The start of a new season brings the fresh hope for players, coaches and fans that if everything goes to plan a premiership could be just seven months away.
For modern masters Melbourne, who’ve won two of the past four grand finals, the stress levels heading into 2021 will be considerably lower than those at Parramatta, where a premiership has eluded them since Ray Price and Michael Cronin went out winners in 1986.
Back-to-back premiers in 2018-19, the Roosters know what it takes to get to September and perform at their peak on the big stage so they’ll enter their campaign more relaxed than the likes of Canberra and Newcastle, who haven’t saluted since 1994 and 2001 respectively.
With the passing of every unsuccessful season the dreaded premiership drought hangs that little bit heavier around the neck of the vanquished.
Leaving aside the clubs that have won premierships during the past decade – Storm, Roosters, Sharks, Cowboys, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles – it’s time to run the rule over the 10 sides who enter 2021 trying to strike a balance between the expectation of what lies ahead and the exasperation of opportunities lost.
How the best players exploit eyes-up footy
It’s been slim pickings for the Red V since the thumping grand final win over the Roosters in 2010 gave the joint venture its first title.
With Wayne Bennett at the helm and Darius Boyd and Jamie Soward at the peak of their powers, the Dragons turned three years of promise into a premiership. Precious little has gone right in the ensuing decade.
Steve Price took over from Bennett in 2012 and failed to reach the finals in his three years in charge before the Paul McGregor era produced top-eight finishes in 2015 and 2018 without ever really threatening for a premiership.
On what we’ve seen from the Dragons in the past two seasons and also the Charity Shield clash in Mudgee it looks like their fans are in for a few more years of pain before they are in the frame for another trip to the big dance.
Looking back at the 2010 Grand Final
Took a couple of years to hit their straps after entering the competition in 2007 but with big guns Preston Campbell and Scott Prince standing tall in 2009 the Neil Henry-coached outfit made the semi-finals and again in 2010 as they went within one game of the grand final.
The ensuing decade has seen the boys from the Coast make just a single finals appearance, in 2016, but the astute Justin Holbrook took over in 2020 and a barnstorming finish to the season gave promise of things to come.
The addition of marquee recruits David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui should ensure a return to finals footy in 2021 but a maiden title could still be a couple of years away.
Big Tino lights up Lismore
With five seconds remaining in the 2015 decider the trophy looked set to return to Red Hill for the first time since 2006 but Michael Morgan and Kyle Feldt intervened to send the game to golden point. Then Ben Hunt put the kick-off down and Johnathan Thurston stepped up and the rest is history.
The Cowboys broke their hearts again in an epic semi-final in 2016 and then the Storm ran roughshod 30-0 in a preliminary final in 2017.
Apart from the disastrous wooden spoon campaign in 2020 the Broncos have always been there when the whips are cracking but new coach Kevin Walters faces a monumental task to pick up the pieces and convince his young squad that they can again be a serious contender.
Looking back at the 2006 grand final
The Tigers haven’t played finals footy since 2011 when favourite sons Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall were calling the tune and Englishman Gareth Ellis was leading the way up front.
Farah and Marshall had been part of the joint venture’s emotion-charged 2005 premiership and were the heart and soul of the club but the glory days are but a distant memory now.
The arrival of James Tamou, James Roberts and Joe Ofahengaue is cause for optimism and coach Michael Maguire has proven premiership pedigree so there will be no excuses in Tigertown if they can’t improve sharply on last year’s 11th placed finish.
Match Highlights: Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles
Plenty of off-field dramas for the Bulldogs in recent years and that has undermined their efforts to make a return to the finals for the first time since 2016. Cast your mind back to the club’s last premiership in 2004 and there was drama and controversy galore but still they found a way to win.
That '04 team featured such luminaries as Braith Anasta, Willie Mason, Hazem El Masri, Andrew Ryan and Mark O’Meley, all of whom boasted big-game experience and knew how to roll with the punches.
The 2021 Bulldogs have a great leader in Josh Jackson and will be a whole lot more dangerous with Nick Cotric and Kyle Flanagan in the backline but many of them are still finding their way and a top-eight finish appears beyond them.
A look back at the 2004 Grand Final
After setting the competition alight with 19 wins on the bounce the Panthers saved their worst game for last in 2020 and went down to the battle-hardened Storm in the grand final.
With the benefit of that experience the youthful Panthers are ready to take the next step and deliver their loyal fans a third title to go with those won in 1991 and 2003.
Playmakers Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai came of age last year and controlled the tempo superbly, James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota laid the platform and Viliame Kikau and Stephen Crichton provided the X-factor.
The Panthers’ two previous premierships were built around a talented group of local juniors who love playing together and that’s the recipe for success in 2021.
Rookie reflections: Stephen Crichton
Two decades is a long time between drinks but there were positive signs last year when the Knights returned to the finals for the first time since 2013 and any side with Kalyn Ponga in it has to be respected.
Apart from a preliminary final appearance in 2013, the Knights haven’t really looked like adding a third title to their 1997 and 2001 successes but in Adam O’Brien they have the right man to mastermind a serious challenge.
With Tyson Frizell, David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti making the hard yards the playmakers will have plenty of space to work their magic and classy young centre Bradman Best can do the rest.
Finals footy beckons but another premiership may have to wait.
Saifiti shocked by captaincy role
Grand final appearances in 2002 and 2011 are all the Warriors have to show for 26 seasons of toil but there’s good reason to believe a maiden title may be around the corner.
Nathan Brown endured some tough times at the Dragons and Knights but he’s ready to come of age as an NRL coach and he’s got a strong roster at his disposal.
Motivation will be high to send Roger Tuivasa-Sheck out a winner while Euan Aitken, Addin Fonua-Blake and Ben Murdoch-Masila are quality additions to a side that overcame huge obstacles in 2020 to remain competitive and take some big scalps. Plenty of depth, plenty of power and plenty of passion.
If they can add a dash of composure then the Warriors could finally deliver on their promise.
The Green Machine have flown under the radar when it comes to teams copping heat for long premiership droughts. The kings of the 80s, Parramatta, are always in the firing line, while very little latitude is given to clubs like Brisbane and the Dragons.
The Raiders may have been a touch unlucky not to get across the line in 2019 but that was their first grand final appearance since Big Mal bowed out a winner in 1994.
Using the close call in 2019 as motivation the Raiders went all the way to the preliminary final last year where they lost to Melbourne so the ingredients are certainly there for another September run.
John Bateman will be missed but his countryman Josh Hodgson returns to steer the ship.
EELS86: The story of Parramatta's last premiership
The NRL’s most famous drought belongs to a club that won premierships when Sterling, Kenny, Cronin and Price were household names but have been stalled on four since 1986.
Rather than act as inspiration it seems the new breed of Eel is almost mesmerised by images of those glory days and weighed down by expectation.
The Eels made the finals six years in a row from 1997-2002 and enjoyed good times again between 2005-09 but the sum total was two grand finals in 2001 and 2009, both of which ended in despair.
From Nathan Hindmarsh and Jarryd Hayne to Luke Burt and Nathan Cayless, an array of Parra’s favourite sons gave everything they had to try and deliver another premiership to the Blue and Gold Army but ultimately came up empty. Now the task falls to Moses, Gutherson, Ferguson and co to try and end the suffering.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.