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Opinion

A look back at a decade of NRL football

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Roar Guru
19th December, 2019
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With the NRL season concluding with the Sydney Roosters winning back-to-back premierships, the curtain also fell on what was an eventful decade for the sport.

We saw two major scandals engulf the code – one of which brought down a dynasty that had been built towards the back end of the previous decade.

However, we did see several players make their mark on the game, namely Ben Barba, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and James Tedesco, among many others.

The introduction of a new women’s competition, as well as the consistency of clubs such as the Melbourne Storm, Manly Sea Eagles and Sydney Roosters, plus premiership wins by the South Sydney Rabbitohs, North Queensland Cowboys and Cronulla Sharks were also highlights.

Johnathan Thurston proved to be among the most decorated players of the decade, winning back-to-back Dally M Medals in 2014 (tied with Jarryd Hayne) and 2015 and leading his beloved Cowboys to its maiden premiership in 2015.

This decade started with the Melbourne Storm as the reigning premiers, but on April 22, 2010, they would fall foul of the biggest scandal to ever rock the National Rugby League.

Salary cap breaches dating back to 2006 were uncovered at the club, and the penalties they copped were unprecedented. The Storm were stripped of all team honours between 2006 and 2009, including three minor premierships and two premierships, and forced to repay over $1 million in prize money.

This included a $500,000 fine for breaching the league’s strictly enforced salary cap, and they were also sentenced to finish the 2010 season at the foot of the ladder, ensuring they’d miss the finals for the first time since 2002 and just the third time in their history.

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Players such as Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith could no longer call themselves premiership players, though they along with many others were still allowed to keep their premiership rings.

Despite the tainted nature of the Storm’s 2007 and 2009 grand final victories, Inglis and Slater continue to be recognised as the Clive Churchill Medallists from those respective years.

On the field, the St George Illawarra Dragons would bury three decades of disappointment by winning their first premiership as a merged entity, defeating the Sydney Roosters by 32-8 in the grand final.

It was the seventh premiership as a coach for Wayne Bennett, who started and ended this decade by coaching two of the game’s greatest clubs. It was also his first premiership away from the Brisbane Broncos, where he had presided over all six of their titles.

The 2011 season saw the return to the top of the Storm, who claimed their first legitimate minor premiership, but they would fall short in the preliminary final, losing to the New Zealand Warriors at home.

In their second grand final, the Warriors would be far from disgraced in losing to the Sea Eagles, who won their second title in four years, both under the coaching of Des Hasler.

That season also saw the retirement of Brisbane, Australia and Queensland captain Darren Lockyer, who broke the record for the most NRL games played when he brought up his 350th game against the Cowboys in Townsville towards the back end of the year.

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A thrilling semi-final win over Wayne Bennett’s Dragons, in which he kicked the match-winning field goal in golden point extra time, would prove to be the last NRL match he played as he was ruled out of the preliminary final against the Sea Eagles due to a cheekbone injury.

Just six weeks after leading the Sea Eagles to the ultimate glory, Des Hasler was sacked by the club after it was revealed that he was attempting to bring some of his coaching staff across to the Bulldogs, where he would’ve started coaching in 2013.

His tenure at Belmore thus started 12 months earlier than planned, and in his first year he led the club to their first minor premiership since 1994, and ultimately to the grand final where they were beaten by the Storm.

It was the 2012 season that saw the emergence of Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba, who took out the Dally M Medal.

A handover at the top office occurred halfway through the year, with long-time CEO David Gallop handing over the reins to little-known Dave Smith, with Shane Mattiske acting as interim chief until the end of the season.

The Storm won their second clean premiership, beating the Dogs in the decider.

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The 2013 season saw the return of one of rugby league’s biggest names – Sonny Bill Williams – nearly five years after he committed the biggest act of betrayal ever seen in the game.

After his NRL playing ban expired – during which time he was part of the All Blacks’ 2011 Rugby World Cup winning squad – speculation grew as to whether he’d return to the game, and the Sydney Roosters won the race for his signature.

Williams had made a promise to Roosters chairman Nick Politis that he’d join the Bondi-based club once his ban was up.

He was one of many big names – others being James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Luke O’Donnell, as well as rookie coach Trent Robinson – brought to Bondi Junction as they looked to turn their fortunes around.

Williams’ impact was immediate as the Chooks dominated all before them to win the 2013 premiership, with Robinson emulating Ricky Stuart’s 2002 effort in winning a premiership in his first year as a Roosters coach, 11 years apart.

In the grand final, they defeated the Manly Sea Eagles, who were coached by Geoff Toovey.

It was that season in which Toovey infamously unloaded in the press conferences of all press conferences, saying “there’s gotta be an investigation into this”, with his tirade towards the referees costing him $10,000.

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Tragedy struck halfway through that season, with former Roosters, Cowboys and NSW Origin coach Graham Murray passing away after suffering a heart attack in Brisbane.

The 2014 season saw the South Sydney Rabbitohs – the so-called pride of the league – finally return to the summit 15 years after being kicked out of the National Rugby League and 12 years after being readmitted into the comp.

The Rabbitohs had made steady progress under the coaching of Michael Maguire, and with the likes of the Burgess brothers, veteran John Sutton and one of the game’s greats Greg Inglis on their playing roster, they had a team capable of contending for the premiership.

What seemed like an impossibility in the noughties became reality on October 5, 2014, when the Bunnies thrashed the Bulldogs 30-6 to win their 21st premiership, and their first since 1971.

Sam Burgess famously played all but the first few seconds of the decider with a cheekbone injury, emulating the brave effort of John Sattler, who played on despite being suffering a jaw injury in the 1970 grand final.

After being part of the Melbourne Storm sides that had their 2007 and 2009 premierships rendered null and void, Inglis could finally call himself a premiership player in his own right.

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He very nearly did not join the Rabbitohs after being close to agreeing to join the Brisbane Broncos in 2011. He had been squeezed out of the Storm in the aftermath of that club’s salary cap scandal, which forced them to offload players so they could get back under the cap.

The year 2014 also saw Queensland’s eight-year State of Origin domination ended after New South Wales won the series 2-1 under second-year coach Laurie Daley.

It was to be the only series lost by Maroons coach Mal Meninga, but he would go out in style the following year, with the Queenslanders winning the final game of the 2015 series by a record 52-6 at Suncorp Stadium.

The only record they just missed out on was the highest team score of 56 held by the Blues in the final game of the 2000 series.

As if losing the final match (and the series) by a record margin wasn’t enough already, New South Wales were later forced to watch on as the two premier Queensland clubs – the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys – duked it out in the grand final later that year.

With Wayne Bennett back at the helm after six years away from the club, the Broncos were back in the decider for the first time since 2006 and were looking to keep intact their perfect six-from-six record in grand finals.

In the other corner were the Cowboys, who had been in the competition since 1995 but had found it tough going under the shadow of their more dominant Brisbane cousins.

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In what many consider to be the greatest grand final of all time, Johnathan Thurston finally led his beloved club to the promised land, kicking a field goal in golden point extra time to claim their maiden premiership.

The following year saw another premiership duck broken, with the Cronulla Sharks finally saluting in their 50th year in the competition.

The club had been engulfed in a major supplements scandal in 2013, which saw senior coach Shane Flanagan suspended for the 2014 season, and several players, including captain Paul Gallen, suspended towards the back end of the season.

The club ended up winning the wooden spoon in 2014, but an aggressive recruiting spree in the subsequent years landed the likes of Michael Ennis, Ben Barba and James Maloney, and helped the club rebuild itself as a genuine force.

All their hard work paid off in 2016 when they defeated the Melbourne Storm 14-12 in the grand final to finally bring the holy grail to the Shire, with Gallen telling all the long-suffering Sharks fans to “turn their porch lights off because we’re coming home with the trophy!”.

For Ennis and Barba, it was some personal revenge after they had featured in the Bulldogs side that was beaten by the Storm four years earlier. For the latter it would also prove to be his final NRL game as off-field issues brought an end to his career.

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The Storm redeemed themselves 12 months later, thrashing the Cowboys 34-6 in the 2017 grand final to win their third clean premiership.

It was the perfect farewell for Cooper Cronk, who announced earlier that season that he would leave the Storm to move to Sydney where his partner was based.

He eventually signed with the Sydney Roosters, whose incumbent halfback Mitchell Pearce moved up the F3 to link with the Newcastle Knights, later becoming captain of the struggling club.

Cronk’s impact at Bondi Junction was effective and immediate, with the Chooks rounding out the decade by becoming the first repeat premiers since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93.

In 2018, the Roosters beat Cronk’s old side to win their first premiership since 2013, before saluting again 12 months later by edging out the Canberra Raiders by 14-8 in a controversial decider plagued by contentious refereeing decisions.

It was the perfect farewell for Cronk, who claimed a third consecutive premiership ring but also suffered the ignominy of being sin-binned for a professional foul in the second half.

This result saw the Roosters become the most successful side of this decade, with three premierships in this period (2013, 2018 and 2019).

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The biggest coaching swap in over a decade also played out prior to the 2019 season, with veteran Broncos coach Wayne Bennett and rookie Rabbitohs boss Anthony Seibold swapping homes.

This saw Bennett preside over the Redfern outfit, while Seibold was tasked with attempting to end Broncos’ premiership drought, something he failed to do in 2019.

The 45-year-old’s first season as Broncos coach ended in humiliation, with his side suffering their worst ever defeat – and the worst defeat in NRL finals history – going down 58-0 to the Parramatta Eels in an elimination final at Bankwest Stadium.

The return to Parramatta was a major highlight for the Eels, who had to play two seasons at ANZ Stadium as the old Parramatta Stadium was demolished and rebuilt into the masterpiece that it is today.

It was a mostly disappointing decade for the club. They claimed the wooden spoon three times and were engulfed in a salary cap breach, which cost them 12 premiership points in 2016.

Jarryd Hayne did his best to keep the club afloat before suddenly defecting to American football in 2014. He later returned to the Eels in 2018 but made little impact as they crashed to last place in 2018, just 12 months after playing finals.

In his first year at Redfern after being sacked by the Broncos, Wayne Bennett guided the Bunnies to a preliminary final – the same stage they’d reached under Anthony Seibold 12 months prior – where they were edged out by the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital.

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The 2018 season also saw the introduction of the NRL Women’s Premiership, with four teams forming the league – the Brisbane Broncos, New Zealand Warriors, St George Illawarra Dragons and Sydney Roosters.

After only two seasons, the Broncos have proven to be the team to beat, beating the Roosters and Dragons to claim the 2018 and 2019 premierships, respectively.

The success of their women’s team comes as the premiership drought continues for the men’s side, who have not saluted since 2006.

Dragons centre Jessica Sergis is making her mark as the best female player on the planet, winning the Dally M Medal and Golden Boot Award for her efforts with the Blues, Dragons and Jillaroos.

Her teammate Kezie Apps led the Blues to their second consecutive State of Origin win this year with a 14-4 win over the Maroons at North Sydney Oval. This followed a 16-10 win at the same venue last year.

Another ambassador for women’s rugby league, Ruan Sims, also retired from the game after two seasons playing for the Sydney Roosters, who after reaching the grand final in 2018 failed to win a single game in 2019.

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Those were just some of the highlights and most memorable moments from the decade.