in player value, so holding onto their Grand Final stars will become an issue as rival clubs flout their wallets. So while the foundations are set for a Panthers dynasty, it'll be incredibly difficult to forge - let alone sustain - in this modern day.

Darren: The salary cap system is designed to prevent clubs establishing dominant runs, yet we have in recent times seen the Roosters and Storm stay at or near the top for a number of years. The path to sustained dominance is through astute player purchases and junior development. Penrith have built the strongest junior development system in the competition, the hard part is bringing the right ones through and keeping them in the face of external offers. The Panthers have already felt the pinch with some of their young stars being poached by clubs more capable of paying them what they deserve. Matt Burton finished the 2020 season out of the Panthers squad of 17 and understandably looked elsewhere for an opportunity. The rebuilding Bulldogs, through new coach Trent Barrett, saw the potential and signed him for 2022 onwards. Through injury and Origin duty Burton found a permanent spot in the Panthers starting 13 and went on to finish as one of the game's best centres. He now not only looks like a bargain buy for the Bulldogs, but a costly loss to the reigning premiers. Penrith will reshuffle their youngsters, settle them into their system and with Nathan clearly leading the way are more than capable of challenging for the premiership for many years to come.

Who will be the NRL's biggest movers in 2022?

Lucie: In a reflection of their mass roster rebuild, the Canterbury Bulldogs will be the biggest climbers of the ladder next season -- finals football will be back on the horizon for the 2021 dungeon dwellers. After winning just three matches this season, Trent Barrett's side are set to turn a corner with the arrival of Tevita Pangai Junior, Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Brent Naden, Paul Vaughan and Matt Dufty at Belmore. The Bulldogs bid farewell to a dozen players and bought wisely in their bid to add depth and experience to their struggling squad. On paper, Canterbury-Bankstown is shaping up to be the biggest mover in 2022 but that will come down to how well their roster clicks and if their big buys return on that investment. Regardless, the bottom of the ladder should truly be in the rear-view mirror come round one.

Darren: It would be natural to assume the Bulldogs will be the biggest mover next year. After finishing last in 2021, the only way is up and they do have a slew of players heading their way to lift their talent levels. I'm yet to be convinced that coach Trent Barrett has what it takes to be a successful head coach. This season he took over from Dean Pay with a couple of player additions and the team as a whole showed absolutely no improvement, and finished lower than Pay's 2020 side. For a coach lauded for his attacking prowess, the inability of the Bulldogs to score tries has to be a major concern. I'm going with the Broncos to be the biggest movers next year. Coach Kevin Walters had them moving in the right direction towards the end of the season and with several astute buys, headed by Rabbitohs half Adam Reynolds, I can see them playing finals football next year.

What was the standout/biggest talking point of the 2021 season?

Lucie: In what was another tumultuous season for the NRL amid the COVID-19 chaos, Brian To'o's dance moves provided some standout entertainment while the league's unevenness was a burning issue from start to finish. Within the first month there was a chasm between the top and bottom teams, with the Bulldogs failing to score any points for three consecutive rounds while the Panthers kept clean-sheets for two. Round four saw the most uneven round in 17 years, with an average winning margin 26.13. Then of course there was the Storm's 19-match winning streak, with Craig Bellamy's side scoring 40 points or more in 11 victories across the season. It was a borefest. A look at the Round 25 ladder shows just how concerning the divide between the best and rest was this season - with the sixth-placed Eels 10 points ahead of the Titans who round out the top eight. Uneven rosters and how teams adapted to the rule changes and bubble life certainly came into play this season - so although I've been critical of the blowout scores I don't think it'll be as much of an issue in 2022. Clubs like the Bulldogs and Broncos have built a competitive roster ahead of next season and some stars have dispersed from the top to bottom teams. The return to home bases and stadiums will benefit all clubs, with the strain of hub life hopefully a thing of the past.

Darren: I've been banging on about it all year, so I see no reason to stop now. The biggest standout for me from the 2021 season was the additional power given to referees to call six again on offside indiscretions. In 2020 the NRL introduced a six again call for ruck infringements, aimed at keeping the game flowing and speeding everything up. The NRL hierarchy liked what it saw so much that they extended the rule to include offside calls. The result was a season full of blow-out scores, with fans of the underdog teams tuning out before halftime as they lost all hope of a fightback under the weight of possession enjoyed by the better teams. The completely arbitrary calls to reset the tackle count almost always favoured the stronger teams, as the battlers struggled to hold on in defence. There was no reward for a gutsy goal line stand, as the stronger teams were often given back-to-back sets until the defence collapsed in exhaustion. Great if you want to see dominant teams score lots of tries, not so great if you want a competitive season.

Has the door closed on the Storm's premiership window?

Lucie: Thrice concerns were raised about the Melbourne Storm's future success as Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith left the club. Craig Bellamy's side silenced the critics with a minor premiership and that 19-match winning streak this season, but after falling short of the Grand Final - those doubts have returned. With skipper Dale Finucane, winger Josh Addo-Carr and utility Nicho Hynes departing the club, one wonders whether their window for a fifth NRL title has shut for the time being. The Storm are renowned for having a 'next man' mentality and their ability to transform developing players into stars. The transition from Cameron Smith went well at hooker, as the Storm utilised the combination of Brandon Smith and Harry Grant; but his direction as a leader was missing in the preliminary final. Although the Storm had a remarkable season in the regular rounds, the manner in which they exited the final series was uncharacteristic and a tad concerning. With their roster taking a further hit for 2022, the absence of an established leader like Smith and now Finucane will be felt in the big moments unless someone takes charge. So while Bellamy's outfit will still be a leading side next season, the title will be inches out of reach.

Darren: It has proven dangerous over the years to ever write the Storm off, but you get the feeling that things could be on the decline for next season. With coach Craig Bellamy in his final year before transitioning to an off-field roll, they still have the ingredients to be a serious threat, but the recent off field issues with Cameron Munster coupled with the departures of Dale Finucane, Nicho Hynes and the Foxx are not good signs. They have signed another mixed bag of players, who have failed to reach great heights elsewhere, but that is their favourite way of building a successful team. The Storm can't be written off, but we could be in for a few more Grand Finals between teams not wearing purple in the coming years.