A Season in Review: NRL 2016

Just days before the Grand Final, and on the eve of the Dally M’s signals only one thing – starting the countdown until the next season of the National Rugby League. I can’t wait to see what season 2017 brings, but until then, a reflection on the season that was.

The quality of football was mostly lacklustre this season, with exception to moments of magic by aero-acrobatic wingers, some razzle-dazzle by the likes of the Tigers and the Raiders, and Origin-like battles between the Broncos and the Cowboys. Yet, like every year, the NRL made history. For the first time, the top four sides were from four different States or Territories: Victoria, the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland (suck on that, “national football code” AFL). And despite an incredible effort by the 2015 Premiers, we go another year without back-to-back premiership winners – a mantle still held by the 1992/1993 Brisbane Broncos side.

My grand final prediction for 2016 was the Broncos versus the Raiders. I reached this conclusion early in the season. I’d “seen enough” after Round 1 when the Broncos out-smarted Parramatta and, and in Round 5 when the Raiders beat the Bulldogs in a flawed but highly promising display.

But, like every year my prediction is wrong. The Broncos got knocked out in an epic preliminary final against the Cowboys, and the Raiders in a close one against Melbourne in the semi-final.  We now wait for a fascinating battle between Melbourne Storm and Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks on 2 October.

Team of the year:

  1.  Fullback: James Tedesco (Wests Tigers)

Teddy can read the game better than any other fullback in the competition, and he made something from nothing almost every time he touched the ball.

  1. Winger: Tom Trbojevic (Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles)

What a debut season! A shining light in a season for Manly that was marred by injuries and betting scandals.

  1. Centre: Joey Leilua (Canberra Raiders)

Unstoppable every time he got the ball, and almost impossible to tackle. Congratulations to Ricky Stuart for whipping him into shape.

  1. Centre: Josh Morris (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

Despite suffering a major injury this year, his defence is unbackable and he’s the only player who can stop Greg Inglis.

  1. Winger: Corey Oates (Brisbane Broncos)

At 192cm and 106kg he’s the prototype for the modern-day winger – big, strong and fast.

  1. Five-eighth: Anthony Milford (Brisbane Broncos)

Milford offered both stability and creativity in the halves for the Broncos (even though he struggled through his club’s predictable Origin slump.)

  1. Halfback: Jonathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys)

Future Immortal, picks himself.

  1. Prop: Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne Storm)

Melbourne’s best player every week, Cronk and Smith have Bromwich to thank for them to be able to do their (perfect, yet boring) thing.

  1. Hooker: Josh Hodgson (Canberra Raiders)

Like all English exports, he’s been super tough all season and provided invaluable stability and structure in the ruck.

  1. Prop: James Graham (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

The Dogs’ most influential player, Graham got in everything and his competitiveness allowed him to do his job (and then some – see disappointment of the year below.)

  1. Second-rower: Tyson Frizell (St George Illawarra Dragons)

Despite being ignored by Blues’ Coach Laurie Daley until Game 2, he’s the reason the Dragons finished 11th and not last this year. He was also the Blues’ best player by a mile. My favourite player of the year.

  1. Second-rower: Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland Cowboys)

In his sixth season, Taumalolo stepped up this year to become the best second-rower in the game. His metres were off the charts and he made himself known every minute he played. Player of the year.

  1. Lock: Corey Parker (Brisbane Broncos) ©

Averaging 60 minutes a game, his never-say-die attitude, calmness and leadership will be sorely missed by the Broncos next year. A Broncos legend, and captain of my Team of the Year.

  1. Bench: Sam Kasiano (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

Despite the ball-playing-front-rower thing getting a little tired, he’s a total beast and crushes everyone he comes in contact with.

  1. Bench: Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers)

He was always one of the Dragons’ best and his game reached new heights at Penrith this season. Leadership suits him.

  1. Bench: Andrew Fifita

I’m loathed to pick him because he’s a thug, but his stats can’t be ignored. He’s aggressive, tough and isn’t afraid to take on anyone, without or without the ball – exactly what you want in a front-rower.

  1. Bench: Jack Bird (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)

He didn’t set the world on fire in his Origin debut this year, but his versatility and incredible ability to play with rheumatoid arthritis (and never make excuses for it) makes him a future star.

Coach: Ricky Stuart (Canberra Raiders)

One of Canberra’s favourite sons, he’s returned to passionately lead a young team to one game shy of the big one, and got the best out of young players, fringe first graders and wayward stars.

State of Origin: Queensland won the series 2-1

New South Wales lost yet another Origin series because coach Laurie Daley is a nice guy, picking his mates from the year before. We didn’t lose because Queensland has players like Thurston, Cronk, Inglis and Smith. NSW beat Queensland in 2014 with those players, so they are beatable.

NSW’s best player, Tyson Frizell wasn’t picked until Game 2, and he was only picked because one player got suspended and another injured – so he was a third pick out of desperation. NSW lost Game 2 26-18, but Frizell was best on field, scored a magic try and almost changed the course of the series, chasing a down and ankle tapping speedster Dane Gagai.  So once again, NSW tried hard, had some great moments, and only just lost; but it’s not good enough anymore. Trying to copy Queensland doesn’t work, so for NSW to be any chance in 2017 they must pick players on current form only, and not because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. This is State of Origin, not The Bachelorette.

Rising star: Nathan Cleary

Already twice the player his dad Ivan was in his debut season (which frankly isn’t hard), the younger Cleary has shown playing maturity beyond his years within a very young team. He’s also been able to withstand a barrage of big hits and targeted defence. At just 18 years old, he’s NSW’s only future hope of a superstar halfback, something NSW hasn’t had since Andrew Johns retired from State of Origin in 2005.

 Disappointment of the year: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Popular opinion will be the Warriors, who always promise so much at the start of the year, until their predictable inconsistency destroys the promise. My pick for year’s biggest disappointment is the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs’ culture is built on the idea that if they don’t win the Grand Final the season is a failure, where other teams are happy just to make the eight. But the Bulldogs should be feeling a deeper level of disappointment this year.

For a few years they have positioned their huge forwards at the centre of their attacking ball control, leaving their halfback with little more to do than support them, rather than direct them. While never winning the premiership with this style, it worked for them to a large extent. This year though this approach started to fall apart, leading to a win-loss-win-loss pattern for most of the season. It all came to a head in the last few rounds, particularly their last game which was by far their worst. Halfback Moses Mbye, the player of whom the Bulldogs have claimed they wish to build their future on – was left screaming for the ball when he didn’t get a touch for two sets in a row. The ball didn’t leave the forwards, particularly captain James Graham who through instruction, instinct or obligation has become a makeshift play maker. It was embarrassing to watch.

In 2017, so much has to change for the Bulldogs if they want to win the premiership. They have the team to do it, so it will be interesting to see what happens with coach Des Hasler, the influence of Graham and support offered to Mbye who despite not being captain must direct the team if they are to be any chance.

Game of the year: North Queensland Cowboys versus Brisbane Broncos, preliminary final

WOW! No one thought it was possible for these two teams to stage another battle-for-the-ages but, somehow, they did. The game featured momentum swings, runaway tries and desperate defence – all founded on Origin-like intensity that the finals games prior and since have lacked. The Cowboys won the game in extra time, set-up by none other than JT with a flick pass that has never before featured in his 12-year-long career. The last few games between these Queensland sides have come down to the wire. The emotion and sense of occasion these two teams evoke– even for fans who don’t support them is why I watch rugby league. I’m confident I could convert any NRL-hater with highlights of any of their recent matches, particularly their 2016 preliminary final battle.

My team: St George Illawarra Dragons

It’s a miracle we finished 11th. I watched every game, except Round 23 where we flogged the Sharks 32-18 in a dominant performance that left everyone wondering, “Where has this been all year?”

The most frustrating element of our game this year was our inability to score points, but specifically looking like we didn’t have a bloody clue what we were doing when got within the twenty. Our halves featured Benji Marshall a superstar past his prime, a player whose mid-2000s-era side steps and flick passes now looked slow and sideways. The other, Gareth Widdop, whose tutelage was under the structured and perfect Craig Bellamy, looked like he couldn’t be bothered keeping up with Marshall’s lack of self-awareness. Adding to the frustration was that our forwards actually performed quite well this year, usually having no problem getting us into a good attacking position.

Dragons’ fans are the toughest in the League, and by that I mean we are the most demanding. Every year since 2010, we have demanded the sacking of the Board, CEO, Coach and numerous players. Some of these movements I’ve stood behind, and others I haven’t.  But given we’re looking down the barrel of a two-horse race with Newcastle for the 2017 wooden spoon, something must change immediately. I believe this change must start in our recruitment and leadership.

While most people are calling for a new coach, I don’t believe this is the right one. McGregor (who was one of my favourite Steelers’ players as a kid – so perhaps I’m bias) should not be sacked. He should be given a coaching director/mentor with no prior connections to the Steelers or Dragons; preferably someone with playing experience in the halves. I know I’m asking a lot, but it’s what the club and Mary needs to move forward.  Next on the list is to oust Doust. He has been CEO for at least five years too long. Yes, he brought Wayne Bennett and a premiership to our club, but he had no succession plan and our financial position is in the toilet. The next CEO of my club must be someone who has wealth of leadership and strategic visionary experience, and who is not bound to ghosts of St George Dragons’ past. And finally, our recruitment and retention sucks. Every big name or no name player on the market in the last two years has been linked to the Dragons, and yet we can’t sign them. It’s embarrassing. The processes and approach to our recruitment need an urgent review and tangible change. Our saving grace in retention, finally, is that we’ve signed Frizell until 2020. His signing will hopefully enhance future recruitment prospects.

Until any change happens, my hope is that 2017 won’t be too painful and that we get to see individual players flourish at club and rep level.

Four big talking points

  • Kieran Foran and mental health

Foran walking out on his multi-million dollar Eels contract was a watershed moment for rugby league. He didn’t walk out because of money or selfishness. He walked (for reasons that have been speculated, and are frankly none of our business) because he was not coping with issues in his personal life, which in turn impacted his ability to perform and feel passion for his job.

Every year R U OK? Day rolls around and it’s well-meaning NRL ambassadors with it, but for the first time we were seeing respectful and open conversation on several platforms about mental health and its silent impact on young men.

There is a long way to go; Foran has continued to plead with portions of the media to respect his privacy. But what Foran’s circumstances have shown is that our NRL stars are more than that; more than the hyper-masculine and macho bravado they represent. They are high-performing, highly-pressured people who sometimes need support and time out to focus on their wellbeing and mental health – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  • Jarryd Hayne and chasing dreams

The prodigal son returns! We were all shocked to learn that Hayne had “thrown in the towel” with his NFL dream, then laughed at him when he pursued and failed his Olympic Rugby 7s dream – only to question his motives when he “turned his back” on his beloved Eels to sign a multi-million dollar deal with the Gold Coast Titans.

The reaction to Hayne’s journey to return to the NRL, reflects a much larger view of how older generations view young people. Hayne is 28 years old. Show me any person in their twenties who has a bloody clue about what they want to do with their life and  how to go about it the “right” way, and I’ll show you a liar or a very lucky person.

It’s a joy to have Jarryd back in the game, one in which he belongs. I’m excited to see how he’ll perform with a full off-season under his belt for season 2017. And if he decides to chase another dream, or idea, or purpose – well, I 100% back him.

  • Mitchell Pearce and second chances

I’ve previously written about the conflict I sometimes have of being a feminist and rugby league supporter, along with a closer look at the soft penalty given to Pearce for bringing the game into disrepute (not to mention physically assaulting a woman and her dog) in the 2016 pre-season.

While he got a hefty, albeit largely suspended fine, the old favourite and absolute bullshit “boys will be boys” excuse saved him from what he deserved – the sack. Though he didn’t reach full redemption with a recall to the NSW Origin side, Pearce has been given the privilege of Roosters’ protection to regain focus and form, and a I’m-really-a-Good-Guy-deep-down image.

I’m not a fan of second chances as a life principle, and I do appreciate that his wrong-doing is not the worst thing in the world (certainly compared to other current and past players’ behaviour). So, I will watch his ongoing path to redemption with a close and cautious eye during season 2017.

  • Robbie Farrah and loyalty

The Farrah-Wests Tigers drama played out like a soap opera on the back pages of The Telegraph almost every week this season. Long-time whispers confirmed that club captain Farrah was not getting along with his new coach Jason Taylor. Shock! He hadn’t done so with his previous two either – and it was always the coaches that got the sack, not Farrah who was left to laud over Leichardt Oval, a right of which he and many others felt he deserved.

But to cut a long story short, Taylor started dropping Farah to reserve grade. Shock! It appeared that a Tigers coach was finally standing up to the bullying-difficult-to-work-with club legend. Through all this Farah refused to leave the Tigers, or as he perceived it, walking out on his contract. But that’s how his career with the Wests Tigers ended (he has since signed a two year deal with Souths).

Despite Farrah not getting along with his boss I believe he was treated with absolute disrespect in the final game of the Tigers’ season. He played 247 games in 14 seasons for the Tigers; a local junior – and all they did for him was wheel him out of half time for a wave to the crowd.

Robbie Farah is a polarising figure in the NRL but no one could ever fault his loyalty and passion for his club, a commitment of which was thrown out with the trash. Shame on the Wests Tigers for not only disrespecting that, but disrespecting their club’s and Robbie’s fans.


I can’t wait for the 2016 Grand Final, and to get to March 2017 for yet another season of the best sport in the world!


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