The 2021 Rugby League season has been historic in several ways, with emotions ranging from the depths of despair to the greatest elation, with stories both positive and negative in equal measure and moments to remember both on and off the field.
League Express continues 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, tragedies, great moments in games or memorable matches.
We hope that you will enjoy reading and reliving some of these significant and memorable Rugby League moments of 2021.
For the purposes of this series, we should define the scope of the moments included 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.”
20 Hull KR sign Lachlan Coote
There was a huge statement of intent from Hull KR in July when they secured star St Helens fullback Lachlan Coote on a two-year deal from 2022.
Coote has been one of the leading figures in the success of Saints in recent years, having joined ahead of the 2019 season and helped them to three Super League titles in his three years at the club.
But the 2021 Grand Final was his last game for the club with a deal long signed to make the move to Hull KR.
Coote was in one sense a victim of the salary cap. With an established squad of stars and talented young players pushing through – including Jack Welsby, eyeing Coote’s own position after having learned from one of the best around – there was no room in the salary cap for them all and something had to give.
That something was Coote, and he will be in a different pattern of red and white for the next two years after signing for Tony Smith’s emerging Rovers.
“I’m really excited for the challenge too, a new start and a move to the other side of the country,” said Coote.
“To move on to Hull KR is exciting. I think the club itself is heading in the right direction. I’m really excited to get across there and see what the city and the fans are all about.
19 BBC show women’s international
Women’s Rugby League made its latest breakthrough in October when an England international was shown on terrestrial television for the very first time.
Craig Richards’ side headed to Perpignan for a post-season match against France, as part of a double-header alongside the clash between the respective men’s sides.
The women’s fixture was shown on BBC2, following on from the Women’s Challenge Cup Final being shown on the same channel for the first time earlier in the year.
“For Women’s Rugby League, 2021 has been a year of remarkable progress, especially considering the loss of the 2020 season because of the pandemic and the postponement of the Rugby League World Cup,” said RFL Chairman Simon Johnson.
“We have already seen England play their first home international since 2013, and after the record attendance at Emerald Headingley for Sunday’s BWSL (Women’s Super League) Grand Final, this will be another great platform for our leading Women’s players to shine.”
Shine they did, as England celebrated a 40-4 victory, which included two tries from captain Emily Rudge on the day she broke the record for the most England caps for a female player.
Amy Hardcastle, Paige Travis, Jodie Cunningham, Tara Jones, Caitlin Beevers were also on the scoresheet as England showed their quality ahead of next autumn’s World Cup, when the BBC will show every women’s match across its platforms.
18 Dolphins to join NRL
The NRL unveiled its 17th club in October with the Dolphins set to join the competition from the 2023 season.
The Dolphins, who will drop their Redcliffe name, will be the first new club to join the NRL since Gold Coast Titans in 2007.
They held off rival bids from two other Brisbane-based clubs, the Firehawks and the Jets, to secure their inclusion, and quickly made a major move with the signing of Wayne Bennett as coach.
Bennett, who will be 73 when the Dolphins make their bow, is a seven-time Premiership winner, with six of his wins coming at Brisbane Broncos when he took charge of that team following their foundation.
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said with the announcement that the league was on track for growth once again and that plans to expand further to 18 will come.
“A move from 16 to 17 is a big move,” Abdo said. “We want a team that can compete from day one and we want to make sure the team is financially viable. We want this to be incredibly successful.
“Equally we will have consideration to eventually moving from 17 to 18. I don’t know what that timeline looks like. That will be a factor of the success of the 17th team and a factor of which market is right, and whether the economics stack up.”
17 Danny Brough announces retirement
Rugby League waved farewell to some big names at the end of the 2021 season and none more influential than Danny Brough, who had to call time in October.
Few players had a bigger impact on the Super League era than the halfback, who retired at the age of 38 as the joint-fifth highest points scorer in Rugby League history.
Brough played in over 500 competitive matches, lifting the Challenge Cup with Hull FC in 2005 and leading Huddersfield Giants to the League Leaders’ Shield in 2013.
The latter season was the former Scotland captain at the peak of his powers, winning the Man of Steel award as well as one of his three Albert Goldthorpe Medals.
After starting at Dewsbury and York, he also played for Castleford and had two spells at Wakefield before finishing his career at Bradford.
Bulls coach John Kear, who also coached him in that successful Hull side and at Wakefield, said: “It is very sad news, it was the third time we have worked together and unfortunately it has come to a sad end, but one I feel that Danny’s body was telling him and consequently I feel he has made the correct decision.
“A fit Danny Brough would get into any team, but father time catches up with everyone and your body tells you when it is time. Danny has listened and hopefully he can enjoy a very illustrious retirement and reflect on everything he has achieved.”
16 Championship TV deal with Premier Sports
The Championship received a major boost in October by striking a broadcast deal with Premier Sports.
The second tier has had limited coverage in recent years under its contract with Sky Sports, with only the play-offs and Summer Bash shown live.
With the reduction in money coming to Championship clubs from the latest Super League deal, there was an extra incentive to get that competition back on screens regularly with a new TV contract.
Premier Sports proved to be the partner they were looking for, and the broadcaster will show more than 30 Championship fixtures per season under their exclusive two-year deal including a match in every regular round.
The deal also includes coverage of seven Challenge Cup ties, including two quarter-finals, as they take up secondary rights to that competition alongside the BBC.
The majority of their live matches will be shown on a Monday night, alongside highlights of the weekend’s games, with the first game to be screened on January 31 between York City Knights and Featherstone Rovers.
“This is such an exciting and positive announcement for the Betfred Championship clubs, and for the sport as a whole,” said Ralph Rimmer, the chief executive of the RFL.
“The competition promises to be even more exciting in 2022 with the involvement of so many proud and ambitious clubs – and with Premier Sports following it all the way.”
15 Featherstone appoint Brian McDermott
Brian McDermott made a return to first-team coaching in October with a shock appointment at Featherstone Rovers.
A four-time Super League champion, three-time Challenge Cup winner and World Club Challenge victor with Leeds Rhinos, McDermott had been out of the game since the demise of Toronto Wolfpack the previous year.
He took on a brief consultancy role with Oldham earlier in 2021 before taking on the challenge of leading Featherstone out of the Championship.
Rovers have failed at the final hurdle in the past two completed seasons – first to McDermott’s Toronto in 2019, and then to Toulouse Olympique in this year’s Million Pound Game.
The latter proved to be James Webster’s last match in charge, with the coach leaving by mutual consent. Featherstone’s choice of replacement certainly made a statement.
“I’ve made it really clear in my tenure at the club that I’m committed to giving everything I possibly can to bring Super League status to this club; it is what this club deserves,” said Rovers Chairman Mark Campbell.
“I’ve known and worked with Brian previously and I know he is the right fit for this club to take us to the next level.
“We have moved quickly to take this opportunity; it is not every day you get the chance to bring a top-class coach like Brian to your club and we are extremely excited about working together moving forward.”
14 World Cup fixture schedule revealed
The Rugby League World Cup 2021 was officially back on when the new tournament schedule was revealed in November.
The competition’s delay for 12 months left organisers with a monumental task, renegotiating around 170 contracts to ensure the World Cup could still take place next year, and as close to that originally planned as possible.
Only a handful of changes had to made to the fixture schedule, most notably due to the inability of the two Liverpool venues to host in 2022.
That provided an opportunity for Wigan’s DW Stadium to join the list of host venues, as well as for the Wheelchair final to move to Manchester Central, meaning all three finals will be in the same city over one weekend as the men’s and women’s events climax at Old Trafford.
“I don’t believe in sporting history there has ever been a situation where people can watch three World Cup finals in the same city in 24 hours,” hailed Chris Brindley, RLWC2021 chair.
Organisers also revealed that Australia and New Zealand, whose withdrawal kicked off the saga, had now signed legally binding agreements to take part, ensuring the same thing will not happen again next year.
“We now have 32 signed participation agreements from the 21 competing nations,” said RLWC2021 chief executive Dutton. “We have rebuilt some relationships and now we’re looking forward.”
13 York move into Community Stadium
York City Knights’ new stadium finally opened in March, hailing a new era at one of the lower division’s most ambitious clubs.
The oft-delayed LNER Community Stadium had been in the works for well over a decade, with Covid only further compounding the wait for both the Knights and the football club York City.
At last, the ground was ready at the turn of the year, allowing the rugby club to be the first to play there when they hosted Hull FC in a pre-season game.
It was a bittersweet moment, though, with supporters still unable to attend matches due to Covid restrictions.
“When we do finally get fans in the new stadium it’s going to be a very special moment,” said Knights Chairman Jon Flatman ahead of the opening.
“We want people to be excited to come here and we’re finally getting closer to that prospect.”
Fans finally got to see the Community Stadium for themselves in May, when a reduced capacity crowd of 1,000 watched York beat Oldham.
As their pre-season defeat to Hull on opening night was followed by four more losses across all competitions, that was also was fittingly their first victory in their new home.
12 George Williams signs for Wolves
The race for George Williams’ signature was won in July by Warrington Wolves, as they signed the England international on a three-and-a-half-year contract.
The halfback was released from his contract with NRL side Canberra Raiders in May, after he cited homesickness and mental wellbeing issues.
“I asked for a release weeks ago for the end of the season,” Williams said at the time. “Not once did I ask for an immediate release, but instead of supporting me the club kicked me out the door.”
Williams was linked with a return to Wigan Warriors, and Championship side Newcastle Thunder made an ambitious bid, but it was Warrington who secured the two-time Super League winner on a deal running until the end of 2024.
“I’m really proud that I stepped out of my comfort zone to go out and test myself in the NRL and I like to think it’s helped me develop my game in the last 18 months, which I’m hoping to showcase now here at Warrington.,” said Williams.
“The team has been building nicely this season and I’m just keen and excited now to come in and get started.”
Williams would go on to enjoy a highly memorable debut for the Wolves in August, kicking a last-minute field-goal to secure a win at Leeds Rhinos.
11 Warrington secure Daryl Powell
Warrington Wolves made one of the biggest coaching appointments of recent times in Super League when they announced the signing of Daryl Powell in April.
Powell signed a three-year contract to leave Castleford at the end of the 2021 season and take charge of the Wolves.
Across more than eight years as head coach, Powell transformed the Tigers from one of Super League’s strugglers into contenders for silverware, winning the League Leaders’ Shield in 2017 but losing in three major finals.
It was a quick play from Warrington to make their move after Steve Price announced his own intention to step down at the end of the season, reflecting just how highly-rated Powell is.
“Warrington is an outstanding club with a rich history and the opportunity to coach the club from 2022 onwards is a very special one,” said Powell. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“Wherever I’ve been as a coach I’ve fully embedded myself into the club and the town. I think it is really important as a coach that you do that and I’m looking forward to meeting all the Warrington fans next season.
“My coaching philosophy is to support players to achieve special things and I think everyone knows and can see what I like to do with my players and teams.
“I feel like I’m moving from one special club to another.”
Our top 10 moments will be revealed in the Monday 3rd January edition of League Express, which is available on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.