Justis Kamu looks at the highs and lows of the NRL regular season as well as five Kiwis who will dominate during the playoffs.
1. And the winners are....
* Player of the year: Cooper Cronk (Storm)
* Rookie of the year: George Burgess (Rabbitohs)
* Best comeback victory: Dragons 22 Rabbitohs 18, Round 19, ANZ Stadium
* Best game: Warriors 30 Storm 22, Round 20, Mt Smart Stadium
* Best mid-season signing: Josh Dugan, Canberra Raiders to St George Illawarra Dragons
* Breakthrough player: Justin Horo (Manly Sea Eagles)
* Best comeback: Sonny Bill Williams (Roosters)
2. Four Warriors that made positive strides
The Fish didn't finish the season after tearing a pectoral muscle but 2013 will be remembered as the year where he finally settled into first grade. A fullback/wing who played on the opposite flank to the Beast, Fisiiahi's promise was finally being realised on the big stage as he cemented his spot in the starting 13.
Key stats: 11 games, five tries, 1060 attacking metres, three line breaks, 52 tackles.
The 32-year-old hooker is a tackling machine and finished the regular season with 989 tackles, fourth most in the competition. The club did the right thing in securing his services for next season after originally giving him the cold shoulder on his one year option. Had Friend left, the club's defensive shield would've been immensely weakened with Elijah Taylor on his way to Penrith.
Key stats: 21 games, 0 tries, 854 attacking metres, 0 line breaks, 989 tackles.
He blew a kiss to his mother on 13 occasions this season to mark each try he scored. Koni needs to improve on the finer details of defence to become a complete centre but you can't deny the fact that he is one of their deadliest attacking weapons. When the team is in need of a try he is one guy that fans turn to for something special to spark an attacking movement or to cross the chalk.
Key stats: 20 games, 13 tries, 2323 attacking metres, 14 line breaks, 289 tackles.
The NRL rookie is a boy amongst men but when he made his debut in round three against the Sharks he manned up for the Auckland club. This kid has a maturity which belies his youth and that characteristic saw him play 14 games under Matt Elliott. He will push Glen Fisiiahi, Manu Vatuvei for a starting spot on the wing next year.
Key stats: 14 games, 6 tries, 1610 attacking metres, 8 line breaks, 76 tackles.
3. Five Kiwis who will dominate during playoffs
Kieran Foran (Sea Eagles)
The Kiwis international heads into his fifth consecutive playoffs appearance with Manly. He is a certainty to play in the five-eighth role for the Kiwis at the RLWC and will want to finish the year with an NRL ring. In the Cherry-Evans and Foran duo, Manly possess the strongest halves combination in the competition.
Sonny Bill Williams (Roosters)
SBW proved on the weekend against the second-placed Rabbitohs (214m, one try assist, six tackle breaks, three offloads) that he is one of the top second rowers in the game. That break which led to Mitchell Pearce's try in the 60th minute set the Roosters on their way to seal the minor premiership. If the Roosters go all the way, expect him to be one of the key men in their title tilt.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Roosters)
He was banned for five weeks but still managed to work to an impressive 2324 attacking metres, 28 offloads and complete 589 tackles for the year. His overly-aggressive approach to the game has been replaced with a brutal composure which has seen him evolve into one of the game's top props.
Issac Luke (Rabbitohs)
The Souths rake is one of the most influential players in the Redfern based outfit. His work in and around the ruck area is largely overlooked due to the number of stars in the Bunnies lineup. He is a different beast to Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah but when the discussion takes place about the best hookers in the game. The destructive ball runner and tough tackler that is Luke should be mentioned in that conversation.
Steve Matai (Sea Eagles)
The Mt Albert Grammar old boy is one of the supreme defensive centres and will no doubt be on his game as the Sea Eagles clash with the top of the table Roosters this weekend. Noted for his crunching hits, Matai's attacking game should not be underestimated as he is deceptively quick with good footwork.
4. Three teams that flopped
St George Illawarra Dragons
The 2010 premiers struggled on attack this season scoring just 379 points this season, ranked 15th in the competition. The failure to settle on a halves combination affected the side with Jamie Soward released in June, Josh Drinkwater failing to convince Steve Price that he was the ideal replacement and Chase Stanley and Adam Quinlan were also chucked in the mix. The additions of Gareth Widdop and Sam Williams next season is set to right the deficiencies in the six and seven jumper. Finished 14th, seven wins/14 losses.
Gold Coast Titans
On paper the Titans have one of the premier forward packs in the competition. They have a near-perfect blend of experience, youth, toughness, and class. Yet when it comes to producing the goods each weekend the inconsistencies of the side has seen the side climb to as high as sixth during the season before falling to ninth. Out wide is where reinforcements are required and they have recruited former Warriors junior Siuatonga Likiliki and Storm centre Maurice Blair to shore up the back division. Finished 9th,11 wins /13 losses.
The Broncos season ended with their worst finish in the club's 26-year history. They seem to still be in a hangover state after the retirement of Darren Lockyer. Corey Norman was eyed as his replacement but the shift to five-eighth never eventuated as Scott Prince put on the six jumper for the year. Ben Barba will cross state borders to call Brisbane in the new year and his arrival will bring new hope to a club that longing to be part of premiership talks once again. Finished 12th, 10 wins / 13 losses.
5. Three things we'd like to see
Marquee player allowance
To ensure that the competition's superstars stay in the game and not head off to other sports such as AFL or rugby union, the NRL's elite players should be paid top-dollar to ply their trade in the 13-man code. Imitating the current marquee system in the A-League which allows each team to have one 'marquee' player's salary exempt from the club's salary cap would be a welcome addition for the competition.
SBW still in the NRL
Sonny Bill Williams was made in this game and the fans have shown him plenty of love this season. He is said to be enjoying living in Sydney and playing league again. Whether we see him next year in blue, red and white is uncertain as he weighs up offers from the NZRU and the Roosters.
Less off-field dramas
With over 400 players contracted to the 16 clubs we don't expect players to be saints but at the very least they shouldn't act like morons when out in public. The NRL's annual player stuff up contest usually seems to kickoff during February or March. Each year media outlets are ready and waiting for a player to commit a bad act. The type of actions committed by these idiots can range from minor misdemeanors more serious criminal offences. C'mon guys, behave!
6. 2013 Team of the Year
1. Fullback - Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs)
2. Wing - Jorge Taufua (Sea Eagles)
3. Centre - Jamie Lyon (Sea Eagles)
4. Centre - Michael Jennings (Roosters)
5. Wing - David Williams (Sea Eagles)
6. Five-eighth - James Maloney (Roosters)
7. Halfback - Cooper Cronk (Storm)
8. Prop - Andrew Fifita (Sharks)
9. Hooker - Cameron Smith (Storm)
10. Prop - Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Roosters)
11. Second row - Chris McQueen (Rabbitohs)
12. Second row - Sonny Bill Williams (Roosters)
13. Lock - Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs)
14. Interchange - Jake Friend (Roosters)
15. Interchange - Brenton Lawrence (Sea Eagles)
16. Interchange - George Burgess (Rabbitohs)
17. Interchange - Jonathan Thurston (Cowboys)
Coach: Trent Robinson (Roosters)