Top 100 stories of 2016: 100-91
First, a confession.
We know you love team lists. NRL.com is the first place for all team news on a Tuesday and as such dominates the spreadsheet when we dig down to uncover the articles that attracted the most eyeballs on the NRL app over the course of a season.
So in the interests of finding the stories each week that registered most on the fans' radars we excluded team lists, casualty ward and late mail for the purpose of this exercise.
What we're left with is a stroll down memory lane of the major news items of 2016; hope you enjoy the walk.
The best season of the now 25-year-old's career came with an unexpected bonus.
No, it wasn't a New South Wales Origin jersey or record for most penalties conceded in a season but rather the chance to become the greatest single-season try-scoring prop forward in the history of the premiership.
With a double against the Knights in Round 24 James drew within one of Jack Holland (St George, 1950) and Harry Eden (South Sydney, 1975) and claimed the record with tries in Round 26 and in the Elimination Final against the Broncos.
His 12 for the season was equal with winger Anthony Don for honour of Titans' leading try-scorer.
Talk of the use of golden point extra-time to decide outcome of finals matches began almost immediately after Johnathan Thurston's one-pointer secured the Cowboys a maiden premiership last year and in July action was taken, two five-minute halves to be played if scores were locked at full-time before going to golden point if necessary.
"The stakes are clearly high in Finals Series matches, and especially in the Grand Final, so it makes sense to have a period of extra time prior to golden point," said NRL CEO Todd Greenberg in announcing the change that had been ratified by the ARL Commission.
"Not only will it mean a more expansive style of football in the extra time period, it will also be less likely that a team is eliminated in golden point."
Ironically it was the Cowboys and Broncos who were the first teams to participate in a finals match that went into extra time, again Thurston dictating the outcome but this time by laying on a try for Michael Morgan near the end of the first period of five minutes.
It's the cruel reality of our game that injuries seem to strike certain players more than others and in recent years there have been few more affected than Tim Moltzen. After playing 83 games for the Wests Tigers in his first five seasons Moltzen was able to add just seven in the past four years, a fresh start at Manly this year again cruelled by the chronic knee injury that forced him into early retirement from rugby league.
"The medical advice I have received is that for my own quality of life and to enjoy being active in the future with my own children, the best decision for me is to retire,'' said Moltzen, who was honoured as a retiring player at the NRL Grand Final.
"As much as I want to keep on playing, the truth is my body is now nowhere near where it was when I was playing my best footy.
"It is very disappointing at 27 to call it a day and by no means was it an easy decision. It was definitely not something I wanted to do, but it is something I have been forced to do."
Today it's finally hit me that my footy chapter has come to an end. As a young kid from the Central Coast with a dream to one day play a single game of NRL I'm now lucky enough to say I've ticked that off. Whilst there's been ups and downs I wouldn't change a thing. A massive Thankyou to @ashleigh_moltzen ,all of my family and all of my friends for always being by my side. Also I have to thank @nrl_weststigers @manlyseaeagles & @adidasau for supporting me and giving me the opportunity to do what I love. It's TTFN & onto the next chapter of life.
A two-Test series between the Australian Schoolboys and England Academy generated plenty of interest as footy fans eagerly sought to learn more about the next generation of youngsters coming through the ranks.
New South Wales-based players dominated selections with 14 representatives in the 17-man squad including exciting Sharks prospect Blake Brailey, younger brother of Holden Cup Player of the Year Jayden Brailey.
The other notable inclusion was giant 16-year-old Payne Haas, the Keebra Park product recently signing a contract with the Brisbane Broncos.
They may have been able to lock fullback Lachlan Coote in for a further two seasons but in May Cowboys coach Paul Green was cognisant of the fact that it would be difficult to keep their premiership-winning roster together for a further season.
For the first time the same 17 that won the Telstra Premiership grand final lined up in the World Club Challenge in England but as contract talk swirled – particularly around prop James Tamou – Green faced the reality of roster management front on.
"We'd like to keep everyone and we are trying our best to do that, but the reality is that we probably won't keep everyone," Green said.
"Whether or not that's 'Jimmy' (Tamou) or whether it's someone else, it is part of the process."
With the prospect of going back-to-back or a grand final berth 20 years in the making, it's little wonder Cowboys and Sharks fans tuned into NRL.com's live match coverage en masse for their Preliminary Final showdown.
The Sharks were ruthless in the first half as they opened up a 14-0 lead but North Queensland supporters were given some hope when they scored first in the second term to bridge the gap to just eight points.
But three tries in the space of 14 minutes took the game away from the Cowboys and set the Sharks on their path to a maiden premiership crown.
Released from the final year of his contract with South Sydney in order to join the Catalans Dragons in France, Stewart was released just one year into his three-year deal in the Super League in order to return home to Australia for "family reasons".
Stewart played in all but two games for Catalans in 2016, topping the tackle count for the club with 1,026 tackles to go with five line breaks and 14 offloads.
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga ushered in the next generation of Australian representatives at this year's Four Nations tournament in England and for four members of the squad it was a matter of country before state.
Shannon Boyd, Valentine Holmes, Jake Friend and Jake Trbojevic have all now pulled on the green and gold before playing for Origin for either New South Wales or Queensland. All four have time to add Origin jerseys to their resumes but as Chris Kennedy discovered, there is a handy 13-man team of players from the Origin era who have played for Australia but never their state.
"The fact many players can come of age and potentially excel in a finals series right before a Kangaroo tour means often it is the right call to pick players who have yet to play Origin but sometimes, for whatever reason, those players may never end up playing Origin," Kennedy wrote.
Players lining up again in 2017 who made the team include Ben Hunt, Chris Lawrence, Alex Johnston and Sione Mata'utia.
The salary cap squeeze that invariably follows a premiership triumph looked as though it would claim its first scalp at the Cowboys in the form of fullback Lachlan Coote.
With pressure coming from below in the form of teen sensation Kalyn Ponga and a rich offer to return to Sydney and link with the Roosters, Coote looked certain to depart Townsville before North Queensland adjusted their offer and he made the decision to stay.
"I was very close [to leaving]. That was, I think, more before the Cowboys came to the table. I think as soon as they came to the table then my head was always here," Coote said.
"It was pretty tough [to reject the other offers], knowing that [the Roosters] were offering a four-year deal and there were only two years here.
"I would have regretted it way more, leaving here, than turning those offers away so I'm glad with my decision and I'm glad to be around these boys a lot more."
The National Youth Competition may have a doubtful future but the recognition of the outstanding players in each of the under-20s season is likely to become a great reference tool for the superstars of tomorrow.
The inaugural 2008 team of the year contained such modern stars as Ben Hunt, Ben Matulino, Ben Barba, Lachlan Coote and Jordan Rapana and the class of 2016 has already begun to make their mark in the top grade.
Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys), Joseph Manu (Roosters), Nat Butcher (Roosters), Luciano Leilua (Dragons) and Jaydn Su'A (Broncos) all made immediate impacts in their top-grade debuts and are destined for bigger and better in 2017.
Panthers coach Cameron Ciraldo was named Coach of the Year for the second year in succession.