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EDITORIAL | From Nines to Origin: 2020 in Review

After nearly 10 months, one of the strangest NRL seasons is finally over. Due to COVID-19, rugby league in Australia faced its biggest challenge since the Super League war. Penrith dominated the shortened regular season, Melbourne won when it mattered, and we finished with a brilliant Origin series.

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NRL Nines

The 2020 season started with the NRL Nines, which returned after a successful Rugby League World Cup 9s in late 2019.

Played in Perth in mid-February, it featured both NRL and NRLW teams. North Queensland won their second NRL Nines title, beating St George-Illawarra 23-14 in the final.

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The four NRLW sides (Brisbane, the Sydney Roosters, St George Illawarra, NZ Warriors) played a round robin tournament, with the Dragons beating Brisbane 28-4 in the final.

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Of course, there was controversy, with Penrith losing their quarter-final to the Dragons, when Dragons winger Cody Ramsey scored a late try; however, replays showed he was clearly out before he’d grounded the ball, and there was no Bunker or video referee available.

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NRL Regular Season

The 2020 season started with COVID-19 hanging over it. Sadly – though necessarily – the season was postponed after just two rounds. Six teams (Parramatta, Newcastle, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Penrith) were undefeated, while defending premiers the Sydney Roosters lost both their games.

Some players amused themselves on TikTok during the two-month break, while fans watched classic games on NRL.com and Fox League.

The season finally restarted in late May for a revised 20 rounds, including 22 straight weeks of footy from round three to the grand final, with Origin shifted to November. There were some new rules, including “Six Again” and “Captain’s Challenge”. While the “Six Again” rule was divisive, the “Captain’s Challenge” was well-received.

The other issue was no crowds (at least for the first few rounds), though fans were allowed to purchase cardboard cut-outs that would sit in the empty seats. While some fans kept it simple, others used photos of their pets or other infamous historical figures.

The big stories were at the opposite ends of the ladder.

Penrith sailed to the minor premiership with an 18-1-1 record. Their only regular season loss was in round five to Parramatta: they won 17 games in a row to make the grand final. While some accused the Panthers of having from a soft draw and minimal travel, it was still an amazing achievement.

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Meanwhile, Brisbane won just three games – and ONE after the competition resumed – including some fearful hammerings and a negative 356 points differential. Sick of the Broncos getting a golden run on Channel Nine, opposition fans were willing them to win their first wooden spoon. While Canterbury-Bankstown stayed in last place for most of the season, their round 19 win over Souths was enough to give Brisbane the wooden spoon. Can new coach Kevin Walters turn them around?

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There was some good news at Red Hill, with the Broncos winning their third straight NRLW premiership, beating the Roosters 20-10, while Queensland won the Women’s Origin 24-18.

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By contrast, the Gold Coast Titans had a wonderful season. Finishing a distant last in 2019 with four wins, they won nine games in 2020 (including their last five), to race into ninth. They probably would have made the finals in a full season. With big signings David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, the Titans will seriously challenge for the finals in 2021.

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The NZ Warriors were the people’s champion of 2020: playing home games at the Central Coast, their incredible sacrifice allowed the NRL to resume in May. While they had every excuse to fold and finish in the bottom four, they won eight games and were an outside finals chance.

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While the top eight was decided fairly early, the top four went to the final Saturday night of the season: Canberra (who had defied regular same-day travel to-and-from Canberra, as well as some key injuries) beat Cronulla-Sutherland in round 20 to sit fourth. If the Wests Tigers upset Parramatta a few hours later, then Canberra would stay in fourth. While the Tigers were farewelling favourite son Benji Marshall, Parramatta won to regain the double chance.

The biggest shock of round 20 was Souths’ 60-8 smashing of the Roosters, with the Rabbitohs’ Alex Johnston scoring five tries to win the Ken Irvine Medal. While the Roosters had already sealed a top four spot, the unexpected severity of this loss hurt their premiership hat-trick hopes.

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NRL Qualifying and Elimination Finals

The top eight finished as: Penrith, Melbourne, Parramatta, Sydney Roosters, Canberra, South Sydney, Newcastle, and Cronulla-Sutherland.

The first week of the finals was entertaining and high-scoring.

Penrith beat the Roosters 29-28 on the Friday night. Penrith were sailing at 28-10 with 30 minutes left. The Roosters closed the gap to six points before a Nathan Cleary field goal booked Penrith a preliminary final spot.

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Canberra eliminated Cronulla with a 32-20 win, continuing the Sharks’ winless run against top eight teams. Cronulla started well, leading 14-10 at halftime (another slow start for Canberra), but two tries to Jack Wighton saw the Raiders through to the semis.

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Melbourne advanced to the preliminary final with a 36-24 win over Parramatta at Suncorp Stadium. Due to Melbourne being hit hard by COVID-19, the Storm had to relocate to the Sunshine Coast in June: they won six straight games at Sunshine Coast Stadium, and four at Lang Park, including their annual away win over Brisbane. Melbourne put the tenacious Eels away with a three-try, 10 minute burst in the second half.

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Souths closed out week one of the finals with a 46-20 belting of a struggling Newcastle, scoring eight tries in 60 minutes (with two more tries to Johnston), again proving they were the most exciting attacking team in 2020.

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NRL Semi Finals

After some landslide results in week one, the Sydney Roosters vs Canberra semi at the SCG felt like a return to genuine finals footy. Canberra raced to a 16-0 lead after 22 minutes, weathered a Roosters comeback, and sealed their win with a Wighton try, as James Tedesco was clean bowled by an off-breaking George Williams grubber. It was a huge win for Canberra after last year’s controversial grand final loss.

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Souths continued their incredible run, knocking out Parramatta 38-24. The Eels led 18-8 at halftime before Souths’ attacking machine clicked, winning the second half 30-6. It was another disappointing finals exit for the Eels, who’d spent most of the season in the top four.

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NRL Preliminary Finals

With five wins in a row, Canberra would have fancied themselves against Melbourne at Lang Park, especially with last year’s qualifying win at AAMI Park fresh in their minds. In reality, Canberra had peaked at the SCG and had nothing left (not helped by having to fly into Brisbane on game day and head straight to Lang Park), while Melbourne were fresh. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Melbourne blitzed Canberra, leading 16-0 after 10 minutes. Canberra tried hard to fight back, but squandered too many chances, with Melbourne winning 30-10.

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The second prelim was much closer, with Penrith enduring some nervous moments before beating Souths 20-16. The Panthers shut down the Rabbitohs’ attacking power, with three tries each, and Cleary’s four goals from four attempts was the difference.

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NRL Grand Final

After 22 straight weeks of footy, it came down to this. While Penrith had been the best team all year, could they win when it really mattered against the ultra-professional Storm, or would their nerves get the better of them? While Melbourne won 26-20 to secure their fourth “official” premiership, it wasn’t as close as the scoreline suggested.

The game seemed over by halftime, with Melbourne leading 22-0 (tries to Justin Olam, Suliasi Vunivalu, Cameron Smith, and Clive Churchill Medal winner Ryan Papenhuyzen). Penrith launched a late comeback off a controversial Brian To’o try, then scored three more tries in the last 12 minutes (Stephen Crichton, Josh Mansour, Nathan Cleary) to fall six points short as Storm coach Craig Bellamy almost tore the coaches’ box apart in frustration.

 

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State of Origin

COVID-19 meant we had one of the strangest Origin series’ in 40 years: for the first time, it wasn’t played in the traditional mid-season window.

While the NRL said they’d keep an open mind about Origin scheduling depending on the almighty TV ratings, it was clear that Origin in November wasn’t right.

It didn’t help that NSW – gunning for three-straight series wins – were hot favourites, and Queensland’s “worst team ever” (coached by Wayne Bennett after Walters got the Broncos job) were being compared to Fatty’s legendary 1995 “Nevilles.”

Turns out they were right. Like Fatty’s team, the 2020 Maroons found a way to win.

The first game at the Adelaide Oval lacked the usual Origin atmosphere. When NSW raced to a 10-0 lead, it looked like the Blues would have time to declare and give the Queensland openers a nervy few overs before stumps. But, Queensland did a “Queensland” and found a way to win: tries to Alexander Brimson, Xavier Coates, and Cameron Munster gave the Maroons an 18-14 win.

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Game two went to Homebush, and this felt like an Origin game: while NSW won 34-10, there was a bit of old-fashioned state-against-state biffo, and two sin bins (Payne Haas and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui). NSW scored six tries to two, all but securing the game with an 18-4 halftime lead: not even the Maroons could “Queensland” their way out of this one. It was a big night for Cleary: defying mid-week criticism to lead to Blues the victory, and Wighton: the Dally M Medal winner scoring his first Origin try.

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Enter the decider at Lang Park: for the first time since COVID-19 hit, the stadium was full. In a reverse of Adelaide, Queensland led 20-6 after an hour, with popular debutant Harry Grant scoring Queensland’s third try (Valentine Holmes and Edrick Lee scored the first two). Daniel Tupou scored as NSW got within six, but Queensland hung on to win 20-14. The ending was farcical, with NSW Captains Challenging a knock on at fulltime as Queensland celebrated. While NSW won the Challenge, time had already expired, so it didn’t matter. That bizarre piece of confusion was a fitting way to end a crazy season.

Munster won the Wally Lewis Medal, which was incredible as he only played a few minutes in game two due to injury.

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Hopefully 2021 will be back to normal (or as normal as possible), with a full NRL season, Origin mid-season, and the post-season Rugby League World Cup.

 

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