The dust has finally settled on yet another blockbuster NRL season, with all the highs and lows you come to expect from the wonderfully imperfect world of rugby league. It is an annual cliché, but this season had it all.
Here are the top 10 moments of the NRL’s 2014 season.
10: SHARKS SHOCK THE PREMIERS
The Sydney Roosters, reigning NRL champions, were expected to demolish the hapless Cronulla Sharks at Allianz Stadium in Round 17. A week after a gargantuan comeback at Suncorp Stadium against the Brisbane Broncos, Cronulla was at long odds to do it again. For you see, troubled star Todd Carney had been sacked midweek and caretaker coach Peter Sharp had walked out on the embattled club only days before their meeting with the 2013 premiers.
To make matters worse, the Roosters shot out to a 24-0 lead and a legitimate cricket score was on the cards. But as rugby league always seems to do, it surprised us with this gem. The Sharks clawed their back into the match and sealed an unforgettable victory with two minutes to go when veteran halfback Jeff Robson crashed over next to the posts.
9: INGLIS’ SOLO TRY AGAINST BRISBANE
Does it get any better than watching the wonderfully gifted Greg Inglis in full flight?
Don’t ask the Brisbane Broncos, who were on the receiving end of an Inglis special at Suncorp Stadium in April as the legendary outside back bamboozled the Broncos on his way to one of the great long-distance efforts.
8: ANTHONY MINICHIELLO RETIRES A TRUE CHAMPION
You will not meet a nicer man in the game of rugby league than the Sydney Roosters’ great fullback Anthony Minichiello, who retired this season after the Tricolours were bundled out of the playoffs in the preliminary final by the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Minichiello was part of some of the finest Roosters sides of the modern era and excelled at representative level for both New South Wales and Australia. But it was his determination to get back onto the field after three seasons of hell, where he was crippled from a back injury, that truly makes him a champion.
The fullback spent many sleepless nights laying flat on his back on wooden floorboards because the pain was simply too much to handle. He returned, however, and captained the Roosters to premiership glory in 2013. Fittingly, he became the club’s all-time appearances record-holder in his final match, his 302nd in the red, white and blue.
7: THE ORIGINS OF THE MORRIS TWINS
Playing through the pain barrier has become part of the fabric of what makes State of Origin so special. Identical twins Josh and Brett Morris proved this once again in Origin I of 2014 with two Origin specials that helped the Blues win the opening match.
Injured and out of the field of play, Josh Morris looked up to see Greg Inglis thundering away from the Blues. Without hesitation, the Canterbury Bulldogs centre jumped to his feet and made a textbook cover tackle.
Later in the match, Brett was one-on-one with Darius Boyd, who had all the momentum only inches from the try-line. All Boyd had to do was get the ball down and the Maroons would have the lead. Instead, Brett somehow locked Boyd up and refused to let go, in the process repelling the Queensland attack once more.
We found out after the match that Josh had a serious ankle injury while Brett had dislocated his shoulder, and both were sidelined for several weeks.
6: PANTHERS UPSET THE ROOSTERS IN THE FINALS
The script had the Sydney Roosters downing the under-strength Penrith Panthers in Week 1 of the 2014 playoffs and going on their merry way. But nobody told the Panthers, and with the help of some incredible work from rookie Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, and the goalkicking and field goal expertise of Jamie Soward, Penrith beat the Roosters in yet another NRL finals cliffhanger.
5: BURGESS WINS THE CLIVE CHURCHILL MEDAL
This era has seen some of the great grand final performances, but none of them have been tougher than Sam Burgess’ effort in this year’s decider after smashing his cheekbone on the granite-like head of countryman James Graham in the opening play of the game.
Burgess stayed on the field and went about his business in trademark fashion, continually denting the Canterbury wall and leading his forward pack without fear. He now leaves our game for rugby union with a premiership ring and the Clive Churchill Medal.
4: BLUES FINALLY WIN BACK THE ORIGIN SHIELD
Queensland’s firm grip on State of Origin was finally relinquished this year when the Blues sealed the series in two straight games including victory at Suncorp Stadium in Game One, which turned out to be one of the great defensive team efforts we’ve ever seen.
3: ALEX MCKINNON RETURNS TO HUNTER STADIUM
What happened to Newcastle utility forward Alex McKinnon on that fateful night in Melbourne will haunt most of us forever. It was a tragic and horrible thing to happen to a young man who loved playing the game of rugby league.
That’s why his return to Hunter Stadium months later in the Rise for Alex Round meant so much to McKinnon, his family, the Knights fans and his teammates. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Alex led the Knights out onto the field for their match with the Gold Coast Titans.
Side by side, McKinnon was with his mates once more on the hallowed turf of Hunter Stadium in front of all his adoring fans.
2: HAYNE’S NFL BOMBSHELL
It came from nowhere just weeks after winning his second Dally M Medal alongside Johnathan Thurston, but apparently Jarryd Hayne had been sitting on this bombshell for a long time. It lit up social media and the headlines are still carrying the story: that Hayne had quit the Parramatta Eels to chase his dream of playing NFL in the United States.
Only time will tell if the move pays off, but kudos to Hayne for making such a big decision.
1: SOUTHS FINALLY WIN THE BIG ONE
There is no other way to say it – 2014 was meant to be for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who won their first grand final in 43 years when they romped home to down the Canterbury Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium.
The big test now is if the ‘Pride of the League’ can back it up next year.