Greatest 12-Month Turnarounds in Australian Rugby League
At the end of every Rugby League season, one team emerges victorious, allowing a select group of fans to contentedly bask in 12 months of premiership glory.
Supporters of other successful clubs – the finalists – are left to ponder ‘What if?’ but, at the same time, they harbour optimism for the coming seasons.
And then there are the ‘also-rans’ – the teams that struggled through the season, providing their fans with precious little to cheer about and even less to look forward to. History shows that these teams are often destined for long stretches of mediocrity.
However, every once in a while, one of these battling clubs pulls off a stunning turnaround, leaping from the bottom rungs of the ladder to rapidly emerge as a genuine title threat. Today, Will Evans revisits some of the greatest turnaround stories the game of Rugby League has seen.
10. South Sydney Rabbitohs (2006-07)
The people power that resulted in South Sydney’s readmission to the NRL in 2002 ranks among the great tales in the club’s rich history and as one of the most stirring movements in rugby league history, but the Rabbitohs battled on the paddock for several seasons thereafter. Souths – with a revolving cast of journeymen, over-the-hill veterans and unheralded youngsters donning the myrtle-and-cardinal jumper – collected three wooden spoons, finished second-last once and third-last on another occasion in their first five seasons back in the premiership fold. The Rabbitohs’ 2006 campaign netted just three wins as they finished 10 competition points behind their nearest rivals, but the season was significant for the controversial privatisation of the foundation club. New owners Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court opened the purse-strings to lure Kiwi internationals Roy Asotasi, David Kidwell and Nigel Vagana, and Indigenous star Dean Widders to Souths in 2007, and the club qualified for its first finals series in 18 years by finishing seventh under new coach Jason Taylor. While the Rabbitohs made a swift exit from the playoffs and missed the eight in the ensuing four seasons, the seeds had been sown for South Sydney’s resurgence as an NRL powerhouse that culminated in a long-awaited 21st title in 2014.
9. Auckland/New Zealand Warriors (2000-01)
Mired in financial and management crises in 2000, the bumbling Auckland Warriors were on the brink of collapse, while results on the field were equally grim as the Mark Graham-coached outfit finished second-last. But millionaire businessman Eric Watson bought the flailing outfit, effectively establishing a new club under the New Zealand Warriors banner. Parramatta lower grade coach Daniel Anderson succeeded Graham, while astute recruiting brought the likes of Ivan Cleary and Kevin Campion to Auckland, and the Warriors reached their maiden finals series in 2001 on the back of a late-season surge. They were pumped 56-12 by minor premiers Parramatta on finals debut, but the club had turned a significant corner.
8. St. George Dragons (1926-27)
St George’s first six seasons in the premiership brought little success, culminating in a wooden spoon after winning just two of 16 games in 1926. But the arrival of veteran Glebe legend Frank Burge transformed the Saints into a competitive unit in 1927, winning 12 and drawing one of their 16 games to finish in second spot. The club’s breakthrough season ended with a 20-11 loss to a South Sydney side in the midst of a dynasty.
7. Melbourne Storm (2010-11)
Defending champs Melbourne received the harshest punishment ever meted out to a club six weeks into the 2010 competition. The NRL stripped the Storm of their 2007 and ’09 premierships, and denied the club the opportunity to play for competition points for the remainder of the season after revelations of several years of systematic salary cap breaches. Despite the devastating setback – and the fact they were effectively playing for pride only – Craig Bellamy’s brave side won 10 of their remaining 18 games, which would have been enough to secure fifth spot. Melbourne was forced to shed grand final heroes Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Jeff Lima, Brett Finch, Aiden Tolman and Brett White at the end of the soul-destroying season to fit under the cap. But in one of the most remarkable club comebacks of all time, the resilient Storm took out the minor premiership in 2011 after winning 19 of their 24 regular season games with a host of new faces. They were bundled out in the preliminary final by bogey team the Warriors, but the Storm had recovered magnificently from a torturous 2010 – and a redemptive grand final triumph was only another 12 months away.
6. Parramatta Eels (1961-62)
The Parramatta Eels were the undisputed whipping boys of the premiership in the late-1950s and early-1960s, collecting six straight wooden spoons from 1956-61 and winning just 16 of 108 games. But with St George luminary Ken Kearney coming on board as coach, and the Saints’ former Test halfback Bobby Bugden and future Kangaroo fullback Ken Thornett arriving at the club, the Eels claimed a historic finals berth in 1962. The blue-and-golds embarked on a nine-match unbeaten run mid-season to eventually finish fourth. Their watershed campaign ended with a 6-0 minor semi loss to Wests.
5. Sydney Roosters (2009-10)
The Roosters finished in the top four in 2008 and hopes were high for a title charge the following season, but the club imploded via a combination of shocking on-field results and numerous alcohol-fuelled off-field atrocities – one of which involved coach Brad Fittler, who was shown the door at the end of 2009. Despite losing former rep forwards Craig Fitzgibbon, Mark O’Meley and Willie Mason, however, the Roosters charged into sixth spot in 2010 under incoming coach Brian Smith, with bad boy Todd Carney enjoying a spectacular Dally M Medal-winning season after being thrown a lifeline by the club. After an epic golden point qualifying final victory over Wests Tigers, the Braith Anasta-led Roosters thumped Penrith and Gold Coast on their way to becoming the first team in premiership history to reach a grand final a year after coming last. The valiant Tricolours led minor premiers St George Illawarra 8-6 at halftime of the decider before ultimately going down 32-8.
4. Bulldogs (2008-09)
Sonny Bill Williams’ shock midseason walkout contributed to the Bulldogs’ terrible 2008 campaign, in which the perennial powerhouses mustered just five wins and finished with their first wooden spoon (aside from the salary cap penalty that consigned the club to last in 2002) in 44 years. Steve Folkes’ 11-season tenure as coach came to a sad end, while former internationals Willie Tonga and Reni Maitua, and veteran Corey Hughes also left Belmore. Long-serving assistant Kevin Moore – a former Bulldogs halfback and son of club patriarch Peter ‘Bullfrog’ Moore – took over in 2009, while a recruitment drive that netted Brett Kimmorley, Josh Morris and Broncos quartet Michael Ennis, Ben Hannant, David Stagg and Greg Eastwood paid enormous dividends. Morris, Ennis, Hannant and Stagg won Dally M positional gongs, Moore was named Coach of the Year, Andrew Ryan Captain of the Year and Jamal Idris Rookie of the Year after the Bulldogs finished second, with only an early-season replacement bungle stopping them from winning the minor premiership. The Bulldogs’ outstanding campaign finished courtesy of a 22-12 loss to the Jarryd Hayne-inspired Parramatta juggernaut in a classic preliminary final.
3. Western Suburbs Magpies (1933-34)
The 1934 Western Suburbs Magpies are the only team in premiership history to win the competition after finishing the previous season in last place. Back in the era before commercial air travel, the Kangaroo Tour squad would depart Australia midway through the premiership – a disruption that crippled Wests’ 1933 season as stars Frank McMillan, Vic Hey, Les Mead, Alan Ridley and Cliff Pearce set sail with the national squad. The Magpies lost their last eight games to end up with the dreaded wooden spoon in the eight-team competition. But the return of their representative contingent the following season saw Wests rally to win the club’s second title, defeating Eastern Suburbs in a playoff for the minor premiership and again in a tight final.
2. Sydney Roosters (2012-13)
The Roosters’ promising start to 2012 quickly came unstuck, winning just four games in the last 20 rounds to wind up in 13th spot. Veteran coach Brian Smith was dumped at the end of the dismal campaign – just two years after guiding the club to the grand final. But under rookie mentor Trent Robinson, and with high-profile recruits Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney and Michael Jennings each enjoying career-best seasons, the Tricolours claimed the minor premiership and surged to a stunning grand final triumph over Manly. The brutal Roosters defence held their opponents scoreless a record six times, while the new-look squad also developed into the NRL’s slickest attacking unit. No team in premiership history has come from a lower ladder position to win the following season’s title.
Read More: The 2013 Roosters boasted one of the greatest forward packs of all time.
1. Eastern Suburbs Roosters (1966-67)
Eastern Suburbs created history for all the wrong reasons in 1966, losing all 18 of its regular season matches – the last time a premiership team has gone through a year winless. British coach Bert Holcroft was axed after just one season in charge as the Tricolours collected their third wooden spoon in four seasons. But the arrival of an untried coach named Jack Gibson – a hard-nosed prop for the club from 1953-61 – turned Easts’ fortunes around dramatically in ’67. Despite a dusty start to the season that garnered four losses and a draw in the opening five rounds, Gibson’s charges won 13 and drew another of their 17 remaining games to secure fourth spot. Making their first finals appearance since the 1960 grand final, Easts were eliminated 13-2 by Canterbury in the minor semi – but the stigma of their shambolic ’66 campaign had been partially removed.