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From COVID to coach sackings and Cameron’s call, it has been a wild ride

The season officially starts with the NRL Nines in Perth, which is won by the Cowboys against a youthful Dragons in the final. The tournament is best remembered for an officiating blunder which allows St George Illawarra to beat Penrith in the quarter-final despite Dragons winger Cody Ramsay clearly not grounding the ball legally for the match-winning after-the-siren try. There is better news for the Red V in the women’s division as they belt the Broncos in the final.

Josh Addo-Carr before the Indigenous All Stars match in February this year.

Josh Addo-Carr before the Indigenous All Stars match in February this year.Credit:Getty

The annual All-Stars match starts with an inspiring tribute to AFL legend Nicky Winmar as Josh Addo-Carr lifts his Indigenous jersey and points to the colour of his skin. The Maori All-Stars agree not to sing the New Zealand national anthem in support of the Indigenous side. On the field, Brandon Smith scores twice in the final quarter to lead David Kidwell’s Maori side to a 30-16 win on the Gold Coast.


The NRL launch the season by rekindling rugby league’s famous anthem, Tina Turner’s Simply The Best, 30 years on. The advertisement comes under attack from critics, who accuse it of trying to make a political statement on Indigenous issues and marriage equality. Latrell Mitchell features in the ad, draped in an Aboriginal flag.

Like clockwork, a major scandal erupts days before the opening game of the season when Bulldogs pair Jayden Okunbor and Corey Harawira-Naera are stood down over allegations they had consensual sex with schoolgirls at the team hotel during a pre-season trip to Port Macquarie. Their contracts are torn up, but re-instated on appeal after hefty suspensions and fines (Harawira-Naera would later join the Raiders).

The season kick-off is overshadowed by alarm over the coronavirus pandemic, which is taking hold in Australia. The Eels scramble past the Bulldogs in a lacklustre opening match before the next day Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces national cabinet is banning mass gatherings from Monday.

Canterbury's Aiden Tolman in the first match since crowds were banned.

Canterbury’s Aiden Tolman in the first match since crowds were banned.Credit:NRL Photos

The NRL limps into round two determined to carry on, but matches are played in empty stadiums with players and officials under strict biosecurity protocols. TV networks use fake crowd noise to generate atmosphere for broadcasts. Following the weekend Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys and chief executive Todd Greenberg announce they’re indefinitely suspending the competition, forcing players to empty club gyms for any equipment they can use at home training in isolation, knowing when they’ll play again.


The NRL announce they will resume the competition on May 28, a decision labelled as insensitive, irresponsible and tone deaf as Australia grapples with the threat of the virus.

Greenberg stands down after four years in charge of the NRL having been summoned to V’landys’ Racing NSW office. The NRL’s chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo is appointed as the interim boss.

The fallout from Nathan Cleary's notorious TikTok video was far reaching.

The fallout from Nathan Cleary’s notorious TikTok video was far reaching.

The NRL’s planned return is thrown into chaos after COVID breaches by some of the game’s biggest stars. Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr are seen in social media photos camping and shooting guns on the Rabbitohs star’s mid north coast property, a breach of public health orders.

Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary is whacked with a $30,000 fine and suspended for two games after a TikTok video emerges of him dancing with girls at his home, which he shares with teammate Tyrone May, on Anzac Day, flouting social distancing regulations. May is also fined and suspended.


After a period of uncertainty, the Warriors make the biggest sacrifice in recent rugby league history by agreeing to relocate to Australia away from their families to ensure the NRL competition can resume and risk the game’s multi-billion dollar TV deal. They arrive in Tamworth for a two-week quarantine period in which they can train before moving their base to the Central Coast.

The NRL announces the biggest shake-up to the fabric of the game in decades with the introduction of the six-again rule for the season re-launch, allowing referees to re-start tackle counts for ruck infringements instead of blowing penalties. It’s a clear winner. The NRL also fights a battle with the referees’ union, which opposes the scrapping of the second referee, and wrangles with governments as a small group of players decline to take the flu vaccine, which threatens the May 28 target.

NZ Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck walks across the tarmac after arriving in Tamworth as his club helped save the NRL season.

NZ Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck walks across the tarmac after arriving in Tamworth as his club helped save the NRL season.Credit:Getty

One of the game’s brightest young stars, Sharks ace Bronson Xerri, is provisionally stood down days before the season resumption after returning a positive test to performance enhancing substances late in 2019. His case is still before the NRL’s anti-doping tribunal.

The competition resumes with the Eels flogging the Broncos, who won their first two games before the break and implode after it, winning just one of their remaining 18. Hours before the resumption the NRL announces a revised TV deal with broadcast partners Nine, the publisher of this masthead, and Foxtel, which signs an extension until the end of 2027.

Greg Inglis announces he will return to rugby league in 2021 with Warrington in the Super League.


Sacking season starts with an unlikely target, Warriors coach Stephen Kearney shown the door just a month after the season re-start while trying to keep his team together away from loved ones in New Zealand. His players are devastated.

He will be one of five coaches which will eventually split with their club in 2020, including North Queensland’s Paul Green, Canterbury’s Dean Pay, St George Illawarra’s Paul McGregor and Brisbane’s Anthony Seibold.

The Storm become the second team to be uprooted to keep the competition running, fleeing Victoria for the Sunshine Coast amid alarming infection rates in Melbourne. They wouldn’t return all season.

Addin Fonua-Blakeis sent off for a foul-mouthed tirade at referee Grant Atkins.

Addin Fonua-Blakeis sent off for a foul-mouthed tirade at referee Grant Atkins.


The Storm beat the Roosters 27-25 in one of the most epic regular season matches in a decade, Cameron Smith’s golden point penalty goal settling the contest. Luke Keary and Ryan Papenhuyzen traded last-gasp field goals to send the match into extra time. Boyd Cordner finishes the match heavily concussed and plays just once in the next two months.

Manly prop Addin Fonua-Blake is in the middle of a firestorm after an expletive-laden tirade at referee Grant Atkins, in which he calls him a “f****** retard” after the Sea Eagles’ dramatic loss to Newcastle. He is suspended for two matches and fined $20,000.

After a drawn out contract circus, boom Brisbane back-rower David Fifita signs for the Titans on a $1 million-plus per-year deal until the end of 2023, the biggest recruit in the club’s history.


The NRL’s adherence to COVID protocols is again thrust into the spotlight with master coach Wayne Bennett told to isolate for two weeks after dining at flash Sydney eatery Grappa, a breach of the game’s biosecurity measures. Dragons prop Paul Vaughan is also quarantined for 14 days after having breakfast at a Wollongong cafe on the morning of their must-win match against the Roosters, which celebrate Mitchell Aubusson becoming the most capped player in the club’s history.

Kevin Proctor was sent off for biting Shaun Johnson.

Kevin Proctor was sent off for biting Shaun Johnson.Credit:Fairfax Media

Another coach, Ivan Cleary, is also in hot water after he accuses match officials of “managing” Penrith’s opponents Canberra back into a match. It prompts a furious response from V’landys, who labels the comments “deplorable”.

Gold Coast captain Kevin Proctor is pitched into one of the highest-profile judiciary cases in years, banned for four matches for biting New Zealand teammate Shaun Johnson in a match against the Sharks. He was only the second player sent off all season after Fonua-Blake. Johnson testifies on Proctor’s behalf and the pair are admonished for interviews and social media posts before the hearing.

Mitchell suffers a devastating season-ending hamstring injury as he starts to reach his potential at fullback, but it can’t stop South Sydney belting the Eels 38-0.

Sonny Bill Williams returned to the NRL with the Roosters after the Toronto Wolfpack withdrew from the Super League.

Sonny Bill Williams returned to the NRL with the Roosters after the Toronto Wolfpack withdrew from the Super League.Credit:Getty


The prodigal son, Sonny Bill Williams, returns to the NRL for a third stint after his Super League club, Toronto Wolfpack, withdraws from the 2020 competition. He helps the Roosters into the finals and has his best game in week two of the play-offs, but can’t prevent the two-time defending premiers crashing out in straight sets. The Roosters were earlier walloped 60-8 by arch rivals South Sydney in the final round of the regular season.

Cronulla No.7 Chad Townsend is suspended for three games for a wild hit on Newcastle’s Kalyn Ponga which prompts him to be sent off. Townsend only returns for the first week of the finals.

Penrith win their first minor premiership since 2003 on the back of a 15-game winning run as a host of legends are farewelled, including Tigers pair Benji Marshall (who is yet to officially announce his retirement) and Chris Lawrence as well as Brisbane’s Darius Boyd, who has an on-field gender reveal after the club collect the first wooden spoon in their history.

Isaah Yeo and the Panthers were runaway minor premiers.

Isaah Yeo and the Panthers were runaway minor premiers.Credit:Getty

Canterbury’s mid-season recruit, English international Luke Thompson, is suspended for four weeks for an alleged eye gouge on James Tamou.

The Warriors finally go home after making a season possible many thought would be impossible.

Abdo is appointed permanently to the chief executive role, but the financial pain of COVID doesn’t spare head office, one of his first tasks to slash a quarter of the NRL’s workforce in an attempt to save $50 million.

Jack Wighton's Dally M victory was soured somewhat by an accidental leak from the Daily Telegraph.

Jack Wighton’s Dally M victory was soured somewhat by an accidental leak from the Daily Telegraph.Credit:Getty


Jack Wighton pips Clint Gutherson and Nathan Cleary for his first Dally M Medal, which is rendered a farce when The Daily Telegraph accidentally reveals the result online hours before the ceremony at Foxtel’s studios in finished. Ivan Cleary wins Coach of the Year.

The finals series is rocked when The Australian air explosive allegations of alleged drug use and domestic violence aimed at former Rabbitohs star Sam Burgess. He stands down from his off-field roles at the club as NSW Police and the NRL’s integrity unit launch probes.

The Bulldogs’ boardroom drama finally ends with the resignations of chair Lynne Anderson and two other directors, who were going to be subject to an extraordinary general meeting where angry sponsors and members wanted to overthrow them. The club later announces All Blacks coaching legend Steve Hansen will join new boss Trent Barrett as a consultant.

Cameron Smith celebrates the grand final win.

Cameron Smith celebrates the grand final win.Credit:Getty

The Eels’ season finishes in turmoil when Michael Jennings is ruled out on the morning of their sudden death final against South Sydney due to Sport Integrity Australia informing him of a failed drugs test.

Cameron Smith enjoys a fairytale farewell, or does he? The game’s most decorated player leads the Storm to a 26-20 grand final win over the Panthers, who had won 17 straight games before the decider. Melbourne blasted to a 22-0 lead at half-time and finished the match with 11 men after two late sin binnings.

The Broncos win their third straight NRLW title, beating the Roosters 20-10.


Wayne Bennett returns as Queensland coach 17 years on after Kevin Walters is appointed Broncos coach and engineers one of the great series upsets as the Maroons stun NSW in the Adelaide series opener and win the decider in Brisbane under a rescheduled format.

A contented Wayne Bennett looks on as the Maroons celebrate a famous victory.

A contented Wayne Bennett looks on as the Maroons celebrate a famous victory.Credit:Getty

The playing future of Blues captain Boyd Cordner is under a cloud after he withdraws from the series after game one due to another head knock. NSW is issued a formal warning over their handling of Cordner’s game one incident after he was allowed to return to the field.

V’landys signs a new three-year deal to stay with the Australian Rugby League Commission.

Will he really want to go through all this again?

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