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SBW and ASADA colour the NRL

By James MacSmith

SYDNEY, AAP - Sonny Bill Williams' stunning return to rugby league was a bright light for rugby league in 2013, in a season when the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority supplements scandal constantly lurked in the shadows - two themes that are set to continue well into next year
SBW and ASADA colour the NRL
by AAP

By James MacSmith

SYDNEY, AAP - Sonny Bill Williams' stunning return to rugby league was a bright light for rugby league in 2013, in a season when the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority supplements scandal constantly lurked in the shadows - two themes that are set to continue well into next year.

At the beginning of the season when Williams joined the Sydney Roosters after almost five seasons out of the game, there were plenty of pundits happy to say they didn't want him back and just as many lining up to say he couldn't cut it any more.

Those doubters were emphatically silenced as Williams got better and better as the season wore on, spearheading the Roosters to the NRL premiership and New Zealand to the World Cup final.

Now the question is ... what more can he do in 2014, in what will likely be his final season in the NRL?

SBW was on the couch at home watching on though as Queensland secured an unprecedented eighth successive State of Origin series win.

Things went well for NSW early as they went 1-0 up in Sydney but in a recurring theme, they were hammered in Brisbane and not good enough when it mattered in the decider.

With two games in Queensland next year, the Maroons are in the box seat to make it nine in a row.

The year ended with the Kangaroos reaffirming themselves as the best side in the world with a 34-2 thrashing of the Kiwis in the final of the most successful world cup ever.

It was a deserved win for Australia, but given the progress the tournament made in promoting the game the usual statements about the Kangaroos dominance being bad for international rugby league were muted.

After talk of 'Australian sports' darkest day' early in the year the ASADA issue attracted headlines throughout the year and remains unresolved with Cronulla still in the crosshairs over their 2011 supplements program.

BRISBANE

Endured one of the club's worst seasons ever as they fell short of the finals for just the second time in 21 years. Their attack consistently failed to fire as coach Anthony Griffin come under increasing scrutiny. But there is an air of optimism at Red Hill for next season generated by the controversial off-season signing of Ben Barba. The Broncos have traditionally been a club who breed rather than buy but these days the chequebook is out and much of the chatter now is about a player who might be there not in 2014 but 2015 - Cameron Smith.

CANBERRA

Failed to find any momentum in 2013 and as a result coach David Furner got the bullet. Ricky Stuart returns to head up the team with whom he won three premierships in the 1990s next season. He has been given three years to re-energise and re-invigorate a side full of talent but results will be expected.

CANTERBURY

It was a disappointing Bulldogs who bowed out of the finals in the opening round this season after last year's grand final appearance but in truth they never really hit their stride in 2013 due to on and off field controversies. A slow start when they were without the injured Sam Kasiano and the suspended James Graham also cost them. With Barba gone they have a huge hole at fullback and moving representative centre Josh Morris there could weaken their greatest backline strength. Enter Josh Hoffman?

CRONULLA

One of the Sharks' most promising offseason recruitment efforts ever was put in check by ASADA. It was an issue that dogged Cronulla throughout the year and will likely do the same in 2014. In a breakthrough year Andrew Fifita's stunning efforts and the club's consistent form dragged them into the second week of the finals before falling to grand finalists Manly. Next year, with threats of player suspensions and a hefty fine from the NRL hanging over their heads, their mantra is probably the same as this year: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

GOLD COAST

At times the Titans promised much but just as consistently failed to deliver in another disappointing year that fell short of a finals berth. Coach John Cartwright will come under pressure in 2014 if he can't lift an aging side, that has former Melbourne centre Maurice Blair as their key recruit. Their young halves of Adam Sezer and Albert Kelly gained valuable experience last season.

MANLY

Manly's ageing list was criticised as past it in 2013 but thanks to their vast big game experience and halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran the Sea Eagles had a year to remember before falling to Sydney Roosters in an epic grand final. The same 'Dad's Army gibes will be levelled at them again in 2014 and with a number of key personal a year older they might be closer to the mark.

MELBOURNE

The Storm were again a top-four force this year but were bundled out of the finals in straight sets in losses to South Sydney and Newcastle. With the Big Three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith still there and still at the top of their games, Melbourne will be tough to beat again next year but they lack depth and St George-Illawarra recruit Gareth Widdop could prove to be a big loss.

NEWCASTLE

Under supercoach Wayne Bennett the Knights were a late-season surprise packet, upsetting Canterbury and Melbourne in the finals before being thrashed by the Roosters. Bennett will look to reform another bad boy in ex-Warrior Russell Packer to beef up his pack in 2014. In the absence of the retired Danny Buderus, Jarrod Mullen will need to step things up.

NORTH QUEENSLAND

The Cowboys were the big disappointment of 2013 despite making a late-season charge that netted them a finals spot before a highly-controversial loss to the Sharks that included conceding a seven-tackle try. Given a line-up led by Kangaroos playmaker Johnathan Thurston and Australian bookends in Matt Scott and James Tamou, North Queensland have to do better next year. If Ray Thompson can threaten opposition sides out of dummy half, they will.

PARRAMATTA

A forgettable season again for the Eels culminated in their second-successive wooden spoon and coach Ricky Stuart's exit. Injuries to Jarryd Hayne didn't help and at times they were a rabble but fans have reason to be optimistic for 2014. Will Hopoate joins the club after his Mormon mission alongside the one-time heir to Darren Lockyer's playmaking crown at the Broncos, Corey Norman in two key offseason buys.

PENRITH

Initially touted as likely wooden spooners Penrith shocked a few sides in 2013 with a narrow victory over defending premiers Melbourne and a 62-6 hammering of the Warriors the highlights. Ivan Cleary is obviously a very astute coach and with football boss Phil Gould alongside him the Panthers look to be building to something. It might not happen next year but it will happen.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA

The Dragons were woeful at times in 2013 and at other times they were not much better to finish third last with only more wins than the hapless Eels. Steve Price will enter next season with a new look line-up as the NRL coach under most pressure. Widdop and Sam Williams will be relied upon to get an attack going that misfired during much of this year.

SOUTH SYDNEY

For the second successive year the Rabbitohs fell one game short of the grand final. How they put that behind them, or use it as motivation, will be the key to their 2014, especially after they held a virtually unbeatable 14-0 lead early in the qualifying final against Manly. Spearheaded by Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis, Souths still have one of the best squads in the competition.

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

A dream year for the tricolours as they took out the minor premiership and the premiership under rookie coach Trent Robinson and skipper Anthony Minichiello with a new look line-up featuring Williams, Michael Jennings and James Maloney. Their epic comeback in the grand final will have them full of belief and there is every chance they will go close again in 2014, they just have to keep the hunger alive. Boyd Cordner is poised to become a genuine star.

WARRIORS

A by now all-too familiar inconsistent Warriors were again a letdown last season, failing to win the big games and suffering one of the club's worst ever losses to the Panthers. The Matthew Elliott experiment as coach continues next season with all eyes on superstar England fullback Sam Tomkins to see how he adjusts to life in the NRL.

WESTS TIGERS

A largely forgettable year for the Tigers held a ray of hope with the emergence of a talented bunch of youngsters including playmaker Luke Brooks and winger David Nofaluma. Besieged by injuries last season they will already start 2014 without the luckless Tim Moltzen (knee). Coach Mick Potter is another coach under the pump as the Tigers begin the post-Benji Marshall era.


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