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.”
40 Scrums to return in 2022
In October, the RFL Board approved a change to the laws to bring scrums back into Rugby League from 2022.
Scrums were abolished as a temporary measure in the summer of 2020 as the game prepared to return following an enforced break caused by the Covid pandemic.
In consultation with medical experts, the RFL Laws Committee recommended a move they said would help significantly reduce the spread of Covid, as they represented a large proportion of the face-to-face contact during matches.
Super League played without scrums for the remainder of that season and the recommendation was continued into 2021, so scrums were not used in any matches throughout this year.
However, 2022 is set to see their return after almost two years absence, as the committee recommended their safe re-introduction due largely to the progress of the vaccination rollout.
The RFL said scrums should return “in the expectation that vaccination rates across the professional game will be sufficiently high to significantly reduce the risk of close contacts causing disruption to the fixture list – a rate of 85% across the professional game by December 31, 2021.”
Any significant change in the spread of Covid, or a failure to hit that vaccination rate, could yet see the decision reversed, but as it stands scrums look set to be a key part of Rugby League once again in 2022.
39 Sine die suspension for referee assault
The National Conference League made a big statement in defence of Rugby League officials in September when a player was handed a ‘sine die’ suspension for assaulting a referee.
Milford player Josh Nathaniel was alleged to have assaulted referee Joe Stearne during the first half of a derby match against Oulton Raiders in August, resulting in the game being abandoned.
A sine die suspension was handed down, meaning there is no set end to the ban with the player only able to ask for a review of his sentence after five years.
“The National Conference League has always recognised the importance of supporting all match officials in undertaking their key role within the sport,” said the NCL Chair, Trevor Hunt.
“This means we hold a strong line against any abuse of match officials, whether verbal or in rare cases such as this, physical.”
Stearne, 25, later spoke about the assault, revealing that it was not the first time he had been attacked while refereeing following another incident when he was just 18, and questioning whether he will pick up the whistle again.
“It’s definitely costing us referees,” he said.
“Most of us keep going, but some walk away because of the nature of the abuse we receive on a week-to-week basis – and we can’t afford for that to keep happening.”
38 Luke Gale stood down as Leeds captain
Leeds Rhinos announced in late July that Luke Gale had been stood down as captain for “behaviours not aligned to team trademarks”.
Gale became skipper of the club shortly after swapping Castleford Tigers to return for the 2020 season and led them to Challenge Cup success in his first season.
But he would be stripped of the armband midway through 2021, following a fall-out with head-coach Richard Agar that saw him miss a training session.
“I am not going into details, but there was a bit of a disagreement between me and Rich Agar in a team meeting,” Gale later explained in a newspaper column.
“The meeting ended fine and then we had a field session after it. I didn’t feel I was in a position mentally to go out and do that session, so I didn’t train.
“I left and I apologise for that. I have spoken to the boys as a group. I have said I am sorry and admitted I let them down by leaving training, which is an unprofessional thing to do.”
Both he and the club said the case was closed there. But it would be a torrid end to the season for Gale due to injury, while the Rhinos secured deals for fellow halfbacks Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin.
The result was the former Man of Steel’s exit at the end of the campaign, as he took up an offer from Hull FC.
37 Leagues delay start of season
The year was only a couple of weeks old when the now-familiar spectre of Covid forced more change upon Rugby League, with the start to the new Super League season further delayed.
After the later finish to the 2020 campaign, the 2021 edition was already pencilled in for a later start of 11th March, but in January that was pushed further back to 25th March.
The primary reason was to “increase the chances of kicking off the new season in front of fans”, though in the end supporters were only able to finally return – in limited numbers – two months into the campaign, from 17 May.
The deferred start date compressed the season further, as the Grand Final remained on the same day as originally planned, putting a heavy toll on the players once more following the relentless end to the previous term.
There was also a later start for other divisions compared to normal, with the Championship only starting in April and League 1 holding off until May.
The delay to the new season was also a portent of things to come as Covid continued to rear its head throughout the year, causing matches to be postponed across the game. Only one Super League team managed to play every scheduled match – Wigan Warriors – as teams spent the whole season on their toes.
36 James Roby retires from England duty
The postponement of the Rugby League World Cup for a year had another victim as James Roby made the decision to retire from international duty in September.
Roby enjoyed a lengthy career at that level, making seven appearances for Great Britain – including his international debut – and a further 36 for England.
The St Helens legend featured in three World Cup tournaments, playing in the final of the last one against Australia in 2017.
However, the delay of the latest tournament to 2022 saw hooker Roby, having risen to become England skipper, choose to call time at the age of 35.
“I was hoping to be selected for RLWC2021 this autumn and taking absolutely nothing for granted, but 2022 is a year too far,” explained Roby. “Time waits for no man.”
England coach Shaun Wane acknowledged what a loss Roby would be, saying: “I’ve been a long-time admirer of James and I’m gutted that I never got the chance to coach him.
“He’d have played in the World Cup had the tournament gone ahead this year, but I understand the reason for his decision.”
Roby’s days with the Saints might also now be numbered, with a suggestion the previous month when he signed a new contract with the club that 2022 could be his final season.
35 Danny Houghton breaks tackle record
Hull FC captain Danny Houghton broke the Super League record for the number of tackles in a single match in April.
Houghton made a staggering 85 tackles in the 90 minutes of Hull’s clash with Warrington Wolves, which was drawn 14-14 after golden-point extra time failed to separate the sides.
The hooker had held the record jointly in the past, having matched former Salford player Malcolm Alker when he made 69 tackles in a match against Widnes Vikings in 2014.
Morgan Smithies snatched the record away from both of them when he sensationally made 72 tackles for Wigan Warriors in their play-off game with Salford in 2019.
Yet Houghton not only broke but smashed that mark by going 13 better, putting him well ahead of any other effort since Opta began recording the stats in 2003.
His tally is also comfortably ahead of the current NRL record, which was set in 2015 at 77 tackles by Elijah Taylor for Penrith Panthers.
The Black and White stalwart’s defensive efforts have always been something to marvel at – five times he has been crowned as Super League’s Hit Man for completing the most tackles in a season, with the Man of Steel award going his way in 2016.
34 Chris Chester departs Wakefield
Chris Chester’s spell in charge at Wakefield Trinity came to an end in August when the club’s poor season led them to a parting of the ways.
Chester spent more than five years at the Belle Vue helm, having taken charge in March 2016 after leaving Hull KR.
There were good times during his tenure, with consecutive fifth-place finishes in 2017 and 2018 – equalling their Super League best – a genuine achievement on one of the competition’s lower budgets.
But those heights were not to be reached again, with finishes of ninth and tenth in the following two campaigns before Chester led Trinity to only four wins in 17 matches in the 2021 season at the time of his departure.
“It’s always a sad and difficult decision when change is needed, but the Board felt that the time was right for change. For many reasons, we are stuck in a rut,” said Wakefield CEO Michael Carter.
“Chez will be remembered as a success at this club, and one who always had its best interests at heart. I wish him every success for the future.”
The decision would prove to be justified by the form of Trinity at the end of the season under interim (and now permanent) new coach Willie Poching, who led them to victory in five of their last seven games, while Chester has since joined Leigh Centurions as head of rugby.
33 Catalans reach the Grand Final
Catalans Dragons made one piece of history by winning the League Leaders’ Shield for the first time and followed it up by beating Hull KR at the end of September to reach the Grand Final.
Their superb season, finishing top of the Super League tree with 19 wins from their 23 matches, meant they only had one hurdle to overcome to earn a maiden Old Trafford appearance.
Hull KR upset Warrington Wolves in the opening round of the play-offs to mean that they would be the side standing in the way of a first international Grand Final.
However, Rovers were no match for the Dragons at a sold-out Stade Gilbert Brutus, as Steve McNamara’s side cruised to a 28-10 victory.
Ben Garcia and Josh Drinkwater scored first-half tries to put them ahead, before Catalans pulled clear after the break through Arthur Mourgue, Fouad Yaha and Joe Chan.
“The parties and the celebrations are for the supporters, and they deserve to celebrate after the tough times we’ve all been through,” said McNamara after the match.
“But we are aware as a club, and a playing group, that if we are going to do anything truly historic, we have to do it next week in Manchester.”
Alas, the caution of the experienced McNamara would prove wise, as that final step just eluded them the following week in the showpiece with St Helens.
32 Bradford Bulls return to Odsal
The long saga of Bradford Bulls and Odsal took another twist in May when the club made a return to their historic home ground.
The Bulls began the season playing at the Tetley’s Stadium in Dewsbury, where they had been based since deciding to make the switch at the end of 2019.
They had left Odsal behind due to the rising maintenance costs, but in May they were back in their city after signing an 18-month tenancy agreement with the RFL, who have owned the stadium since 2012.
More than a year and a half after what had appeared to be a farewell match there, Bradford returned with a victory over York City Knights.
“Odsal is the venue that came back from the dead,” said Bulls chairman Nigel Wood.
“We are not blind to its shortcomings. It may be old and it may be basic, but it is our home.
“There is considerable uncertainty still around the sport, matters that we cannot control or even influence, like central distributions and league structures, so we can only commit to an initial 18-month occupancy while these issues get resolved.
“Getting the Bulls back to Bradford is not the end of the journey and we continue to work positively and collaboratively with all organisations who can help, to give the supporters the facilities they deserve in the 21st century.”
31 Barrow secure League 1 title
Barrow Raiders secured their return to the Championship at the first time of asking in September by topping the League 1 table.
Having been relegated in 2019 and seen the 2020 season barely get started due to Covid, Paul Crarey’s side deservedly won the third tier with 13 wins and a draw in 17 matches.
Barrow led the way for much of the season but had Cumbrian rivals Workington Town on their tails throughout. It looked as though they might have let it slip when a defeat at North Wales Crusaders in mid-August saw them knocked off top spot with four matches to go.
But after both sides lost the following week, Workington’s defeat at Doncaster saw the Raiders jump back up, and when Declan Hulme’s last-gasp try saw them win at Rochdale Hornets in the penultimate round, they knew they just needed to beat basement dwellers West Wales Raiders on home turf.
The duly did so and in some style, winning 76-0 in front of a crowd of almost 2,000 at Derwent Park, with Tee Ritson marking the occasion with his own piece of history by becoming the first Barrow player ever to score seven tries in a single match.
“We have worked very hard as a group this season to get this point and going up is a massive achievement for club and players, especially this year when we’ve used a lot of local players,” said Crarey.
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.