The 50 most significant and memorable Rugby League moments of 2023: Part Four

AS 2023 draws to a close, League Express writer STEPHEN IBBETSON 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 or tragedies, great matches or momentous events.

This week we consider moments 11 to 20, while our next issue on January 1 will see us 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.

20 Thunder strike back?

NEWCASTLE THUNDER applied for a return to the RFL professional structure in December – less than two months after withdrawing.

The club endured a season of struggle on the field, winning just five matches to finish bottom of the Championship and being relegated.

In October, they informed the RFL that they would be withdrawing from League One, with financial issues cited for the decision.

It appeared that there would be no professional Rugby League in the North East for the first time since 2000, and just two years after Thunder’s ill-fated move to a full-time set-up.

But Chairman Keith Christie had other ideas, putting together a plan to form a new company to transfer ownership from Semore Kurdi, raise cash and gain acceptance into League One.

The RFL included Newcastle in their League One and 1895 Cup fixture releases before their application was made, and it looks increasingly likely at the time of writing that Thunder will play on next season.

“The RFL have really backed us and also some of the clubs have been really supportive to (try to) make sure we get back in for next year,” said Christie.

“We do add value and it’s important that we recognise we are in a good position. Hopefully it is just a formality of saying we are coming back in.”

19 End of an era at Wigan…

IAN LENAGAN announced his intention in July to step down as Wigan Warriors Chairman and hand full ownership of the club to Mike Danson.

At the end of a season in which the Warriors won their fifth Super League title in his 16 years at the helm, Lenagan duly handed the reins on to his fellow Wiganer Danson.

Under Lenagan, Wigan also won three Challenge Cup crowns as well as the World Club Challenge in 2017.

Danson, who also owns Wigan Athletic football club, with whom the Warriors share the DW Stadium, first took a shareholding in the rugby club in 2020 and officially purchased the remaining 51 percent of shares in December.

He also founded data analytics firm GlobalData PLC and is the owner of the New Statesman magazine.

“Ian has been a fantastic custodian of the club and a strong advocate for this wonderful game at all levels,” said Danson of Lenagan, who also part-owned London Broncos before Wigan and was succeeded as Chairman by Professor Chris Brookes.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Warriors thrive under Ian’s stewardship, both on and off the pitch, and I’m honoured and grateful to be taking on the responsibility as the club’s custodian.

“We will do everything we can to bring success and honour to the Warriors and to make our loyal supporters proud.”

18 …and St Helens

JAMES ROBY’S extraordinary career came to an end in October as he completed his 20th and final season with St Helens.

The Saints captain originally intended to retire at the end of 2022, but changed his mind and decided to play on for one final year.

It proved to be a good decision as, in February, Roby became a world champion for the second time, helping the club beat Penrith Panthers, 16 years after he first won the World Club Challenge.

But there would be no further domestic success in 2023 to add to his six Super League titles, eight League Leaders’ Shields and four Challenge Cup crowns.

His final game proved to be a play-off semi-final away at Catalans Dragons, as Saints’ quest for a fifth league title in succession came to an end and so did hopes of a fairy-tale finish for Roby.

But the hooker can look back with pride on a career that brought 551 games for St Helens including 432 Super League matches – both records – plus 39 international caps for Great Britain and England.

“I’m forever grateful for everyone who has played a part in my journey, however big or small, but now it’s on to pastures new,” he said.

17 History-makers

THE Women’s Challenge Cup Final was played at Wembley for the very first time in August, as St Helens retained their crown at the national stadium.

Saints beat Leeds 22-8 for a third successive title, in front of a domestic-record women’s crowd of 8,338, in a curtain-raiser to the men’s showpiece match.

Tara Jones, Phoebe Hook and Eboni Partington all scored tries in a decisive five-minute burst in the first half, before Shona Hoyle’s score helped ensure it would be Saints climbing the famous steps to lift the trophy in the royal box.

Since the first edition in 2012, the Women’s Challenge Cup has gone from strength to strength alongside the game as a whole, as reflected in the venues for the final.

As recently as 2017, the final was played at an amateur ground – York’s Heworth – but after trips to Warrington, Bolton, Leigh and Leeds’ Elland Road, it is finally now calling the country’s biggest stadium home.

Saints’ captain Jodie Cunningham said: “We have got quite a lot of senior girls who have done a lot in the game and have been there when it was rubbish and nobody turned up to watch you on a park field.

“This is now the norm for young players but I still pinch myself over everything we’re experiencing right now.”

16 The greatest Saint

JAMES ROBY became St Helens’ record appearance-maker in May after playing his 532nd game for the club.

The hooker overtook the previous record, held by Kel Coslett, which had stood for 47 years.

Roby’s day was made more special by a Super League victory over Salford Red Devils on a sunny Saturday at the Totally Wicked Stadium.

Saints trailed at half-time, but roared back with four tries in twelve second-half minutes to secure a fitting 26-12 victory.

After the match Roby, who retired at the end of the season with a final total of 551 games for the club and 117 tries, was presented with a special trophy and paraded around the pitch by team-mates.

“I’m proud to take the mantle off somebody as well-regarded and respected as Kel,” said Roby of Coslett, who served as team manager when Roby began his career before becoming honorary life president of the club.

“I suppose it’s a great reward for what I’ve put in over the years. I’m just privileged and proud to get to do that.

“The way the game is going, reducing (the number of) games for player welfare and safety, it’s highly unlikely (the record) will be broken for a good period of time.”

15 Capital savings

LONDON BRONCOS pulled the plug on their much-praised Academy set-up in November, just weeks after earning promotion to Super League.

Their development system has produced England internationals including Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Mike McMeeken and Kai Pearce-Paul, as well as many of the Broncos players who won the Championship Grand Final.

But London confirmed they would be scrapping the only elite Academy in the south of England, and instead develop players “in a different way”.

They admitted the decision was made largely due to the new club grading system, with the criteria not including any points awarded in relation to Academy set-ups.

London were ranked only 24th in the indicative scores for 2024, the lowest ranked Grade B club, making it virtually impossible for them to remain in Super League in 2025.

“We are wholly committed to working with the RFL and IMG to improve our grading,” said the Broncos, whose Academy costs around £250,000 to run.

“We recognise that this will take time and commitment and therefore have taken the difficult decision to not run the Elite Academy in 2024. 

“All affected parties have been informed and we stress that this is something we will continue to review and could look to revisit in future years.”

14 Are you coming?

SAMOA turned down the invitation for a 2024 Test series in England in November, before agreeing to reconsider the decision later in the month.

The Samoans were due to follow their fellow Pacific islanders Tonga, who toured this year, in enjoying a first-ever series in England next autumn.

But they withdrew after competing in the Pacific Championships with Australia and New Zealand, stating their intention to instead play in that competition again.

It was an embarrassing blow for the RFL, who were left scrambling for alternatives, and for the International Rugby League (IRL), for whom the series was part of the international calendar released earlier in the year.

The IRL later said that their chair, Troy Grant, had persuaded Samoan officials to re-open discussions with the RFL about a tour.

“Rugby League Samoa will work with the IRL and RFL to understand any hurdles needed to overcome in making the tour a successful reality and continue to build on the wonderful legacy they have recently achieved,” said Grant.

But it still leaves Shaun Wane’s England without a single scheduled match for 2024 heading into the turn of the year as the international game, particularly in the northern hemisphere, struggles to build any momentum.

13 Kangaroos clobbered

AUSTRALIA suffered the biggest Test defeat in their history when they lost 30-0 to New Zealand in the Pacific Cup final.

The world champions had beaten the Kiwis 36-18 only a week earlier in Melbourne, but the tables were turned in spectacular fashion across the Tasman in Hamilton.

Jamayne Isaako scored a double either side of half-time while Ronaldo Mulitalo, Matthew Timoko and Griffin Neame also scored tries in a comprehensive success.

Australia’s previous worst Test defeats were a 49-25 loss in 1952 and 24-0 defeat in the 2005 Tri-Nations final, both also to New Zealand.

The latter match, played at Leeds’ Elland Road, was also the last time the Kangaroos had been kept scoreless in a game.

Australia’s only worse defeats in history were in two tour matches, losing 44-2 to St Helens in 1956 and 47-15 to Yorkshire in 1959.

It was a brilliant victory for Michael Maguire, yet only weeks later the Kiwis head coach had resigned from his role to take over the New South Wales team for State of Origin.

After the victory, Maguire said: “You never think a Test match is going to be 30-0 but there’s something special within this group, which I’ve always believed.”

12 A new hope

MATT ELLIS completed his takeover of Wakefield Trinity in October, announcing ambitious spending plans for the club.

The news gave supporters a lift at the end of a miserable season in which Trinity were relegated from Super League with only four wins.

Ellis, who runs the firm DIY Kitchens, immediately appointed Daryl Powell as head coach, while announcing plans to invest over £1m in 2024 alone.

Just days afterwards, Wakefield were placed tenth in the indicative club gradings, putting them on course for a Super League return in 2025 considering the fresh investment and stadium improvements that will further boost their score.

They have since recruited a strong squad, including the likes of Jermaine McGillvary, Iain Thornley and Lachlan Walmsley, while retaining many players from this year, in a bid to win the Championship.

“It’s a real honour to be part of such a historic club and fulfils a personal ambition to be owner of the club I support,” said Ellis.

“I can’t wait to now get started with the task in hand of getting the club back into Super League and at the top end of the table, challenging for trophies.

“I want next season to be successful on and off the field and have already got to work setting plans in motion to ensure a successful 2024 for the club.”

11 Marshall’s moment

WIGAN WARRIORS reclaimed the Super League title with a hard-fought Grand Final victory over Catalans Dragons in October.

Winger Liam Marshall scored the only try of the match, twelve minutes into the second half, as Wigan recorded a 10-2 success.

But it was the Warriors’ defence which stood out most, as they resolutely held out to stop Catalans scoring – the first time a team were shut out in Grand Final history.

Jake Wardle won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as player of the match, earning one more vote than runner-up Harry Smith, who kicked three goals.

It was Wigan’s record-extending 23rd league Championship and a first under head coach Matt Peet, who in two seasons has won all three domestic honours.

After winning the Challenge Cup in 2022, the Warriors won this year’s League Leaders’ Shield on points difference after a three-way tie with Catalans and St Helens.

“He is a leader who leads by example. He leads from the top and everyone follows him,” said Liam Farrell, who lifted the Super League trophy in his first season as club captain, of Peet.

“He makes tough calls when they’re needed. He puts the game plan in place, with all the small details. He’s the reason we are where we are.”

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 five of this series can be read here.