It was a comfortable March night. The day had been a warm 26 degrees but with the sun dipping below the horizon, the temperature dropped to a comfortable 20 degrees by kick off.
It was short sleeve weather and Bankwest Stadium was packed to witness the start of the 2020 NRL season. The Parramatta Eels would take on traditional rivals the Canterbury Bulldogs in a slugfest that would see the blue and gold emerge victorious 8-2.
But what everyone in that crowd of 21,363 wasn’t to know, was just what lay around the corner for the rest of the year.
The pandemic had first been detected in late 2019 and became headline news in January 2020. Cases began to filter around the world throughout the end of summer and while numbers began to steadily rise in February in the US and cases were detected in Australia, there was a form of nonchalance around society at the time.
At Bankwest Stadium, no one seemed overly concerned about a virus that was quickly becoming a pandemic and the most deadly spread of disease in a century.
Round one would be the only round of the 2020 NRL season completely untouched by the virus.
The following week teams would be playing behind closed doors for the first time in the game’s history before the season was suspended from the 24th March to 27th May.
The very competition was put at financial risk, players entered bubbles as society locked down and, for the first time in the game’s history, fields and training facilities fell silent mid-season.
Enter Peter V’landys. The new ARL Commissioner took it on himself to get the competition back up and running as quickly as possible.
Forming the Project Apollo coronavirus taskforce, the game considered the advice of health professionals and balanced them with the need to restart the game.
Players and clubs agreed to wage cuts, while lower grade competitions were cancelled and players were confined to their homes and training facilities.
V’landys’ decisions weren’t without criticism. He cut the number of referees virtually in half, he renegotiated a broadcast deal for significantly less money than what the NRL already had in writing and he changed the rules mid-season.
But through everything, the game resumed on 28th May, albeit without crowds. But the NRL’s success saw it become one of the only sports underway around the world.
The rule changes
Peter V’landys oversaw the introduction of the six again rule. Allowing referees to award six more tackles for an infringement such as markers not square, slowing the play the ball and crowding the ruck.
The rule had an immediate impact, with teams on the right side of the referees getting an almost unstoppable roll on and fatigue becoming even more pronounced.
Captains were also permitted to select on which side of the field a scrum could be packed, opening the game up to more set plays and more tries from scrums.
Added to this was perhaps the most controversial decision of all. The adoption of the captain’s challenge from round one.
At first captains were using them as a hit and hope tactic. Hoping, often in vain, to overturn a 50/50 call. As the season went on, it became clear the smart captains either used them when they were sure of overturning a decision, or late in the game to slow the opposition.
While the six again and captain’s challenge may need some refining, they were seen as fairly positive additions to the game. The captain’s challenge in particular allowed some pressure to come off referees given captains could ask for a review if they truly felt they were aggrieved.
Much was made of the bubble throughout the year. Players were mostly kept at home, training or at games the entire season.
It was a successful system, with not a single player, coach or official testing positive for the virus across the season.
The competition adapted continuously to comply with state health directives.
The Warriors made the biggest sacrifice of all, basing themselves in Tamworth and then Terrigal for the entirety of the season in order to ensure the competition could be completed given the travel ban in place in New Zealand.
Without the Warriors sacrifice, the season would not have been able to take place.
Melbourne ended up in a similar position to the Warriors by the middle of the year with Victoria placed in a second lockdown. The Storm headed to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, playing out much of the season from their second home and winning the premiership.
Canberra too had early travel problems with the club being forced to commute for 12 hours a day on game days given they weren’t allowed to play at home for the first portion of the season.
Bubble breaches did occur. Nathan Cleary’s infamous TikTok earned him a hefty fine, suspension and talking to from NSW Police while almost killing off his Dally M chances.
Paul Vaughan and Wayne Bennett headed out to a cafe while Tevita Pangai Junior disregarded rules for a haircut.
The NRL came down hard on those who broke the rules, but ultimately NRL players behaved themselves in the bubble. Unlike their AFL counterparts, some of whom thought it was a good idea to drive while intoxicated.
The Penrith Panthers were the surprise packet of the year.
They finished minor premiers, winning 18 consecutive matches. They weren’t expected to do anything like that. They were tipped for finals but with such a young team, few thought they’d be challenging the likes of the Roosters and Storm, let alone beating both of them.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they tasted defeat for only the second time in the season against the Melbourne Storm.
Overawed by a first half where everything went right for Melbourne, they had too much to do by the end of the game despite closing the gap to a single try by full time.
Perhaps they now share something in common with cross-town rivals Parramatta when it comes to finishing runaway minor premiers and then crashing and burning in the first half of the grand final.
Somewhere, in a vacant commentary box though, Phil Gould still thinks Penrith is on top.
The Warriors have already been mentioned, but they deserve a second one.
While in Australia and only four games into the resumption of the season, Stephen Kearney was sacked as head coach, replaced by Todd Payten.
Plenty would have expected a team a long way from home, down on players, requiring loanees and support staff to fill in at training, to roll over.
Far from that, they seemed to improve with each game, eventually finishing within four points of eighth place.
On the Gold Coast, the Titans began a resurgence under new head coach Justin Holbrook who guided the side to ninth after coming dead last in 2019.
The side grew into the season and with a number of big name acquisitions for 2021 in David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui are seemingly set for a tilt at the finals.
At the other end of the table and the Bulldogs were gallant in defeat for a lot of the season.
They struggled to score points especially when Kieran Foran was injured and eventually Dean Pay was given his marching orders. Trent Barrett was signed for 2021 and began recruiting fairly quickly with Jack Hetherington, Nick Cotric and Matt Burton all heading to Belmore next year.
The Brisbane Broncos experienced the season from hell, finishing stone cold last for the first time in their history and seeing Anthony Seibold sacked just 18 months after being recruited to replace Wayne Bennett.
Seibold’s side lacked cohesion, commitment and at times, seemingly any will to be on the field, with the Broncos regularly being put to the sword by their opponents and suffering a record-setting defeat of 59-0 at the hands of the Roosters.
And an NRL season just wouldn’t be complete without some Sonny Bill Williams action. The 35 year old returned for his third stint in the 13 man code, this time finishing one match short of a third grand final and possible premiership.
Harry Grant headlined the 2020 rookies. Courtesy of a loan move to the Wests Tigers, the crafty rake quickly lit up the competition and showed there is a future for Melbourne whenever Cameron Smith departs.
He went from NRL rookie to Origin rookie, making his debut in the game three decider at Suncorp Stadium and bagging himself a try.
Charlie Staines for the Panthers set the record books ablaze with his stunning debut. The lightning quick winger bagged five tries and almost bankrupted his local pub after it ran a free beer promotion for each try Staines scored.
While Staines enjoyed his debut as a teenager, Parramatta’s Andrew Davey ran out as an NRL player for the first time at the age of 28.
His story was one of persistence and dedication with a side of fortune. He was about to head home to Queensland to pick up some work given he wasn’t earning enough to live in Sydney and teammates were helping him with his rent before Brad Arthur handed him his first NRL jersey. Davey would finish the season with 10 NRL games and a new contract with the Manly Sea Eagles.
State of Origin
Played at the end of the year, it didn’t feel like Origin. The games, particularly game one, lacked speed and intensity brought about by the fact many players hadn’t played in at least a month.
Peter V’landys recognised the futility of trying to play future series after the grand final, with the 2021 series returning to its usual mid-year slot.
Queensland enjoyed success for the first time in three years in both the men’s and women’s games.
Wayne Bennett conjured what some termed a miracle series win with many of the Maroons’ best and brightest unavailable. Then again the only people really disrespecting Queensland were known morons Dean Ritchie and Paul Gallen who seemed to be stirring the pot for reasons known only to them.
For NSW, Brad Fittler still hasn’t settled on a halves pairing and his squad selection was repeatedly called into question when he left himself without a utility in game three and fullback James Tedesco was concussed.
Meanwhile in the women’s game, Queensland reinforced why they were named favourites with a late NSW flurry unable to overcome the Maroons’ bright start. It was Queensland’s first win in the women’s Origin format.
Plenty of questions remain for the 2021 season.
At the time of writing a number of vaccines are in the latter stages of testing yet most experts believe they won’t be available until the middle of the year.
Australia and New Zealand though have opened a travel bubble with both nations seemingly controlling the virus and virtually eliminating communal spread.
By the end of the year Suncorp Stadium was packed out with 50,000 fans. Something considered a pipe dream when the season was suspended.
The questions mainly revolve around the Warriors and whether regular travel will be permitted between Australia and New Zealand.
Also on the agenda is the future of the referees. Bernard Sutton has departed after an oft-criticised tenure as referees boss.
While referee numbers were cut, there is seemingly more support for the game to return to its two referee system in order for the six again rule to be better enforced.
There are also suggestions of the loan system becoming a permanent fixture in the NRL with clubs able to send players to rival clubs in order for those players to gain valuable first grade experience.
The deal between the Tigers and Melbourne saw Harry Grant go from third string at Melbourne to Queensland debutant.
The NRL, for all of its faults, came out of the 2020 season looking like one of the more professional sports in the world.
A broadcast deal, paid players, no positive COVID tests, a completed season and a solitary postponed game is a situation the likes of the Super League and NFL could only dream of.
Just don’t tell Peter FitzSimons how well the NRL handled the pandemic. His bandana might explode.