Year in review: Middo's highlights of 2016
For 30 years renowned rugby league historian and statistician David Middleton has been cataloguing and commenting history as it happens and he says that 2016 will be remembered for Cronulla's drought-breaker, a rivalry unlike any other and the continued emergence of the women's game.
The 2016 edition of the Rugby League Annual is on sale now at newsagents around the country and charts the Sharks' historic premiership, names the top five players of the year, details every game from every round along with comprehensive season reviews of all 16 clubs and the incredible story of 1909 Kangaroo Charlie Ross that took 10 years of research to uncover.
That the Sharks were able to win their maiden first grade premiership in their 50th season gave an Australian contribution to an incredible year of world sport in which Leicester defied incredible odds to win the English Premier League, the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA crown and the Chicago Cubs broke a 71-year Curse of the Billy Goat to win their first World Series since 1908.
Most notably from Cronulla's point of view according to Middleton was their climbing the mountain only a couple of years after extinction looked a distinct possibility.
"A year or two back we would have said a premiership is as far away as it had ever been for Cronulla but they fitted into the mood of the world in 2016," Middleton told NRL.com.
But as for any preordained destiny, Middleton takes a more pragmatic approach to Cronulla's success, understandable for a man that revels in facts and figures.
"As we got closer to the grand final it was becoming inevitable that they were the team that was in the right position to win it," Middleton says.
"They had such a really well balanced team, they didn't have injuries, they had the speed out wide and experience in the forwards and the fact that they won that semi-final against Canberra without Paul Gallen and Wade Graham got injured early, everything kind of fell into place perfectly for them.
"They got to play that Preliminary Final in Sydney against a Cowboys team that was just out on their feet. They were shattered the night that they lost to Melbourne and I think it was the realisation that they were going to have to go the hard route again to win the premiership.
"They did manage to beat Brisbane the following week but anything that was remotely left was gone after that."
It was North Queensland's Semi-Final win against Brisbane that Middleton rates as one of the greatest he has ever seen in rugby league and put the punctuation mark on a modern rivalry that Middleton says will live long in the memory.
"When [Corey] Oates scored after [Darius] Boyd made the break-out run, they were the only two Broncos players who were physically there," Middleton recalled.
"It didn't leave you wanting for much after that. It had so many great elements and great moments.
"It was one of the great games that I've seen and the fact that they continue to produce these spine-tingling finishes is incredible.
"Three of the four were golden point and the other was a last-ditch field goal by [Johnathan] Thurston when he'd been smashed in a tackle.
"It's impossible to go past those as the great moments of the year. At international, Origin and club level, I think those contests will stand the test of time.
"We'll be talking about the Broncos and the Cowboys contests of 2016 for many, many years to come."
This year also saw the women's game take considerable strides on and off the field. With cricket, soccer and AFL all progressing with professional competitions for women, rugby league is not that far behind, as evidenced by Cronulla and St George Illawarra playing a Nines game as a curtain-raiser to an NRL fixture late in the season.
With the continued development at international level Middleton sees 2016 as having the potential to be a pivotal year in the progression of the women's game.
"One of the features of the Annual is that every year I try to add something to it and this year we've added 24 team photos, which I think is an important historical record of what a team looked like in a particular year," said Middleton.
"There's the 16 NRL clubs, the four Four Nations teams, the two Origin teams and I've also included the Jillaroos and the Kiwi Ferns, so that is some sort of recognition for the women's game.
"In years gone by the quality of the football wasn't quite there but I think in 2016, the quality of football that they are playing is getting better all the time.
"It was probably a watershed year for women's football and I think it will be seen as a pivotal year and with the World Cup next year that momentum will continue to grow."
The 2016 Rugby League Annual is on sale now at newsagents.