Has this year been the best ever for Rugby League? In my humble opinion, it has far surpassed 1994 and I say this as a die-hard Raiders fan. Sure, we may not win the comp this year but we will take some beating, as will the other seven sides contesting the finals series.
Penrith have proven miracles can happen after their last to first transformation within two seasons while the Canberra Raiders and Melbourne Storm defied the critics for 26 weeks to earn themselves a spot in the finals in front of more fancied sides such as Parramatta and St George Illawarra.
Brisbane barely made it while the Knights got their without Andrew Johns and when you consider how much they rely on Johns, this is an achievement that may just save the Knights long after Johns retires. A changing of the guard perhaps? Some will hope so and some will hope not but regardless of their form, having the Raiders and Panthers finish in the top four was a breath of fresh air for the game and it shows the competition is anything but a four horse race.
The Cowboys recorded their best ever season and look destined for bigger things in 2004 while the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles will be watched ever so closely as their future remains clouded at best.
The Warriors came home strongly and are the form team leading into the finals and will take some beating while the Bulldogs, under the weight of expectation following last year's salary cap scandal, have risen to the occasion and will be out to silence their critics in the best way possible, raising the trophy on grand final night.
While there is much to celebrate, there is still much to be done to ensure the success of season 2003 can be emulated next year and beyond to guarantee the long term viability of the greatest game of all.
The NRL judiciary needs an overhaul after some of the most baffling cases in living memory were decided in what can only be described as a Kangaroo Court, but one even Skippy would be too ashamed to attend.
The referees need more help after some of the most inept performances from rugby league officials in the history of the game. Whilst no one said it was easy being the man in the middle, the man upstairs made some pretty monumental gaffes at exactly the wrong time which at times cost sides dearly. Hopefully Robert Finch can work with his referees in the off season in the hope of eradicating the errors that have plagued our game to the extent where many people have lost complete faith with the man in the middle.
Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives and we saw the NRL record record crowd averages this year of just under 15,000 per game and that is a figure that must be used as a catalyst for the ongoing development of the game at a grass roots level. There is no reason why any one game cannot attract over 15,000 fans and give us a springboard to combat the advances of Rugby Union and AFL.
The representative season carried with it high expectations and the Blues delivered magnificently. There simply are not enough superlatives to describe the opening game of this year's State of Origin series, a series that saw record attendances of almost 180,000 people attend all three matches. Next year, with two matches at Telstra Stadium, we should eclipse 200,000 through the gates to really throw the cat amongst the pigeons and restore the Origin series as the premier sporting event on the Australian domestic calendar.
We have the Knagaroo tour ready to begin in earnest at the completion of the grand final but the international game still needs to be left on life support for the forseeable future while a structured format can be put in place that nurtures the game at an international level to the point where the Kangaroos go into a series as underdogs. Sounds impossible I know but just imagine the atmosphere at Millenium Stadium watching the underdog Kangaroos defeat the Great Britain side to reclaim the Ashes. Imagine the U.S and the Russians playing the greatest game of all in front of 100,000 rabid fans at Mile High Stadium. The opportunities are endless and the product speaks for itself.
The time for apathy and indifference is over. It has begun.Like