NRL is flying high in 2024 but if this isn’t the best season ever, then which one is?


Many rugby league aficionados like Matthew Johns are saying this NRL season is the best year there’s been. 

Comparing seasons throughout the years is a lot like judging players, coaches and teams – it’s hard to get an accurate gauge on which one was truly the best. 

Objectivity cannot be achieved in what is a thoroughly subjective exercise. 

If you ask most fans they will say the best season was when their team won the premiership (if their club has indeed lifted the trophy or they’re an Eels fan of a certain vintage). 

Or the one where they fell in love with the sport in their formative years when footy results first started to mean more than they probably should. 

The NRL has been pointing to rises in crowds, TV ratings and memberships as evidence that the league is in a healthy state with the ARL Commission now claiming the sport is in rude financial health just a couple of years after suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe it out. 

In trying to decide whether the 2024 season could be “simply the best”, the devil is in the detail of less quantifiable metrics like playing standard, competition among teams, style of footy, refereeing and off-field dramas. 

If you include playing standard as a key metric in working out whether the NRL is at a high watermark or not, you pretty much have to exclude any year prior to 1988 when the competition started becoming anything more than a Sydney premiership with a couple of outposts in Canberra and Illawarra. 

Prior to the Broncos, Knights and dare they be mentioned, the Gold Coast Giants, coming into the big league, the premiership did not even have all the best players with many of them running around in the Brisbane ranks. 

And this may offend some of The Roar’s dear elder readers who look upon those days through rose-coloured glasses, but the playing standard of matches prior to expansion was nowhere near what it is today.

Sure, there were very skilful players who could conjure up attacking genius like Bob Fulton, Arthur Beetson and Reg Gasnier, as well as tough as nails competitors like John Raper, Tom Raudonikis and Ray Price.

(Photo by Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

But when you look at vision of matches from the black and white TV era or even the colourful days of the 1970s and ‘80s, it is like watching a different game, much more akin to rugby union than the modern league product.

And the fact of the matter is that it was played by part-timers, who were very good for their time, and the best of the best would dominate their peers but when it comes to fitness, athleticism and skills, they are simply not in the same league as their successors who had the benefit of full-time professionalism and the pay packets that come with it.

When it comes to playing standard, the current crop of stars stack up very well against any other season since the likes of Tim Sheens’ Canberra Raiders and Wayne Bennett’s Brisbane Broncos in the early 1990s turned the competition on its head while also accelerating its skill levels. 

If you compare the elite talents of 2024 like the playmaking ability of Nathan Cleary, the electrifying speed of Reece Walsh or the total package of a forward like Payne Haas, they lose nothing when you weigh them up against all-time greats at the same stage of their career.

But it’s the skill level of the run-of-the-mill players that gives the current players a leg-up over some of their predecessors. 

Even in an era where players are often pigeon-holed into specific roles on a certain side of the field, there appears to be more who are capable of adapting from playing in the middle of the ruck to an edge or filling in out in the centres. 

Someone like Siosifa Talakai at Cronulla may not seem apparent as the posterchild for the modern skilled player but he is an example of a footballer capable of crossing the three positions without much of a drop-off. 

Players across the field are bigger and faster than ever before so it is no longer a physical problem for backs to switch into the pack and vice versa. 

A front-rower in Wests Tigers behemoth Stefano Utoikamanu registered a top speed of just under 35km/h last season to be only a few ticks behind the genuine pace merchants of the competition. 

The playing standard has not been diluted too much with the introduction of the Dolphins although there are question marks over whether the NRL can sustain the rapid expansion which is potentially in the works with as many as three more teams being added by the end of the decade.

One way you could potentially make an argument for this season not being the best on record is the apparent lack of competition for the title. 

Penrith are heavy favourites to make it a fourth straight title with Brisbane and Melbourne the only other two teams who seem to be capable of ending their dynasty. 

Penrith’s Nathan Cleary is the best in the business. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Cronulla, Manly, the Roosters and Warriors are not without a hope but the other 10 teams have problems with their roster, consistency, coaching or a combination of all of the above that has all but assured they have little to no chance of a Cinderella run to the title.

There have been more open seasons when it comes to the race for the trophy so that is definitely a check mark against 2024 in this exercise. 

But this season definitely gets a tick when it comes to the style of footy that is being played and the impact of the officials. 

The wild fluctuations in rule changes and six-again interpretations pretty much rules out the past three seasons in any debate for best season ever. 

Now we seem to have a more settled style of play and although there is a homogenous feel to how each side runs block plays to the left or the right, the balance between attack and defence is about spot on. 

Referees don’t appear to be influencing results as much as they have done in the past – kick it back to the mid 2010s and the whistleblowers were having too much sway. 

Too many penalties were being blown and there were a couple of low points midway through the decade where a team that managed to draw the most penalties via whatever means possible would often triumph over more skilful and better drilled outfits.  

And if you’re already doing a mental checklist going back through the years to pick out the best one, you can put a line through any of the ones from 2006-10 where Melbourne tainted the premiership with their salary cap rorting.

The same applies to 2002 when the game was hurtling along nicely before the Bulldogs were sent from first to last because they had been cooking the books.

Scratch out the previous two seasons when Souths were kicked out for what turned out to be dubious legal reasons.

And of course, don’t mention the war, but the Super League saga means 1995, ‘96 and the split year of ‘97 are out of the equation.

Right now, rugby league is in a state of relative calm off the field, if there is such a thing for a sport which has often been likened to a soap opera, with even more unbelievable plot twists. 

Player behaviour will never be perfect but it’s a helluva lot better than a decade or two earlier where newspaper columnists would run “days since last atrocity” graphics, such were the frequency of what were usually described as alcohol-fuelled incidents. 

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Just as it can be the case in many professions, when you have young men making a lot of money with a lot of spare time on their hands, it can add up to trouble but to be fair to the clubs, they invest a lot of their resources into educating the players about the pitfalls of success but there’s only so much they can do.

After the drudgery of last year’s CBA dispute, much of the focus in 2024 has been on the field and other perennial issues such as the threat of rugby union, AFL or cashed-up overseas franchises has never seemed less of a dilemma. 

The main issue facing the game off the field relates to what happens on it, with the more we learn about concussions bringing into sharp focus how hard it will be for rugby league to retain its gladiatorial spirit while moving with the times to ensure its participants aren’t exposed to unnecessary risk.

Taking the game to Las Vegas for a double-header to start the season did little to achieve the NRL’s goal of breaking into the US market but the novelty value led to bumper ratings and increased interest levels on the home front and undoubtedly there has been a halo effect from that bold venture.

In many ways, the 2024 season has been the best of times for the NRL. 

But as history has shown over the years, it can often be the calm before the storm when the NRL is travelling along nicely and then all of a sudden, there’s a salary cap scandal, a Super League split or a global pandemic that strikes when you least expect it.

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