It’s been another off-season from hell for the NRL, although this year the bad-news stories are the kind that head office would almost be happy about.
It has been a jam-packed year in rugby league, starting way back in February with the World Club Series and All Stars match, and finishing in December with the Rugby League World Cup final.
There have been highlights, lowlights and everything in between. Let’s look back at the year that was in the greatest game of them all.
There was never any real doubts about who was winning the 2017 NRL premiership. The Melbourne Storm dominated from start to finish, having the minor premiership wrapped up with a few weeks of the season to go and barely looking challenged.
In the end, they racked up 44 competition points and a ridiculous for and against of +297.
They got a scare from the Parramatta Eels at the start of the finals but ended up cruising home in convincing fashion, smacking the Broncos and then Cowboys in the big one.
Despite North Queensland’s grand final loss, they are the story of the rugby league year. No team with talent to the equivalent of Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston sitting on the sidelines would be expected to do well.
Making the finals alone was never likely, but they qualified in thanks to a capitulation from the St George Illawarra Dragons, then set about ruining some top contenders’ seasons.
Their elimination final against the Cronulla Sharks proved exactly what North Queensland were all about. They were behind the whole game but managed to force extra time, before taking the lead in the 85th minute and hanging on for dear life.
They then ran riot over the Parramatta Eels, before turning their attention to the Sydney Roosters and picking up a 29-16 victory.
On the whole however, the regular season was a disappointing.
Melbourne were so far ahead that the end result never felt in doubt. The Broncos and Roosters, who finished second and third, were never seriously in the hunt, while Parramatta scrapped into the top four.
Manly and Penrith were the other teams in the top eight, while the Dragons stumbled, fumbled and bumbled their way from the top of the table at the halfway point to missing the finals. They lost to the Knights, Rabbitohs and Bulldogs over the second half of the season, leaving plenty of competition points on the field.
The Raiders were disappointing, finishing tenth, while the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Warriors, Tigers, Titans and Knights all put their fans through another hellish season – even if the Knights finally showed some positive signs for 2018.
Referees were again like deer trapped in the headlights as inconsistencies stemmed throughout the season. From penalty tries to sin-bins and the obstruction rule, everyone had something they wanted to complain about.
Coaches also found themselves in the firing line. Jason Taylor was sacked after just three weeks of footy, and Neil Henry went from the Titans after a fall-out with Jarryd Hayne. Des Hasler was controversially re-signed and then shown the door at the end of the season, while Michael Maguire joined him walking out the door at South Sydney.
In the end though, season 2017 belonged to Craig Bellamy and his Storm cohort. Cooper Cronk joins the Roosters in 2018, but he left Melbourne a winner.
Three in a row and 11 out of the last 12. It’s scary just how good Queensland are at State of Origin.
New South Wales’ solitary series win in the last decade seems like a lifetime ago, yet this may have been the scariest year of the lot for the Blues.
They were the far better team in Game 1. Sure, there was no Johnathan Thurston and the Maroons selectors controversially overlooked Billy Slater, but the Blues played a style of rugby league that made you sit up and take notice. If the style didn’t, then the 28-4 victory at Suncorp Stadium sure did.
NSW were better by the length of the straight, and a changing of the guard without Paul Gallen and Robbie Farah appeared to have occurred. James Tedesco was a standout, Mitchell Pearce played his best ever Origin game, and new hooker Nathan Peats looked like he was made for the cauldron.
But talk of a Blues dynasty came to an abrupt end just three weeks later.
Slater and Thurston were back and Laurie Daley’s side went into their shell at home. The free-flowing, attacking style we had seen in Brisbane disappeared and they gave up 12 unanswered points in the second half to concede victory.
The scene of Thurston running around and playing with one arm will live long in the Origin memory bank. That’s before he stepped up to ice an 18-16 win with a conversion from the sideline, just three minutes from fulltime.
It was an injury which ended Thurston’s season. Anthony Milford had played Game 1, but was also sitting injured, so Kevin Walters called upon youngster Cameron Munster. Michael Morgan was also called up to play centre, and the pair were pivotal in the eventual series victory.
Valentine Holmes would score a hat-trick as the Maroons ran out 22-6 winners on home soil and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Blues were again left to lick their wounds and wonder if they will be ever able to stop the Queensland juggernaut, having been given a look into the future, led by Munster and Morgan.
The international game continues to expand at a rapid pace, with more than 30 nations playing official Test matches this year.
The year for international footy continued as the Rugby League World Cup got underway. For the first time, the women’s event was played alongside the men’s (but more on this later) and it was a roaring success.
What didn’t happen for the first time was Australia crushing everyone in their path. They conceded just two tries across their six games for the tournament, dominating even without the injured Thurston.
But the real story was that of the Pacific Island nations. Tonga became a genuine dark horse weeks before, when Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo joined their cause. They got all the way through to the semi-final as well, almost beating England if not for a controversial refereeing decision.
That came after Fiji, complete with Hayne, knocked out New Zealand in a stunning upset victory with no tries scored in the match. The Bati went on to be thumped by Australia in the semi-final.
Samoa were a disappointment, but the passion on display from all three nations – which was typified by their pre-match rituals – brought the World Cup to life. Tongan and Samoan fans in their grudge match created an electric atmosphere and showed exactly what the sport of rugby league means to those nations.
While there were plenty of blowout games, there were also moments which made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
And how can we mention atmosphere without talking about Papua New Guinea? Hosting three games in Port Moresby was the best decision the tournament could have made. Three sell-out crowds, three incredible atmospheres and some amazing footy was played by the Kumuls.
Sure, they got soundly beaten in the quarter-final against England, but there were so many positives for international rugby league this year.
As mentioned, for the first time, the women’s tournament was played alongside the men’s. Three triple-headers at Southern Cross Group Stadium in Cronulla, before the semi-finals at the same location.
Then the final, played before the men’s final in Brisbane. It was a monumental day for the sport, with the Jillaroos running out winners over the Kiwi Ferns in the big game.
While the tournament itself was sometimes played at a low standard, it was hardly a surprise. The Canadian team were playing their first ever games of rugby league, and the Cook Islands squad had only got together for the first time a handful of days before the tournament began.
The Cook Islands showed their class though, pulling off what was the upset of the tournament when they beat England in the third pool game.
The Jillaroos would go on to beat Canada in the semi-final, while New Zealand beat England.
The final was a hard-fought affair, Australia eventually winning 23-16. Up 22-10 with 15 minutes to play, the Ferns went on the attack and were rewarded for their efforts with Raecene McGregor crashing over to make it a six-point game.
Caitlin Moran, who was one of Australia’s best all tournament long stepped up and slotted a field goal on the fulltime siren though, leading to the seven-point win for the Jillaroos.
The big moments kept coming for, with the announcement of a women’s national competition next year. It will feature six teams, with the grand final to be played on NRL grand final, which is one of the biggest days on Australia’s sporting calendar.
All the winners
NRL premiers: Melbourne Storm
NRL minor premiers: Melbourne Storm
Dally M Medal: Cameron Smith
Rugby League World Cup winners: Australia
Women’s Rugby League World Cup winners: Australia
New South Wales Cup premiers: Penrith Panthers
Queensland Cup premiers; Papua New Guinea Hunters
State Challenge winners: Penrith Panthers
NSW Women’s Premiership premiers: Redfern All Blacks
South East Queensland Division 1 women’s premiers: Burleigh Bears
English Super League premiers: Leeds Rhinos
English Challenge Cup champions: Hull F.C.
Roarers, what did you make of 2017 in rugby league? Drop a comment and let us know.