The year that was: brilliance, Barba, biting

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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs rugby league player Ben Barba and Ainslie Currie arrive for the Dally M awards in Sydney, September 4, 2012. (Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

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What did we learn from this year’s rugby league season?

Test match football continues to be the pinnacle

Nothing compares to good Test match footy. In 2012 we were blessed with two fierce contests featuring the Kiwis and the Kangaroos, both of which came down to the final minutes. The venues were outstanding: a hostile Eden Park contrasted with a passionate capacity crowd in Townsville.

With England playing Wales and France in a Tri-Nations tournament and a packed Test match schedule around the world right now, the World Cup looms large in 2013.

Origin contest the best for years

State of Origin contests prior to this year were as predictable as a sideline conversion from Jonathan Thurston. Yet, inspired by a determined Ricky Stuart, New South Wales pushed their more fancied Queensland rivals close in all three matches, even managing to win game two.

However the quality was as much about the manner of the contests – they were the toughest ever, according to some pundits. Phil Gould certainly thought so. Is there a renewed interest in State of Origin? You bet.

Melbourne the greatest winner

A premiership was always going to taste particularly sweet, considering the well-documented lows from which the Melbourne Storm had to emerge.

After the depths of 2010, and a failure at the penultimate hurdle in 2011, Melbourne became the supreme winner this year after defeating a gallant but out-classed Canterbury Bulldogs side 14-4 in the big one.

Yet some would say their biggest win was watching Mahe Fonua debuting in the NRL – the team’s first Victorian born NRL player.

Cameron Smith is the best there is

Taking the NRL premiership with Melbourne, winning a State of Origin series with Queensland and retaining the Bill Kelly Memorial cup against the Kiwis – the Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Kangaroo captain Cameron Smith must go down as the most influential player of 2012 in what was arguably his finest year yet.

His calm demeanour and brilliant playmaking ability has laid to rest any doubts over Smith succeeding former Maroons and Australian skipper Darren Lockyer.

Smith added an exclamation mark to his season by being named the RLIF International Player of the Year this week as well.

The year of the fullback

Ben Barba was named Dally M Player of the Year – a scintillating return from a player who had supposed frailties under the high ball in 2011 – and thrilled everyone on his way to the crown.

Yet Billy Slater was at his magical best throughout Australia, Queensland and Melbourne’s matches, Josh Hoffman was one of the Kiwis’ best in their two Test matches, Manly’s Brett Stewart continued to score lots of tries and Josh Dugan showed real form for Canberra. Rugby league certainly has its share of entertainers.

Coaching is harder than it looks

Few coaches had greater expectations put on them than Brian McClennan. ‘Bluey’ had previous success on the international stage (a Tri-Nations crown with the Kiwis) and Super League success with Leeds.

The man who bleeds New Zealand league, as much perhaps as the Mad Butcher, securing the Warriors head coaching role was a match made in league heaven.

Unfortunately, the dream ended too soon, and McClennan was sacked before the season ended after a string of poor performances.

Throw in Stephen Kearney’s early departure from the Parramatta Eels and Tim Sheens’ axing by the Wests Tigers, and I’m thinking that snorkelling might be a better past time.

Special mentions
Bill Harrigan and the spotlight on the referees; Mal Meninga’s promotion to Sales Director for Queensland, his target market being New Zealanders; the Newcastle Knights floundering; the Warriors’ dramatic fall from grace and the Bulldogs’ rise under Des Hasler. Also, James Graham and his alleged snacking habits certainly gained some coverage.

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