League is still the best show in town
Year to remember ... Ben Barba. Photo: Brendan Esposito
And so the year ends as many had predicted its first would under an independent commission. With David Gallop overseeing a game finally starting to fulfil its potential.
As is so often the case in rugby league, things are never as they seem. The ''product'', to parrot the marketeers, is stronger than ever.
This is reflected not just in crowd figures, memberships or the $1 billion-plus that networks have spent to beam it into our households. On the field, it remains the Greatest Game of All. Ben Barba is just as dangerous in his own in-goal as that of the opposition. The hits, even though the most destructive have been given the cold shoulder, are somehow bigger. And the standard of the second-tier competitions is such that NSW now pluck players from park football, albeit with less success than their Queensland counterparts.
Finished year on a high ... Craig Bellamy. Photo: Getty Images
And Origin! Imagine, for a moment, how big this thing will be when NSW actually win a series. Alas, there are some things beyond the control of even the ARL Commission.
Which brings us to those matters which remain their jurisdiction.
Delays in setting the salary cap for next year have already cost them the chance to welcome back Israel Folau, while Sonny Bill Williams's contract lies unregistered on Ian Schubert's desk. Surely five years of playing rugby is punishment enough for his clandestine exit.
Almost delivered on his first attempt at the Dogs ... Des Hasler Photo: Brendan Esposito
But due credit must go to the Commish for what has been achieved. The aforementioned television deal, now the players have agreed to keep their grubby mitts off most of it, has given league a fighting fund to grow the game and keep the AFL at bay. Welshman David Smith - would he qualify for the Blues or the Maroons under the present eligibility laws? - will take charge of a business which has taken its time to make big decisions, but at least has got them right. A salary cap and collective bargaining agreement are all but in place. Other outstanding big-picture issues are close to resolution. Smith's biggest challenge will be to gain acceptance from the navel gazers.
Rugby league does not throw down the welcome mat for outsiders. How can the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith not know a man of his standing? One astute observer of the game, commenting on the appointment of the Lloyds International executive, stated: ''John Grant and David Smith would better serve the game if they swapped roles.'' They both deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Not so the referees. Nor some of the best and most experienced coaches in the game. Wayne Bennett, Brian Smith and Tim Sheens all missed the finals. Those failures cost two of them their jobs. Smith, for all his toil over more than three decades, is yet to win an NRL premiership. Having joined the Brumbies coaching staff, his chances are not likely to improve.
The introduction of the National Youth Competition has made this a younger man's game, not just on the field but in the coach's box. Rookies Michael Maguire, Geoff Toovey and Trent Robinson are among the prominent youthful clipboard carriers. They may be young, but will become old before their time.
THE AFL CAME but did not conquer the wild, wild west. Nobody did. GWS finished stone motherless, but so too did Parramatta, with Penrith just one rung above them on the ladder. Wests Tigers, the pick of bookies and punters alike, missed the eight. Only the Bulldogs made an impression, although the one on Billy Slater's ear suggests their grand final appearance wasn't necessarily a positive one. Folau's decision to hop to the Waratahs has been hailed a win for rugby, but will be just another gimmick if it doesn't come off. The former Kangaroo has been lampooned for taking the money but, if faced with the prospect of playing for the lowly Giants, Eels or Tahs, wouldn't you?
Ricky Stuart's revolution at Parramatta has only just begun, while Gus Gould's is already in full swing at the foot of the Blue Mountains. Can Stuart get the best out of Chris Sandow? Watching the former halfback trying to get the best out of the current one will be one of the storylines of 2013.
There will be plenty of other fodder for the fans. Newcastle now have an Immortal on the club's honour board (who will be a coaching consultant at Manly), but having a super coach in Bennett and an owner whose bank balance fluctuates like his weight are not necessarily ingredients for success. Kerry Packer once told George Piggins that anyone who thought there was money to be made in football clubs or horses was mad. Nathan Tinkler dabbles in both.
Russell Crowe has learnt the lesson the hard way. Souths will soon continue without the Hollywood star, but will there be a Hollywood ending? With Greg Inglis, the brothers Burgess - four of them, at last count - and halves that ain't half bad, they have two more spots to climb to reach their destination.
In recent years, Wests Tigers players have failed to respond to the voice of Sheens. The majority will now answer to Shane Flanagan. Beau Ryan, Chris Heighington, Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs are just some of the stars to join league's latest merger, the Tiger Sharks. The few who remain at TigerTown will answer to Michael Potter, the game's most experienced coach replaced by one of the least experienced. At least the expectations won't be as lofty.
What to make of the Roosters? SBW, should he find time in his busy schedule, is expected to eventually report to Bondi Junction. James Maloney has also crossed the Tasman. Upon taking the reins, Robinson insists he hadn't accepted a poisoned chalice. Try telling that to Brian Smith, Brad Fittler, Chris Anderson, Ricky Stuart or Graham Murray.
All will be chasing Melbourne. Their past misdeeds, coupled with their location, make it a hard team to embrace. But no one can deny them their moment of glory. No team is tougher, mentally or physically, or better prepared. Craig Bellamy is no longer the greatest coach never to win a premiership, a title handed back to Smith.
Which brings us to the jewel in the crown. Sir Laurie Daley, as he will be known after the 2013 series, will restore order to State of Origin. For seven years, the Blues have been lulling the northerners into a false sense of security. The Maroons have fallen into the trap. Fools!
The lesson is to never take league on face value. Over time myth becomes fact and the two are harder to decipher. Most still believe that Roy Masters, well before Nathan Brown took up the practice, was the man who introduced face slapping to the game. The truth is that it was the invention of hardman Magpies trainer, David Dickman. Masters took the rap and the notoriety that came with it. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The best yarns, in 2013 and beyond, are yet to be written. About old rivalries and new, about the game off the field and, most importantly, what happens on it. Next year will be like last year, better than the previous. It has to be. A long-time chief executive is now in charge of the other, other football. A team we don't hate - maybe even a Sydney one - is due to win the title. Now there's a product worth purchasing.