YEAR TO REMEMBER: James Tedesco scores the winning try in the NRL grand final. Tedesco had a year foof the Roosters scores a try during the 2019 NRL Grand Final match between the Canberra Raiders and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
YEAR TO REMEMBER: James Tedesco scores the winning try in the NRL grand final. Tedesco had a year foof the Roosters scores a try during the 2019 NRL Grand Final match between the Canberra Raiders and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Teddy the greatest in a year of change

Matthew McInerney and Matthew Elkerton count down the biggest rugby league stories of 2019

10. FAREWELL TO OLD FAITHFULS

IT WAS a season that marked the end for some of rugby league's favourite grounds, but it was not without promise of a bright future.

Having bid farewell to 1300SMILES Stadium, the North Queensland Cowboys embark on a new era in the heart of Townsville.

The $250 million, state-of-the-art stadium has risen from the clay throughout 2019.

Down south, the Sydney Football Stadium underwent demolition early in the season. And next year's State of Origin opener will be the final game played at ANZ Stadium ahead of an estimated $800 million renovation.

The major works led the Roosters to relocate home games to the maligned SCG - a move that was met with a mix of support and disdain.

The ground has also been locked in to host the NRL grand final for the next three years, upsetting Queensland.

Bankwest Stadium, meanwhile, was officially opened, drawing almost 30,000 people to watch as Parramatta blew the Tigers off the park in April. Who will forget Mitchell Moses' first try at the venue?

The Cowboys bid farewell to 1300 Smiles Stadium. Picture: Alix Sweeney
The Cowboys bid farewell to 1300 Smiles Stadium. Picture: Alix Sweeney

 

9. NRL PAINTED LIME GREEN

THERE was a moment, in the first week of October, when almost the entire league fan base united in support for one team.

No, this isn't international rugby league we're talking about, but the mighty run of everyone's second team, the Canberra Raiders.

The Raiders hadn't been to a grand final since they lifted the Winfield Cup Premiership in 1994, and when they knocked Souths out in the preliminary final just about everyone jumped on the lime green bandwagon.

Ricky Stuart, perhaps the league's most divisive coach, took a chance on overlooked journeymen and a handful of talented Englishmen such as John Bateman and Josh Hodgson, with the latter among the NRL's best performers.

The fairytale was ruined by the history-making Roosters in the grand final, but this was a season when Canberra were finally allowed a realistic premiership dream.

8. THE MAGIC OF RUGBY LEAGUE

NRL boss Todd Greenberg pulled off the magic trick of the year by putting all 16 clubs in the same place at the same time. Magic Round - all eight games at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium. The city came alive.

No matter their jersey, no matter their home, everyone was there for the same reason.

There were tight contests and blowouts, but in the end it was nothing but a success as the official crowd figure reached almost 135,000 over the four days.

It is also estimated to have pumped more than $20 million into the Queensland economy.

Magic Round will return to Suncorp next year in a streamlined format over three days of the May long weekend.

Tom Burgess of the Rabbitohs in full flight during the Round 9 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane in May. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Tom Burgess of the Rabbitohs in full flight during the Round 9 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane in May. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

7. SWEET HOLMES, MITCHELL MADNESS

The NRL post-season has been dominated by "will they, won't they?" conversations.

From a seemingly disgruntled Latrell Mitchell looking for a new home despite back-to-back premierships at the Roosters, to the return of Valentine Holmes, contract speculation has been rife.

From private dinners in a Townsville pub to multi-million-dollar deals tabled at the Tigers, Mitchell, the undeniably talented centre, was courted by almost every NRL club ... until they removed themselves from the race. He's still homeless.

But it was the story of Holmes, who flew halfway around the world to chase an NFL dream, that really dominated headlines.

When he was jettisoned to the New York Jets' practice squad, rumours of the 24-year-old returning to the NRL stepped up a gear.

There was a long-held belief that when he did return, it would be to his hometown of Townsville. In November that became a reality, the Cowboys securing "their man" - and new No.1 - on a six-year deal worth more than $5.5 million.

6. DRAMA, DRAMA, DRAMA

IT WOULDN'T be an NRL season without some major off-field incidents to take the gloss off the on-field product.

From the abrupt end to Ben Barba's return to the Cowboys - after an incident at the Townsville casino - to Broncos prop David Fifita being locked up in Bali, naughty NRL players outdid themselves in finding new scandals to drag the brand through the mud.

Storm forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona jumped from bad guy to good guy to bad guy more quickly than WWE's The Big Show after footage of him throwing fists, also in Bali, ­surfaced.

Barba's career ended, big Nelson copped a three-week suspension and a $15,000 fine, and Fifita returned with his tail between his legs but was cleared by the NRL integrity unit.

Dragons forward Jack De Belin, meanwhile, subjected to the no-fault stand-down policy rolled out by the NRL, is set to face trial next year on sexual assault charges.

Brisbane Broncos NRL player David Fifita arrives at the Brisbane International Airport after spending three days behind bars in Bali. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)
Brisbane Broncos NRL player David Fifita arrives at the Brisbane International Airport after spending three days behind bars in Bali. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

5. INJURY-FORCED RETIREMENTS

INJURY and illness contributed to the end of some great careers, including Rabbitohs duo Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess, ­Broncos stalwart Matt Gillett and Cowboys warhorse Matt Scott.

When Inglis left in April he said it wasn't forced by mental illness or injuries, but the Maroons legend had battled recurring problems in the past few seasons. At the end of the season, Burgess followed Inglis out the door, undone by shoulder issues.

Gillett fought back from a broken neck sustained in 2018, but a shoulder injury led him to hang up his boots.

Scott was seemingly poised to close the book on his NRL career, but a terrifying stroke after the Cowboys' Round 22 game forced an early end.

It was a season when the NRL farewelled about 4000 games of experience, with the exit of Storm and Roosters legend Cooper Cronk, Shark Paul Gallen, Tiger Robbie Farah and Rabbitoh John Sutton among a long list of retirees.

4. ROOSTERS
MAKE HISTORY

MUCH has been made of how difficult it is to win two straight rugby league premierships. No team had done so since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992 and 1993 (excluding the Super League), but Trent Robinson ensured his Sydney Roosters paid no heed to commentary about the task.

Blocking out the hype, a formidable roster, including Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner, James Tedesco and Luke Keary - and steered about the park by Cooper Cronk - got the job done.

They weren't the flashiest team, but they finished in the top four, converted their opportunities when it mattered most and made their opponents pay.

Cronk left the game as the winner of three straight premierships at two clubs, ending one of the great modern careers with little fanfare.

With Robinson at the helm and most of the squad remaining, one of the most successful clubs of the decade could yet add to their dynasty.

3. INTERNATIONAL GAME BOOSTED

TONGA shocked the rugby league world in November, and in the process gave the international game the jolt it so desperately needed.

After months of turmoil off the field, with players threatening to strike over a pay dispute, the Mate Ma'a emerged as a unified front under Kristian Woolf to upset Australia. The 16-12 result at Eden Park was the first time the world champion Kangaroos side had been beaten by a tier-two nation.

It was also the last of three prized scalps for the island nation after beating New Zealand and Great Britain in the previous two seasons.

It also sent a statement ahead of the 2021 World Cup. "There's no doubt we can (win it)," Woolf said.

The Tongans were not the only side to prove themselves as giant slayers.

At Port Moresby's National Football Stadium, the PNG Kumuls sprung an upset over Great Britain in the final Test of the year. After trailing 10-0 early, the Kumuls scored 28 unanswered points in front of a jubilant home crowd.

Tonga celebrate their win over Australia during the Rugby League International Test match between the Australia Kangaroos and Tonga at Eden Park on November 02. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
Tonga celebrate their win over Australia during the Rugby League International Test match between the Australia Kangaroos and Tonga at Eden Park on November 02. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

2. AN ORIGIN
FOR THE AGES

BRAD Fittler's "Baby Blues" came of age to win their second straight State of Origin series, but it took the final 30 seconds of the final game for it to be decided.

Despite the Blues' dominant 38-6 win in front of almost 60,000 fans in Perth in Origin II, the series proved to be one of the most hotly contested in recent memory.

The underdog Maroons struck fear into their doubters south of the border with a determined victory in the opening game at Suncorp Stadium.

And they almost struck gold on enemy soil in the decider, with spirited forwards Josh McGuire and Josh Papalii scoring in the final 10 minutes to claw back a 12-point Blues advantage. But player of the series James Tedesco drove the final dagger into the hearts of Queenslanders, pulling off a miracle try in the final seconds to seal a series win in front of more than 80,000 fans.

It will go down as one of the great Origin series, underpinned by some freakish moments of skill mixed with a methodical approach.

Off the field it was just as engaging, with coach whisperers, earthing sessions and extreme confidence highlighting the approaches of both sides.

The Queensland side refused to talk about their opponents, and the Blues walked hand-in-hand on the sand.

NSW's James Tedesco celebrates the winning try in Game 3 of the State of Origin series between NSW Blues and Queensland at ANZ Stadium. Picture. Phil Hillyard
NSW's James Tedesco celebrates the winning try in Game 3 of the State of Origin series between NSW Blues and Queensland at ANZ Stadium. Picture. Phil Hillyard

It was odd. It was beautiful. It was Origin.

 

1. THE GREATEST

INDIVIDUAL SEASON

ROOSTERS, Blues and Australian No.1 James Tedesco produced arguably the greatest individual season.

It should be no surprise that both the Blues and Roosters came out on top when they had someone of Tedesco's calibre in the custodian role.

The 26-year-old is a freak.

He pulled tries out of nowhere, set up tries just as easily and consistently put his team on the front foot from the back.

For the Roosters, he boasts a staggering win rate of 71.43 per cent (35 wins, 14 losses).

He's been there for two years, and they've won the comp each time.

For NSW, his win rate is slightly less at 60 per cent. But he was the main reason NSW captain and club teammate Boyd Cordner lifted the Origin shield.

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