Looking back on a turbulent year
Champions ... Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith and Billy Slater celebrate their grand final win. Photo: Brendan Esposito
THE Storm gained redemption for the premierships stripped for salary-cap cheating, Des Hasler oversaw a remarkable turnaround at Canterbury and South Sydney enjoyed their best season since 1971, but the best thing to happen in rugby league this year was the formation of the ARL Commission.
Almost 17 years since News Ltd launched its raid on the game in 1995, the media company handed back control on February 8 and the benefits to league have been enormous.
Returning star ... SBW.
From the $1.025 billion broadcast deal to a strategic plan for the next five years, a salary-cap hike to $5.8 million next season, the ARLC has delivered and it has managed to do so without a chief executive after David Gallop's sacking in June.
While there has been some frustration with the amount of time it has taken to make big decisions, the focus has been on getting the right outcome and, besides the shoulder charge ban, most have been widely accepted.
There are few better examples than the decisions taken at the December 18 meeting to introduce a new criteria for State of Origin eligibility, scrap the benefit-of-the-doubt rule and make changes to the role of the video referee. Whether you agree, decisions are now being made with the best interests of the game being the only consideration.
Star man ... the Rabbitohs' Greg Inglis. Photo: Getty Images
Whenever Israel Folau poses for a promotion with the NSW Waratahs, Parramatta fans are entitled to think he should have been doing so for their club. Regardless of who was to blame for Folau ending up in rugby union, the fact he will not be playing in the NRL next season is an embarrassment that is hard to accept. Here was a 23-year-old star who had been lured to AFL for $1.5 million a season to promote Greater Western Sydney and wanted to return to the code in which he won a grand final with Melbourne, became the youngest player to represent Australia and scored a try for Queensland that is considered a great moment in Origin history. Even better, he wanted to play for the biggest NRL club in western Sydney and the 2012 wooden-spooners. Yet salary-cap issues prevented Folau from finalising a deal with Parramatta and in frustration he turned to the Waratahs. Sadly, those salary-cap problems no longer exist after the ARLC agreed to a new ceiling of $5.8 million for player payments next year. But it is too late for Folau.
Unplayable ... Ben Barba. Photo: Getty Images
Ben Barba was the player of the year and rightly so but it is hard to go past South Sydney's Greg Inglis as the star who had the biggest impact. Inglis's move to fullback for South Sydney has the potential to change the game, with Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart considering giving Israel Folau the No.1 jersey if he had joined the club. Like Inglis, Folau possesses power, speed, size and strength and they proved a lethal combination for the Rabbitohs star - not only in attack but defence. Several times Inglis came up with amazing try-saving tackles that it is doubtful any other fullback could have come up with and the Eels aren't the only club prepared to give the No.1 jersey to a player of his build.
The decision to ban the shoulder charge sparked a public outcry from players the game has rarely seen before. Clearly surprised by the November 20 ruling by the ARLC, players took to Twitter en masse to make it clear they opposed the proposed changes. However, their opposition appears to have barely made a ripple. The penalties range from a two-match suspension to a ban of eight games, outlined after the ARLC's December 18 meeting. The ban followed a report into the effects of concussion, but shoulder charges will not be banned at next year's World Cup after the RFL decided not to follow the ARLC's lead.
Will he live up to the hype? ... Sonny Bill Williams. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The return of Sonny Bill Williams will add to the hype and anticipation of next year's premiership, as the former Bulldogs superstar is now considered one of the best rugby union players in the world. Such is Williams's drawing power that Channel Nine chose the matches between the lowly Sydney Roosters and South Sydney to kick off the 2013 season, the Warriors have moved their round-two match to Eden Park and Canterbury tried desperately to host Williams's first away match at ANZ Stadium. In addition to the return of Williams, four NRL clubs - the Roosters, Parramatta, Wests Tigers and the Warriors - have new coaches, while Welsh-born banker Dave Smith starts as ARLC chief executive in February.
''That is two times we have been robbed. Honestly, those decisions - they just can't justify them. I am gutted.'' North Queensland skipper Johnathan Thurston on the refereeing in the semi-final against Manly at Sydney's Allianz Stadium.
''No tackling will be next,'' Parramatta star Jarryd Hayne on the decision to ban the shoulder charge.