2016 was an enormous year for the NRL. The ever present scandals were drowned out by the fairy-tale success of Cronulla, the return of the Hayne Plane and moments of individual brilliance on and off the field.
I have selected five moments worthy of remembering before the intense season to come kicks off:
5. Ray Warren: “IT’S 8-6, GREG!”
Unforgettable because we are talking about one of the biggest names in the NRL. The Third round clash between St George Illawarra and the Rabbitohs saw the Bunnies trailing by two points in an old-fashioned slog fest at the famous SCG. With seconds remaining, rain pouring down from the heavens, Greg Inglis decided a field goal was his best option. The attempt went wide and the siren sounded, much to the bemusement of players, commentators and fans.
4. The Salary Cap Scandal
The great stain on the season. Parramatta had a promising start to 2016, however, Eels fan’s hopes of a long-awaited title contending season were devastated by the news of investigations into salary cap breaches. Several contracted players had accepted third-party payments from unknown companies – an action prohibited in the NRL. CEO Todd Greenberg announced in May that the club would be docked all accrued competition points, fined $1 million and stripped of their recent Auckland Nines Title. To add to the fans fury, the club were also restricted from gaining points until they fell under the salary cap, which saw fan favourite Nathan Peats shipped off to the Gold Coast, much to his personal anger and frustration. The Eels finished 14th.
3. “This is my house”
A sorry sight to any blue and yellow fan. A fairy-tale to every NRL executive and Gold Coast Titans fan. Jarryd Hayne, the NRL superstar, come NFL convert, come Rugby sevens convert returned to the NRL with a media frenzy not too dissimilar to a Hollywood movie star. Returning to his hometown Campbelltown oval for the first time since his childhood, having never played there with Parramatta, the Titans stole a last-minute victory over the West Tigers courtesy of some Hayne magic, calmly converting 30 metre field goal attempt with 15 seconds on the clock. Hayne pumped his chest as his teammates swamped the fullback in ecstasy. The Hayne Plane had taken off.
2. Robbie Farah and his beer
His beloved Tigers had seen their finals hopes squandered. Sitting in the stands, Farah watched on as the Canberra raiders piled on the points in a 52 – 10 drubbing. A lap of honour at halftime saw an emotional farewell for Farah, Leichardt Oval full of appreciative supporters. It was a difficult season for Farah as coach Jason Taylor saw the NSW Hooker surplus to requirements, his expensive contract a deterrent. Desperate to remove Farah from the books, Taylor dropped the now former one club veteran to NSW Cup. Farah will now wear the colours of South Sydney for the coming season. The image of an emotional Farah, his beer and the Leichardt oval scoreboard will be etched into rugby league folklore as a memory of his forced Tigers exit.
1. Andrew Fifita match winner
Arguably one of, if not, the most important member of a title-winning Cronulla Sharks team. It was the 69th minute of a grueling Grand Final. Melbourne storm 12, Cronulla Sharks 8. Matt Prior played the ball, five metres out and slightly left of the posts. Michael Ennis scooted from dummy half, faking to Paul Gallen running an inside line. Andrew Fifita received the ball and was immediately confronted by four determined Storm defenders. Such was the strength and tenacity of one of the NRL’s best, Fifita carried the four men and the hopes of every Cronulla fan over the line in what were the final points of the match. This solo effort defines Fifita as a player: plenty of heart, effort and passion. Better yet, his effort reflects an entire team, determined to break a 50 year drought.