We’re 8 rounds into the 2019 NRL Season and you could be excused for thinking 2018 never ended.
A list of the greatest season comebacks in Rugby League history, from also-rans to challengers and champions, here they are:
Last years two Grand Finalists - Roosters and Storm - are back on top, most of the also-rans haven’t improved much at all, and Gus Gould has been in the headlines for no real reason whatsoever.
Well, take heart Footy fans - especially any of you getting ready to remove the replica jersey and tell yourself that next year is gonna be your year - the greatest game of all has a history of throwing up strange results and unlikely season turnarounds. After all, there is nothing Rugby League loves more than an underdog.
So Bulldogs, Titans, Panthers, Broncos and Warriors fans: with the examples here as inspiration, dream on about your team going on a run for the ages that could just end in glory come the October long weekend.
BALMAIN TIGERS, 1947 NSWRFL:
They say that Balmain Boys don’t cry, which is a shame for both Dawn Fraser - cos she had to wonder what that meant for Balmain Girls - and all those Tiger fans who have endured many a season worth spilling tears over. But we digress.
Balmain began the 1947 comp as Premiers but stumbled throughout most of that season. In a league with only ten teams, they were seventh with just five rounds left having won six and lost six. It was then that their Premiership winning class kicked in as they went on an eight game winning streak to take the Premiership in a ‘Grand Final Challenger’. Plus, they wouldn’t lose again until June 1948.
WERE: Round 13 - Fourth last out of Ten teams with six wins and six losses.
THEN: Won eight straight to eventually finish second and took out Minor Premiers the Bulldogs in the Grand Final Challenge.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS, 1953 NSWRFL:
If you saw Mr and Mrs. dressingshed out in the street, based on our attire and general demeanour you’d probably think we were from 1953, and perhaps had just teleported in from that era. But we’re not, and we didn’t.... but we have heard stories from the few grizzled League veterans that are still about from that epoque and looking at the stats from that year, Souths turnaround in 1953 was a doozy.
The Rabbitohs came into that year having lost the previous Grand Final to a pretty dominant Magpies team. This had stopped them doing a three-peat in ‘52, a term invented only recently by those who’ve decided that grammar, good sense as well as taste are for a bygone era. During the 50’s, most people just stood around and said “South Sydney are pretty good eh?” instead.
The Rabbits were last for the first five rounds, in a ten team comp with a four team finals, and were still only sixth after 15. They never lost again that year and that was the first of three comps in a row, or whatever you’d like to call it, with only that ‘52 Wests season breaking up a near perfect seven years of Bunnies dominance.
WERE: Round 4 - Tenth of ten teams with one win, three losses.
THEN: Snuck into first on the ladder on the last day of an incredibly tight season with Norths dropping from first to fourth the same day, in the middle of a six game winning streak that culminated in a Grand Final win.
BALMAIN TIGERS, 1988 NSWRL WINFIELD CUP:
Ah the 80’s. Big moustaches, great hair and Kevin Hardwick. Plus Kevin Hardwick’s hair. Emblematic of a Tigers team that came good in 1988 right at the death, Hardwick played in two straight Grand Final losses and whilst the ‘89 game is fondly remembered by all except the ‘Tiges, what is lost from that period is how far behind the Tigers were halfway through 1988. Sharing many similarities with the Dogs of ten years later, the Tigers were kind of OK for most of the year but never really threatened the top 5 until they went on a run. Ninth in Round 11 in a season with only five teams in the finals they then won 13 and lost only two on their way to a Grand Final. This run, incredibly, included a play-off for fifth with Penrith only three days after they managed to reach the same amount of points as the Panthers, even though they well down on for and against.
Their run captured the imagination with English champion and probably the best player in the world at that point, Ellery Hanley, joining to ignite them further until a stray Lamb stopped them from a miracle. No team until that point had ever finished in the last two spots and won the comp… and neither would the Tigers, with defeat at the hands of a Gould-guided Bulldogs being the end.
WERE: Round 11 - Ninth of 16 teams with six wins and five losses.
THEN: Equalled Penrith in Fifth on the last day of the season, but with points differential of 100 less, then beat them in a playoff before going all the way to the Grand Final.
CANTERBURY-BANKSTOWN BULLDOGS, 1998 OPTUS ARL PREMIERSHIP:
Mrs Dressingshed loves Rugby League expansion. She says it is the only way that she gets to see ‘exotic places like the Gold Coast on the tele’... plus she’s never really been the same since Rodney Howe moved from Perth to the Storm. That aside, expansion seasons, when combined with the end of one of the greatest ‘wars’ in all of sport, also meant a bloated competition in 1998 with 20 teams and a 10 (that’s right, TEN!) team Finals Series. Without the benefit of this logistical clusterfuck, the Dogs epic finals run of that year would never have happened.
Their season was more or less patchy rather than rising from the dead on a hot streak, as they eked out just enough points to barely stay in touch with the ‘A-League-esque’ Finals format for most of the year. Their worst position was ‘only’ 14th after four losses and one win in Round 5, and in a 20 team comp that is decidedly mid-table, not equal stone-motherless like they are this year. But they scraped into 9th with four wins from their last four in the regular season and continued that form into the finals, including an epic, never-seen-before-or-since comeback win over Parra in an epic-comeback-season in the GF qualifier. 12th after Round 20, nine wins and 11 losses, then beating your old sparring partner in a Semi by 32-20 after being down 18-0 with just 10 minutes to play. The very definition of turnaround.
WERE: Round 14 - 13th of 20 teams with six wins and eight losses.
THEN: Won seven of their next ten, to squeeze into ninth in a ten team finals, made it all the way to the decider but couldn’t get past the Broncos.
PARRAMATTA, 2009 NRL Telstra Premiership
For ours, this is the greatest mid-season form reversal of all time. Period. End-of. Making comparisons between eras is difficult because the game has changed so much. But the only way that this comeback season from the Eels could have been better, is if they won the whole damned thing, and they didn’t. Also, you’d have to extend the season and/or expand the comp to create even the CHANCE of a better comeback. After 18 games in 2009, Parra had won five games and drawn one. Their points differential was -129. They were third last, completely crap and Daniel Anderson was on his way out the door. Enter Jarryd Hayne and his first Dally M season. They upset Top 4 teams Melbourne and the Bulldogs in consecutive weeks, kickstarting an unprecedented run including no-look passes, making St George look really silly and culminating in a Grand Final loss to the Storm. The same Storm who were subsequently stripped of their Premiership a couple of years later for their ridiculous, paper-bag-behind-the-shed salary cap breaches. So in typical Parramatta fashion, they had come from nowhere to get a sniff, only to lose to a team that shouldn’t have been there anyway. You can’t make this stuff up.
WERE: Round 18 - 14th of 16 teams with 5 wins, 1 draw and 13 losses.
THEN: Won 10 straight before losing last regular-season round, finishing 8th and then going on a Finals run before losing in Grand Final to Melbourne Storm.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Reckon the Coota-downdra Warragumblesnakes come back from 1 win and a noble loss in the cockfighting championships after 20 rounds, all played on a Wednesday, was even better? Then let us know which team’s season you’d put in the Top Five Best Form Turnarounds ever.