RFL chair Simon Johnson hailed the return of international action as “something special” – and says it highlighted why Rugby League is a “special sport”.
He said: “We have been reminded on a regular basis through the difficult times of the last 16 months that sport, and in particular Rugby League, has the ability to lift the spirits.
“I think of Luke Gale’s field-goal for Leeds at Wembley, Jack Welsby’s try for St Helens in the Grand Final, Kevin Sinfield’s heroic efforts in support of his friend Rob Burrow.
“And you’ll doubtless have your own examples to add to that list.
“This weekend has provided more evidence of that, but with a significant difference – for the first time since the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, we’ve been able to celebrate the special appeal of representative Rugby League.
“That appeal is more diverse and inclusive than ever.
“The weekend began with the thrilling Women’s State of Origin fixture in Queensland. It continued with our England Women playing some sparkling rugby in their first international fixture since 2019, against a Wales team who also displayed admirable courage and skill, despite the eventual margin of defeat.
“Both those games were televised live on Sky Sports – whose support for the women’s and girls’ game, which has built from live coverage of the 2019 Betfred Women’s Super League Grand Final to include a weekly highlights package this season, has provided such a boost as we aim to create a different Rugby League narrative.”
Johnson continued: “Sky’s Friday night focus then switched to Shaun Wane’s long-awaited first game as head coach of England.
“While we shared Shaun’s disappointment at the result, we also pay tribute the commitment and skill shown by all 34 players involved for both England and the Combined Nations All Stars – as well as to the huge amount of work that was required behind the scenes to pull the fixture together, both from our RFL staff, the clubs and those at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and the English Institute of Sport – both key venues for the World Cup this Autumn.
“Putting on any form of sport during the many complications of Covid-19 is a logistical minefield, as all our clubs would confirm. To extend that to the representative arena adds many levels of complication.
“The challenges have been greater still for wheelchair Rugby League over the last year. So the achievement in staging the Wheelchair international in Sheffield on Saturday afternoon was arguably the greatest of the weekend.
“What an uplifting occasion it was, whether you were lucky enough to be there in person, or if you watched the live coverage streamed on BBC Sport – another massive step forward as thousands of people were able to watch wheelchair Rugby League for the first time.
“Again, we should pay tribute to the efforts in defeat of Wales, who opened each half with such imagination, and represented their country with such pride.
“But the England performance was simply stunning, from Tom Halliwell’s audacious opening try on his debut as national captain, to the effervescent performance of his Leeds teammate Nathan Collins which won the player of the match award from the former Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott.
“The England wheelchair squad have trained throughout the pandemic, finding all manner of imaginative ways to work remotely until physical sessions became possible again earlier this year.
“It has been a similar story for our England women and men.
“So to have three teams looking so good in the new Oxen jerseys, belting out the national anthem, and scoring some brilliant tries, all cutting through to a national audience, was such a significant weekend for the game.
“It was uplifting, also, after the enforced absence of supporters throughout 2020, to see and hear fans cheering on England again. To all those who came to Warrington or Sheffield, thank you.
“There is something so special about having our national teams back in action. I hope all Rugby League fans will appreciate that.”
Johnson concluded: “The weekend had always been designed as a preview of what lies ahead this Autumn – the potential for the sport of Rugby League worldwide through showcasing men’s, women’s and wheelchair Rugby League, with unprecedented levels of live BBC coverage.
“There were a couple of other features of the weekend which will stay with me for a long time.
“First, to see James Simpson (pictured) in the Sky studio with Brian Carney and Phil Clarke, breaking more new ground for wheelchair Rugby League – and underlining why he has been such an outstanding ambassador for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
“Second, a few boxes along in the North Stand at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Mose Masoe and his family loving every minute of the action – and Mose’s big grin as the All Stars players waved to him from the pitch.
“Sport is special – and Rugby League is a special sport.”