As the final editorial for 2018, it’s fitting to look back on the NRL season, Origin and Internationals. Despite all the off-field controversy around player behaviour, some bizarre refereeing and the endless coaching merry-go-rounds, it was one of the closest years in ages: the top four (Sydney Roosters, Melbourne, South Sydney, Cronulla) finished on 34 points, with fifth to eighth (Penrith, Brisbane, St. George-Illawarra, NZ Warriors) on 32.
The Sydney Roosters (16-8) won their 14th NSWRL/ARL/NRL premiership (living up to their ‘Easts to Win’ membership drive slogan), winning the minor premiership and beating the Melbourne Storm (16-8) 21-6 in the grand final. Cooper Cronk, struggling with a shoulder injury, assumed a virtual player-coach role to get the Roosters home. For all the jokes about the Roosters ‘buying’ premierships, new signings Cronk and James Tedesco were a huge part of their success.
The Storm were not as dominant as 2017, but still made their seventh grand final. While Billy Slater’s retired, Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy are still around, so expect the Storm to go deep into September again.
South Sydney (16-8) finally shook off their four-year premiership hangover to make the top four, losing to the Roosters 12-4 in the preliminary final. How will losing their coach Anthony Seibold affect them, and how will Wayne Bennett go in his place?
Two years after the breakthrough grand final win, Cronulla (16-8) fell a game short of another decider. Losing to the Roosters in the qualifying final, they rebounded against Penrith in the semi final, but were no match for Melbourne – with Slater and Ryan Hoffman playing their final game at AAMI Park – in the preliminary final. While they lose Valentine Holmes to the NFL, they gain Shaun Johnson from the Warriors. Will that make a difference? Who will coach them now Shane Flanagan is out?
Another year of promise for Penrith (15-9) ended in their third-straight semi final exit; getting that far was down to the excellent combination of Nathan Cleary and James Maloney. The surprise axing of coach Anthony Griffin hurt them as they narrowly missed the top four. Ivan Cleary’s return should lead to an improved 2019.
Preliminary finalists in 2017, Brisbane (15-9) were below their usual high standards. Despite a 9-3 Suncorp Stadium record, Brisbane finished sixth and were belted by St. George-Illawarra in their home elimination final, which turned out to be Bennett’s last game. Can Seibold give Brisbane a much-needed rejuvenation?
In brighter news, Brisbane won the inaugural NRLW premiership, beating the Roosters in the grand final.
Another late slump ruined St. George-Illawarra’s (15-9) season. Ladder leader after 16 rounds, the Dragons finished seventh, everyone got mad at Ben Hunt, and many expected them to crash in the elimination final. They found some pride, beating Brisbane 48-18 and narrowly losing to Souths (13-12) in the semi final.
The NZ Warriors (15-9) made the finals for the first time since 2011. Pleasingly, they won eight games away from Mt. Smart Stadium. While they lost to Penrith in the elimination final, they can be proud of their season. It’ll be interesting to see what impact Johnson’s departure has.
The Wests Tigers (12-12) had a big year, rising from the bottom four to ninth, helped by the return of Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall, and a fast start to the season. They lose Cleary but gain current New Zealand coach Michael Maguire. Can they go a step further in 2019?
Canberra (10-14) had another disappointing season. While losing Josh Hodgson during in 2017 World Cup didn’t help, their inability to win close games killed them. They looked like making a late finals run, but won two of their last seven games. Though they’ll miss Jordan Rapana for the first half of 2019, a finals appearance is a must for the Green Machine.
For the first time in four seasons, Newcastle (9-15) avoided the wooden spoon. The combination of Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga indicates brighter times ahead for Newcastle. The full-time return of the heritage ‘Henny Penny’ jersey will please one of the most passionate – and hardy – supporter bases.
A rough year for Canterbury (8-16) on and off the field. They won two of their first nine games and never recovered, not to mention the Mad Monday fiasco. They’ll be desperate for an improved 2019.
Their NSW Cup team found success, winning the Intrust Super Premiership and the NRL Intrust Super State Championship against the Redcliffe Dolphins.
From grand finalists to bottom four, it was a nightmare season for North Queensland (8-16), with an uncharacteristic 5-7 Townsville record. A sad way for Johnathan Thurston to end his career. At least he won his last home game (beating Parramatta 44-6) and his final game (beating Gold Coast 30-26).
The Gold Coast’s (8-16) 14th-placed finish masked a spirited showing. Shrugging off the fallout from Jarryd Hayne’s departure, they opened the season with a comeback win over Canberra, beat Manly twice, beat Brisbane on Easter Sunday evening at Suncorp Stadium and beat the Warriors 36-12 in round 20.
After making the finals in 2017, Manly (7-17) had a poor 2018; one win from the wooden spoon and coach Trent Barrett replaced by favourite son Des Hasler. The highlight was beating Brisbane (in their ‘home’ game at Suncorp Stadium) and Melbourne in rounds 10 and 11. Can Des bring some pride back to Brookvale Oval?
After an amazing 2017, Parramatta (6-18) crashed hard. Not even Hayne’s return could prevent the wooden spoon. The Eels have added premiership-winner Blake Ferguson and former Raider Junior Paulo in 2019, can they offload the spoon?
STATE OF ORIGIN
Brad Fittler delivered NSW their first series win since 2014, beating Queensland 2-1. They won game one at the MCG 22-12 and secured the series at Homebush (18-14) in the first Sunday night Origin since the early 2000s. Queensland won the third game at Suncorp Stadium 18-12 to deny a clean sweep.
The revamped rep round was a huge success. Held the weekend before Origin II, a packed North Sydney Oval watched NSW win the Women’s Origin 16-10. It was so successful there were talks of extending the series. The Pacific Test doubleheader at Campbelltown was magical: over 17,000 watch PNG beat Fiji 26-14, then Tonga beat Samoa 38-22. Coming off an incredible World Cup, it was heartening to see so much passionate support for Tonga. With no mid-season Test, Australia played two Tests in New Zealand in October, losing to the Kiwis 26-24 and beating Tonga 34-16. It was a hostile crowd for Australia, with a huge pro-Tongan contingent. Hopefully Tonga can build on this big game exposure and become a force in International rugby league.