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Players, take a bow: It takes dedication to navigate choppy 2021 waters

The 2021 season has been challenging on several fronts and there were a few times when the NRL was in real danger of not going ahead so it's time for the players to take a bow on the eve of the grand final.

This season has certainly been a memorable one and not always for the right reasons, given just how much rugby league has been through and how it continues to be affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the seemingly never-ending obstacles, it has been a competition full of highlights but none of this would have been possible without the commitment and dedication of our players.

In just a couple of days the curtain will close on season 2021 with South Sydney or Penrith being crowned premiers.

There was some incredible talent on show in our game this year. Rookies like Sam Walker, Jayden Campbell and Reece Walsh impressed with their ability on the field.

Keeping the game going

Even more incredible about the emergence of this next generation of player is just how capable they are, even with the interruptions to NSW and Queensland state competitions in 2020 and 2021.

Tom Trbojevic cemented himself as one of the most dominant players in our game, taking Manly from cellar dwellers to finals contenders throughout the course of the season and winning the Dally M Medal too.

Nathan Cleary has led the Panthers to consecutive grand finals and helped the NSW Blues to lift the State of Origin shield again.

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We also said farewell to some fan favourites at the end of the year with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Sia Soliola and Blake Ferguson announcing their rugby league retirements.

There were also some heartfelt moments. I remember Brad Arthur tearing up and hugging his son Jake after he made his debut for Parramatta, even managing to score a try.

This week, students from Keebra Park High performed a haka in Benji Marshall’s honour in an open training session on the Gold Coast.

There were significant milestones celebrated with Kasey Badger raising a century of games as an NRL touch judge. The Melbourne Storm equalled Eastern Suburbs' 19-game winning streak from 1975. Rueben Garrick also became the first player to score more than 300 points in a regular season.

Then on Sunday, another historical statistic may be toppled. In rugby league history, no team has ever won the premiership after conceding 50 points or more in a match. Will the Bunnies be the first team to do it?

This season has required tremendous sacrifice from many players forced to relocate - some away from friends and family.

I particularly think about the New Zealand Warriors who have basically spent the last two years in Australia with some still not knowing when they will be able to return home.

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It's also important to acknowledge all the staff connected to our footy teams who have worked so hard to make sure our season could be delivered in full.

In a few days, I will no doubt already be lamenting the fact that footy is done for the year and eagerly wait for season 2022.

Fortunately there is plenty to look forward to next year and with the World Cup in October and November, fans are likely to have footy to watch from February all the way to just a few weeks before Christmas.

Panthers v Rabbitohs - Grand final

To start the year, an expanded women’s footy calendar is something I can’t wait to see.

We are still waiting on confirmed dates, but before the men’s competition kicks off in March, the Telstra Women’s Premiership is set to have already been played in February.

With three new teams entering the competition including Parramatta, the Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle Knights there it’s a big moment for the women’s game as it continues its growth.

Grand final player focus: Nathan Cleary

With more women’s footy set to be played in 2022 than ever before, it is also a great opportunity to think critically about what the next steps are in the women’s game, particularly when it comes to pay.

I also can’t wait to start going to the footy again.

For me, so much of footy is about community and the people you share the experience with. While I am grateful to have watched from home, I missed the energy and the personality in the crowd.

When I go to home games to cheer on the Eels, I sit in the same bay every single week surrounded by the same people.

What binds me to these people is our love of footy and perhaps without footy, our paths would never have crossed.

I can’t wait to be reunited with my footy family next year and I’m already looking to round one next year where hopefully we will all be able to be in the stands together again.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.