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.”
30 Adrian Lam returns at Leigh
A season to forget for Leigh Centurions ended with the appointment in November of Adrian Lam as their new head coach for 2022.
Leigh won just two of their 23 matches across the 2021 season following their elevation to Super League, with John Duffy paying the price and losing his job at the beginning of June and Kurt Haggerty taking up the reins on an interim basis for the rest of the campaign.
Meanwhile, it was not the rosiest year for their neighbours Wigan Warriors either, finishing fourth with Super League’s poorest attack, and by the time they lost meekly in the first round of the play-offs their head coach Lam already knew the season would be his last.
But he would not need to go far to find his next job, as Leigh’s vacancy gave him an opportunity to jump straight back on the coaching horse, albeit with a considerable drop from winning the League Leaders’ Shield to preparing for a Championship season in the space of less than 12 months.
Leigh’s director of rugby Chris Chester hailed Lam’s arrival as “a real coup”, while Lam himself said: “It’s a different level for me, but I have the same expectations as I would have with a Super League club in that I want the club to do well.”
29 Saints Women dominate in front of record crowd
It was a stunning season of success for St Helens in the women’s game, as they completed the treble with Grand Final glory in October.
They already had two trophies in hand in 2021 having won the Challenge Cup in June – beating York City Knights in the final at Leigh – and the League Leaders’ Shield for finishing top of the Super League table having won all four matches in the play-off stage.
Remarkably, across the whole of the league campaign, no side scored more than six points against Saints, and their defence was again key in the Grand Final as they kept opponents Leeds Rhinos scoreless in a 28-0 victory.
Not that their attack was too bad either, as they wrapped up the title with two tries from Leah Burke and one each from captain Jodie Cunningham, Amy Hardcastle, Zoe Harris and Danielle Bush.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Saints head coach Derek Hardman of their treble-winning feats.
“We set our stall out from 2020 and we were ready then. We knew we would be ready for 2021 because we’d be back even better and I’m really proud of the girls.”
The significance of that final stretched beyond those brilliant achievements, however, with the match watched by a record women’s crowd.
There was a gate of 4,235 at Headingley to enjoy the dominant St Helens victory. It was a significant feat as the domestic women’s game continues to go from strength to strength.
28 Willie Poching confirmed at Wakefield
Willie Poching was appointed as the permanent head coach of Wakefield Trinity in September after a successful spell in an interim role.
Poching was initially handed the reins following the departure of Chris Chester, with Trinity second-last in the Super League table, having won only four of their 17 matches.
That form was turned on its head by the former Wakefield and Leeds Rhinos player, who stepped up from assistant coach to win five of his seven matches.
Poching’s spell started with a brilliant 28-22 win over Warrington Wolves, and continued with further wins over Hull KR, Leeds, Huddersfield Giants and Hull FC.
Within a week of the season coming to its end, his appointment was made a full-time one for the 2022 season onwards.
“I’m extremely proud to sit in this seat and be the head coach of this team,” said Poching.
“It’s the club of the city that I’ve lived in and have done for a long time, with such an illustrious history, a fantastic board and support crew.
“There has been a lot of success at this club, but not for a little while. It’s a challenge that I’m ready for. I’m extremely pleased and deeply honoured.”
27 Saints end 13-year Challenge Cup drought
St Helens ended their 13-year wait for a Challenge Cup triumph by beating Castleford Tigers in the final at Wembley in July.
Having seen off Leeds Rhinos, Huddersfield Giants and Hull FC to reach the showpiece, Saints then beat Daryl Powell’s men in scorching heat, and in front of a crowd of 40,000, to win the competition for the 13th time.
Coming in as favourites, they trailed at half-time as Niall Evalds and Jake Trueman put Castleford ahead following Theo Fages’ opener.
But Kristian Woolf’s side came roaring back in the second half, with James Roby, Tommy Makinson and Kyle Amor scoring tries as 20 unanswered points sent the Cup to Merseyside.
Skipper Roby was the only survivor from the last St Helens side to lift the trophy in 2008 and he is now a four-time winner.
“It’s been a long time. I’m just really proud of the boys and made up that we’re bringing it back,” said Roby.
The 26-12 victory completed a Challenge Cup double for Saints, who already had the Women’s Challenge Cup in the bag following a 34-6 win over York City Knights at Leigh Sports Village the previous month.
26 Tomkins and Cunningham win individual honours
Sam Tomkins and Jodie Cunningham were the big winners at the Betfred Super League Awards in October as they claimed the Man and Woman of Steel prizes respectively.
Tomkins became the fourth player to be named Steve Prescott Man of Steel twice, nine years after first winning the award with Wigan Warriors, thanks to an excellent campaign with Catalans Dragons.
The fullback played a key role in helping Catalans win the League Leaders’ Shield and reach their first Grand Final, which included ten tries and 20 try assists.
“It is a huge honour to receive the Man of Steel Award,” said Tomkins. “It comes off the back of some great team performances, and I feel lucky to be playing in a great team at Catalans.”
Cunningham was rewarded for being a leading figure as captain in the all-conquering St Helens side that won the treble of Super League, Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield.
The loose forward became only the third winner of the Woman of Steel award since its introduction, following in the footsteps of Georgia Roche and Courtney Winfield-Hill.
“I’m passionate about the development of Women’s Rugby League, and that’s one of the reasons winning this award means so much,” said Cunningham. “It’s a real honour to be named Woman of Steel.”
As for the other awards, Catalans’ Steve McNamara was named Coach of the Year while the Young Player of the Year was Jack Welsby.
25 Salford consider change of home
Throughout the summer and autumn, talks were held between Salford Red Devils and football club Salford City FC about a move that could see the two clubs swap homes.
The Red Devils have played at the AJ Bell Stadium since 2012, when they moved into the newly-built venue alongside rugby union side Sale Sharks.
Salford City want to move into the 12,000-capacity stadium and, along with Sale, buy it from the council and Peel Holdings, who each have 50 per cent ownership of the stadium.
The Red Devils have an agreement to remain there until 2023, but it looks increasingly likely that they will be out by the end of 2022, as they embrace the possibility of a move to the current home of the football club at Moor Lane.
The new ground would be significantly smaller, with around half the AJ Bell’s capacity. It is based in the Kersal district in the east of Salford, near the Manchester border, whereas the AJ Bell is in Barton-upon-Irwell to the west of the city.
“I think Moor Lane has some real positivity attached to it, providing we can increase the attendances,” said Salford Chairman Paul King.
“Salford City have a long-term lease from the Council, so part of the gig would be that the local authority would take it back and we would take a long-term lease on that stadium.
“We could then recreate the atmosphere we had at the Willows, which was intimidatory for our opponents.”
24 Wigan appoint Matt Peet
Adrian Lam’s departure from Wigan Warriors presented the opportunity for Matt Peet to take over in the role in October.
Peet was an unusual appointment in having never played the game professionally nor been a first-team head-coach. But he had extensive experience coaching within the Warriors over 13 years.
The former Wigan Academy player was a scholarship coach, age-group assistant and head coach, then performance coach and head of youth performance, overseeing six Academy Grand Final wins in seven seasons, before becoming an assistant coach to the senior squad.
Peet will be assisted in 2022 by Lee Briers, who has moved from Warrington Wolves, and Sean O’Loughlin, while England head coach Shaun Wane returned to the club in a new role of leadership and management director.
“Matt Peet has been developing consistently on our coaching pathway for some time,” said Warriors general manager Kris Radlinski.
“He has always had the technical coaching abilities but now possesses the crucial elements of leadership, communication and man management.
“Having watched him closely for a number of years, it is clear that he is ready for the next step, surrounded by a strong and experienced support staff who will bring the best out of him.”
Peet added: “It is a privilege to be named Wigan Warriors head coach. I’m looking forward to what is ahead and I’m very grateful to Ian Lenagan, Kris Radlinski and the club for giving me this opportunity.”
23 Dragons win League Leaders’ Shield
Catalans Dragons made history in September by becoming the first non-English side to ever top the table – and did it with one of the most extraordinary conclusions to a match seen in Super League.
Facing their nearest rivals in the table, St Helens, at St James’ Park for Magic Weekend, Steve McNamara’s side trailed by 18 points with just four minutes left to play.
However, Dean Whare dived over and Arthur Mourgue put Gil Dudson in to make the difference one score, before Sam Kasiano plucked a Josh Drinkwater kick out of the skies for another.
James Maloney converted all three tries to take the match to golden-point extra-time, before emerging the hero with the winning field-goal for a scarcely believable 31-30 victory.
It was a remarkable way for Catalans to clinch their first League Leaders’ Shield, which was well deserved after they finished the regular season with comfortably the strongest record.
Despite then losing their final two matches, they won 19 of their 23 games.
“It’s an outstanding achievement for the club,” said McNamara. “Four years ago, we were losing at half-time in the Million Pound Game.
“We’re now consistent enough to finish in the top four last year and top of the league now for the first time in our history after a really tough season.”
22 Broncos go part-time
London Broncos made the decision in September to change their status from full- to part-time for the 2022 season.
It has been a dispiriting slide for the capital club over the past couple of years, since their final-day relegation from Super League in 2019.
After an aborted 2020 season due to Covid, the Broncos failed to reach the top-six play-offs in the Championship in 2021.
Danny Ward, who had led their charge into the top flight three years earlier in his first season as head coach, departed in July, with Tom Tsang taking over for the remainder of the season.
London said that retaining a full-time operation beyond the end of the year would be unsustainable because of the impending cuts to Championship funding.
“Financially, the club will be receiving a vastly-reduced central distribution in 2022 and we have had to make changes to offset this reduction,” they explained.
Jermaine Coleman has since taken charge as coach and inevitably had to overhaul the squad for a part-time set-up, while the Broncos are also making the move from their Ealing base to Wimbledon’s Plough Lane for 2022.
London have featured in 20 of the 26 editions of Super League to date, but the switch to part-time will make it difficult for the top-flight of the game to have representation in the capital again any time soon.
21 Aces move to Cornwall and appoint Neil Kelly
Rugby League’s newest professional club was revealed in November, with Cornwall RLFC set to take their place in League 1 from the 2022 season.
The south-west is where Eric Perez, founder of Toronto Wolfpack, has landed Ottawa Aces after abandoning hopes of making them the second Canadian venture in the sport.
Taking on the license of Hemel Stags, Ottawa were initially due to join League 1 in 2021, before deferring to 2022 due to the Covid pandemic and then changing plan in October.
A couple of weeks later they revealed where their new home would be, swapping the Canadian capital (population almost 1 million) for the Cornish town of Penryn (population under 7,000).
Rugby League has reached out to many places across the UK over the years – often with little success – but Cornwall is completely new ground for the professional game.
“This is a landmark day in the history of Rugby League,” hailed Cornwall director David Groves. “For the first time in our sport’s history we are a truly national sport.
“Cornwall is a place that was made for Rugby League and, finally, after 126 years, we are proud to bring one of the most exciting team sports on the planet here.”
Cornwall then went on to appoint former Widnes and Dewsbury boss Neil Kelly as their first head coach.
“I’m pinching myself and I see it as a real honour to be the coach of Cornwall RLFC for our inaugural season going into Rugby League,” he said.
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.