Year in review: Sharks end wait but season tarnished
IT WAS the year the porch light finally went out.
After a 49-year wait, Cronulla fans finally had the last laugh at legendary coach Jack Gibson's famous quip that waiting for the Sharks to win the premiership was like leaving the porch light on for the Prime Minster lost at sea, Harold Holt.
Two years earlier, burdened by the fallout of the club's 2011 supplements saga, the Sharks finished with the wooden spoon.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Sharks defeated the Melbourne Storm 14-12 in the grand final to claim their first premiership since entering the competition in 1967.
It was a fairytale send-off for retiring Sharks hooker Michael Ennis, and just reward for inspirational skipper Paul Gallen for 15 years of loyal service to the club.
The significance of the win to Cronulla fans wasn't lost on Gallen.
"To all you people back in the Shire, turn your porch lights off because we're coming back with the trophy," he said as he accepted the Provan-Summons Trophy.
And while Harold Holt might not be coming home, the Sharks showed almost anything is possible in rugby league.
Hero to heartache
ONE of the great sub-plots to come from the Sharks' drought-breaking win was Ben Barba's tale of redemption.
Released by the Bulldogs at the end of 2013 in the wake of off-field issues, unwanted by the Broncos under Wayne Bennett a year later and warned over a first strike under the NRL's illicit substance policy last year, the 2012 Dally M Medallist had finally realised his immense potential in winning his first NRL premiership.
But weeks later it all came crashing down. Four days after the grand final, Barba tested positive to cocaine use. He was released by the Sharks, banned from the NRL for 12 games and checked into a rehab facility in Thailand.
"He's made a poor choice on a poor day," Sharks chief executive Lyall Gorman said when the news broke.
BEN Barba wasn't the only Shark to land in hot water this year.
Just days after starring in that premiership decider, powerhouse Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita threatened to walk out on the NRL after he was overlooked for the Kangaroos' end-of-year Four Nations tour of England.
It came after Fifita showed his support for convicted one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge, a childhood friend, by writing a message on his wrist strapping.
Fifita, who was also warned by police for allegedly consorting with the convicted killer, apologised for his actions, but still came in for a flurry of criticism.
In May, Parramatta duo Corey Norman and Junior Paulo, who later joined Canberra, and Penrith hooker James Segeyaro, who later joined Leeds in the English Super League, were also issued with formal police warnings for allegedly consorting with convicted criminals.
IT WAS not a good year for Norman, or the Eels.
Norman - named as player of the tournament as the Eels claimed the pre-season Auckland Nines - was fined $20,000 and banned for the last eight weeks of the season after pleading guilty in court in July to possessing MDMA and diazepam at the Star casino in Sydney in May.
He was also investigated by the NRL over a sex tape he was allegedly involved in.
But it got a whole lot worse for his club.
In July the Eels were stripped of 12 competition points and fined $1 million for systemic salary-cap rorting.
Five club officials were also deregistered and the club lost the Auckland Nines title it won in February.
The club was accused of salary cap breaches dating back to 2013, including making secret payments, generating fake invoices and using illegal third-party agreements.
And it got worse.
Marquee signing and club captain Kieran Foran was released from his contract in July to deal with personal issues - half a season into a five-year deal worth $5 million.
It came after he was hospitalised in April following an overdose of prescription medication, as well as struggling with reported gambling problems and a relationship breakdown. He also had highly publicised links to controversial gambling identity Eddie Hayson.
And star Parramatta winger Semi Radradra, who made his Kangaroos debut in the Anzac Test, was charged with domestic violence and, like Fifita, was not considered for the Four Nations tour.
The Eels - now the club with the longest premiership drought after the Sharks' breakthrough - will be hoping they can stage a turnaround in 2017 to rival Cronulla's.
WITH the Eels hamstrung by their salary cap dramas, they were unable to make an offer to former club superstar Jarryd Hayne when he announced his return to the game.
Instead, it was the Titans who splashed the cash after the former NFL star's bid to make the Fjian rugby sevens team for the Rio Olympics came up short.
And while Hayne's form was understandably patchy in the six games he played for the Gold Coast (though he did slot a winning field goal against the Tigers in round 23), he did show glimpses of the talent that made him a two-time Dally M winner.
With outstanding young half Kane Elgey - fit again after missing all of 2016 - back in the spine alongside Hayne, young gun Ash Taylor and ex-Eel Nathan Peats, the Titans could be set for a massive year.
SOME superstars of the future emerged in 2016.
In round seven the injury-hit Melbourne Storm gave a debut to Fijian winger Suliasi Vunivalu. By the end of the season he was the equal leading try scorer in the competition with 23, eclipsing Israel Folau's record for most tries in a debut year.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy later admitted: "We didn't really see him playing first grade this year, but we had a few injuries in our backs and at one stage he was the last winger standing."
Vunivalu shared the top try-scoring honours with Canberra winger Jordan Rapana.
Alongside centre Joey Leilua, the duo formed the most lethal edge in the competition and helped the Raiders to finish second on the ladder after a 10-game winning streak, before falling in the preliminary finals to the Storm.
The Panthers also uncovered a huge talent in halfback Nathan Cleary.
The son of former NRL coach Ivan Cleary made his debut aged 18, but led his team around like a seasoned veteran. He didn't miss a game after his debut in round 13 as the Panthers made it into week two of the finals before being knocked out by the Raiders.
Best of enemies
A YEAR after their epic grand final showdown, the Broncos and Cowboys continued what has become one of the great rivalries in the game.
In their two regular- season meetings this year, both games were decided by just a point. The Broncos got up in golden point in round four, before a Johnathan Thurston field goal sealed a Cowboys win in round 11.
But the two Queensland sides saved the best for their elimination clash in the second week of finals.
The teams battered each other into submission in Townsville but were still deadlocked at 20-all after 80 minutes, taking the game to the NRL's first ever period of extra time.
Enter Thurston. The Cowboys maestro sliced through a tired Broncos defence in the 85th minute to set up Michael Morgan for a try that ended Brisbane's season and kept North Queensland's hopes of back-to-back titles alive.
Ultimately, though, the Cowboys were knocked out by the Sharks a week later.
AT THE other end of the table, it was a sorry year for the once-mighty Newcastle Knights.
Under new coach Nathan Brown, the club won just once - in round six against the Wests Tigers - and went on an 18-game losing streak before claiming its second wooden spoon in a row.
The 62-0 defeat by the Sharks in round 10 was the club's worst home loss in its history.
But it's hard to blame Brown for the Knights' troubles. The affable coach inherited a club still suffering a serious salary cap hangover from his predecessors. Quite simply the club has made bad recruitment decisions, paying over the odds for players and agreeing to back-dated deals, chewing up its salary cap.
The club gave debuts to 11 players this season - including five in round one - so there's hope some of them will develop into NRL-quality players, although a third straight wooden spoon in 2017 isn't out of the question either.
NEW coach, same old story. Queensland made it 10 State of Origin series wins in 11 years by defeating New South Wales 2-1.
With Mal Meninga taking up the Kangaroos coaching role, Kevin Walters took over as Maroons boss and had his first series win wrapped up after the second game, winning the dour opener 6-4 at ANZ Stadium before sealing the series 26-16 at Suncorp Stadium.
The Blues won the dead rubber 18-14 on home turf, but it was yet another case of close but not close enough for Laurie Daley's men.
While Blues optimists point to the Maroons' ageing spine (Cameron Smith, Jonathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk are all 32 or older) as reason for hope, the veterans showed they still have plenty to offer at the elite level.
The Blues, meanwhile, were buoyed by the emergence of several new stars - Tyson Frizell, James Tedesco, Josh Mansour and Matt Moylan among them - but will they offer enough to stop the Maroon juggernaut? It seems unlikely, but a lot can happen in 12 months.
Back to their best
THERE was a sense of inevitability about the Kangaroos' canter in the end-of-year Four Nations tournament in England.
Under new coach Mal Meninga, the Australians never looked threatened against New Zealand, England or Scotland, claiming the final against the Kiwis 34-8 to reclaim teh title they lost in 2014 and send them back to No.1 in the world rankings.
With the World Cup to be held in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea next year - including the final at Suncorp Stadium - it's difficult to see anything other than another Australian whitewash.