As 2023 draws to a close, League Express writer STEPHEN IBBETSON introduces 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 41 to 50, while the next four weeks 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.
50 Eagles unveil stadium plan
SHEFFIELD EAGLES unveiled a bold plan for a new 5,000-capacity stadium in the city in November.
A planning pre-application has been sent to the local council for the project, which has been developed in conjunction with non-league football club Sheffield FC.
The stadium would be based in the Meadowhead area, in the south of the city, and also contain a football museum, with Sheffield FC recognised as the world’s oldest football club, and an indoor community sports hall.
It’s believed the project is being pushed forward by Sheffield-based vehicle finance and leasing specialist Jeremy Levine, who has a stake in both the clubs involved.
The Eagles only returned to Olympic Legacy Park, following the completion of a new main stand, in 2022 but director of rugby Mark Aston hailed a huge opportunity for the club.
“We are very excited to be part of this joint-venture and to be at the heart of this world-class development, which will have a stadium that meets the Super League criteria,” said Aston.
“Sheffield Eagles have grown immensely in the last three years thanks to the work of the Eagles Foundation, and the planned facilities will also be a home for our women’s, wheelchair, learning disability and physical disability teams.
“It will also allow us to further develop homegrown talent and provide a base for our already-large community programme.”
49 For England, Saint George
GEORGE WILLIAMS was announced as the new England men’s captain in April.
The Warrington Wolves halfback, fresh from playing a leading role in their World Cup campaign the previous year, was picked by Shaun Wane to succeed Sam Tomkins.
“I’ve seen George develop from being a youngster to the player he is today, and I believe he is the right man to lead the England team,” said Wane.
Williams, who has been an England regular since debuting in 2015, said: “It is a huge honour to be named as England captain.
“Playing for England has always been the pinnacle for me, but being named as captain is the cherry on top.
“I got the opportunity to lead the team out in the World Cup against Greece and it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I had to hold back tears as we walked out onto the field.”
Williams led his country to victory against France in a mid-season international, scoring a hat-trick of tries on home turf at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
But he was banned for the first two matches of their autumn Tonga series, with St Helens’ Jack Welsby leading England to two victories before Williams returned to help them complete a 3-0 whitewash at Headingley.
48 Kiwi Ferns topple Jillaroos
AUSTRALIA’S all-conquering Jillaroos lost for the first time since 2016 as they were beaten by New Zealand in October.
Their 14-match winning run had included two World Cup triumphs and seven wins over their biggest rivals, including a 16-10 success just two weeks earlier in Townsville.
But the Kiwi Ferns turned the tables in Melbourne, winning 12-6 to topple the world’s top-ranked side, a week before New Zealand’s men would do the same.
A brutal defensive battle was locked at 6-6 with seven minutes remaining, with Jaime Chapman’s opening try for Australia cancelled out by Mele Hufanga on the stroke of half-time.
The winning moment came from Leianne Tufuga, who beat Jakiya Whitfield to the left corner for a try converted by Raecene McGregor.
Georgia Hale, co-captain of the Kiwi Ferns alongside McGregor for the Pacific Championships, hailed “a team effort” to beat the Jillaroos.
“It wasn’t always pretty, but it was gritty and it was grindy, and they are some of the elements in our game we are extremely proud of and have been working on,” added Hale.
“It’s been nice to go up against the Jillaroos on two occasions, and I’m extremely proud of how we finished our campaign.”
47 Euro trashed
THE European Championships were postponed in May after France relinquished hosting rights for the next World Cup.
Only three months earlier, draws had been made for eight-team competitions for both men and women, with both to serve partly as qualifiers for the scheduled 2025 World Cup.
But the uncertainty over the global tournament – which was later moved to 2026 in the southern hemisphere – led to the continental event being scrapped.
The tournament was officially only put on hold, although with changes to the World Cup structure for 2026 meaning only one European nation (bar England) can progress, a different qualifying process will likely now be needed.
England were set to field a second-string Knights team in the men’s tournament while Scotland, Wales and Ireland were also due to compete, but the home nations instead didn’t play any full internationals in 2024.
“It was a tremendously difficult decision, but the circumstances have left us in an almost impossible position,” said European Rugby League (ERL) chair Dean Andrews.
“It is very disappointing that we have to delay the staging of these events, but it is the only sensible course of action available to us.
“The ERL board felt it impossible to ask national federations to continue planning for this year’s tournaments.”
46 Marquee player rule change
SUPER LEAGUE clubs can have up to three marquee players in their squad from next season, under changes to the salary cap regulations made in June.
Up until this year, each club could have a maximum of two high earners who counted as only £150,000 on the total salary cap.
But in 2024, a federation-trained player (essentially any from Europe) can be counted as a third marquee player.
The change was made in an attempt to prevent a drain of top young English talent from Super League to the NRL, amid a growing financial gulf between the two competitions.
In a further move, club-trained players will count as only £50,000 on the cap from 2024, instead of £75,000, in a boost to the clubs who produce much of their first-team talent.
Robert Hicks, the RFL’s director of operations and legal, said: “We must recognise the needs for Super League to remain an elite and attractive competition, nationally and internationally.
“While we welcome the growing strength of the NRL as good news for the sport… it can only increase the lure of a move to the southern hemisphere for our leading players.
“We agreed with IMG that we should amend the cap regulations to allow clubs to spend more on keeping our outstanding homegrown players in the Super League competition – and also increase the salary cap rewards for those clubs who develop those players.”
45 Lights out in Leigh
FOR the first time in Super League history, a match was postponed on one day and finished on another in September.
Leigh Leopards were leading a Friday-night clash with Huddersfield Giants 16-12 when the floodlights at Leigh Sports Village went out in the 48th minute.
The ground was plunged into darkness, and with power yet to be restored at around 10pm, the game was abandoned.
The RFL had to decide the following day whether to replay the match in full or continue from the point it stopped. It opted for the latter option.
That meant the surreal sight of fans returning on the Sunday afternoon to watch the remaining 32 minutes, as Leigh closed out a 34-16 win.
Leopards player Oliver Gildart said: “It was weird. I tapped the ball and passed it to Joe Wardle; they’d just made the tackle and the whole stadium went out.
“We were told to go back in the changing rooms and we all just thought ‘they’ll restart the generator or whatever and we’ll be back on’.
“But ten minutes passed, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. We thought ‘are we going to be made to play after we’ve been sat around for 40 minutes?’
“When we got into the changing rooms the lights were on, and then they cut out after five or ten minutes as well.
“It was quite funny really, it’s a good story to tell.”
44 New structure for WSL
THE RFL announced a major restructure of the women’s game for 2024 and onwards in February.
Up until 2023, the Women’s Super League consisted of two six-team divisions, plus a separate Women’s Super League South.
Entry to each was only by invitation, with leagues beneath such as the Championship separate from the top tiers.
From 2024, there will be a national, eight-team Women’s Super League competition, at the top of an integrated, three-tier structure that also includes regional competitions and then local competitions.
The WSL next season will contain the six teams who took part in Group One in 2023, plus Featherstone Rovers and Barrow Raiders, who earned promotion in Group Two, in an expanded competition.
Underneath the top tier will be four regional divisions: ‘North’ (covering West Cumbria, the North East and Scotland), ‘Roses’ (South Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire), ‘Midlands’ and ‘South’ (including Wales).
A national champion at this level, crowned by play-offs between the regional winners, will then play the bottom side in the WSL for a place in the top tier.
“National expansion has been part of our strategy for Women’s and Girls’ Rugby League since the introduction of the Women’s Super League in 2017,” said WSL general manager Thomas Brindle.
“We are excited by the introduction of a national pyramid for 2024, providing a possible route to elite competition for players and clubs from all parts of the country.”
43 Rise of the Valkyrie
YORK VALKYRIE became Women’s Super League champions for the first time in October by beating Leeds Rhinos on home turf in the Grand Final.
Their 16-6 victory at the LNER Community Stadium brought a successful end to a season which also saw them lift the League Leaders’ Shield.
As York City Knights, before the club’s wider rebrand, they had lost the 2022 decider to Leeds, but earned revenge in a hard-hitting contest.
The Valkyrie established an 8-0 half-time lead thanks to tries from England internationals Tamzin Renouf and Tara Jane Stanley.
And after the teams exchanged penalties, Lacey Owen was played in by Liv Gale in the 63rd minute for the match-clinching try.
Caitlin Casey scored a bizarre try for Leeds after the hooter as York began their celebrations before the match had even finished, but they could not be denied their party after several previous near misses in major finals.
“We’ve been told by so many people that we can’t perform in the big games, but we’ve proved them wrong,” said captain Sinead Peach, who days later was named the Woman of Steel.
“I’m so proud of the girls. We really did put everything into it and we’ve come out with the win and I’m over the moon.”
42 NRL players finally in agreement
THE NRL and the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA) settled on a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in August, ending almost a year of deadlock.
The CBA sets out the salary cap and NRL players’ working conditions, but the previous deal expired at the end of the 2022 season.
Players had been in dispute with the NRL ever since, and in July even began to boycott media commitments, while some players covered up the league logo on their shirts for matches.
But a five-year deal, backdated from the start of the 2023 season until the end of 2027, was finally agreed in principle, including a reported 37 percent increase in total player payments, to AU$1.347bn.
The deal was also said to include an AU$115m pledge to the player benefits pool, including injury hardship and retirement funds.
Women’s players in the NRLW will also receive a record AU$117m over the duration of the agreement.
“Once ratified, this agreement will set Rugby League up for the future while ensuring the rights of all NRL and NRLW players – current and future – are protected,” said the NRL and RLPA in a joint-statement.
The RLPA hailed players “for their resolve in ensuring a fair agreement that benefits the game and all of its stakeholders”.
41 Wolves sack Josh McGuire
JOSH McGUIRE’S short spell at Warrington Wolves came to an undignified end with his release in June.
The former World Cup-winning Australian international signed on a two-year deal from St George Illawarra Dragons ahead of the 2023 season but played only seven competitive games and received two lengthy bans.
McGuire missed Warrington’s first seven matches of the season after being banned for unacceptable language that referenced disability in a pre-season game against Leigh Leopards.
He was then handed a mammoth twelve-match ban, one of the longest in Super League history, after being found guilty again by an RFL tribunal of unacceptable language, also against Leigh in a league match.
The forward was considered to have used a “derogatory and negative… term of abuse and disparagement towards disabled individuals” at Leigh winger Josh Charnley, relating to a member of Charnley’s family, despite McGuire himself having a disability, having lost his sight in one eye in a tackle near the start of his career.
Warrington were left with little choice but to dispense with McGuire’s services.
“Warrington Wolves can confirm that Josh McGuire has left the club by mutual agreement with immediate effect,” said the club.
“McGuire has now returned to Australia with his family. We wish Josh well in his next chapter.”