2023 NRL: The Stories That Made NRL Headlines in 2023

As the 2023 year comes to an end, we look at some of the stories that made the headlines this NRL season.

Related: 2023 NRL Year in Review: Panthers Three-Peat, ‘Phins Up and Queensland Win Origin
Related: 2023 NRL: Season by the Numbers

Enterprise Agreement Stalemate Broken

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Going into 2023, the NRL and the Players Association had not agreed on their Enterprise Agreement.

The frustration led to the players boycotting interviews with most notably the final State of Origin affected. In late-July players covered the NRL logo in duct tape in protest.

Finally, an agreement was reached in early-August allowing the NRL to clear the decks to announce their Vegas venture.

NRL Set to Light Up Vegas

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After months of speculation, the NRL confirmed they would take premiership matches to Las Vegas with the Sydney Roosters, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Brisbane Broncos the first sides to compete in 2024’s double header.

In mid-December, estimated tickets sales for the inaugural event was estimated at 20,000.

The deal is for the next five years where it’s expected all clubs will be given the opportunity to play in the United States.

Stars Head to the United States for Specialist Treatment

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It was another year of players seeking specialist medical treatment in the United States from reconditioning specialist Bill Knowles.

Ryan Papenhuyzen (knee), Tom Trbojevic (hamstring), and Luke Metcalf (hamstring) sought the services of Knowles as part of their rehabilitation.

Papenhuyzen headed back in December after his horrific ankle injury in Melbourne’s loss to the Broncos in this year’s finals. He is hopeful of being ready for the Storm’s round 1 clash with the Panthers in March.

NRL “Keen” to Reduce Bunker Stoppages

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In January, the NRL promised to reduce bunker intervention and “needless stoppages” to quicken up the game.

Not sure there was anything significantly different about the bunker’s role in 2023.

This was demonstrated in the Suncorp Stadium clash between the Broncos and the Panthers where there were several contentious decisions including a no try to Scott Sorensen, and the Broncos denied after Reece Walsh was penalised after the onfield referee urged the bunker to scrutinise the incident closer.

New Pre-Season Competition Rushed In, Manly Victors

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Just weeks out from the start of the pre-season, the NRL hastily announced a new pre-season competition with bonus points available for teams who completed various in-game tasks, such as scoring more than five tries in a game or making more than 10 offloads in a game.

English Super League side St Helens made up the 18th team to play in the competition played over two weeks, with their World Club Challenge match against the Panthers included in the competition.

In the end, Manly took out the $100,000 prize (29 points) edging out the Sharks (28 points), with St Helens scoring 20 points.

Ramsey Misses NRL Season, Future in Doubt

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Sad news for 23-year-old Dragons fullback Cody Ramsey who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis before Christmas and was ruled out of the 2023 season in late-January.

While he is no guarantee to return to the game, the Dragons were looking to extend his contract as late as December.

Ramsey has played 36 games for the Red V, scoring 14 tries.

Jack Wighton’s 30th Birthday Celebrations Turn Ugly

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In early February, Jack Wighton celebrated his 30th birthday with friends in Canberra which resulted in he and Latrell Mitchell being arrested by ACT Police. Footage emerged of Mitchell screaming at police while being arrested.

Both players went on to play in the Indigenous All Stars 28-24 victory over the Maori All Stars in Rotorua a week later.

The case went to court and the charges were dropped by ACT Police. An internal police investigation was tasked at looking into the case.

Dom Young Leaves Knights For Bondi

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The Sydney Roosters landed a huge coup during the pre-season with Dom Young agreeing to a deal from 2024.

It was an indifferent start for Newcastle’s English international who was dropped to New South Wales Cup inside the first month of the season, before topping the NRL try scoring charts with 25 tries.

Dragons Pair Fined After Charity Shield Post-Match Incident

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There was some unrest in the Dragons camp during the pre-season with Mikaela Ravalawa and Zane Musgrove sanctioned for what was described as a “boozy, early morning argy-bargy” in Mudgee following their Charity Shield match with South Sydney.

Both players were fined for the incident.

Musgrove has since left the club and will play with the Warrington Wolves in 2024.

Angus Crichton Diagnosed With Bipolar – Takes Break From Game

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In late-February news emerged that Angus Crichton was to take a break away from the game after being diagnosed with bipolar.

The popular Roosters forward returned in the ANZAC Day clash against the Dragons where he played 63 minutes, starting in the second row.

Should he be available for selection in round 1 next year, Crichton will run out for his 100th game in Roosters colours.

Dally M Overhaul Fails To Eliminate Controversy

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In early March the NRL announced an overhaul of the Dally M points scoring with two judges (previously one) to award 3-2-1 votes. This meant a player could score up to a maximum of six points per game.

This didn’t stop the debate about who should have won the award, with Kalyn Ponga edging out Shaun Johnson by one point to take out the 2023 award. Many believe that Johnson was robbed of the award after a sensational season with the Warriors.

Racial Abuse and Social Media Threats Continue

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Another dark chapter in our game took place at BlueBet Stadium when a spectator was alleged to racially abuse Latrell Mitchell as he walked up the tunnel during Souths clash with the Panthers.

The teenager was issued with a notice to ban them from attending NRL events until they had taken sufficient steps to address their behaviour.

During the season NRL players such as Spencer Leniu and Jack Wighton spoke out about their experiences with online abuse.

Concussion Protocols Mandated

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In mid-March the NRL approved changes to the NRL head injury protocols which included a mandatory 11-day recovery period for concussed players.

This was designed to reduce the risk of CTE which has been diagnosed in former greats such as Wally Lewis and Mark Carroll and may have impacted in the deaths of Kyle White and Steven Folkes.

Outspoken Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was outspoken on the role of independent doctors after Corey Harawira-Naera and Sebastian Kris were ruled out of their narrow loss to the Cowboys in Townsville at the start of the season.

By the end of 2023 the future of Harawira-Naera was in doubt after suffering a medical episode when the Raiders beat South Sydney at Accor Stadium on May 27.

Clubs Accused of Prohibited Practice

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Not all clubs were playing nice with accusations made about approaching players illegally during the 2023 season.

In March, the Broncos dobbed the Dolphins into the NRL believing they were trying to approach Deine Mariner to break his contract. The ‘Phins would eventually be fined $50,000 for that breach. This was early signs that the Broncos and Dolphins will have a fierce rivalry in the competition.

Late in the year, Dragons management accused rival clubs of trying to poach Ben Hunt. However, it appears Hunt and/or his management might have been responsible for the contact. The Dragons asked the NRL to investigate.

NRL At War With Rugby Australia

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There’s always tensions between rugby union and rugby league as there has been since day 1 in 1908 when Dally Messenger jumped from union to the newly founded NSWRL.

In late-March the NRL lost Joseph Suaali’i to rugby union at the end of 2024 and the ARU were intent on further raids. By April, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had announced he was returning to the NRL after a somewhat quiet time in rugby.

By the end of the year and after an unsuccessful Rugby World Cup, CEO Hamish McLennan and coach Eddie Jones had resigned. New CEO Phil Waugh has since shifted priorities to creating the right pathways.

The Roosters and NRL got one back on rugby in December with Wallabies international Mark Nawaqanitawase agreeing to switch for the 2024 season.

Hip Drop Tackle Causes Confusion

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Players, officials, and fans were confused at what was considered a hip-drop and what wasn’t during the first half of 2023.

Dale Finucane copped a four week ban amid the crackdown which saw almost double the number of charges laid for the illegal tackle in the opening seven rounds of the competition.

When Origin came around, the hip-drop interpretation appeared to weaken, and the issue faded into the distance.

Hayne Sent to Jail After Third Trial

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After three trials, Jarryd Hayne was found guilty of sexual assault which took place on the night of the 2018 NRL grand final. Hayne was sentenced to 4 years and 9 months and will be eligible for parole on May 6, 2025.

Tigers ANZAC Jersey Causes A Stir

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There were red faces at the Wests Tigers over their ANZAC day jersey which bared the image of American troops. The club apologised and redesigned their jersey after the furore.

Molo, Brown, Holmes and Amone Under Off-Field Scrutiny

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Off-field incidents continued to be a concern for the NRL during 2023.

Francis Molo pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges which occurred before Christmas in 2022 and was subsequently banned for two games.

Dylan Brown served seven matches and was fined $40,000 after being charged with five counts of sexually touching without consent after a night out in Sydney’s Double Bay.

Valentine Holmes was facing a one-match ban and a minimum fine of $20,000 after he uploaded images to Instagram with a white bag in his mouth. The Cowboys were considering further sanctions because of the incident.

But it’s Talatau Amone who is set to receive the biggest punishment as the NRL issued a notice to be deregistered after assault charges from November 2022 went to court, with the Dragons rising star sentenced to a two-year intensive corrections order.

Warriors Sponsor Outspoken Against Refs

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One of the more dramatic incidents involving sponsors came after the Warriors Magic Round loss to the Panthers at Suncorp Stadium.

One NZ telco boss Jason Paris went on a Twitter rant at the time:

“Are you kidding me? How biased are the @NRL bunker and referees against the @NZWarriors? Have they got money on them to lose? It’s like we are permanently against 14 on the field and they want us to play with 12”.

“Imagine how the team feel – three games in 11 days and then this rubbish. Cheating of the highest order”.

Paris would later apologise for his initial actions.

Let’s hope the 2024 Magic Round fixture between the two sides has less controversy.

Griffin, Holbrook Sacked – Flanagan and Hasler to Return

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Kevin Walters might have been the coach most at risk to lose his job during the 2023 season should the Broncos had underperformed; but it was a former Broncos coach under the spotlight.

There was mounting pressure on Anthony Griffin with the Dragons recording two wins in their first ten matches. On May 16 the Dragons board wielded the axe putting to an end a tenure which saw the Dragons win 38% of their matches in a two-year period.

Surprisingly a month later it was Justin Holbrook’s turn to face the music in what appeared a swift move by the Titans board to appoint Des Hasler as their 2024 coach. Like Griffin, Holbrook only won 38% of matches, but over a three-year period.

Holbrook’s sacking allowed David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to become free agents. By mid-August, both had re-signed with Tino reported to pen a 10-year deal worth $12m.

France Withdraws From Hosting 2025 World Cup – IRL Release New Calendar

The future international schedule was thrown up in the air after 2025 Rugby League World Cup hosts, France withdrew from hosting based on financial reasons. This came off the back of original hosts United States and Canada were scrapped in December 2018.

This allowed the International Rugby League to consider a revised schedule which included pushing back the event to 2026 and reducing the number of teams competing to 10 men’s and eight women’s teams.

The board also pencilled in test series including the 2025 Ashes in Australia and 2028 Ashes in England.

Later in the month the Pacific Championship was launched which saw New Zealand win the inaugural Cup competition and Papua New Guinea the Bowl competition.

Queen of Rock and Roll Passes Away

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In late-May the Queen of Rock and Roll, Tina Turner, passed away at the age of 83. Turner was responsible for being the face of rugby league in the late 80’s and early 90’s as the NSWRL became more commercial and marketing the game towards the women audience.

Rugby League Rallies For Dan Anderson

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The NRL community rallied for former New Zealand Warriors and Parramatta Eels coach, Daniel Anderson. Anderson suffered spinal injuries after a surfing accident at the end of 2022.

A fundraising event took place in round 25, and the Warriors renamed Go Media Stadium in his honour for their final regular season home game against Manly.

Reece Walsh Punished For Abusing Ref

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In one of the longest and most contentious judiciary hearings of 2023, Reece Walsh was wiped out for four matches after he was found guilty of contrary conduct towards referee Chris Butler.

The hearing lasted almost three hours with Pat Carrigan and David Fifita giving evidence to support Walsh’s claims that the rant was directed at the Broncos skipper.

This meant Walsh missed the final Origin clash in Sydney.

Cowboys Roll Dice With Holmes, Miss Finals Footy

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Valentine Holmes and the North Queensland Cowboys took a huge risk by pleading not guilty to a grade 2 careless high tackle charge, which ultimately saw the Australian representative miss the last four matches of the season.

It proved costly as the Cowboys lost three of their last four matches, including their crunch final round clash to the Panthers by 44-12.

Papenhuyzen Cameo After Long Awaited Return

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After 405 days on the sidelines with injury, Ryan Papenhuyzen played 18 minutes after coming off the bench in the Storm’s 37-16 win over the Titans at AAMI Park in round 26.

The rugby league world held its breath as the 2020 Clive Churchill Medallist played almost a full game in the final round against Brisbane, scoring a try and setting up one other.

However, the run of bad luck with injury continued when Papenhuyzen fractured his ankle a week later in the NRL finals.

He will seek specialist rehab to return in 2024.

TPJ Walks Out on Bulldogs, NRL

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Less than three months after being selected in New South Wales’ opening Origin side to take on Queensland, Tevita Pangai Junior walked out on the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

He was looking to move into professional boxing.

Almost immediately there were rumours circulating that he would return to Queensland and link up with the Dolphins.

It would be no surprise if TPJ returns to the NRL as early as next year.

Female Referee Breakthrough on Finals Eve

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A historic event took place in round 27 when female referee’s Kasey Badger and Belinda Sharpe were given their first stand-alone NRL matches to control.

While Sharpe (Manly vs Wests Tigers) and Badger (Titans vs Bulldogs) were given games between sides not in contention for the NRL finals, it’s a positive step in the right direction.

Whether this was a ‘token gesture’ or an introduction to what we could see in 2024 is the bigger question.

Freddy Leaves New South Wales Hot Seat

Brad Fittler was an embattled Origin coach leading into the 2023 series and did himself no favours when the Blues lost the first two matches.

A third game win gave Fittler a reprieve but by the end of September, the former Origin great walked away from the coaching role.

After winning the Pacific Championship with New Zealand, Michael Maguire was appointed for the 2024 series.

Tigers Back Office Overhaul With CEO, Chariman Out

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Finally, the Wests Tigers might be moving in the right direction after CEO Justin Pascoe and chairman Lee Hagipantelis resigned from their posts in mid-December.

In their place, former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell became the interim chairman and experienced official Shane Richardson the CEO.

Heading into 2024 the club will have their seventh coach in 10 years with the inexperienced Benji Marshall at the helm.

Hopefully there will be more stability after a tumultuous period in the club’s history.

18th Team Bid Announcements, Winner to Be Decided in April

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With the Dolphins making their debut in the NRL this year, attention quickly turned to which franchise would win the 18th license.

Check out the history of the race to the 18th franchise here.

The NRL are hoping to decide by the end of April 2024 on which bid is successful.

Vale

The rugby league world mourned the passing of well-known identities during 2023 including:

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  • Paul Broughton (1931-2022, former player and administrator)
  • John Satter (1942-2023, former South Sydney premiership winning player, son of Scott Sattler)
  • John McDonald (1944-2023, former Manly player, Australian international and QRL Chairman)
  • Lionel Morgan (1938-2023, first indigenous Australian selected for the national test side)
  • Craig Menkins (1970-2023, Cowboys player number 27)
  • Kyle White (1970-2023, former Bulldogs, Magpies and Steelers forward)
  • Kyle Turner (1992-2023, former South Sydney premiership winning player)
  • Carl Webb (1981-2023, former Queensland, Broncos, Cowboys and Eels forward, losing his fight with Motor Neurone Disease)
  • current player Troy Dargan (1997-2023, current Raiders and former South Sydney Rabbitoh).

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