2021 is in the bag, and as the world brings in the New Year, it’s time to look back on the last 12 months in rugby league land.
And what a 12 months it has been.
The global situation has never mattered all that much to the NRL until the start of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and since then it has just about all that has mattered.
We come to the end of 2021 hoping 2022 will provide more stability for players, administrators and fans alike, but couldn’t speculate on it with any certainty.
That comes after 2021 was forced into a mass relocation of the NRL to Queensland, while the long-suffering New Zealand Warriors haven’t played a game in front of their home fans for two years.
The pandemic has also wreaked havoc on international rugby league, with the World Cup being postponed to 2022 and international matches few and far between, while it seems like the English Super League had matches postponed every other week on its way to eventually completing a season.
Here are the key storylines to come out of 2021.
Penrith’s plan finally pays off with first premiership since 2003
2021 was all about the Penrith Panthers.
Following a minor premiership in 2020 and eventual loss in the grand final, they won their first 12 games of the 2021 season and it seemed as if no one would be able to stop them.
But then came the problems associated with injuries and State of Origin. Nathan Cleary, the star of the show, spent weeks on the sideline, and while Penrith managed to hang around close to the top of the table, they suddenly didn’t look so certainly the best team in the competition.
After hitting the skids mid-season though and seemingly surrendering the advantage as the best team in the competition to the Melbourne Storm, the Panthers would turn things back around in the finals.
Cleary might have missed out on a Dally M Medal, but Phil Gould’s plan from all those years ago to use the club’s centre of excellent and rely on their own juniors finally came to fruition during a hard-fought finals series.
They fell to the South Sydney Rabitohs in the first week of the finals and had to do things the hard way, but did it excellently, going past the Parramatta Eels, Storm and then Rabbitohs in the decider to lift their first premiership in almost two decades.
Snap relocation saves the NRL
It was hardly a season without drama though.
The NRL was forced into a mass relocation as COVID took off in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory with all three jurisdictions forced into lockdown and Queensland slamming their borders shut to all of them.
It was then hastily organised that all 13-non Queensland teams, including the New Zealand Warriors who had been based on the Central Coast, would make a mad dash for the Queensland border, and just like that, within 48 hours, the chance of anymore rugby league in other states had been dashed for the year.
It proved a stroke of genius though given the increasingly tightening restrictions in New South Wales and Victoria almost certainly would have seen the suspension of the competition.
New South Wales run up records on Queensland before Billy Slater becomes a coach
Another impact of the enormous lockdown and relocation of 2021 was the State of Origin series.
In the end, the games were forced to be played in Queensland, with Game 1 in Townsville, Game 2 in Brisbane and Game 3 on the Gold Coast.
But if anything, it seemed to just spark Brad Fittler’s New South Wales side to another level as they cruised to victory in the first two games.
Paul Green was likely to hang around as Queensland coach, however, the QRL decided a new direction and long-term commitment was needed, with Billy Slater set to coach in 2022, and the Maroons desperate to turn things around in a big way.
Speaking of coaching…
And speaking of coaching, boy oh boy was there some action off the field for the men carrying the clipboards this year.
It kicked off early with John Morris sensationally displaced as the Cronulla Sharks coach despite having his side sitting in the top eight. They would go on to miss the top eight with all preparations seemingly being towards 2022 and the imminent arrival of Craig Fitzgibbon.
Then there was the constant furore surrounding Michael Maguire and his future at the Wests Tigers, while the speculation regarding Kevin Walters also at times reached fever pitch.
Craig Bellamy then defied everyone to sign a new five-year deal with the Melbourne Storm, while Wayne Bennett, after months of denial in typical Wayne Bennett fashion, agreed to link up with the Dolphins for the 2023 season.
And how about the off-field contract carnage?
The silly season has also seen renewed calls for the contract system in the NRL to see radical, rapid changes.
From Viliame Kikau’s leak in a Bulldogs shirt, and Reed Mahoney’s secret dinner with the same club, to Tevita Pangai Junior’s parade and the circus which followed Isaiah Papali’i, Brandon Smith and Luciano Leilua, is has been chaos off the field.
2023 is going to look very, very different on the field with players going in every which direction in search of the next big deal to keep their career at the top of the pile, and one could argue that, even with a year still to play for those currently negotiating, there is going to be plenty more movement before the first ball is kicked in anger for 2022.
St Helens make it three on the trot
Over in England, and it was all St Helens once again.
James Maloney’s arrival at the Catalan Dragons might have taken the French club to their first grand final in the English competition, but it wasn’t enough to knock over the juggernaut that was the Saints.
Catalan were actually good enough to win the minor premiership this season, but still couldn’t overthrow Catalan in a tense decider at Old Trafford which was won by just 12 points to 10.
That had followed St Helens and Catalan both dominating their semi-final opponents the week prior, with Catalan winning 28-10 over the Hull Kingston Rovers, and St Helens blasting past the Leeds Rhinos by 36 points to 8.
Former NRL player Ken Sio topped the try-scoring charts with 18 for the Salford Red Devils, while English winger and Aussie Jake Mamo were tied for second, with Maloney leading all goal kickers for the season, and scoring more points than any other player.
Forfeited games raise Super League questions
But the Super League season didn’t pass without controversy.
Two games were called forfeited - the Round 12 clash which saw Castleford unable to field a team against St Helens, while Huddersfield also had to forfeit their Round 13 game against Castleford.
Both teams were unable to field a team due to the impacts of COVID combined with injury, however, neither made the seven-player precedent the RFL was using to postpone games for COVID, meaning both had to forfeit.
Plenty of others were postponed and never replayed, with Wigan managing a 25-game season, compared to Hull KR only managing 20 games on the final ladder.
It will forever be the season with an asterisk on it.
The Rugby League World Cup gets postponed
With COVID continuing to rip around the world, Australia and New Zealand opted out of the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the year.
It took the IRL no time at all to postpone the tournament, however, the way the ARL and NZRL handled the decision was routinely criticised by all and sundry.
It’s thought workload management had its say, as did the idea of going into another bubble after players had just spent three months in one for the NRL season to finish, although that was never publicly confirmed.
The World Cup will now take place at the end of 2022 with Australia and New Zealand both set to participate.
Despite that, England and France managed to sneak a Test in during October, while Jamaica also played out a thrilling 30-all draw with Scotland among a handful of other international fixtures.
The Dolphins breakthrough and the NRL shakes things up with new TV deal
And back in NRL land, the Dolphins were announced as the competition’s 17th franchise for the 2023 season.
The NRL’s first expansion in almost two decades will see the competition return to byes, more games during the Origin window and all three representative matches played on Wednesday nights.
Concern will be starting to ebb through head office at the NRL though given the Redcliffe-based outfits struggles to sign players. They have just four in their top 30 at the end of 2021 after two months of negotiating, and despite being able to bargain with Bennett as coach.
That hasn’t stopped the NRL from locking in an improved TV deal for the code though despite the incredible circumstances which have faced the game and broadcast partners over the past 24 months.
It has been an at times crazy year both on and off the field, but the greatest game of all has made it to the end of another year and is primed for 2022.
On behalf of the entire Zero Tackle team, we wish you all a very happy and safe New Year.