There was a distinctive French flavour to some of Rugby League’s best stories in 2021, and that is reflected in the five personalities of the year in the latest Rugby League Yearbook.
The success of Catalans Dragons – winning the League Leaders’ Shield and reaching a first Grand Final – and Toulouse Olympique’s promotion to Super League saw editors Tim Butcher and Daniel Spencer choose Sam Tomkins and Sylvain Houles in this year’s quintet.
They are joined by St Helens’ Kevin Naiqama, who had a big hand in denying Catalans at Old Trafford, Jordan Abdull of surprise package Hull KR, and Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham from Saints’ treble-winning side.
But it is the French renaissance that most inspired and delighted Butcher, who says that “to have a strong Rugby League in France is great for Rugby League in Britain” and “good for Rugby League globally.”
Toulouse’s promotion from the Championship means there will be two French sides in the top flight for the first time in 2022, though Butcher calls for Super League to help fans to travel from England to see their team at the Stade Ernest-Wallon next year.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing English fans coming to Toulouse,” he says. “But currently there are no flights from the north of England to Toulouse with any airline.
“The nearest place is Bordeaux, so if the airlines have any sense they will be thinking that they ought to be putting some flights on here because there could be between 2,000 and 3,000 wanting to come out to Toulouse, but coming to Bordeaux will put them off because it’s two or three hours down the motorway.
“So I’m hoping that Super League, as they showed with Channel 4, are now lobbying the budget airlines to get those flights on to Toulouse.”
Catalans finally found a way to overcome their travel problems and put together a consistently excellent season, the end result being their best campaign yet.
Fullback Tomkins played a huge role in the Dragons’ achievements and was deservedly named the Steve Prescott Man of Steel for the second time in his career, nine years after first winning the award while a Wigan Warriors player.
With ten tries, 20 assists and a great impact in both attack and defence, Tomkins is in the form of his life and will surely be key for England in next year’s World Cup.
Toulouse can’t lose
It was a remarkable season too for compatriots Toulouse, who won all 16 of the matches they played to top the Championship and beat Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game.
That was the culmination of 15 years’ hard work by Olympique, having missed out on a Super League licence in 2008 and aborted their first spell in the English system before joining League 1 in 2016.
Having been head coach since 2012, Houles has been at the heart of their growth for a decade, despite looking just as fresh-faced now as he did when playing for Huddersfield, London and Wakefield in Super League in the early 2000s!
“The thing about Houles, he’s 40 years old now, but when he watches from the stands or on the touchline you think ‘who’s that kid?’ Butcher laughs. “Credit to him, he’s done fantastic, and Toulouse are a great story.”
Abdull fulfils potential
Hull KR defied expectations to get to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final and key to their resurgence was Jordan Abdull, who finished the year as a Man of Steel contender and England international.
“I remember seeing Jordan Abdull play for England Academy against Australia Schoolboys at Leigh, and he was obviously a fantastic talent,” says Butcher.
“It was 2014, something like that. He’d played a handful of games for Hull FC at that point and you thought this kid could go on and be a superstar. He had all the skills.
“He had a few injuries but I think he also didn’t quite have the attitude to make it to the top. At one point when he went on loan to Hull KR and he went to London Broncos, you thought that’s it, he’s not going to make it any further.
“So it’s great to see him this year starting to fulfil his potential. What a fantastic player he is, and he makes that team tick.”
Naiqama bows out on a high
St Helens finished the year with the two most prized trophies, claiming both the Challenge Cup and Super League Grand Final.
Man of the match in the Old Trafford showpiece was Fijian centre Naiqama, who finished his spell in England with a perfect strike rate of three titles in three years.
“They’ve been outstanding this year, an absolutely fantastic side,” says Butcher of the Saints.
“We could have chosen quite a few players but Kevin Naiqama, he’s been there three years and won three Grand Final rings. It’s absolutely amazing.
“When he got the Harry Sunderland Trophy from Rob Burrow after that game, it was a moving moment.
“But I’m not surprised he’s gone back to Australia to retire and somebody’s signed him up! That’s no surprise because he’s a very, very good player.”
Face of women’s Rugby League
Even more successful than Saints’ men in 2021 were their women, who went one better and won all three trophies on offer for a clean sweep.
England star Jodie Cunningham was at the forefront of their dominance as captain, including a stunning solo try in the Grand Final in front of a record women’s crowd at Headingley.
“I thought ‘oh I’ll just flick through this Grand Final and see what the standard’s like’,” says Butcher. “And I couldn’t flick through it, I had to watch it all.
“Jodie Cunningham is the face of women’s Rugby League at the moment, and it’s fantastic to see. Girls will look at her and think ‘I can play that game’.”
The League Express Yearbook is now on sale and can be ordered from the TotalRL website. Go to www.totalrl.com/shop/ to order a copy.