Billy Slater with the NRL trophy after the Storm's grand final win.
Billy Slater with the NRL trophy after the Storm's grand final win. DAN HIMBRECHTS

'Big Three' complete an unprecedented treble

WILL the rugby league world ever see a trio like this again?

Melbourne, Queensland and Australia's Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater swept all before them this year, claiming the NRL, Origin and World Cup crowns in an unprecedented Big Three three-peat.

For Smith, season 2017 only confirmed his status as an Immortal-in-waiting. The hooker, who turned 34 in June and has now played more NRL games than anyone else, claimed his second Dally M Medal as the league's best player, capping what was a dominant individual year.

For Slater, it was a triumphant return to rugby league after playing only eight games the previous two seasons due to shoulder issues. He proved time and again he has lost little of his speed, footwork and ability to read the game. Like Smith, Slater - who turns 35 next year - has recommitted to the Storm for 2018.

And for Cronk, the triple crown was a fitting way to end his time as part of the Big Three. The halfback sensationally announced in April that he would be leaving Melbourne to be with his partner Tara Rushton in Sydney, and after the World Cup triumph announced his retirement from rep football. He will line up for the Roosters next season.

"They're just reliable," Cronk said of Smith and Slater after the Storm's grand final win. "I don't think Cameron Smith's thrown me a bad pass in his entire career. I don't think Billy's ever let me down in terms of hearing a voice left or right. He's always popping up on the spot.

"I like to think that we inspire each other to keep working hard. Unfortunately this is the last day we get to do it all together but as long as there's (coach) Craig Bellamy, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater at Melbourne Storm, there's good times ahead."

To focus on the achievements of Smith, Slater and Cronk without mentioning their teammates would be unfair - rising star Cameron Munster, for one, was also a part of the winning Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos squads - but the fairytale of the Big Three was the year's biggest story in rugby league.

 

Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrate victory over the Cowboys during the NRL grand final.
Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrate victory over the Cowboys during the NRL grand final. DAN HIMBRECHTS

The perfect Storm

Melbourne were peerless in the NRL season, losing only four games on their way to wrapping up the minor premiership by six competition points.

And there was no relenting come finals, downing the Eels in week one before sweeping the Broncos aside 30-0 in the preliminary final to book their spot in the decider.

Awaiting them were North Queensland, who surpassed many's expectations by even reaching the grand final.

The Cowboys barely scraped into the top eight - relying on the Bulldogs beating the Dragons in the final round of the regular season - but, led by powerhouse forward Jason Taumalolo and rapidly maturing half Michael Morgan, they strung together an inspired run to the decider by knocking out the defending champion Sharks and then the highly fancied Eels and Roosters.

But without injured stars Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, overcoming the rampant Storm proved too much of an ask for the Cowboys.

Led by the Big Three, the Storm ran away with a dominant 34-6 win to claim their first title in five years, with Slater claiming the Clive Churchill Medal.

"It was great reward for him, not just being in a winning side but to win the Clive Churchill after what he has been through in the last couple of years," coach Craig Bellamy said of Slater.

"It is outstanding. I couldn't be more happier for him. Like I said, it is an example of hard workers getting lucky."

 

Cameron Smith reacts with an emotional Johnathan Thurston following State of Origin game three.
Cameron Smith reacts with an emotional Johnathan Thurston following State of Origin game three. DAVE HUNT

Blues blow it

For a game-and-a-half of the 2017 State of Origin series, NSW looked almost certain to win back the coveted crown.

But after dominating game one and taking a 10-0 lead into half-time of game two, a Thurston-inspired Queensland rallied to take the second game and force a decider back in Brisbane.

Almost inevitably, and even without injured superstars Thurston, Scott, Darius Boyd and Greg Inglis, the Maroons then monstered NSW in game three, clinching the decider 22-6 to clinch Queensland's 11th win in 12 series.

It was the epic game two that proved the turning point, with Thurston - who missed the rest of the season after injuring his shoulder in the clash - steering home a sideline conversion with just minutes remaining to seal a 18-16 win.

Afterwards, Blues great Andrew Johns was scathing of NSW's performance.

"That's the dumbest half of football NSW have ever played," he said on Channel Nine.

In the fallout from the series loss, Blues stars Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan were heavily criticised for going on a drinking spree at Lennox Head six days before the decider.

Laurie Daley was later dumped as NSW coach, with former Blues great Brad Fittler to take the helm next year of a team desperately needing direction off the field as much as on it.

 

Australia celebrates winning the Rugby League World Cup.
Australia celebrates winning the Rugby League World Cup. DARREN ENGLAND

Roo beauty

The triumph of the Kangaroos in the Rugby League World Cup might have been little shock, but the tournament did still manage to include its fair share of surprises.

Chief among those was the failure of the Kiwis to make the semi-finals. David Kidwell's men were defeated in the group stage by a Tonga team featuring Taumalolo - who switched allegiances from New Zealand on the eve of the tournament - before Fiji knocked them out in the quarter-finals in an epic 4-2 arm-wrestle in Wellington.

Ireland proved to be the biggest surprise packets, claiming two strong wins and losing only to PNG, yet the men in green still missed the last eight due to the inexplicable quirks of the tournament format.

And the final itself, played between the Kangaroos and the Wayne Bennett-coached England, proved to be perhaps the biggest surprise of all.

Written off by many, the English stood toe-to-toe with Mal Meninga's team of superstars, bravely battling for 80minutes before falling 6-0 in a game of true quality.

After the game, Kangaroos try-scorer Boyd Cordner revealed how much international rugby league meant to him.

"To get a win on home soil and actually play it in it and get the win - it's been a long season and it makes it all worthwhile. It's pretty special," he said. "You don't take this for granted, every time you play for your country. Me personally, it means the world to me to pull on this green and gold jersey. It means the world to my family and to represent where I come from."

 

Kezie Apps of the Jillaroos (right) hugs a teammate as they celebrate winning the Women's Rugby League World Cup final.
Kezie Apps of the Jillaroos (right) hugs a teammate as they celebrate winning the Women's Rugby League World Cup final. DAN PELED

Women's watershed

The Jillaroos made it a one-two for the Australians in the World Cup, defeating New Zealand 23-16 in the decider.

The result - which was sealed by a clutch Caitlin Moran field goal just 30 seconds from full-time - was a fitting farewell for retiring Australian greats Renae Kunst and Steph Hancock.

"To win a World Cup and to go out on your own terms is what players dream of," Kunst said after the win. "I was lucky enough to do that. I don't think you can top that."

It proved to be a defining year for women's rugby league, the NRL announcing the introduction in 2018 of a six-team competition featuring 40 centrally contracted Jillaroos stars and match payments for all other players.

"For the first time, there will be a dedicated pathway for our women to follow - from grassroots junior league, to state competitions, and on to premiership matches and representative Origin and Test match opportunities," NRL boss Todd Greenberg said.

"The women's game has become an attraction in its own right and anyone who has seen the Jillaroos in action cannot help but be impressed by the skills and athleticism on display."

 

Jarryd Hayne looks on during the round 25 NRL match between the Titans and Bulldogs.
Jarryd Hayne looks on during the round 25 NRL match between the Titans and Bulldogs. DAVE HUNT

Hayne pain

When former NFL player Jarryd Hayne joined the Gold Coast midway through last season, he made clear his disappointment that he wasn't returning to his former side Parramatta.

"I never thought I'd be playing for another club," Hayne said. "Making this decision hurts but you have to move forward. I was put in this situation.

"I always saw myself at Parra and in a way I'm sorry because the club means a lot to me. But I wanted to play footy and I waited as long as I could to get a formal offer."

So was anyone really surprised when Hayne was released by the Titans last month under a "mutually agreed" decision, walking straight back into the waiting arms of the Eels?

Hayne has signed a one-year deal with Parramatta for a reported $500,000 a season - a far cry from the $1.2 million a year he was earning at the Titans.

Despite still being contracted to the Gold Coast, Hayne told the club he wished to leave to be closer to his young daughter in NSW.

Not surprisingly, Hayne's move has been slammed.

"To be honest, I think the whole thing stinks. I think there's a smell about this," league expert Paul Kent said.

"I don't see how the NRL can justify Jarryd Hayne taking a $1.2 million deal, walking out on it and being allowed to get under the cap at Parramatta for $500,000. No concept of me can figure out why that's a fair deal."

Hayne's defection would no doubt have compounded the misery of former Titans coach Neil Henry, who was shown the door in August after a public falling out with Hayne.

While club boss Graham Annesley denied the sacking was a direct result of their spat, he admitted it played a part in the final decision.

"In the media it's been focused on a head-to-head issue with Jarryd, but that was really just the catalyst for the board that meant it needed to be addressed before the end of the season," he admitted.

Former Panthers assistant Garth Brennan will lead the Gold Coast next year.

 

Former Bulldogs coach Des Hasler.
Former Bulldogs coach Des Hasler. PAUL MILLER

Dog days

Aside from the Titans, two other NRL clubs will go into the new season with new coaches.

The Rabbitohs showed the door to 2014 premiership mentor Michael Maguire after the side finished 12th the past two seasons. Anthony Seibold, a former assistant to Maguire, will take the reins in 2018. And then there was the sacking of Des Hasler by the Bulldogs.

He was punted after his side failed to make the finals, with former club star Dean Pay in the hot seat next year.

But the Hasler issue looks set to drag on, with two-time premiership mentor suing the NRL club for breach of contract after reportedly signing a new two-year deal earlier this year.

It comes amid a raft of changes for the club, with fan favourites James Graham and Josh Reynolds departing and Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran coming in.

Hasler's case is now heading for the Supreme Court, while Pay will have to turn around a club that, according to Dogs legend Steve Mortimer, has been "losing our DNA".

 

Star Newcastle Knights signing Mitchell Pearce.
Star Newcastle Knights signing Mitchell Pearce. DARREN PATEMAN

Trading places

While 2017 was a tough year for wooden-spooners Newcastle, there is reason for optimism at the club.

After being pushed out by the arrival of Cronk at the Roosters, the Knights swooped on Mitchell Pearce.

The NSW halfback will join rising star Kalyn Ponga, fellow former Roosters Connor Watson and Aidan Guerra, and ex-Broncos Tautau Moga and Herman Ese'ese, among others, in what promises to be the most improved team in season 2018.

Elsewhere, other clubs will also be hoping for the best from their new recruits. The Broncos will welcome NSW star Jack Bird while saying farewell to Ben Hunt (Dragons). Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan will be hoping to take the Sharks back to the top of the pile, while James Maloney switches places with Moylan by moving to Penrith. And the Roosters will be hoping their big-money move for fullback James Tedesco and Cronk will help them go all the way.

But expect the Storm - who have lost Cronk, Tohu Harris (Warriors) and Jordan McLean (Cowboys) but picked up Sam Kasiano and former star Ryan Hoffman - to again be the team to beat in 2018, as they seek to become the first team this century to go back-to-back.



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