On-field and off, these are the storylines that grabbed our attention more than any others in 2015.
Fallout from Good Friday boilover
It was a penalty for which very few others than referee Gerard Sutton fully understood the rule but it was what followed a pulsating Good Friday blockbuster between South Sydney and Canterbury that became the real talking point. Trailing 17-16 in the dying moments, the Rabbitohs got half Adam Reynolds in position for a shot at field goal but as he took the kick he was hit on the knee by a flying James Graham. Sutton correctly ruled that as he was attempting a point-scoring play a penalty would be awarded 10 metres out in front of the posts. That incensed Graham who along with Bulldogs teammate David Klemmer were subsequently suspended for contrary conduct, with Michael Lichaa also narrowly avoiding suspension for dissent. The controversy carried into the stands with fans throwing plastic bottles onto the field as the referees left the ground, prompting coach Des Hasler to offer an apology in the post-match press conference. "That is not us. On behalf of all the officials and players and everybody involved in the club, our sincerest apologies for what appeared and it won't happen again."
When the Premier of Queensland took to local television to urge Brisbane people to stay at home amid road closures, major disruptions to public transport and fans stranded at train stations, the NRL was left with little alternative but to postpone the Anzac Test from Friday, May 1 to Sunday afternoon. The agonising call was made as the Suncorp Stadium surface was entirely covered by water and with only a few thousand people willing to brave the extreme weather event in attendance. Of course, as soon as the call was made the rain eased and an hour later the game could perhaps have gone ahead but to do so would have been a disservice to fans and to the game. As it was, Brisbane was afforded a rare opportunity to showcase a major rugby league fixture in daylight hours for which 32,681 fans took full advantage of, as did the Kiwis, who ran out convincing 26-12 winners.
Confirmation that Daly Cherry-Evans had signed a four-year deal with the Titans in the wake of Manly's Round 1 loss to the Eels was shock enough but that was nothing compared to what was to come in the following three months. From as early as April whispers began that 'DCE' was going to renege on his decision to move to the Gold Coast but all the major players – including Cherry-Evans – remained tight-lipped. Speculation and rumour continued to grow until June 3 when less than a week before the Round 13 deadline expired Cherry-Evans announced he had signed a new "lifetime contract" with the Sea Eagles. It threw the Titans' recruitment plans into complete disarray and forced an immediate change to the rule that allowed players to continue to negotiate with their current club until the end of Round 13 even after signing a contract with another club.
Tuivasa-Sheck signs with Warriors
As the Cherry-Evans saga played out in the media Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the Warriors proved that some deals can be done in secret when the superstar Roosters fullback signed a three-year deal to return to his native New Zealand. Groomed as Anthony Minichiello's long-term successor in the No.1 jersey at Bondi, the decision of Tuivasa-Sheck to leave the Roosters stunned the rugby league world and left Warriors fans thinking, 'Sam who?' Of course, his Roosters teammates pleaded with 'RTS' to reconsider over the following two months but he has stayed true to his word and will be a Warrior in 2016. Tuivasa-Sheck's shift to the Warriors was only slightly more shocking than that of Issac Luke, who has left the Rabbitohs with two years remaining on his contract after nine years at the club.
New TV deal signed with Channel Nine
Announcing that from 2018 rugby league fans will have access to four live games on free-to-air television was a hell of a way to start a Monday. The NRL's five-year free-to-air rights deal with Channel Nine caught many in the game by surprise and was widely lauded as a win for the fans. The deal is worth up to $925 million over five years starting from 2018 and will see prime time rugby league broadcast nationally on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as the traditional Sunday afternoon game. Other highlights of the deal included a reduction of the Telstra Premiership to 25 rounds, a stand-alone State of Origin game to be played on Sunday as part of the Representative Round and a dedicated international window at the end of the season.
Jarryd Hayne's 49ers game-time
This time last year rugby league sent Jarryd Hayne on his way to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL but perhaps without the same level of belief than the man himself that he would ever suit up in an NFL game. We loved the fact that he was even going to attempt something so audacious but then on August 16 this year everything changed. Never has an NFL pre-season game meant so much to Australia and the mere fact 'No.38' was on the field was something that captivated a nation. And then they gave him the ball. With his second touch he ran for 53 yards and quickly became THE story of the NFL pre-season. Further strong displays in the pre-season earned him a place on the San Francisco roster and the fact that he fumbled his way through the first game of the season proper will in time only add to the legend. The focus on Hayne provided a boost for rugby league, with several mentions of the sport and the National Rugby League in commentary that was heard and read by millions of Americans.
Robbie Farah shown the door at Leichhardt
It will be months before we know whether there will be a winner and a loser in the decision by the Wests Tigers to send favourite son Robbie Farah to the open market but it was certainly a move that caught everyone off guard. With two years left to run on his contract beyond 2015 and only a fortnight before the end of the season Farah – club captain and life member – was told he was free to pursue opportunities elsewhere and that his position in the top grade could not be guaranteed. Tigers fans showed their dismay at Farah's treatment days later at the club's final home game of the season and a month later CEO Justin Pascoe – on his fourth day in the job – stated that the club intended to honour its contractual obligations to Farah. We may be in for a further shock when coach Jason Taylor names his team for Round 1 next year.
Ipswich taking the nation by storm
It's okay to be entertaining but if you aren't winning football games very few people take you seriously. That was somewhat of the case for the Ipswich Jets under the innovative coaching methods of former NRL stars Ben and Shane Walker. In their first year in charge in 2014 they took the Jets to the finals but the underlying sentiment that their ad lib style and shock tactics wouldn't stand up in the big games. Despite finishing the Intrust Super Cup season in third spot the Jets were forced into survival mode from week one of the finals, first disposing of defending premiers Northern Pride before qualifying for the grand final against Townsville with a win over Wynnum. They upset the Blackhawks to claim Ipswich's first Queensland Cup crown and then bamboozled Newcastle in the State Championship on NRL Grand Final day. Five of their premiership players have won NRL contracts for 2016 with more in the pipeline; the only men still waiting for their shot at the big time are the coaches.
Panthers cut ties with Ivan Cleary
His winning record after four years at the Panthers may have only read 45 per cent but perhaps only Penrith GM Phil Gould knew that coach Ivan Cleary was under pressure before the axe fell on Monday. Only a misfiring attack in the Preliminary Final prevented the Panthers from qualifying for the grand final last season and most rugby league fans were prepared to cut the coach some slack for a 2015 season that was devastated by a horrendous injury toll. Matt Moylan, Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace and James Segeyaro barely got to play footy together this season but with a move as swift as it was unexpected Gould ended Cleary's tenure and 48 hours later installed former Broncos coach Anthony Griffin as his mentor. Penrith are a club laden with young talent and Griffin now has three years to prove that both he and the kids have a future in the NRL.
In his departing interview Dave Smith described himself as an agent of change and there is no question the rugby league landscape has been altered on his watch over the past three years. Better business practices have been instituted, record levels of funding have come into the game and the opportunity for more people to engage in rugby league have been three of Smith's key achievements. The Australian women's team was able to contest a World Cup without having to dip into their own pockets for the first time and the alignment with Touch Football Australia brings hundreds of thousands of active participants under the NRL banner. Player safety has been paramount and the punch and shoulder charge have all but been eradicated from the game and the response from fans has been record numbers of members at clubs and viewers on television. It was perhaps too much to expect a Welsh banker with a rugby background to have a long tenure in the NRL but there is no doubt that Dave Smith made his mark on the game.