With 2023 drawing to a close, and preparations for 2024 already in full swing, it's time for one final look back at the incredible year that was.

A second year in a row (thankfully) without lockdowns, a new team one of the greatest grand finals of any era, an Origin series that was over before it began, speculation continuing around the future of a number of players, changing tides at a number of clubs with sacked coaches, and the continuing growth of the women's game.

It really was a year that never seemed to slow down. Between March and October, and even beyond with the NRL news cycle that never seems to die, it was a headline a minute seemingly both on and off the field.

» 2023 NRL mega quiz
» Top ten storylines from 2023
» The 14 games you must re-watch from 2023

From the entire Zero Tackle team, we wish you all the best for a safe and happy New Year, and a fantastic 2024 ahead.

Penrith Panthers make it three in a row in all-time scare after all-time season

The script that was written ahead of the 2023 season was one which might as well have been straight from the set of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Most pre-season predictions were blown out of the water.

Out went seemingly top-eight certainties in 2022 preliminary finalists the North Queensland Cowboys and South Sydney Rabbitohs, as to did the grand finalists the Parramatta Eels, and on the rise were the New Zealand Warriors and Newcastle Knights.

It was those two sides who really captured the hearts, imagination and minds of NRL fans. The Warriors, in their first full season back in Auckland after the COVID-forced displacement over previous seasons took to their home ground and turned it into a fortress.

Their form in Australia wasn't that much worse though, and under the magic of Shaun Johnson at seven, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at the back and a forward pack who refused to lay down for anyone, Andrew Webster's debut season as a head coach took the Warriors into the top four.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 06: Shaun Johnson of the Warriors passes the ball during the round 10 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and Penrith Panthers at Suncorp Stadium on May 06, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

That magic afternoon in September with a home semi-finals still gives the neutral fan goosebumps, so you can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like on ground level.

They fell short the following week to the Brisbane Broncos (more on them shortly), but it was a magic run, and for the first time in what seems for ever, the question for the Warriors now is whether they can string two seasons together, rather than two games together.

The Knights were the other side to capture the rugby league public's attention in 2023.

Halfway through the season, it seemed heads were about to roll. The club were destined for a bottom four finish, and Adam O'Brien had ever increasing reports over his future.

But then things turned a dramatic corner. It was like taking a 180-degree turn at full speed, because the Knights went on an amazing run of form, sold out their home stadium twice in as many weeks at the back-end of the year and booked a home elimination final, which they went on to win in dramatic circumstances against the Canberra Raiders.

In fact, you'd argue that was one of the games of the season, and was the game of the finals right up until the grand final.

It didn't end well with a loss to the Warriors in Auckland the following week to end their season, but again, it was a run written straight off a Hollywood script given where they were mid-season.

The Broncos were briefly mentioned before, and they were the other team who made major leaps forward in 2023. Coming into the campaign, there was little doubt around the pressure surrounding the Red Hill-based outfit.

NRL Preliminary Final - Broncos v Warriors
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Ezra Mam of the Broncos celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the NRL Preliminary Final match between Brisbane Broncos and New Zealand Warriors at Suncorp Stadium on September 23, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

They had a new team enter to their north, and hadn't made a grand final since 2006. That all set to the backdrop of 2022s dramatic fadeout where they went from a top-four side with just a handful of weeks to go to missing the top eight.

Instead of fading out this time though, the Broncos played an innovative, aggressive style of rugby league and made it to the decider where they met the ever-consistent Penrith Panthers, playing in their fourth straight grand final.

Penrith, of course, just kept finding ways to get things done despite the seemingly disastrous pre-season loss of one of the game's best hookers in Apisai Koroisau.

They didn't let that get to them though and qualified for the grand final on the back of two big wins in the previous weeks, and a season where they took out yet another minor premiership.

In a grand final for the ages though, Penrith found themselves on the back foot and seemingly out of the game after Brisbane rookie Ezra Mam scored a hat-trick of unanswered tries after halftime.

With Jarome Luai off injured and Penrith staring down the barrel, it was over to New South Wales Blues and Australian Kangaroos halfback Nathan Cleary to steer the men from the foot of the mountains out of trouble and to a third straight premiership. It was ultimately incredibly fitting that he scored the match-winner just a handful of minutes from fulltime.

2023 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Broncos
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers celebrates scoring a try during the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

While that grand final will be replayed over and over again, the other story which was followed with intrigue during 2023 was the Dolphins.

After a recruitment run that could only realistically be described as sub-par, they impressed all during the opening exchanges of the season under the legendary Wayne Bennett to sit in the top eight. They fell apart with injuries and suspensions, but it would be almost unarguable to say the Dolphins exceeded all expectations in their inaugural NRL season. More on the signing picture for 2024 later, but they have added some excellent names for their second campaign.

The Dolphins did escape the bottom four, a fate that can't be mentioned for the Gold Coast Titans, Canterbury Bulldogs, St George Illawarra Dragons and wooden spooners the Wests Tigers.

The Titans, Dragons and Tigers all have changes of coach for 2024, with Des Hasler taking over from Justin Holbrook at Robina, Shane Flanagan arriving for Anthony Griffin in Wollongong and Tim Sheens dumped a year early for Benji Marshall at Concord.

Holbrook and Griffin were axed by their respective clubs mid-season.

The disaster at the Tigers was clear in their second straight spoon despite signing Koroisau, David Klemmer, Isaiah Papali'i and English star John Bateman pre-season.

The other one of the bottom four that maybe wasn't expected was the Canterbury Bulldogs under new coach Cameron Ciraldo and with a host of signings. It's a run of signings that hasn't stopped for 2024 either, with director of football Phil Gould and coach Ciraldo taking every aggressive step in the book to turn around the Belmore-based outfit.

While the top four will all be disappointed, maybe the key disappointments of the 2023 campaign were the Rabbitohs. Leading the competition after 11 rounds, the wheels fell off and Jason Demetriou's side somehow missed the top eight. Parramatta and North Queensland never overly looked in the fight, and neither did the Turbo-less Manly Sea Eagles.

NRL Rd 6 - Bulldogs v Rabbitohs
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 07: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs celebrates scoring a try with Cody Walker of the Rabbitohs and team mates during the round six NRL match between Canterbury Bulldogs and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Accor Stadium on April 07, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

That left the Canberra Raiders, Sydney Roosters and Cronulla Sharks to round out the top eight in years where there were more good than bad moments, but enough to know they were doing nothing other than making up the top eight numbers, while the ever-consistent Melbourne Storm made the top four despite never looking a premiership threat.

More NRLW expansion as Knights go back-to-back

2023 was another big moving year for the NRLW. Despite having to wait a long, long time for any fixtures as a result of the ongoing collective bargaining agreement dispute between the NRL and Rugby League Players Association, the expanded nine-round season would eventually get underway in mid-July with the grand final again to be played on the first Sunday in October.

Joining the competition were the North Queensland Cowboys, Canberra Raiders, Cronulla Sharks and Wests Tigers for the new campaign, and providing nine rounds saw an improvement in quality by the end of the season despite fears the dilution of the talent pool would be too greater leap.

That said, the NRL must be applauded for putting the brakes on further expansion, with no more teams to be admitted until at least 2025 - and it appears there will be no shortage of candidates with the Canterbury Bulldogs making a formal application, and the Penrith Panthers and New Zealand Warriors (who were in the competition originally before withdrawing due to COVID) both making the right noise.

The season kicked off with the 2022 wooden spooners, the Gold Coast Titans, getting the better of the North Queensland Cowboys on the Gold Coast, and as it turned out, they would be the story to follow throughout the campaign.

After winning just a single game in 2022, the Titand would win seven of their nine games in 2023, including four from four in the final month of the competition as they beat the Dragons, Tigers, Eels and Raiders all in convincing fashion to ensure a third-placed finish.

That set up a semi-final against traditional NRLW powerhouses the Sydney Roosters, only for the Titans to head to Sydney and record an excellent 12-0 win.

Standing in their way on grand final day though would be defending premiers the Newcastle Knights.

NRLW Rd 9 - Wests Tigers v Knights
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Tamika Upton of the Knights makes a break during the round nine NRLW match between Wests Tigers and Newcastle Knights at Leichhardt Oval, on September 14, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Knights had been at their best all season. Eight wins from nine took out the minor premiership, but maybe more alarmingly for their rivals was that the single loss came back in Round 2 against the Cowboys.

Since then, it had been a domination from Newcastle with most games seeing them barely challenged, although they had to scrape through the semi-final against the Brisbane Broncos with a 30 points to 24 victory in the Hunter.

Like the men's match though, the grand final was an absolute belter.

Leading 12-8 at halftime, the Knights would fall behind early in the second half through a pair of Jamie Chapman tries (she had also scored the Titans' first try in the first half). The Knights remained behind into the final ten minutes, but in another similarity to the game that would follow later in the day, it was Australian Jilaroos star and Dally M Medalist Tamika Upton who cracked the game open.

She scored tries in the 60th and 65th minute to hand the Knights back a six-point lead, and holding on for the final five minutes would again see the women from the Hunter take out the premiership against the gallant Titans.

Fittler falls on sword in Blue disaster

If there was one thing that was for certain heading into the 2023 State of Origin series, it was that Brad Fittler simply had to find a way to win for the Blues.

Coming off a disastrous 2022 series, Fittler was seen to be hanging by a thread coming into the series, and a number of puzzling selections prior to Game 1 didn't help his standing amongst Blues fans.

That was proven to the be the case too, with the Blues falling well short in Game 1 and 2, losing the series in straight sets before saving a whitewash in Sydney during Game 3.

While the Queensland effort had to be applauded - up against it at times, the Billy Slater-coached team was simply faultless - it was New South Wales who got the bulk of post-series attention.

The forwards didn't aim up, the backs struggled, James Tedesco as captain showcased alarmingly poor form and again, selections seemed to hamper the Blues effort.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 05: James Tedesco of the Roosters runs the ball during the round one NRL match between the Dolphins and Sydney Roosters at Suncorp Stadium on March 05, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Injuries - particularly those to Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell - didn't help the cause, but ultimately can't be blamed for the horror showing.

Fittler at one point was reportedly going to be given another year, but eventually fell on his sword and will now be replaced by former premiership-winning coach Michael Maguire who has also given up his role at the New Zealand Warriors to facilitate his new contract with the NSWRL.

It was a series with little to celebrate for the Blues, but the same can't be said for the Maroons.

In a tale of two coaches on different wavelengths, Slater continued to talk about the Queensland way, picked players who were going to aim up for him and the way he wanted the team to play, and got just about everything right.

From David Fifita's triumphant return to the Origin arena, to the way in which Daly Cherry-Evans led from the front and Reece Walsh took to the environment like a duck to water, everything the Maroons touched in those first two games turned to gold and they deservingly were able to lift the shield.

2023 State of Origin - NSW v QLD: Game 3
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 12: Daly Cherry-Evans of the Maroons and teammates celebrate with the State of Origin Shield after game three of the State of Origin series between New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on July 12, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

They would have loved a whitewash, obviously, and while it didn't happen, the doldrums Queensland Origin football seemed to be in just a few years ago is now seemingly a long-forgotten memory.

A two-game farce leads to much-needed women's Origin changes

In Women's Origin, the actual on-ground product seemed to be something that sat in the background this year as a series - albeit one of two matches - was played for the first time.

It was a start, but ultimately, not a great improvement on the one-game model for the female game, with for and against ultimately deciding a split series.

For the record, Queenaland won Game 1 in Sydney 18-10, and New South Wales won Game 2 in Townsville 18-14. That meant Queensland took home the shield.

Game 1 saw the Maroons launch out to a 10-6 lead over the Sky Blues at halftime, before tries to Emily Bass and Julia Robinson after the break put too much distance into the contest to be closed.

The Maroons also had a pretty handy lead at halftime in Game 2, leading 14-6, only for the Blues to rapidly close the gap and take the lead in the second half, but not by enough to take the series on for and against, with the go ahead try only scored minutes from fulltime by Yasmin Clydsdale.

NSW v QLD - Womens State of Origin: Game 1
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 01: Kennedy Cherrington of the Blues is tackled by Shenae Ciesiolka of the Maroons during game one of the Women's State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland at CommBank Stadium on June 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

But in a major boost to the women's game, after plenty of backlash from authorities, players and fans alike, the NRL have now agreed to expand the series to three matches in 2024.

And that - getting the series expanded again - was the main storyline which really followed the women's Origin series this year.

The product on field only keeps getting better, although 2024 will be intriguing given the NSWRL have announced their state-based women's premiership will move backwards (after the Origin series) to sit in line with the NRLW season. It may help the development of, and opportunity for, players, but will also ensure most of the Sky Blues top players don't have regular competitive rugby league ahead of the Origin series.

Bevan French stuns to win Man of Steel as St Helens run broken

It's fairly difficult to suggest the masses would have seen Bevan French turning himself into a five-eighth and being crowned the Man of Steel when he left for the English Super League at the end of the 2018 season.

But by 2023, that's exactly what has happened.

The Wigan Warriors now star, who played the first 47 games of his career as a Parramatta Eel where he scored 35 tries on the wing, made the switch to the Super League in 2019 and was crowned as the competition's best player this year.

Putting in incredible performance after incredible performance for the Warriors, French, in a halves combination with English halfback Harry Smith, and with another familiar name in Jai Field at fullback, powered Wigan to the premiership where they beat Catalans 10 points to 2 in a low-scoring decider.

Wigan Warriors v Wakefield Trinity - Betfred Super League
WARRINGTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Bevan French of Wigan Warriors looks on during the Betfred Super League match between Wigan Warriors and Wakefield Trinity at The Halliwell Jones Stadium on September 25, 2020 in Warrington, England.Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

That game also happened to be the final professional performance for Mitchell Pearce, who has elected to hang up the boots. The Catalans team had plenty of ex-NRL talent too in Tyrone May, Matt Ikuvalu, Siosiua Taukeiaho (who was on the verge of signing with the Bulldogs for 2024 until he failed a medical test) and Manu Ma'u.

But it was Wigan who were able to put the foot down on the back of an excellent semi-final performance where they thrashed Hull KR 42 points to 12.

It was Catalans the week before that who had finally ended the run of success for St Helens. The club had won four straight English titles, but, with Kristian Woolf departing to join the Dolphins under Wayne Bennett (where he will take over as head coach in 2025), the Saints were brought down a peg and couldn't find a way to make it back to yet another grand final.

French, who took out the Man of Steel, was also crowned the competition's top try assister with 30, while another familiar name to Australian audiences in Adrian Lam was named coach of the year at the Leigh Leopards.

Australia handed biggest ever international loss as Kiwis celebrate

12 months removed from the Rugby League World Cup, it was a smaller international program on the calendar for 2023, but one which still brought about plenty of thrills.

The headline act really was Tonga playing a three-Test series against England. It was the first time Mate Ma'a had played such a series and the first in a revamped international rugby league calendar, but they unfortunately struggled on the other side of the world, losing all three Tests despite being competitive, particularly in a 22-18 loss at St Helens in the first.

The other two Tests, at Huddersfield and Leeds respectively, were far more one-sided in favour of England.

Back in the Pacific, there were a pair of tri-series tournaments, known as the Pacific Cup and Bowl. The Cup featured Australia, New Zealand and Samoa, while the Bowl was played out in Port Moresby in front of passionate crowds between Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Cook Islands.

It was the final of the Cup tournament which raised eyebrows though, and not because of who was playing. Australia and New Zealand were always the favoured teams, however, it was the result of the game played in Hamilton that surprised, with New Zealand handing Australia their biggest ever defeat.

The green and gold never got out of first gear in the game and wound up losing 30 points to nothing.

New Zealand v Samoa - Mens Pacific Championships
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 21: James Fisher-Harris, captain of the Kiwis
is tackled (C) during the Mens Pacific Championships match between New Zealand Kiwis and Toa Samoa at Eden Park on October 21, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The second tri-series saw Fiji and Papua New Guinea dance their way into the final, and like in the Cup tournament, it was a reverse of the regular stage match between the two sides as the Kumuls won in front of almost 15,000 fans, beating Fiji 32 points to 12 in the final.

Set to the backdrop of ongoing discussion around where the NRL's 18th team will be based with Port Moresby one of the favourites, the nation did themselves no hinderance in winning the tournament and having big, passionate crowds on display during the tournament.

In the women's international game, Australia split their two Tests with the Kiwi Ferns, Samoa got the better of Fiji, New Zealand beat Tonga and Papua New Guinea recorded an impressive victory over the Cook Islands in Port Moresby.

CBA finally decided as big player moves confirmed for 2024

The NRL and Rugby League Players Association, in the face of industrial and strike action, were finally able to agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement mid-season.

There was the whole debacle of players running out with taped up NRL jerseys and not carrying out media interviews at one point, and it looked like more solidified action was just aroud the corner as the two warring parties threw all of the toys out with the bath water.

As mentioned though, eventually most of the demands were met or compromised on and an agreement that, for the first time also included the women's game, was signed.

That meant we could get back to focusing on football, although, realistically, it's always simmering away in the background given the very nature of how NRL deals are done for players, with those off-contract at the end of the following year able to negotiate and sign from November 1.

We have seen a real lack of big-name player moves from those off-contract at the end of 2024 thus far in this campaign, although Addin Fonua-Blake's move to the Sharks in 2025 will be enormous, and Jarome Luai could be not all that far from confirming his switch to the Wests Tigers.

NRL Rd 23 - Panthers v Storm
PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 04: Jarome Luai of the Panthers runs the ball during the round 23 NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm at BlueBet Stadium on August 04, 2023 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

But the 12 months leading up to November 1 was enormous for player moves, and there will be plenty of new faces at new clubs come Round 1 next year.

The biggest moves to be made during 2023 for the 2024 season include Stephen Crichton (Panthers to Bulldogs), Jack Wighton (Raiders to Rabbitohs), Herbie Farnworth and Thomas Flegler (both Broncos to Dolphins), Luke Brooks (Tigers to Sea Eagles), Spencer Leniu (Panthers to Roosters), Dominic Young (Knights to Roosters), Kurt Capewell (Broncos to Warriors), and of course the return of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who has signed on with the Warriors.

The full list of winners

NRL premiers: Penrith Panthers
NRL runners-up: Brisbane Broncos
NRL minor premiers: Penrith Panthers
NRLW premiers: Newcastle Knights
NRLW runners-up: Gold Coast Titans
NRLW minor premiers: Newcastle Knights
Dally M Medal: Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights)
NRLW Dally Medal: Tamika Upton (Newcastle Knights)
Clive Churchill Medal: Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
Karyn Murphy Medal: Tamika Upton (Newcastle Knights)
State of Origin: Queensland 2 - New South Wales 1
Wally Lewis Medal: Reuben Cotter (Queensland)
Women's State of Origin: Queensland 1 - New South Wales 1 (Queensland win on for and against)
Nellie Doherty Medal: Tazmin Gray (Queensland)
English Super League premiers: Wigan Warriors
English Super League runners-up: Catalans Dragons
English Super League minor premiers: Wigan Warriors
English Super League Man of Steel: Bevan French (Wigan Warriors)
Pacific Cup champions: New Zealand
Pacific Bowl champions: Papua New Guinea
Tonga tour of England: England 3 - Tonga 0
Men's Golden Boot: James Fisher-Harris (New Zealand)
Women's Golden Boot: Georgia Hale (New Zealand)
Wheelchair Golden Boot: Jeremy Bourson (France)