Top 100 stories of 2016 50-41
As we reach the top half of our countdown of the top 100 stories of 2016 Jarryd Hayne gets his head around sudden NRL return, the Dally M Medal is split two ways, Sam Burgess suffers neck scare and our ratings of the Blues from Origin II.
Little more than 48 hours after agreeing to join the Gold Coast Titans and make his return to the NRL, Jarryd Hayne was still coming to terms with the possibility that his first game of rugby league in 701 days would come that Sunday.
Fronting the media ahead of his first field session with his new team, a decision on whether Hayne would play against the Warriors was still to be made but the former NFL player and Fiji rugby hopeful showed that unmistakable belief that he was up to the challenge.
"It does take a bit of time getting back into the swing of things but there's no other way to do it than just getting thrown in there and doing my best," Hayne said.
"I'm under no illusions that it's going to take time. Mentally I feel good and just watching tape last night on both teams and hopefully when I get out there the muscle memory takes over and I can get back to playing footy."
How did he fare? That comes later in this list.
Even the photo could have caught a few Sharkies fans out with this story on Andrew Fifita's twin brother David being released to join Wakefield in the English Super League.
Fifita played 19 NRL games for the Sharks across three seasons before joining Wakefield mid-season, going on to play 13 games across all competitions for the Wildcats and earning a contract extension taking him through until the end of the 2017 season.
You know it's a good finals clash when as soon as the final whistle blows fans and media types are predicting a rematch in the grand final in three weeks' time.
That was the case when the Storm hosted the Cowboys in Week One of the finals, a runaway try to four-point freak Suliasi Vunivalu sealing a six-point win for the home side and direct passage into the preliminary final.
The major talking points were the premiership-quality defence exhibited by both teams, costly errors by the Cowboys and how 21,233 fans created a piece of Melbourne rugby league history at AAMI Park.
One thrives on precision, the other on raw power but after 26 absorbing weeks the two best players of 2016 could not be separated.
For the second time in three years the Dally M Medal was shared by two players with Melbourne half Cooper Cronk and Cowboys lock forward Jason Taumalolo each attracting 26 votes from the judges over the course of the season.
The top 10 Dally M vote-getters were: Cooper Cronk (Storm) and Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys) 26 votes; Cameron Smith (Storm) and Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys) 22 votes; Ryan James (Titans) and Anthony Milford (Broncos) 19 votes; Mitchell Moses (Wests Tigers) and Josh Hodson (Raiders) 18 votes; Corey Norman (Eels) and Ben Barba (Sharks) 17 votes.
The other big winner on the night was Canberra centre Jarrod Croker who limped home with his ankle in a moon boot holding the awards for Captain of the Year, the Provan Summons People's Choice award and the award for top points-scorer.
Kezie Apps was named Female Player of the Year.
Rabbitohs fans, turn away now.
Everyone likes to believe that their team has the toughest draw in the NRL – and let's face it, there's no such thing as an easy draw – but our resident number-cruncher Dominic Brock applied what will surely prove to be a foolproof method to rank each team's 2017 draw in terms of toughness.
Apportioning points on the basis of finish after 26 rounds this season (ie Melbourne were worth 16 points, Newcastle 1 point) and premiership betting for 2017, we added them together to calculate who has it tough in the season ahead.
For the record, for 2016 we said that the Dragons, Cowboys, Bulldogs, Roosters, Broncos, Eels, Rabbitohs and Warriors had the eight toughest draws and only two of those teams made it past Week Two of the finals.
His return from 12 months in rugby union was seen as a boon to the game and South Sydney's saviour so when Sam Burgess went down in the 52nd minute of the Rabbitohs' Round 3 clash with the Dragons with what became apparent was a neck injury the game as a collective held its breath.
We have learnt the hard way how quickly tackles can go horribly wrong and in this case what was most frightening was the seemingly innocuous way the injury occurred.
In attempting to burrow over the Dragons' try-line Burgess ducked his head at impact, went to ground and didn't get up. For a man who had shown great courage to play through the pain of a fractured cheekbone to be named Clive Churchill medallist in the 2014 Grand Final to stay down in the manner in which he did sent a sense of dread throughout the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Referee Maxwell suggesting Burgess is moving his legs. Hopefully that's a good sign. Tense scenes here #NRLDragonsSouths— Chris Kennedy (@CKennedy80) March 20, 2016
Thankfully the news only got better as it filtered through throughout the afternoon and evening and the charismatic talisman would miss only the one game before returning to the field.
With the series lost for a ninth time in the past 10 years and still a game to play New South Wales fans had to look long and hard to find the silver lining in their dark Origin cloud.
But if you looked hard enough they were there after a new-look team had gone down by 10 points at Suncorp Stadium and having chances to win literally slip through the fingers of Michael Jennings.
Tyson Frizell and Jack Bird both impressed in their maiden Origin appearances but there were a number of players who received scores they would hope to never replicate in the Origin arena again.
The first in three meetings between these teams saw the defending champs open their premiership defence against the team who would become kings.
Ever since their thrilling win over the Broncos the previous October the Cowboys had shared their premiership success with the people of North Queensland and more than 15,000 turned out at 1300SMILES Stadium in Townsville to see the champs begin with a win.
The recent history between the Cowboys and Sharks had been littered with semi-final drama and after the Cowboys won this one 20-14 and the Sharks the return match 13-10 in Round 14 they would meet one more time with a grand final spot on the line.
The build-up could only have been rivalled by Sonny Bill Williams' first game for the Roosters in Round 1, 2013 and with his first involvement in close to two years Jarryd Hayne made a thunderous statement to the rugby league world.
Such was the interest in Hayne's first game for Gold Coast that Fox Sports employed 'Hayne Cam' which for 28 minutes featured him variously sitting on the bench, doing stretches on the sidelines or running up and down the touchline.
After two years chasing dreams and five days with his new club we juggled expectation with reality and wrestled with everything in between yet after rejoining the NRL stage in the 28th minute of the Titans' Round 22 clash with the Warriors at five-eighth he delivered more than we could have possibly dreamed.
He floored a runaway Bodene Thompson with a try-saving tackle and then with his first touch soared above the Warriors defence to claim a bomb and deliver an offload that would ultimately lead to a try.
"He came on and had some really good touches," said Titans skipper Ryan James. "He didn't look out of shape at all. He got his good rest, had a good little kicking game and good passing game and he was electric at stages."
And there was even better to come a week later.
The start of a representative campaign is an exciting time in any season so the team at NRL.com took a shot at the Kangaroos squad we thought Mal Meninga would select in his first Test as Kangaroos coach in May's Anzac Test against New Zealand.
Unlike the end-of-season Four Nations squad there were few surprises but, for the record, yours truly got the closest to Meninga's final squad with only two differences.
See if you can spot who I didn't select but who made Mal's team photo: 1 Darius Boyd, 2 Josh Dugan, 3 Greg Inglis, 4 Michael Jennings, 5 Semi Radradra, 6 Johnathan Thurston, 7 Cooper Cronk, 8 Matt Scott, 9 Cameron Smith, 10 Paul Gallen, 11 Matt Gillett, 12 Greg Bird, 13 Corey Parker. Interchange: 14 Michael Morgan, 15 James Tamou, 16 Sam Thaiday, 17 Josh Papalii.