2023 NRL Year in Review: Panthers Three-Peat, ‘Phins Up and Queensland Win Origin

The 2023 National Rugby League season did not disappoint from the opening round to the finale. Here’s some of the takeaways from this season.

Related: 2023 NRL: The Stories That Made NRL Headlines in 2023
Related: 2023 NRL: Season by the Numbers
Related: 2023 NRL: Schedule, Squads and Results

‘Phins Win Historic Opener at Suncorp, Debut Season Exceeds Expectations

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The Dolphins were labelled ‘Dad’s Army’ by some pundits when they joined the NRL as the 17th franchise this year.

Their inaugural game was against the Sydney Roosters who were touted as one of the premiership favourites. It would be a memorable afternoon for the ‘Phins who scored five tries to three in running out 28-18 victors.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow would score tries in each of the Dolphins first six games and in doing so equalled Horrie Miller’s 1908 record set in the NSWRL with the Eastern Suburbs club.

Brisbane would end their dream start in the NRL, going down 18-12 at Suncorp Stadium. Despite winning only two of their last 12 matches, the Dolphins finished in 13th place and received a pass mark for their first up efforts.

‘Phins Up’ will be a slogan associated with the franchise for eternity. Now for the 18th club to be announced, hopefully in April 2024.

Second Highest Scoring Draw In History Plays Out In Mudgee

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There was no April fool’s joke on April 1 when Manly and Newcastle played out the second highest scoring draw in history with scores level at 32-all after 90 minutes. Dom Young scored the Knights last four tries, a week after being dropped to NSW Cup following his side’s loss to the Dolphins in round 3.

The 32-all scoreline was just two points off the all-time highest which has been achieved on three occasions: in 1949 between Parramatta and North Sydney; 1997 when Illawarra drew with Manly; and more recently in 2004 when South Sydney and Brisbane played out a 34-all draw.

Memorable 2023 Comebacks

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There were some memorable come-from-behind wins in 2023.

In round 5 at PointsBet Stadium the Sharks held a commanding 26-12 lead over the New Zealand Warriors. However, Shaun Johnson and the Warriors had other ideas. Johnson scored a try, set up two others and kicked a penalty goal on full-time to see the Warriors win 32-30.

Three weeks later and the Dolphins showed ticker after being 26-0 down after 28 minutes to score five unanswered tries and win 28-26 at Suncorp Stadium. It will be a game remembered for Robert Jennings butchering a try but made up for the blunder by scoring two tries and helping the Dolphins to victory.

Cronulla almost pulled off the biggest comeback of the season against Manly in round 21. After being down by 30 points after 45 minutes, the Sharks clawed their way back into the game and set up a grandstand finish after scoring in the 70th, 72nd and 74th minute. In the end they would fall four points short, losing 30-26.

Quite possibly the best was left until the grand final, with the Panthers on the canvas trailing 24-8 after 60 minutes, before Nathan Cleary steered the side home to win 26-24.

Kudos to the Newcastle Knights who stormed into the NRL finals, remaining undefeated in their last nine regular season matches moving from 14th at the end of round 17, to finish in fifth place.

Webster’s Warriors Capture Kiwis Hearts

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In their first full year back at home since the pandemic, the New Zealand Warriors went within one game of playing their first grand final in 12 years.

Rookie coach Andrew Webster’s impact on the club saw him awarded the Dally M coach of the year, with his Warriors winning 16 regular matches which was 10 more than last year.

Webster got the best out of an ageing Shaun Johnson and Kiwi flyer Dallin Watene-Zelezniak who scored 24 tries, breaking the Warriors record for most tries in a season.

Welcome to the 300 Club

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During the season another three players joined the 300-game club.

Ben Hunt became the 47th player to join the 300 club when the Dragons travelled to Townsville and played the Cowboys in round 11. It would also be coach Anthony Griffin’s last game in charge of the Red V ending a frustrating period for the club where they achieved 22 wins out of 58 games during his tenure.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart sat out Jarrod Croker for their match against the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown to allow the former captain to play in front of his home fans for the milestone game. Croker’s party was spoilt by the Warriors who went on to win 36-14.

In late July, Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans played his 300th at WIN Stadium where they accounted for the Dragons 24-18.

Tackling For the Team

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It was a disappointing night for the Sharks who were defeated 26-0 by the Penrith Panthers at BlueBet Stadium in round 22. However, the talking point out of the game was the 81 tackles that Cameron McInnes made in a tireless 80-minute effort.

This quite possibly is the highest tackle count in the NRL since records were kept, eclipsing Elijah Taylor’s 77 tackles made for the Panthers against the Cowboys at the same venue in 2015.

Panthers Three-Peat Sealed by Cleary Masterclass

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The Penrith Panthers completed their third consecutive premiership title, emulating the feat last accomplished by the Parramatta Eels under Jack Gibson forty years earlier.

With a busted Jarome Luai off the field, it was up to Jack Cogger and Nathan Cleary to get the Panthers back into the grand final after trailing by 16. Cleary famously scored the match-winner evading a leaping Reece Walsh in the 76th minute, becoming the third player (behind Billy Slater and Bradley Clyde) to win a second Clive Churchill Medal.

2023 might be a season which defines Kevin Walters as a coach. After being touted in the pre-season as a coach in danger of losing his job if the Broncos didn’t perform, he took his troops to grand final day and in doing so, coming within a whisker of breaking his club’s drought dating back to 2006.

Can the Panthers win a fourth consecutive title and be the first to do so since the famous Dragons of the 1950’s and 1960’s?

Queensland Retain Origin Crown

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Queensland retained the State of Origin shield from New South Wales for a third time in the last four series.

After a sensational win in Adelaide where they scored twice while Thomas Flegler was in the sin bin to steam past the Blues by 26-18, the Maroons wrapped up the series in Brisbane with a convincing 32-6 victory.

Game 2 resulted in both Reece Walsh and Jarome Luai dismissed from the field in the last minute of the game.

New South Wales won game 3 in a match which would be Brad Fittler’s last as coach, resigning from his post months later.

Kangaroos Suffer Biggest International Defeat in Hamilton

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With a new International calendar devised in August, the Pacific Championship was born. In the Pacific Cup final, heavyweights Australia and New Zealand faced off in front of a small crowd in Hamilton. The Kiwis inflicted Australia’s heaviest defeat at test level with a 30-0 whitewash.

Kiwis captain James Fisher-Harris would be announced in December as the winner of the 2023 Golden Boot.

Papua New Guinea went on to claim the Pacific Bowl, defeating Fiji 32-12 in Port Morseby.

Tonga’s first test tour of England resulted in a 3-0 defeat by the host nation. The English were due to host Samoa in 2024 but the Pacific Island nation withdrew from the series in November.

Farewell and Thank You

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Among those players hanging up the boots in 2023 were: Josh Reynolds, James Tamou, Wade Graham, Josh Mansour, Andrew Fifita, Josh Hodgson, George Burgess, Josh Jackson, Andrew McCullough, Jordan Rankin, and Mitch Rein.

Abroad, the following ex-NRL players finished their careers including Mitchell Pearce, Shaun Kenny-Dowell, Lachlan Coote and Nathan Peats.

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