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The barbecue of doom and the toilet of hope: Rugby league in 2021

Roar Guru
28th December, 2021
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Roar Guru
28th December, 2021
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As we farewell 2021, it’s time to review the year in rugby league.

The major prizes have been awarded. Penrith took the Provan-Summons trophy back to their mountain lair, while Melbourne made a long-awaited return home with the JJ Giltinan shield.

Tom ‘Turbo’ Trbojevic won the Dally M medal and the Players’ Champion award, and a select few won the most prestigious honour in rugby league, a POPE award.

But we’re not quite done yet. Here’s a selection of the best, the worst and the weird from 2021. Feel free to submit your nominations below.

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The feel-good stories of the year

The Redcliffe Dolphins
I’ve resolved to use the name Redcliffe whenever discussing the NRL’s newest licensee. What’s the point of living if you can’t be awkward and annoying to people from marketing?

While the NRL is reluctant to acknowledge the club’s provenance, I can’t help but be happy for the good folk of the peninsula and for the leagues club’s almost 30,000 members who helped make the team a powerhouse of the Queensland Cup and then outgrow it.

Wayne Bennett

Wayne Bennett will be the first coach of the new Dolphins franchise. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The toilet of hope
Falakiko Manu’s road to the NRL was not easy. Before making his debut for Canterbury in Round 16, Manu spent eight years chasing his rugby league dream and very nearly gave up.

For two of those years, he was homeless, forced to sleep in the sick bay of the panel-beating business where he worked and shower on the toilet.

Manu’s inspirational story was recognised by Roy and HG in July.

Dragons and spacemen
French rugby league hasn’t had a better year since the late 1960s. Catalans Dragons won the minor premiership and played the club’s first grand final, while Toulouse Olympique ascended to Super League for the first time.

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Is the sleeping giant finally stirring?

When Sam Kasiano’s flying through the air for miracle last-gasp tries, something’s going on.

The typical rugby league stories of the year

The barbecue of doom
When St George Illawarra beat the New Zealand Warriors 19-18 at Gosford in Round 16, Dragons’ supporters were dreaming of the heady heights of seventh or eighth place and an elimination final defeat to Parramatta or the Roosters.

It was at this moment, with much of the state in lockdown, that Dragons prop Paul Vaughan chose to host a barbecue.

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Paul Vaughan of the Dragons plays up to the crowd

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A few days later, Vaughan was unemployed and most of his former teammates were facing suspension.

While Jack de Belin did eventually emerge from under the bed, he couldn’t prevent the eight-match losing streak and 11th-place finish that ensued.

Mug lairs and the fun police
Thankfully, rugby league hasn’t plumbed the depths of baseball’s so-called ‘unwritten rules’, but the sight of talented young footballers enjoying themselves is evidently too much for some.

Canberra CEO Don Furner labelled Penrith’s players “mug lairs” after some exuberant try celebrations during the Panthers’ 30-10 victory over the Raiders in Round 5.

Unfortunately for Furner, James Hooper took his side. This is well known in rugby league as the point at which you’ve lost the argument.

Even the curmudgeonly Phil Rothfield defended the Panthers, and the Raiders were fined $10,000 for their conduct on the night.

The Canberra Raiders
Speaking of the Raiders, something’s rotten in the nation’s capital.

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Ricky Stuart, never one afraid of making enemies and alienating people, drove a second English import back to the mother country, made the Wests Tigers an attractive destination for another and copped a spray from Joseph Tapine’s partner about his forward rotation.

Ricky Stuart

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Outstanding contributions to rugby league language and culture

Tales from Tiger Town and Brandon Smith’s f-bomb salad
I’m not averse to salty language, as anybody who’s watched a Dragons game with me can confirm.

Between Michael Maguire’s excruciatingly limited vocabulary and Smith’s foul-mouthed candour, we got an interesting insight into the day-to-day life and discourse at many NRL clubs.

Maguire seems to have boiled down the sum of his coaching wisdom into different inflections of the word f***.

There was a point in Smith’s recent interview with YKTR when he started using its as punctuation.

Bring back the Bears
The NRL’s decision to expand to 17 teams and foreshadow an 18th has left a tantalising void that every old Norths supporter and their dog has rushed to fill.

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Greg Florimo of the North Sydney Bears

(Photo by Getty Images)

We’re told there are 220,000 extant Bears fans and hundreds of thousands more nascent supporters lurking somewhere to the north of Sydney.

What’s less known is the numerical, grammatical and geographical creativity behind the latest bid.

Norths chairman Daniel Dickson recently assured the world that “we’re going to add to the game, we’re not going to detract”.

This is the Tony Abbott school of oratory. Make sure you first deny you’re a malign presence.

Dickson went on to say that “we are 400 per cent focused on the structure and on the funding model. Doing rugby league different, to me, is quite an exciting thing”. They’d certainly add something.

Bears legend Billy Moore then described his strategy for engaging with existing Bears supporters, “[Perth] will de-risk it because if we do go [there] we pick up that new market but we are re-engaging the 220,000 voices”.

Billy Moore and Jason Taylor

(Photo by Getty Images)

So, expect the resurrected Bears to play 48 games per season at Perth, 24 at North Sydney Oval and 24 at Gosford.

The devil’s in Coffs Harbour to make a Faustian pact
Dennis Carnahan deserves a medal for services to rugby league absurdity.

Nathan Hindmarsh and Bryan Fletcher aren’t far behind. I can’t help giggling whenever I hear Michael Ennis talking, but I’m not sure if that’s what he’s going for.

Tries of the year

Tom Trbojevic, North Queensland versus Manly
‘Turbo’ got the try but 3.9 of the four points should be credited to Reuben Garrick.

Tom Trbojevic

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Joe Mellor, Leigh versus Wakefield
Mellor channelled Allan Langer and Paul Gascoigne against Wakefield in July.

Tom Trbojevic, State of Origin, Game 1
Arguably the three best players in rugby league combined for this beauty in Townsville.

Shaun Lane, Canberra versus Parramatta
As frustrating as he can be, there are few better sights in rugby league than Mitch Moses in space.

Ken Sio, Salford versus Hull FC
Beware the third kick.

The best new faces

Sam Walker, Sydney Roosters
The NRL rookie of the year provided 21 try assists and 22 line break assists in 2021. Imagine what he’s going to be when he fills out and develops a running game.

Sam Walker of the Roosters

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Will Pryce, Huddersfield
The son of former England international Leon Pryce is one to keep an eye on.

Reece Walsh, New Zealand
I have some doubts about Walsh staying at fullback. Wherever he ends up, he’ll have a fine career.

So long and thanks for the memories

Champions gone too soon: Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Michael Morgan
A combination of concussion and injury robbed the game of three Origin representatives and premiership winners.

Michael Morgan

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Cordner was awesome for New South Wales and the Roosters in 2018 and 2019, Friend won three premierships and an Origin series with Queensland in 2020, while Morgan flicked the pass that pulled the 2015 grand final out of the fire for North Queensland.

The twin towers: Josh and Brett Morris
Between them, the Morris twins played 601 NRL games, scored 334 tries, and played 30 Origins and 24 Test matches.

Old twinkle toes: Benji Marshall
I’ll never tire of seeing this.

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