NRL's off-field circus spoils super season
THE biggest stars bowed out, others found themselves in hot water, but it was the coaches who stole most of the headlines.
Matthew Elkerton and Matthew McInerney take at look back at the NRL season that was, counting down their top 10 talking points.
10. League of their own
THIS year there was a dawning of a new era in rugby league, one with a slightly more feminine touch.
The inaugural NRL Women's Premiership, albeit short and sharp, was a raging success. Add to that the standalone Women's State of Origin clash and it is a bright time for inclusion in our sport.
It is also great for the fans.
The quality of the competitions - won by the Brisbane Broncos and NSW respectively - was far beyond what had been expected going in.
More than 14,000 people attended the first round of NRLW clashes, and the TV ratings topped 500,000 for that opening week. If the quality remains the focus, the numbers can only rise.
We have also had the rise of new champions of the game. Names such as Ali Brigginshaw, Chelsea Baker and Brittany Breayley will become synonymous with rugby league.
9. Robbie and Benji reunite
THERE haven't been many more emotional sights in rugby league than Robbie Farah sitting on the scoreboard at Leichardt Oval saying farewell to the Tigers' faithful.
He was forlorn, rejected and ultimately unwanted by a club that he had taken to a premiership.
Fast forward two years and the emergence of Damien Cook meant Farah found himself at the same crossroads with the Bunnies.
Enter former best mate Benji Marshall with a lifeline from the Tigers and it almost felt like fate.
The pair soon recaptured the bond they had formed in the early 2000s, turning back the clock as the Tigers went within a whisker of the top eight.
They have signed one-year contract extensions at the club, and with Michael Maguire in charge in 2019, anything could be possible.
8. Coming of Cook
AFTER five seasons with three different clubs, and none of them in a regular starting role, Damien Cook could have been forgiven for taking his ball and going home.
He would not however be deterred and his resurgence was sparked by a chance to impress under new Rabbitohs coach Anthony Seibold.
With blinding speed that became synonymous with his play, Cook left incumbent Rabbitohs hooker Robbie Farah in his dust. But it didn't stop there.
His ability to break apart defences in attack was the cornerstone of Freddy Fittler's "Baby Blues" Origin assault and catapulted Cook into the Australian Kangaroos side.
Unsurprisingly, Cook beat out master dummy-half Cameron Smith for the Hooker of the Year award at the Dally Ms and was named in the role for the World XIII.
7. Queensland fail
IT was not a good year to be a Queenslander.
The State of Origin shield went south, the Cowboys under-delivered on a scale nobody expected, the Titans were ... the Titans, and what the Broncos lacked on the field was surpassed by the club ructions off it post-season. .
Brisbane finished sixth on the NRL ladder, and their exit in the first week of the finals - an embarrassing loss to St George-Illawarra - put the full stop on what was the worst season for Queensland rugby league teams in 15 years.
It is the first time since 2003 the state has not had a club reach the second week of the finals in the same year it didn't win the State of Origin shield.
That was the year Brisbane scraped into the top eight by just two points, Panthers legend Craig Gower would have won the Dally M Medal had the awards night not been boycotted and Penrith's premiership win was marked by that Scott Sattler tackle on flying Roosters winger Todd Byrne.
Yes, that was a long time ago.
6. Blues' new order
TO quote our favourites Kath and Kim: "It's noice, it's different, it's unusual".
Freddy Fittler's approach to State of Origin coaching was downright bizarre at times but above all it was a winning one.
Fittler introduced regular yoga for the players, "earthing" sessions where players trained barefoot and absorbed the minerals in the grass, and a trust session on Sunday in which they wore blindfolds.
He also took away the distractions of mobile phones and made players more accessible to the media and fans.
But most of all he took 11 State of Origin debutantes to a series win over a side with twice as much experience - albeit lacking Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston.
Fittler was wacky, but it worked.
5. All-Star retirements
THERE has never been a retiring class like it in the history of rugby league.
The retirements, which include seven 300-gamers, mean more than 4000 games of NRL experience have left the world's premier rugby league competition.
Billy Slater, Ryan Hoffman, Chris Heighington, Luke Lewis, Sam Thaiday and Simon Mannering have all played their last games of top-flight rugby league, as has Cowboys, Queensland and Australian champion and Immortal-in-waiting Johnathan Thurston.
Thurston, Slater and Thaiday had a profound impact on the game in Queensland. Mannering had a similar impact in New Zealand, where he led the Warriors with class, and Lewis was one of the most accomplished players to start their career on the wing (with the Panthers) and move into the forwards.
The careers of Beau Scott, Peter Wallace, Tim Browne and Antonion Winterstein were all cut short due to injury, and Jacob Lilyman and Jason Nightingale also retired.
Who will you miss most?
4. Champion Cronk
NO matter which way you cut it, Cooper Cronk has played himself into rugby league folklore.
When Cronk announced he was leaving the Melbourne Storm, it left a lot of rugby league fans at a loss as to what the champion halfback would do next.
A Cronk-less Storm just didn't feel right and when he linked with the Sydney Roosters it had grand final fairytale written all over it.
After a long season, that fairytale was delivered, though with one unexpected development: a serious shoulder injury that could have ruled Cronk out of the decider.
What followed is the stuff of legend, the rugby league story you'll tell your grandkids.
Cronk played, and won, the grand final with a broken scapula.
The Roosters expertly kept his condition secret during the week leading up to the game and coach Trent Robinson delivered the perfect game plan - one that could change the game forever.
Cronk was shielded in defence as he organised his teammates like an on-field coach, and popped up only when necessary in the Roosters' 21-6 win.
His halves partner, Luke Keary, won the Clive Churchill Medal, and Cronk achieved legend status.
3. Sharks in deep
THEY don't call the NRL off-season the silly season for nothing, but for the Cronulla Sharks this off-season has been one they'd rather forget.
The club is in damage control ahead of the 2019 season after losing both its marquee player and coach within a month of each other.
The Sharks were blindsided when Valentine Holmes, arguably the best fullback in the game, turned down a lucrative contract extension to test the uncharted waters of the NFL.
Had the Sharks attempted to block the move, Holmes was reportedly going to sit out the 2019 season on principle.
It was a tough blow and one that was not taken well by veteran skipper Paul Gallen, who blasted Holmes in a sensational television interview.
And during a time that is all about giving, the Sharks received another hefty kick in the guts when the NRL issued coach Shane Flanagan with a notice of intention to cancel his registration.
Auditing of the Cronulla club found that Flanagan had engaged in communications with the Sharks during a period in which he was suspended following the 2014 peptides scandal.
The Sharks, and Flanagan, have until the end of January to respond to the notice,but in that period he is not allowed within the walls of Sharks central.
In a shallow silver lining, the club has picked up New Zealand international Shaun Johnson to fill the Holmes void.
Maybe they will be looking for a coach as well.
2. Men behaving badly
HAS there ever been a year when rugby league generated more headlines off the field?
The aggravated sexual assault case involving Jarryd Hayne; Dylan Walker's domestic violence charge; Jack de Belin's alleged sexual assault; Jack Wighton headbutting blokes outside a nightclub; the Bulldogs' Mad Monday antics; Manly's trip to Gladstone, which ended in tears, infighting and playmaker Jackson Hastings in the English Super League; Zane Musgrave charged with aggravated indecent assault and Liam Coleman on a similar charge.
The re-emergence of the Matt Lodge scandal started the year - after he was signed on a one-year deal by the Broncos - though, to his credit, the prop turned his reputation around with a strong season on the field, a booze ban and intense studies off the field after his infamous 2015 New York rampage.
But when is enough, enough? A day barely goes by in the off-season without another NRL player in the headlines for the wrong reason.
It's about time the NRL draws a line in the sand and makes 2018-19 the off-season it says "no more".
1. Coaching circus
TO call it a merry-go-round is to bring the fete favourite into disrepute.
Once the domain of battle-hardened masterminds, the coaches' box has brought about some of the biggest headlines this off-season.
The Wayne Bennett-Anthony Seibold switcheroo was a drawn-out affair in which Brisbane and South Sydney bosses eventually reached an obvious conclusion.
Both had signed at their opposing clubs for the 2020 season and beyond, and it took what felt like an eternity to get the pair signed, sealed and delivered for 2019.
Ivan Cleary jumped off the Tigers bus to reunite with his son - the Messiah from the foot of the Mountains, Nathan Cleary - and take on the role of coach at the club that sacked him just a few years ago.
Michael Maguire, the man who led the Rabbitohs to their first premiership after a 40-plus year drought, coached New Zealand's national team and was signed to take the reins in 2019 at the Wests Tigers, the home of the hooker he signed to Souths at the end of 2016, Robbie Farah.
The pressure is already on a number of other coaches.