AFTER losing four out of six games and dropping back from first to fourth on the competition ladder, South Newcastle could have chucked it in.
But instead of slipping out of the finals race for a second straight season, or falling one short of a decider like they did both years prior, the Lions dug deep.
The men in white and red rolled up their sleeves, worked through the gears and generated an unstoppable momentum en route to the club’s first Newcastle Rugby League premiership since 1989.
Souths were beaten just once in their 11 appearances from July 3 – winning nine, drawing another and defeated only by minor premiers and eventual runner’s up Macquarie in a non-elimination semi-final away at Toronto a fortnight ago.
This included the “perfect storm” at Townson Oval on the final Saturday afternoon of the regular rounds, with a last-play victory against the Scorpions in front of a vocal Merewether faithful to clinch second spot on the ladder and break a 52-year club championship drought.
And just when they thought it couldn’t get any better, the Lions roared even louder and twice knocked off Western Suburbs in the play-offs before earning a 21-12 grand final triumph at Hunter Stadium on Sunday.
It meant heartbreak for Macquarie, missing the main prize on a second straight occasion after securing the Scorpions maiden minor premiership.
A wounded Wests line-up failed to make the big showdown in consecutive years after lifting all three trophies between 2012 and 2014.
Defending champions Lakes were hurt by the call up of skipper Chris Adams to NRL for a mid-season stint at the Newcastle Knights.
Kurri Kurri surged home and edged out Coalfields rivals Cessnock for the fifth and final play-off spot.
Central and Maitland both struggled and battled it out for the wooden spoon.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Willie Heta (Souths): It was a 20-minute burst from the classy five-eighth that proved the difference for the Lions on grand final day.
Midway through the second half his deft grubber set up a try to regain the lead before he took on the defensive line and crossed himself five minutes later.
Either side of that the 30-year-old, who played at Cessnock last season, produced two crucial kicks in general play. One which stopped within an inch of the dead ball line and the other a bomb almost landing on the crossbar. Both forced repeat sets, the second from his own chase and tackle.
His fifth-minute pass deep in opposition territory led to Souths’ opening their account in the corner and Heta converted from the sideline.
This was typical of his performances throughout 2016, which saw him earn a Rebels representative jersey, the competition’s point scoring mantle (138 in 14 round games, plus 41 in finals) and the players’ player prize as voted by peers.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Adam Bettridge (Macquarie): Despite going down in the decider the 31-year-old steered a tight ship at the Toronto club both on and off the field.
He picked up a team hurting from last year’s grand final loss and moulded them into a consistent group, including a mid-season streak of eight unbeaten.
Add playmaker Scott Briggs and they only dropped two games on the run home, both to Souths.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
Fullback - Callan Richardson (Wests): Only played part of the season there but made an impact.
Wingers - Jarrod Flanagan (Souths), Matt Craig (Lakes): Try scoring machines with 25 between them this season.
Centres - Nathan Cantor (Macquarie), Tim Christie (Souths): Strong in both attack and defence for their respective teams.
Halves - Willie Heta (Souths), Terence Seu Seu (Kurri): Game breakers with ability all round the park.
Props - Jake Finn (Wests), Brendon Simpson (Souths): Massive metres, dominant runners and powerful defenders.
Hooker – Chris Hyde (Macquarie): The NRL Rookie finalist proved his worth for the Scorpions week-in and week-out.
Second-row - Matt Herman (Wests), Marvin Filipo (Cessnock): Able to find the line, bring down would-be runners and valuable versatility.
Lock - Blake Gallen (Macquarie): Named the 2016 Newcastle Rugby League player of the year and for good reason.
Bench - Chanse Burgess (Lakes), Dom Murphy (Central), Rob Mason (Maitland), Sam Keenan (Wests): Cover in both forwards and backs, avid performers for their clubs.
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
Central Newcastle: Just ahead of last-placed Maitland, the Butcher Boys, including star recruit Riley Brown, were left to lament nine losses this year within 14 points or less.