Well, what a season that was.
We’ve heard it all to death by now, but it’s true – the year 2020 threw all of us a curve ball and the NRL stepped up to the plate, swung hard and connected, enabling a season despite everyone’s gravest doubts.
The NRL season was only two weeks old when the COVID-19 virus hit our shores and forced us into a nationwide lockdown. With the game unable to continue and its broadcasting commitments unable to be fulfilled, there was a very real chance that the NRL as we know it would cease to exist. There was discussion of what form rugby league would take post-2020 and whether it would return to being an amateur sport.
ARLC Chairman Peter V’Landys quickly stepped in, however, and to his credit, instigated the NRL’s trailblazing biosecurity protocols to ensure it would be the first major Australian sport to return to play.
Television rights deals were redrawn and cuts to the NRL’s operating expenses were made, but V’Landys is largely credited with saving the game as we know it.
After an eight-week break, the season resumed without a hitch, with Melbourne Storm crowned NRL premiers and Queensland the State of Origin champions.
Here’s a look back at what happened in rugby league’s 2020.
2020 Premiers – the Melbourne Storm
Apart from the stranded New Zealand Warriors, no club was more affected by the pandemic than the Melbourne Storm as Victoria’s COVID-19 shutdown forced their ‘bubble’ to move to the Sunshine Coast.
Operating out of a different state and away from their families, the Storm still managed to thrive and went on to take home yet another premiership.
It’s hard to be surprised by the success of Melbourne when they are genuine premiership threats year in and year out. And yet, the obstacles they managed to overcome as they drove towards the 2020 title elevated their dynasty to another level.
Legendary skipper Cameron Smith, another year older and playing under the cloud of an impending retirement announcement, was as influential as ever in directing his team around the park.
Cameron Munster and Ryan Papenhuyzen, meanwhile, provided the dynamic spark that allowed their attack to keep up with the likes of the Penrith Panthers.
With coach Craig Bellamy again working his magic to turn bit-part players into Origin representatives (i.e. Brenko Lee), the Melbourne Storm had created the perfect cocktail for a premiership season.
Even if Smith does indeed retire this offseason, the emergence of hooker Harry Grant and the bright futures of Munster and Papenhuyzen will ensure the dynasty does not end here.
2020 Wooden Spoon – the Brisbane Broncos
That was perhaps one of the most disastrous seasons any club has stumbled through – and it all came after winning their first two games of the season!
Clearly, the COVID break completely obliterated their momentum, as they would fail to adapt to the rule changes and go on to taste victory only once more. For any other club, this would be terrible. For a one-team town like Brisbane, it was cataclysmic.
Players were accused of not giving their best effort, and coach Anthony Seibold of losing the locker room. The front office, meanwhile, was certainly not spared as the gross mismanagement of the playing roster was exposed.
Big-money stars Darius Boyd, Anthony Milford and Brodie Croft were all disastrous in their own unique way, while up-and-coming stars Thomas Dearden, Cory Paix and Tesi Niu were constantly misused.
The embarrassing losses continued to pile up until the Broncos were rewarded with the dreaded wooden spoon – the first in their history.
And so, between disgraceful on-field performances, troubling off-field scandals and the termination of Seibold, the Broncos’ season came to a merciful end.
Kevin Walters has since been named as Seibold’s successor, but with the damning loss of star forward David Fifita to the Titans, he has a battle on his hands to restore the club’s pride.
Most improved team of 2020 – the Gold Coast Titans
Speaking of the Titans, the Gold Coast club enjoyed one of its finest seasons in recent memory. Coach Justin Holbrook proved to be a revelation in his first season as an NRL coach after spending three years at the helm of St Helens in the English Super League.
He managed to bring the Titans to the cusp of an unlikely finals berth despite the club taking home the wooden spoon by a very comfortable margin in 2019. Moreover, he appears to have unlocked the potential of young gun fullback AJ Brimson who is now a Queensland State of Origin representative.
With the enigma that is Ashley Taylor beginning to show some of the form that earned him his million-dollar payday and his halves partner Jamal Fogarty coming of age at 26, the Titans exceeded all expectations in 2020.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the club also made a huge splash in the player market, securing the services of two more Maroons in forwards David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui. Both stand to become household names with the Titans, and I expect them to serve as the building blocks of an imminent finals campaign.
Best player of 2020 – Nathan Cleary
He didn’t manage to deliver Penrith a premiership, nor NSW a third consecutive Origin series victory, but Nathan Cleary had a season he won’t soon forget.
For reasons unbeknownst to many of us, he didn’t receive the Dally M Medal (that honour went to Canberra’s Jack Wighton), but he did cement his standing as one of the game’s elite halves.
Of course, his early season TikTok fiasco cost him two games and drew the ire of the wider NRL fraternity for putting the game at risk, but Cleary put the backlash behind him and excelled like few have ever done.
With eight tries, 17 try assists and 86 goals at a 79.6% success rate, Cleary stamped his class on his opposition on a weekly basis, with his lethal kicking game turning the tide in the Panthers’ favour at every turn.
I believe it was his performance in Game II of this year’s State of Origin series, however, that truly earned him the crown of being rugby league’s best in 2020.
Trailing 1-0 in the series and with grave concerns that Cleary’s ineffectual Origin career to date was going to have him be the next Mitchell Pearce, Cleary turned in one of the great NSW performances.
After six Origin appearances, Cleary recorded his first linebreak, linebreak assist and try assist while cutting through the Maroons via a brilliant performance with the boot.
He was crowned Man of the Match as NSW demolished Queensland 34-10.
2020 rule changes
The two biggest rule changes for the 2020 season were both designed to open up play and give the attacking team the advantage. The first change was a team’s ability to pack a scrum in the middle of the field. This change enabled sides to attack either side of the scrum and as witnessed in Origin II, defences could easily be found short. This rule change certainly provided greater scoring opportunites.
The biggest rule change for 2020 was the introduction of the six again call for ruck infringements. The idea was based on a perception that the game needed to be faster, particulalry in the play-the-ball area. This rule had the desired effect, but it handed the referees way too much control over the flow of a game. The decision to call six again became so haphazard and yet so damaging to a defending team, that it frustrated a lot of fans. It is almost impossible to defend several back-to-back sets of tackles and the incosistency in handing out these calls made it a blight on some games.
2020 State of Origin series – a classic Queensland victory
Make no mistake, NSW should have won this series and they should have won it comfortably. The Queensland side, on paper at least, had far less talent and far less State of Origin experience.
It didn’t help New South Wales that the media, particularly former Blues captain Paul Gallen, wrote the Maroons off at every opportunity. That was exactly what Queensland coach Wayne Bennett would have wanted to hear, as it provided the perfect ammunition for a Game III ambush.
Five-eighth Cameron Munster was the key for Queensland as he provided the spark in attack his side needed to score points against a stubborn NSW defensive line. His ability to make those around him better is uncanny.
Harry Grant, meanwhile, was an incredible revelation at hooker in his Queensland debut, tearing NSW to shreds from dummy half. A try, two try assists and two linebreak assists has Grant locked in as the Maroons’ long-term hooker, leaving the state in good hands following the retirement of the great Cameron Smith.
The return of star fullback Kalyn Ponga and barnstorming backrower David Fifita for the 2021 series should have NSW gravely concerned for the future.