Top 100 stories of 2016: 60-51
The back-half of our countdown of the year's most-viewed articles rounds out with our Auckland Nines predictions, announcement of the teams for the Pacific Tests, a disappointed Ben Hunt on Kevin Walters' decision and reaction of Eels players to the address by NRL CEO Todd Greenberg regarding salary cap punishments.
There's nothing quite like finals time to ignite the interest of fans and the Elimination Final showdown between the Panthers and Bulldogs on a Sunday afternoon in Sydney had footy fans in the west abuzz.
Would the Panther cubs and their brazen skill be able to handle the intensity that comes with finals football against a team of hardened veterans well versed in getting the job done at the most important time of the year?
We pondered the influence the two No.1s would have on the game and the timely return of Sam Kasiano for the Bulldogs and ultimately settled on a Penrith victory by just two points.
(We should have known the kids would love playing on the big stage.)
How do you predict the unpredictable? In the case of our fearless predictions ahead of the 2016 Downer Auckland Nines you take a wild stab and hope that no one ever goes back to check on them.
When the Cowboys named virtually their grand final squad plus Matt Bowen many of us tipped them to win a second Nines title while eventual runners-up the Warriors were prominent in the conversation.
Chris Kennedy does deserve some credit for suggesting that the Eels would be one of the surprise packets and that Bevan French one of the young players to burst onto the scene in the shortened format.
At least we got something right.
This guy @bevanfrench plays at number one, is our number one try scorer of the tournament, played in his first #nrlakl9s final this year and collected first place honours in our team of the tournament! Not too forget the @theparraeels are the first game up this season to boot!! It's only right we celebrate the 1st day of March high fiving the 20 year old up and coming @nrl star! 👊 #march2016 #3days #togo
It's one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the rugby league calendar now and just who would be lining up for the Pacific nations on the Representative Round weekend garnered plenty of interest.
Former Titans pair David Mead and Nene Macdonald added their NRL experience to a Papua New Guinea team dominated by players from the PNG Hunters Intrust Super Cup team while their opponents, Fiji, had a wealth of first grade experience.
Frank Pritchard and Sika Manu were granted releases from their Super League clubs to lead Samoa and Tonga respectively and once again all four teams put on an exhilarating and emotion-charged display of Test footy.
As the Eels looked to pick up the pieces from their mismanagement of the salary cap it became increasingly likely that veteran fullback Michael Gordon would not be featuring in their plans.
With the emergence of Bevan French and need to trim more players from their list to be salary cap compliant Gordon found himself on the outer, the Roosters announcing his signing to a one-year deal less than a week later.
With the State of Origin Shield safely ensconced in Queensland for another year in Kevin Walters' first season in charge, talk began to circle that he might return to the Broncos for the later stages of the season to work with the club's finals-bound halves.
Seen as a key influence in Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford taking their team all the way to the grand final in 2015, Walters was asked to step down from his role as an assistant coach by Wayne Bennett once he was awarded the Maroons mentorship.
Bennett had kept the door open for Walters' return in future and the decision not to invite him back into the fold was one that disappointed Hunt.
"I've always got a lot out of Kevin when he's come in and helped us out, especially when he was here fulltime last year," Hunt said.
"I was a little bit disappointed when I heard the news that we weren’t getting him back."
A scoreless second half, a try apiece and yet it was the Queenslanders who again snuck home in a tight contest in Game One that would ultimately set up their series win.
Four Blues made their debuts in the series opener and we ranked one of them as their side's best in the 6-4 loss.
Not the last time Corey Norman found himself in trouble in 2016 but on this occasion Eels coach Brad Arthur thought his five-eighth may have been hard done by.
Winners over the Cowboys at home in Round 2, the Eels were down 14-0 early in Townsville in Round 8 before fighting their way back into the contest to lead 16-14 inside the final 15 minutes.
Norman was sin-binned in the 66th minute for interference on Michael Morgan as his Cowboys opposite chased a kick into the in-goal, Johnathan Thurston levelling the scores with the subsequent penalty goal.
"I just need to ask [Tony Archer] what the ruling is and if it is going to happen continually," Arthur said.
"It's disappointing, with 14 or 15 minutes to go, that we couldn’t see two really good teams fight it out to see who could get on top at the end.
"Everyone has been robbed of a good game of football."
The cloud that hung over the Eels for the opening nine weeks of the season reached something of a conclusion on May 3 when NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and the Head of the Integrity Unit Nick Weeks informed the players directly of the club's punishment.
With six wins from their first nine games of 2016 and a long-awaited trophy courtesy of the Auckland Nines, Parramatta players and supporters were in high spirits before Greenberg issued the NRL's punishment to dock the club all 12 competition points accrued to that point and a fine of $1 million.
"I was desperate to make sure that Nick and I faced them face-to-face this morning and they found out this news from us directly," Greenberg said.
"I feel really sorry for the players. This is a really difficult time. They've worked really hard… they've played some great footy. But I've got a duty and the game has a duty to represent 16 clubs and 16 groups of fans and that's what we've done today."
The champion Cronulla Sharks were never going to pass up a chance to fly to England and prove themselves to be the best rugby league club team on the planet and once the Broncos agreed to another pre-season trip to the UK the Dacia World Club Series was finalised.
The Sharks will play Super League champions Wigan on February 19 while the Broncos line up against the Warrington Wolves on February 18.
Interestingly, the Sharks and Broncos will play each other in their only trial prior to their departure in Redcliffe on February 4.
Famous for having his Rabbitohs player number 1070 tattooed on his neck, the incredible coincidence that had Chris McQueen becoming the 107th player for the Titans was thrown into question by the late inclusion of John Olive for Round 1 against the Knights.
When the Gold Coast team was announced on Tuesday McQueen was heralded as the club's 107th representative but the withdrawal of Will Zillman saw another former Rabbitoh, John Olive, brought in on the wing.
At some clubs that would have pushed McQueen to player number 108 but as the Titans assign player numbers based on their jersey number, No.11 McQueen maintained his place ahead of No.20 Olive.
McQueen, Olive, Leivaha Pulu, Nathan Davis, Tyrone Roberts, Ashley Taylor, David Shillington and Zeb Taia all made their debuts for the Titans in Round 1 with Taia becoming the 300th Gold Coast player to play first grade since the introduction of the Giants back in 1988.