The 10 most significant and memorable Rugby League moments of 2023

AS 2024 begins, League Express writer STEPHEN IBBETSON concludes our annual five-part series of articles that look back at the season just gone and picks out the significant and memorable moments we’ll all remember, whether they are triumphs or tragedies, great matches or momentous events.

This week we consider the top ten moments, counting down to the biggest moment of the year.

For the purposes of this series we should define the scope of the moments that we will include with the dictionary definitions of our two key terms.

“Significant: important, large, or great, especially in leading to a different result or to an important change.”

“Memorable: worth remembering or easily remembered, especially because of being special or unusual.”

Let us know whether you agree with our selections.

10 Going pro

WOMEN’S Super League players signed professional contracts for the first time in October, with York Valkyrie making the historic step.

York, alongside Leeds, were already paying their players on a performance basis during the 2023 season, the first time that had been the case for women’s players in England.

But Valkyrie, fresh from winning the WSL title, took the leap by signing their whole first-team squad to two-year contracts, including a base salary, from next year.

England internationals Sinead Peach, Tara Jane Stanley and Olivia Wood were the first three to sign, with 17 other York players following shortly after.

Huddersfield also signed two of their players to professional contracts as women finally begin to be paid to play the game.

York Chairman Clint Goodchild said: “I think that this is a big step forward in getting some security for the players and the clubs, and being able to have a transparent approach to contracts and a paid structure.

“I believe that this is an important step forward and I’m happy to be part of a special group of people taking that step.

“I think that it’s just a matter of time before we have some full-time women’s Rugby League players in the next five-to-ten years.”

9 Nod of approval

A NEW grading system for the professional game was approved by the RFL Council in April.

The seismic change, in which clubs are ranked on a number of on- and off-field factors to determine who plays in Super League, was first proposed by the RFL’s long-term strategic partner IMG in September 2022.

Despite some public opposition to the system, the plans passed with ease, getting 86 percent of the vote including from a vast majority of the professional clubs – ten of eleven Super League clubs voted in favour, as did 15 of 24 lower-league sides.

RFL chief executive Tony Sutton said: “I think it was important for us all that it was a strong majority.

“It’s a very positive development for the game and we felt it was important that it was well supported.”

The exact criteria on which clubs would be graded on from the end of the 2024 season (with indicative grades given at the end of 2023) was only revealed in July.

As well as on-field performance, clubs would also be judged on their fandom (including attendances and digital following), various financial metrics, their stadium facilities and community value (including catchment area).

Grade A clubs (those with 15 points out of 20) are guaranteed a Super League place under the system, joined by only the highest-ranked Grade B clubs.

8 Has the magic gone?

THE RFL announced in November that Magic Weekend would be moved from Newcastle to Leeds for the 2024 season.

The Super League event has been held every year (bar 2020, due to Covid) since 2007, in a range of major stadiums outside the sport’s heartlands in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Liverpool.

All but one edition since 2015 has been held at St James’ Park, which proved a hugely popular location with supporters and attracted several record crowds.

But the RFL claimed the stadium was unavailable for 2024, owing to the decision to move the event to August, and chose instead to take it to Elland Road.

The new location attracted criticism for being inside the heartlands rather than out of it, being poorly-located miles from the city centre, and the lack of comfort at the ground.

A subsequent League Express poll found that only 5 percent of respondents intended to go for the full weekend, while almost 50 percent would not be going to Magic, despite previously attending the event in Newcastle.

Many fans speculated that the move would bring the end of Magic Weekend, which the game’s strategic partner IMG proposed ditching.

RL Commercial managing director Rhodri Jones said: “We are delighted to have agreed a deal with Leeds United FC to stage Magic Weekend at Elland Road, one of the biggest and best stadia in the north of England.”

7 Safety first

A HOST of measures, including lowering the legal tackle height, were announced by the RFL in December.

In a bid to make the game safer for players, 44 recommendations from the Brain Health and Clinical Advisory Group Sub-Committees were accepted.

Most notably, the legal tackle height will be lowered from below the neck to below the shoulder (at armpit height).

The change, which was first trialled in Academy games over the summer, will apply in the amateur game in 2024, and then in the professional game from 2025.

Other measures to be taken in the professional game include the mandated use of instrumented mouthguards, mandatory time for off-seasons and match limits for players over a twelve-month period.

In the junior game, players up to Under-9s will be unable to play contact Rugby League by 2026.

“We believe (these changes) are essential, as Rugby League must respond to developments in medical and scientific knowledge to prioritise the safety of those that play,” said RFL chief executive Tony Sutton.

“Rugby League will remain a tough, gladiatorial and character-building team sport, but we believe the mandating of tag/touch at the introductory levels and the reduction in the legal tackle height at all levels from 2025 will place a new emphasis on skill and attacking play.”

6 Au revoir

FRANCE withdrew from hosting the 2025 World Cup in May for financial reasons.

In January 2022, the tournament was awarded to France, home of the first event in 1954 and the founder, Paul Barrière, whose name adorns the men’s trophy.

An ambitious plan was laid out to host the tournament in 40 cities across the country, with 128 matches involving 64 national teams in men’s, women’s, wheelchair and youth competitions.

But government funding was dependent on financial assurances from organisers, who were not able to fully secure the risk of the World Cup making a loss.

Organisers admitted that “the conditions of financial viability initially defined by the state to meet the project… were not fully met”.

International Rugby League (IRL) chair Troy Grant said: “I respect the French government’s decision amid the challenges they are facing but I can’t hide my disappointment.”

It was the second time an organiser had pulled out after the USA and Canada did likewise after first securing the hosting rights in 2016.

As well as leaving the IRL scrambling to find a host for the third time, it was also a major blow for the development of French Rugby League.

The awarding of the World Cup to France topped our list of the most significant moments of 2022 for the potential benefits to the Gallic game and the sport globally – but it was not to be.

5 Triumph of the Lams

LEIGH LEOPARDS won the Challenge Cup for only the third time in their history in August.

It was a battle of two underdogs in a refreshing Wembley final, with Leigh facing a Hull KR side that had only once lifted the trophy before.

The Leopards did it the hard way, forced into golden-point extra-time by Matt Parcell’s late try after leading through Lachlan Lam and Tom Briscoe scores.

But it was Lam, the son of Leigh coach Adrian, who secured victory, four minutes into added time, with a field-goal.

The Challenge Cup win capped an excellent season for the club, which finished fifth on their return to Super League in front of growing crowds.

And it was a great reward for owner Derek Beaumont, who has put plenty of money into the club and was the driving force behind their ‘Leopards’ rebrand at the end of 2022.

“Derek’s always had this dream, he says, of walking out at Wembley,” said coach Lam.

“He always tells us that his dreams come true, and we’ve got to believe him now.

“As a club we’re grateful for him and what he puts into the club. It’s people like him that keep Rugby League clubs alive.”

4 Saint-sational

ST HELENS made history in February by becoming only the second English side to win the World Club Challenge on Australian soil.

Lewis Dodd kicked a field-goal in the third minute of golden-point extra-time to seal the triumph for St Helens, over Penrith Panthers, after the sides were tied 12-12 over 80 minutes.

It was the first World Club Challenge since 2020, when Saints lost to Sydney Roosters at home, as Covid put paid to the contest in the subsequent two years.

That denied St Helens two further opportunities to win, but after their fourth consecutive Super League triumph they took on back-to-back NRL champions Penrith, at their own BlueBet Stadium, and won.

They led 12-0 through early Jack Welsby and Konrad Hurrell tries, and still led by six heading into the final couple of minutes.

But a dramatic try by Brian To’o, and a Nathan Cleary conversion, sent the match to golden-point, where young Dodd proved the hero.

It made Paul Wellens a world-champion head coach in his first competitive game in charge of the club, while Wellens was involved as a player in Saints’ two previous triumphs in the competition, in 2001 and 2007.

But following in the footsteps of only Wigan, who beat Brisbane Broncos on their own patch in 1994, made it an even more remarkable achievement.

3 New world order

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY LEAGUE (IRL) firmed up a global calendar at long last in August, while confirming the postponement of the next World Cup to 2026.

Following a board meeting in Singapore, the IRL decided to shift the World Cup back a year after France withdrew as hosts.

They also confirmed it would be held in the southern hemisphere, but the exact hosting arrangements will only be announced in 2024.

The tournaments will be reduced in size from France’s plan to have 16 teams in each of the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events.

Instead, just ten men’s teams will take part, six fewer than in 2022, while the women’s and wheelchair competitions will remain at eight sides like at the previous World Cup.

After 2026, the tournaments will be staged as separate World Cups every four years, starting with the women in 2028, wheelchair in 2029, and men in 2030.

At the same, the IRL announced a set of international series for the coming years, including an Ashes tour for both England’s men and women in 2025.

England’s men will host New Zealand and Australia in 2027 and 2028 respectively, a rare instance of long-term planning in the international game.

“After we secure the future of international Rugby League, our calendar will help rejuvenate and allow the game to grow globally,” said IRL chair Troy Grant.

2 Declining value

SUPER LEAGUE suffered another drop in the value of its broadcast deal in October – despite giving Sky Sports the right to show every match.

Under the new three-year deal, which begins in 2024, Sky will show every Super League game on its platforms for the first time.

Sky, which has held the TV rights for the competition since its inception in 1996, will invest to have all the games broadcast and have a video referee.

But they are believed to be paying only around £21.5m a year under the new contract, down from £25m for the previous deal.

That’s despite the RFL and Super League coming together to form the joint-venture RL Commercial to negotiate the rights, and the recruitment of global sports experts IMG as a strategic partner.

Nonetheless, RL Commercial managing director Rhodri Jones sold the deal as a good one: “To have all six fixtures in every round of the men’s Super League televised will offer major new opportunities for RL Commercial and our clubs, as well as allowing supporters to watch many more matches.”

Discussions remain ongoing around a free-to-air deal, following Channel 4’s coverage over the previous two years, while no contract is yet in place for the Championship to remain on TV screens although its deal with Premier Sports could possibly be revived.

1 The grades are in

THE first glimpse of Super League’s future was unveiled in October when the first club grades were released.

The grading system, as proposed by the game’s strategic partner IMG, sees clubs ranked on various on- and off-field metrics to determine top-flight participation.

Before being put in place for 2025, clubs were given indicative grades for 2024, with seven earning Grade A status which would guarantee a Super League place.

Leeds Rhinos finished top of the table of professional clubs, with Wigan Warriors, St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Warrington Wolves, Hull KR and Hull FC also getting the top grade.

The rest of Super League’s twelve teams will be made up of the highest clubs rated as Grade B, which in the indicative gradings were Salford Red Devils, Huddersfield Giants, Toulouse Olympique, Wakefield Trinity and Leigh Leopards.

It suggests that both Toulouse and Wakefield are on course to return to Super League in 2025, while Castleford Tigers’ status is at risk and London Broncos, ranked 24th, are almost certain to be relegated after 2024.

For other clubs, the short or long road to Super League has been mapped out, as has a future for the sport, which is yet to fully convince many supporters or those within the game.

Part one of this series can be read here.

Part two of this series can be read here.

Part three of this series can be read here.

Part four of this series can be read here.