10th March 2021, 07:12 | nrl
England prop Tom Burgess has played down suggestions that South Sydney are NRL premiership favorites ahead of the opening round of the 2021 season against Melbourne at AAMI Park on Thursday.
Souths will take on the defending premiers in the first NRL fixture played in Victoria since 2019 due to Covid-19 and many are predicting them to send former England coach Wayne Bennett out in style this season by overcoming their three-year grand final hoodoo.
The Rabbitohs have finished one win short of the grand final each year since 2018 but have been bolstered this season by the recruitment of Queensland Origin forward Jai Arrow, Kiwi superstar Benji Marshall and Lebanon winger Josh Mansour.
Latrell Mitchell also returns after missing most of last season with a knee injury and many believe Souths would have won the 2020 premiership if he had stayed fit but Burgess said the Rabbitohs needed to improve.
“I don’t think we have warranted to be favorites just yet,” Burgess said. “One person says it and another agrees, then someone else says ‘oh yeh’, and all of a sudden people are saying we are premiership favorites.
“But Melbourne are always there and they always perform. The thing about Melbourne is that they are consistent. You have got to be confident and there is no reason why we can’t do it. But something needs to lift in respect to winning those big games.”
The Storm overcame a season exiled on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to defeat Penrith in last year’s grand final but they will be without Cameron Smith after the NRL’s most decorated player confirmed his retirement on the eve of the 2021 kick-off.
Harry Grant, who starred for the Maroons in their upset State of Origin series win at the end of last season, returns from a loan deal with Wests Tigers but is injured and New Zealand hooker Brandon Smith will wear his namesake’s No.9 jersey against Souths.
Marshall, who was unwanted by Wests Tigers, will perform the bench utility role for the Rabbitohs after being handed a lifeline by Bennett, who will hand over the reins at the end of the season to assistant coach Jason Demetriou, the former Widnes and Wakefield forward.
“We have got a good group of players here so no one is safe or secure in their spot,” Burgess said. “You have just got to keep performing. Form me, if I don’t perform on the weekend I will playing reserves. That’s just how it is now and that is the mentality we have got to have.”
With each NRL team limited to one full trial, there will be a lot of interest in the performances of teams with new coaches, including Trent Barrett’s Canterbury Bulldogs and the Kevin Walters-coached Brisbane Broncos.
Brisbane finished with the wooden spoon for the first time last year and will be aiming to kick off the new era with a win against Parramatta on Friday, while Barrett’s new look Bulldogs – bolstered by Corey Allan, Nick Cotric, Kyle Flanagan, Jack Hetherington and Corey Waddell – take on Newcastle.
The Nathan Brown-coached Warriors have also recruited strongly and Tongan forwards Addin Fonua-Blake and Ben Murdoch-Masila will play their first game for the club on Saturday against Justin Holbrook’s Gold Coast Titans, along with Scotland centre Euan Aitken and Fiji prop Kane Evans.
Sydney Roosters also play Manly on Saturday, ahead of the Penrith-North Queensland clash, before Canberra’s English quartet of Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead, George Williams and Ryan Sutton see their first action of the season against Wests Tigers on Sunday.
Hodgson, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, will captain the Raiders in the absence of centre Jarrod Croker.
The final match of the round is the local derby between St George Illawarra, who are coached by Anthony Griffin, and Cronulla at Kogarah.
Written by NRL Senior Journalist Brad Walter