With Rugby League’s 2016 season done and dusted, bar the Four Nations, sports editor Jesse Mullens reflects on a mixed year.
As always the year started with high hopes and great promise, never more so than at the Sydney Roosters, widely hailed as hot favourites to take out the 2016 title. It couldn’t last: their hopes were cruelled when playmaker Mitchell Pearce made headlines for a lewd act that got him a $125,000 NRL fine on top of an eight-week ban – a third of his (and the Roosters’) season.
It was the first of many off-field disasters as the season warmed up. At Parramatta, everything that could possibly go wrong with the Eels did. They started the season with a flyer after winning the Auckland Nines and securing a bunch of sharp new recruits plus the big one – Kieran Foran. They won seven of their first 12 games to be handily poised for glory, then… It all went south, fast and badly.
First they were busted with a salary cap scandal: the board was forced to quit and the club lost its handy bunch of points. Then, Foran left the club because of personal issues and depression, the media reported police were investigating a match-fixing scandal involving the club, and a couple of players were seen hanging out in unsavoury company. And then there was a sex tape.
To atone for the salary cap scandal the Eels had to cut costs and lose players, so Nathan Peats, Anthony Watmough and Junior Paulo all had to be released. Watmough retired, Peats took his brand of magic to the Titans and Junior Paulo… Well, Junior Paulo did very nicely with the Raiders, while Parramatta watched from the sidelines.
On the field, we saw breathtaking moments and brilliant acrobatic try-scoring feats as some new blood made its mark. Melbourne sensation Suliasi Vunivalu, Penrith’s Nathan Cleary and Parramatta’s Bevan French were among the young stars who brought fire to the game.
Change was in the air at Cronulla, where the Sharks won an unprecedented 15 consecutive games and took home a maiden NRL premiership. New recruit James Maloney was a shining light and Ben Barba, apparently having shaken off his troubled history, was back to his glittering best. Canberra was also produced a massive turnaround under Ricky Stuart, who’d been on the chopping block at the start the season. They got to the preliminary finals, helped by freakish tries by Jordan Rapana and the consistency that made Jarrod Croker the number one point scorer for 2016.
It was a year to forget at Newcastle, whose Knights could win only one match and collected their second consecutive wooden spoon. The curse of Tinkler is not easily lifted, as new coach Nathan Brown, ex the Dragons, discovered.
The Dragons also were dismal this season, raising questions about the value of veteran Benji Marshall in the red V. The playmaker is currently off contract and most likely won’t be resigned by the Dragons, leaving him free to venture to England … or hang up the boots while good memories remain fresh.
The Penrith Panthers had a great season after dismal beginnings. Jamie Soward left to play for the London Broncos and James Segeyaro left the club over issues off the field. But as the door closed behind them, in stepped rookie playmaker Nathan Cleary, age 18, son of coach Ivan. Helped by Bryce Cartwright, Josh Mansour, Matt Moylan, Peter Wallace and Tyrone Peachey the youngster was instrumental in the Panthers’ charge into finals contention.
The Cowboys tried hard and came close to defending their premiership but left too much on the field in an elimination final, paving the way for the Sharks to toss them aside in a Sydney preliminary final. The Broncos also were a force but they fell just short of making consecutive grand finals, a bittersweet farewell to the game for stalwart Corey Parker, who will be sorely missed, by the game as much as by his club. As for the Bulldogs … for me, watching them this season was like watching toast burning. Coach Des Hasler tried everything but too often it seemed his players weren’t listening to instructions. Their attack was woeful; how they made the finals is beyond me.
The Jarryd Hayne circus, having moved on from NFL, via a short-lived experiment in seven-a-side rugby for Fiji, landed up in on the Gold Coast, where Hayne signed a multi-million dollar deal with the Titans with just six weeks of the season left. The Titans were flying before Hayne arrived, rookie star Ash Taylor and players like Nene Macdonald leading the surge. Hayne showed glimpses of his old form, but the one-time “Eel-for-life” superstar made some costly mistakes and fumbles that hurt the Titans dearly.
The rivalry between Tigers coach Jason Taylor and team stalwart Robbie Farah ground on through the season until Taylor dumped Farah to reserve grade, apparently to open the way for new kids on the block Mitchell Moses, James Tedesco and Luke Brooks to take leadership. That was the last straw for Farah, who walked after negotiating terms. On the day of his (modest) farewell he was photographed drinking tinnies on the scoreboard as his beloved team went down to Canberra. He will play for the South Sydney Rabbitohs next season.
In State of Origin Queensland regained dominance, the combination of Dally M award-winner Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Dane Gagai and Darius Boyd proving too much for the men in blue. NSW coach Laurie Daley blooded new stars Moylan, Mansour, Tedesco and Tyson Frizell who promised better times should be ahead. Commentator Phil Gould, himself an Origin champion, was very vocal about this year’s loss, suggesting veterans Farah, Greg Bird, and Paul Gallen were holding back the team’s rebirth.
The season controversially saw the introduction of the Bunker, high-tech technology coupled with eagle-eyed experts to monitor on-field decisions and rule authoritatively where uncertainty reigned. It was controversial and hated by many but most of the time the Bunker got decisions right. Sometimes though the bunker supremo, former senior referee Tony Archer, had to explain why wrong calls were made. At the end of the day, fans – and players – need to respect the refs’ rulings. As the Rolling Stones noted, “You can’t always get what you want.”
Post-season, the controversy continued, with Australia coach Mal Meninga and Greenberg taking a stand against unseemly behaviour by representative contenders. The selection process for the Four Nations series, beginning this weekend, saw Cronulla player Andrew Fifita excluded, despite his Grand Final heroics, over his contentious support for one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge,and Parramatta Eels winger Semi Radradra was also excluded while facing domestic violence allegations. Fifita has threatened to quit the League, but fans want the game cleaned and management has heard them: enough is enough.
All in all it has been a tough season, but new CEO Todd Greenberg has done a hell of a job to keep the ship steady and introduce fresh ideas to the game. He has promoted the game among women and acknowledged the role of regional and grassroots football. If the NRL keeps building like that through 2017 we should have plenty to cheer.
The Premiership race as depicted on the NRL’s Twitter feed.