25 Years of the NRL: Counting Down the Top 25 Moments in NRL History

25 Years of the NRL: Counting Down the Top 25 Moments in NRL History

2022 was the 25th season of the National Rugby League (NRL) competition, which was previously known as the Australian Rugby League (ARL) and the old New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) and Queensland Rugby League (QRL) competitions. 1998 was the first season of the new brand, with the code coming fresh out of a highly publicised war with the Super League (SL) who threatened to ruin the game we love for good. Australian rugby league was split at the time between the SL and the ARL, with half the teams filling up both competitions for the 1997 season. The SL only lasted one season before both brands reached and agreement and formed the newly branded NRL competition that we know and love today.

It has been a bumpy ride with lots of up's and down's, however I believe the NRL is just reaching it's peak now with the best talent we have ever seen marching the code into the new era. 

With 2022 being the 25th season of the NRL, I thought it would be nice to relive the past 25 seasons, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. I have created what I believe to be the biggest moment/s from each of the 25 seasons, and ranked them from 25 - 1. So without further ado, here is the list: 

25. 2000: Year of the expansions

The success of the newly merged St. George Illawarra Dragons from the previous season saw the NRL merge four more financially struggling teams in a bid to revive their numbers. The new teams were the Northern Eagles (formerly the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and the North Sydney Bears), and the Wests Tigers (formerly the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Balmain Tigers). Both teams struggled in their first seasons with both teams not making the finals. The Wests Tigers are still in the NRL competition to this day, but the same cannot be said for the Northern Eagles, who only lasted three seasons after finishing in 2002.

24. 2011: The Eaglets Sore Again

This season saw the return to the top for the Melbourne Storm. The Storm (who were stripped of their competition points the previous season due to salary cap breaches) retained most of their superstars to regain the Minor Premiership. This would then be the end of their success this season as they were beaten by the New Zealand Warriors in the Semi-Final 20-12. The Warriors led by Kiwi legend Stacey Jones, young gun James Maloney, and youngster coach Ivan Cleary, would face the battle tested Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles led by young gun halves pairing Daly-Cherry Evans and Keiran Foran, as well as seasoned vet coach Des Hasler. The Eagles would end up winning the Premiership beating the Warriors 24-10.

23. 2017: Cowboy Heroics and the Birth of the Mountain Son

This season was much the same as many previous ones, being that it was dominated by the Melbourne Storm. The Storm led by supercoach Craig Bellamy, legends of the game Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, and budding superstar Cameron Munster dominated the regular season and finals series to capture their third premiership. Their Grand Final opposition that season were the real story though, as the undermanned North Queensland Cowboys dealt with the midseason losses of both Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott to scrape into eighth spot on the ladder. The Cowboys, led by juggernaut Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan, mustered up an amazing finals series beating the reigning Premiers Cronulla Sharks, the Parramatta Eels, and a massive upset against the in-form Sydney Roosters en route to the Final. They lost the Final 34-6 against the Storm, but they gained the respect of everyone that season. 2017 also saw the birth of the current best player in the game. Penrith Panthers young gun Nathan Cleary played his first full season for the Panthers and he made it count. Cleary became the youngest ever player to become the top points scorer, as well as the youngest ever player to score over 200 points in a single season.

22. 2012: The Dogs of War

This season started with a shock as reigning Premiership winning coach Des Hasler left the only club he had known in the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to take up the top job with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. His presence at the Bulldogs was felt immediately as they were almost unstoppable this season. The emergence of British hardman James Graham and superstar Dally M Player of the Year award winner Ben Barba saw the Bulldogs dominate the regular season to win the Minor Premiership, and cruise to victories over the Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs to reach their first Grand Final since winning in 2004. They faced the experienced superstar squad that was the Melbourne Storm. The Dogs magical season would then be cut short, losing to the Storm in the Final 14-4.

21. 2004: Welcome Sonny Bill

This season was dominated by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Point scoring magician Hazem El-Masri scored a whopping 342 points this season, a record that still stands to this day. This year also saw the emergence of one of the game’s most decorated players in Sonny Bill Williams. The Kiwi young gun not only helped the Dogs snatch the premiership from the Minor Premiers Sydney Roosters, but he also commenced what would end up one of the most winningest careers of all time.

20. 2007: The Storm is Brewing

This season was dominated by the Melbourne Storm. The Storm boasted a superstar line-up consisting of future potential hall of fame players like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Israel Folau, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk, and arguably the greatest coach of all time Craig Bellamy. The Storm finished the season six points clear of the second placed Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, and would eventually smash them in the Grand Final 34-8 to win their second premiership.

19. 2009: All Aboard the Hayne Plane

This season saw the Melbourne Storm eventually win their second title in four seasons, but it was the spectacular play of Parramatta Eels superstar Jarryd Hayne that stole the spotlight this year. A try that is still spoken about to this day, the Eels fullback ran through what seemed to be was the entire St. George Illawarra Dragons team to help them win their Qualifying Final against the Minor Premiers. His brilliance would then see the Eels reach their first Grand Final since 2001, only to be stopped by a superstar Storm team.

18. 2022: The Next Gen and the Start of Something Special

The most recent NRL season was one of the most exciting yet. Fresh from the COVID-stricken years, the game flourished being led by the likes of Nathan Cleary, James Tedesco and Cameron Munster, who all cemented themselves as the game’s best. 2022 also brought an immense amount of fresh talent which looks to lead the next generation. Former Melbourne Storm and now Cronulla Sharks star Nicho Hynes won his first Dally M Player of the Year Medal, leading the Sharks to second place on the ladder and a semi-finals berth. The other surprise team was the North Queensland Cowboys. Still reeling from the loss of future Hall of Famer Jonathan Thurston years ago, the Cowboys were in what most people thought was still a rebuilding phase. But they proved everyone wrong as they are one of the best teams in the right now. Led by aging enforcer Jason Taumalolo, he now has some help with young guns like Tom Deardon, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, and Jeremiah Nanai. The main story of this season though has to be the start of the Penrith Panthers dynasty. Boasting a team of representative talent, the Panthers looked to achieve a feat only completed by the Sydney Roosters a few years prior, winning back to back premierships. After cruising to the Minor Premiership, the Panthers looked primed to go back to back, and they did not disappoint. The Panthers cruised finally went into sixth gear in the Finals Series with convincing wins over the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs to reach their third Grand Final in as many seasons. They faced their arch rival Eels again in the Final in what was one of the most hyped up NRL games of all time. It was the ‘Battle of the West’, the two arch rivals going head to head, the Panthers trying to repeat as Premiers, and the Eels attempting to win a title for the first time since 1987, it was all set to be a blockbuster. Then the game started and the Panthers blew the Eels off the park, winning the Final 28-12 and becoming the second ever repeat Premiers in NRL history. 

17. 2019: Magic in the Air and Back to Back Premiers

This season saw the birth of one of the NRL’s most colourful yearly events in the Magic Round. This round sees the entire round of action played at the same stadium over the entire weekend, becoming a massive successful spectacle for the code. The other key story of this season was the Roosters becoming the first back to back Premiers in the NRL era. Led by the retiring legend Cooper Cronk and one of the best players on the planet in James Tedesco, the Roosters beat the Melbourne Storm in the Qualifying Final in their attempt to be the first repeat Premiers in the NRL era as they faced the Canberra Raiders, who at the time were the hottest team in the league. The Final was fairly controversial as many had the Raiders as the better team on the day, with Raiders star Jack Wighton even winning the Clive Churchill Medal for the best player of the game. However, the Raiders just could not breach the great Roosters defence, and the Roosters went back to back, sending legend Cronk off with the ultimate prize.

16. 1998: The NRL is Born with Some Fresh Blood

We cannot have a list of the best moments in the history of the NRL without talking about the birth of the competition we are speaking about. The Super League War era was a dark day for the game, but this season brought a fresh palate for the game to flourish into what it is today. One of those ideas was the introduction of the Melbourne Storm, who became the newest team in the NRL competition. They started off with a bang, finishing third in their first ever season. This would start what would be the standard for arguably the most winning club of recent times. The Storm would eventually lose to that seasons Premiers and juggernaut of the time the Brisbane Broncos.

15. 2006: The Perfect Farewell

This season saw some more salary cap breaches, one team (the New Zealand Warriors) penalised during the season, and starting the season off with -4 competition points. This would ultimately cost them dearly as they missed out on the Finals by those four deducted points. The other team (the Melbourne Storm) would not be penalised until years later, however their Minor Premiership was later stripped due to salary cap breaches. The main story of this season however has to be the fairy tale farewell of one of the game’s great big men. Brisbane Broncos legend Shane Webcke would help the Broncos cause a major upset against the star-studded Storm team in the Grand Final 14-6 in what is still to this day one of the greatest send offs for a player we have ever seen.

14. 2018: The New Bondi Hero

This season made history being the closest ever finish to a competition ladder in NRL history. The Sydney Roosters won the Minor Premiership on 34 competition points, but they were also joined on 34 points by the Melbourne Storm, South Sydney Rabbitohs, and the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks. The tightness did not stop there either, fifth to eighth place (being the Penrith Panthers, Brisbane Broncos, St. George Illawarra Dragons, and the New Zealand Warriors) all finished the regular season on 32 competition points, only two points behind the top four teams. However, the story of this season had to be former Melbourne Storm legend halfback Cooper Cronk deciding to take his talents to the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney to play for the Roosters. In a star-studded squad, Cronk was exactly what the Roosters needed as they marched towards their 14th Premiership. I forgot to mention as well that Cronk played the entire Grand Final with a severely injured shoulder that needed offseason surgery. This tale has already been carved into Sydney Roosters folklore.

13. 2013: The Dr. Dank Effect and the Return of SBW

This season was one to remember for reasons good and bad. The Cronulla Sharks, who were in the midst of a successful tenure under then head coach Shane Flanagan, were found guilty of using multiple tainted supplements on their players during the tenure of Stephen Dank as the clubs sports scientist. Some players copped minor suspensions, but it was Flanagan who felt the brunt of the penalty, copping a year suspension (Flanagan has yet to regain a head coaching role to this day in the NRL). This season also saw the return of Sonny Bill Williams after a long successful career in cross-code rivals Rugby Union. Williams returned to play for the Sydney Roosters and would help them not only win their 13th Premiership, but also become one of the most successful clubs of the decade.

12. 2001: The GOAT Has Arrived

The Parramatta Eels looked unstoppable this season, losing only four out of 26 regular season games. After thumping the New Zealand Warriors 56-14, and soundly beating the Brisbane Broncos 24-16 to make the Grand Final, it appeared as though the Eels would win their first premiership since 1987. However, budding superstar and arguably the game's greatest ever player Andrew Johns had other plans as he led the Newcastle Knights to their second premiership with a 30-24 win over the heartbroken Eels. Johns was already seen as one of the best players in the world, but 2001's efforts definitely thrust him into the debate of GOAT status.

11. 2021: Super Tommy and Doing it the Hard Way

With the season still hampered by COVID restrictions, much of the season including the entire Finals series was played in Queensland. This season however saw the emergence of one of the game’s true superstars. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles star Tom Trbojevic not only starred for the NSW Blues in the annual State of Origin series, but he won the Dally M Player of the Year medal even though he only played in 18 regular season games. The oft-injured Sea Eagles star definitely put himself on the map of the game’s best this season. The other top storyline of this season was the Penrith Panthers Finals series run. The Panthers went into the Finals series as hot favourites, however came up against a rampant South Sydney Rabbitohs outfit in the first final, eventually losing 16-10. The Panthers then found themselves looking at repeat season failures as they faced their arch rival Parramatta Eels the following week. In a tightly contested and very controversial affair, the Panthers won the low-scoring contest 8-6. They then had to face the year’s best team in the Melbourne Storm in the Qualifying Final. Much like the previous year’s Grand Final, the Storm played their worst game of the season and were beaten by the young gun Panthers 10-6. Then in a semi-final rematch, the Panthers again faced the Rabbitohs in the Grand Final. It was the two hottest teams in the league and the game delivered. The Panthers appeared to be the better team for the majority of the game, but the Rabbitohs looked to be gaining the momentum towards the end of the match. After an onslaught of attack by the Rabbitohs, a wayward pass from Rabbitohs star Cody Walker fell right into the lap of Panthers star Stephen Crichton which sealed the game and the Premiership for the young Panthers squad. I may be a little biased, but for me personally, this Finals series was one to remember because as a Panthers fan, I was legitimately on the edge of my seat, with my finger nails gnawed down, as I watched the Panthers in four straight thrilling games to win their first Premiership since 2003.

10. 2016: Up… Up… Cronulla!!!

This season was one that was again dominated by the superstar Melbourne Storm squad. The Storm looked unstoppable throughout the season, ultimately winning the Minor Premiership. It was however not meant to be for the Storm in their quest for another title, as the men from the Shire snatched victory from them in another instant classic Grand Final. Led by aging vets Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis, the Cronulla Sharks were finally released of the supplement scandal that hampered them a few seasons prior, and they were primed to win their maiden Premiership after 49 arduous seasons. The Sharks got off to a great start leading the Storm 8-0 at halftime, but the Storm looked to steal victory from determined Cronulla outfit, regaining the lead 12-8 with just under 15 minutes to go. Then in one of the great Grand Final moments in NRL history, Sharks enforcer Andrew Fifita forced his way through multiple Storm defenders to prop himself over the try line, and there we have it, the Sharks have their first premiership.

9. 2020: Nightmare for Some, Fairytale for Others

The worldwide COVID pandemic thrust itself onto the NRL in the 2020 season. The restrictions saw the season shortened to 20 games, with the NSW based clubs and the Canberra Raiders being allowed to travel up the day of the game to face the Queensland based clubs, the Melbourne Storm and the New Zealand Warriors, and vice versa. Members of the Storm and Warriors did not see family or friends for months during the season. On the other hand, the Penrith Panthers are now the best young team in the league, boasting the best crop of young Representative and International players in the league. Stars like Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Liam Martin, Isaiah Yeo, and Brian To’o stamped their dominance on the rest of the competition as they eased to the Minor Premiership by five competition points. All was set for the Panthers to start what looked like a dynasty in the making, however in what would be his final season, the Cameron Smith led Melbourne Storm had other ideas. After playing an almost perfect season with an 18-1-1 regular season, the Panthers produced their worst half of football all season in the first half of the Grand Final. Not even a four try rout in the final 30 minutes could help the Panthers as the Storm went on to win 26-20 and capture their fourth Premiership, and send arguably the games greatest in Smith off a winner.

8. 2014: The Burrow, The Goanna and a Broken Cheekbone

This season saw the return to triumph for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Led by British superstar enforcer Sam Burgess and one of the best players the game has ever seen in Greg Inglis, the Rabbitohs won their first Premiership since 1971 with a demolition of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 30-6. The Final was one for the ages, as Burgess played the entire game (and eventually won the Clive Churchill Medal for Best Player of the game) with a broken cheekbone after an early hit from a Bulldogs player. The other highlight saw Inglis cap off a trademark length of the field try to seal the game for the Rabbitohs, and celebrate the try with his famous Goanna post try celebration, something that the NRL still utilises in advertising to this day.

7. 2008: Eagle Revenge

The Grand Final of this season was one of the craziest we have seen in the NRL era. The game itself was nothing special (unless you were a Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles fan of course), but it was the final score that set the NRL world on fire. The Storm would cap off another successful regular season with another Minor Premiership. The Storm would again face their arch rival Sea Eagles in the Grand Final. Many thought there would be a continuation of the dominant Storm performance from the prior season, but the Eagles turned up to play that day and dominated the Storm from the opening whistle to win 40-0 in what was one of the craziest score lines of all time, let alone in a Grand Final. Similar to the scenes of Shane Webcke in 2006, Sea Eagles legend Steve Menzies retired in the perfect way, and even scored a try in the romp of their southern border foes.

6. 2005: Benji Magic

This season, much like the Panthers triumphs in 2003, saw the streets of Western Sydney go wild as the first merged club won a premiership (the Wests Tigers were formed in 2000 after the merger between the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Balmain Tigers). The Tigers had a star-studded line-up, boasting representative players such as Brett Hodgson, Scott Prince, and Robbie Farah, but it was the emergence and brilliance of young Kiwi superstar Benji Marshall who stole the show. This season was full of Benji highlights, but none could beat the stroke of genius that was the Grand Final flick pass that led to the Pat Richards try, and eventually helped net the Tigers their first ever NRL premiership with a win over the North Queensland Cowboys.

 5. 2003: That Tackle

As a Panthers fan, this was definitely a season to remember. In a season that brought in the golden-point extra time rule, saw Panthers star Craig Gower robbed of a Dally-M Player of the Year medal due to NRL Players Association battles, and the mighty Penrith Panthers win their second ever premiership against a star-studded Sydney Roosters line-up, it was arguably the greatest tackle in NRL history that stole the show that season. Scores locked at 6-6, a Panthers offensive kick is deflected and lands with Roosters winger Todd Byrne who darts down the wing. He looks to score and put the Roosters in front, but out of nowhere Panthers enforcer Scott Sattler chops Byrne down and forces him over the sideline. It is a highlight that will continue to be played for generations to come, and a highlight that will stay in the memory of Panthers and NRL alike for lifetimes. It was hard to split Sattler's tackle and Benji's flick pass from 2005, but I'm going to be biased and put the Panthers one spot ahead.

4. 2002: Salary Cap Scandal 1.0 and the Return of the Old Faithful

This year was full of memorable moments, for good and bad reasons. The bad from the season was the infamous Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs salary cap scandal. The Bulldogs were unstoppable this season, winning 20 out of 26 games, however after being found to breach the salary cap, the NRL deducted a total of 37 competition points from the Dogs, ultimately giving them the wooden spoon. The most memorable moment of good from the season was the return of the most decorated club in NRL history, the South Sydney Rabbitohs who departed the competition after the 1999 season. After winning a court ruling, the Rabbitohs were back. Their first season back did not go to plan however, as they only won five games all season, but nobody cared as long as the red and green of Redfern were back in the NRL.

3. 1999: Drama at the Buzzer

In what would be still one of the most talked about and controversial moments in NRL history, Brett Kimmorley would place a bomb towards Craig Smith’s corner, only for St. George Illawarra Dragons centre Jamie Ainscough to take him out with a high tackle over the try line. The Storm were then awarded with a penalty try which ultimately gifted them the 20-18 win, and their first Premiership in only their second season. The loss would be brutal for the Dragons as they failed to win a Premiership until 2010.

2. 2010: The Good and the Ugly

Much like the previous entry of 2002, there was one good story, and one ugly one that marred this season. 2010 saw the reemergence of one of rugby leagues great foundation clubs. Led by coaching mastermind Wayne Bennett, the St. George Illawarra Dragons finally ended their hoodoo as they dominated the regular season and would ultimately win the Grand Final against the Sydney Roosters 32-8. However, the biggest storyline to come out of this season was the shocking Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal. After a few weeks into the season, Storm officials admitted to breaching the salary cap over multiple seasons. The estimated total breach was said to be over $3 million AUD over multiple seasons. The NRL then handed the Storm hefty fines, but most importantly stripped them of any competition points during the 2010 season, and also stripped them of their 2006 – 2008 Minor Premiership trophies, their 2010 World Club Challenge trophy, as well as their 2007 and 2009 NRL Premiership trophies. The Storm are arguably the most successful club of the NRL era, however this saga definitely scars their legacy.

1. 2015: The Best Game of All-Time

Nobody could have predicted how good the 2015 Grand Final would be. It was the big brother Brisbane Broncos taking on the little brother North Queensland Cowboys led by superstar future hall of famer Jonathan Thurston. It was setup to be a classic, and boy did it deliver. In a game that was back and forth for its entirety, the Broncos were leading 16-12 before a magical Kyle Feldt sideline try locked the scores up at 16, with a Thurston sideline conversion to win the game after the final siren. The conversion looked sweet off the boot, but Thurston’s kick hit the upright and bounced out, leaving us with a Golden Point grandstand finish. The game then went from 100 to 1000 straight off the kickoff. The Cowboys kicked off the extra time period and Broncos half Ben Hunt knocked the ball on right in front of the Cowboys line. The Broncos were all instantly in disbelief as they knew that they had given one of the best players of all time a golden chance at snatching the game. Thurston did not leave them disappointed either, with a few tackles later slotting the winning field goal to win the game 17-16.

Tha_Notorious_B.A.D

Sports writer from Sydney, Australia

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