The opening and closing games were played in front of packed stadiums, but the intervening period was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. When the teams emerged from lockdown, it became evident which ones had used their time productively.

There is nothing more taxing than a Storm pre-season and Craig Bellamy got to put his players through a second one. It is little wonder they emerged fitter and faster than their opposition. Not even the inconvenience of living away from home could stop them from taking out another title.

But when it came to bubbles, no one did it tougher than the Warriors. For some players, it became too much and no one can begrudge them for putting family before football. The most unusual season of all will be remembered for many things – chiefly ARLC chairman Peter V’landys’ efforts to ensure it was completed – but without the Warriors it would have been all for nought.

More than any other team, they have sacrificed for the greater good. Warriors chief executive Cameron George needed only a one-word answer when asked if he was nervous about his players finally emerging from their bubble.

“Yep.”

THE WINNERS

Melbourne Storm: Is it any wonder the Broncos are so keen to lure Craig Bellamy to Red Hill? What a marvel. Bellamy has again presided over a team that is the gold standard for consistency in Australian sport. Melbourne’s latest premiership win has given Cameron Smith the opportunity to go out on a high, if only he decides to take it.

Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith lift up the trophy for the Melbourne Storm.

Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith lift up the trophy for the Melbourne Storm.Credit:Getty

Peter V’landys: Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Underscored his reputation as Australia’s top sporting administrator by getting the game back on while the rest of the sporting world was still reeling from the coronavirus outbreak. Even his harshest critics must now grudgingly acknowledge he was ahead of the game.

New Zealand Warriors: Once again, they sacked their coach and missed the finals. However, the Warriors became everyone’s second-favourite team after leaving home to ensure the NRL competition remained viable. The sacrifice the team made to be away from their families for so long must never be forgotten.

THE LOSERS

Brisbane Broncos: Let’s just be clear, we’re referring to the men’s team. How did it go so wrong so quickly? Anthony Seibold couldn’t possibly survive after his side picked up the wooden spoon for the first time in the club’s proud history. While Seibold became the scapegoat, responsibility must also go to the officials who thought it was a good idea to replace Wayne Bennett with a rookie coach on a five-year deal. That David Fifita saw more upside (and money) at the Titans represents a seismic shift in power in Queensland.

The Broncos endured the worst season in their 33-year history.

The Broncos endured the worst season in their 33-year history.Credit:NRL Photos

NSW Blues: They lost the unloseable series. Queensland were branded the worst team in State of Origin history and the bookies agreed, installing them as the biggest outsiders in 40 years. And still they prevailed. Wayne Bennett orchestrated an upset to rival the one pulled off by Paul Vautin’s “Nevilles’ in 1995.

Coaches: With revenues down due to the coronavirus outbreak, every dollar became precious. Clubs were implored to tighten their belts amid fears that some could go under. Five of them responded by sacking their coaches. Anthony Seibold, Stephen Kearney, Dean Pay, Paul Gren and Paul McGregor were paid out for contracts they never completed.

THE BIG CONTROVERSY

Going back to one referee. The whistleblowers were so incensed by the decision to go from two refs to one that their spat with the NRL almost resulted in strike and legal action. As ever, V’landys mediated a truce at the last minute and the game has never looked better.

STINK OF THE YEAR

Anthony Seibold may have taken Wayne Bennett’s job at the Broncos, but the old fella had the last laugh. Seibold’s stint at Red Hill was an unmitigated disaster and Bennett took great delight in sticking the knife in. Seibold was sacked, while Bennett remains a man in demand into his 70s.

MAN OF THE YEAR

There was a period in 2020 when horse racing and the NRL were the only sports still operating. The common denominator in both was Peter V’landys. Despite intense criticism, he got the game of “rugba league” back onto the paddock before just about every other major sporting code in the world.

Ali Brigginshaw won her first Dally M Medal and led the Broncos to a third successive grand final win.

Ali Brigginshaw won her first Dally M Medal and led the Broncos to a third successive grand final win.Credit:Getty

WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Ali Brigginshaw finally claimed the only honour that has eluded her during her illustrious career, the Dally M medal. Proving herself to be every bit as effective after moving from halfback to lock, Brigginshaw captained the Broncos to another premiership victory.

VIRAL MOMENT OF THE YEAR

This was a video scandal with a difference. Nathan Cleary displayed some of his best footwork dancing with young women on TikTok, in breach of social-distance protocols. To his credit, the Panthers playmaker rebounded from the setback to submit a stellar season.

TACKLE OF THE YEAR

Josh Papalii should get kicked out of the front-rowers club for this. Titans playmaker Jamal Fogarty found open space and had only Papalii in pursuit. And yet “Big Papa’ mowed him down with a desperate ankle tap. Outrageous.

TRY OF THE YEAR

Speaking of big men doing the seemingly impossible, we can’t go past David Fifita’s runaway try against the Cowboys. This was a rare highlight in a diabolical Broncos season. No wonder the Titans made him the highest-paid player in the NRL.

QUOTE OF THE YEAR

“While they’re [AFL fans] in Brisbane, it’s like people going to an ABBA concert when they’re ACDC fans; they’ll like the rhythm for a while but they’ll go back to the real heavy stuff, the rugby league,” said Peter V’landys.

CRYSTAL BALL

At the end of next season, Wayne Bennett will be looking for work. We’re tipping that several clubs will also be looking for new coaches. Trent Barrett, Todd Payten and Kevin Walters will be given a short grace period to settle into their new roles, but there is nothing surer that not all 16 clipboard holders won’t see out the season.

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