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 21 to 30, while the next two issues 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.
30 It’s all academic
THE RFL began a trial of new laws, including relating to tackle height, in the Academy competition in June.
The trial took place over a six-week period, spanning all matches in four rounds of the league.
Most significantly, tackles had to be made below the armpit at initial contact, with tackles at shoulder height made illegal.
Kick-offs were also taken from the opposition 40-metre line, instead of the halfway line, to reduce the impact of ensuing collisions.
The laws were trialled as part of the RFL’s ongoing efforts to make the game safer amid widespread concerns about head injuries.
For the Under-18s players involved, the change in tackle height proved challenging, with the first match under the laws, between Bradford and Leeds, drawing 56 penalties, 49 of which were for high tackles.
The trial was part of a three-year research project, led by Leeds Beckett University, whose Professor Ben Jones is the RFL’s strategic lead for performance, science and research.
“Over the last five years, the RFL and Leeds Beckett University have been undertaking numerous studies to quantify concussion in Rugby League and how this can inform potential prevention strategies,” said Jones.
“Given the progression in our understanding relating to concussion and repeated sub-concussion exposure, alongside further understanding of the mechanisms and causes of concussion, we have been trialling new laws, informed by wider stakeholders, to reduce risks of concussion and head contact.”
29 Cleary the best
NATHAN CLEARY’S heroic performance led Penrith Panthers’ remarkable comeback to win a third successive NRL Grand Final in October.
Opponents Brisbane Broncos led 24-8 with 17 minutes remaining at Sydney’s Accor Stadium, thanks to Thomas Flegler’s try on the stroke of half-time and a ten-minute hat-trick from Ezra Mam early in the second half.
Just as the hold of Penrith, who topped the table on points difference alone from the Broncos, on the title appeared to be over, up stepped captain Cleary.
He kicked off the late rally by gifting prop Moses Leota a try, then booted a 40/20 to keep his side on the front foot and subsequently put Stephen Crichton over.
A stunning individual score, skipping past four Brisbane defenders, completed the job, with Cleary converting all three tries to secure a 26-24 victory.
“This doesn’t even feel real at the moment, it honestly feels like a dream,” said Cleary after winning his second Clive Churchill Medal as player of the match.
“The start of that second half was a nightmare, it was so bad.
“We’re down, but we’re never out. We keep fighting. That’s our mentality.”
Even more remarkably, it emerged after the Grand Final that Cleary performed those feats after tearing a knee ligament in the first half.
28 Rhinos raid Red Devils
LEEDS RHINOS pulled off a double coup in October by signing Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers from cash-strapped Salford Red Devils.
It was a hugely disappointing 2023 season for Leeds, as they failed to build on the previous year’s Grand Final appearance under Rohan Smith.
After an eighth-place finish, change was needed and came in the shape of two of Salford’s biggest stars.
Both were in inspirational form for the Red Devils in 2022, when they reached the play-off semi-finals, with halfback Croft named Man of Steel in his first season in England and hooker Ackers called up to England’s World Cup squad.
The total transfer fee received by Salford for the two players was reported to be around £300,000 in total, an important financial boost but for the painful loss of two star players.
“We are delighted to have captured these two players,” said Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington.
“It represents a huge investment for us as a club and there is a lot for our fans to look forward to in 2024. It is our biggest investment in one go since we signed Iestyn Harris in 1997.
“Iestyn came and made a significant difference to our squad, and I am sure that Brodie and Andy will both do that.
“Apart from being good players, they are outstanding individuals that will bring experience and leadership to the group.”
27 In the community
SALFORD RED DEVILS made the first step towards becoming a community-owned club in April by launching their community share offer scheme.
The offer allowed individuals to purchase a share in the club’s holding company, entitling them to a vote at the annual general meeting and enabling them to stand for election to the board.
“This year we’re celebrating 150 years of a club at the heart of its community,” said Salford managing director Paul King.
“Now we’re growing that community, as well as placing it at the heart of the club.
“The game has changed. IMG are in the business and with that comes a forward-thinking approach.”
The ‘Reds Rise Together’ scheme surpassed their minimum £250,000 target, raising a final total of £364,270.
But it attracted controversy through a link-up with Salford Credit Union that allowed fans to borrow money to invest in the club.
And in the months afterwards, star players Tyler Dupree, Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers were all sold for big transfer fees despite a key pledge being to “maintain a competitive playing squad”.
The club continues to warn of a big risk to its long-term future without a new and improved lease at the Salford Community Stadium, while they were reportedly placed in special measures in November.
26 What happens in Vegas
THE NRL announced a history-making Las Vegas double-header in August.
Their 2024 season will begin with two matches at the 65,000-capacity Allegiant Stadium, home to NFL side Las Vegas Raiders.
On Saturday, March 2, Manly Sea Eagles will play South Sydney Rabbitohs and Brisbane Broncos will take on Sydney Roosters.
Several one-off major Rugby League games have been played in the US before, including an exhibition State of Origin game in the 1980s and an England-New Zealand Test match in 2018.
But the NRL plans to make Vegas matches an annual occurrence to grow its global popularity, especially in the US to benefit from its lucrative new betting market.
“Rugby League will be on a stage which the sport has simply never been on before and we look forward to giving all clubs the opportunity in coming years,” said NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo.
As well as playing in a modern stadium that hosts the Super Bowl just weeks before the NRL comes to town, the games will be shown on prime-time American TV by Fox Sports.
The NRL has also committed to a big marketing drive in the States including a TV advert with the tagline ‘No pads, no helmets, no fear’.
25 Summer time
CHALLENGE CUP finals day will have yet another new date from 2024, after the announcement in August of a move to early summer.
A new two-year deal was agreed to stage the event at Wembley in June, with next year’s Challenge Cup, Women’s Challenge Cup and 1895 Cup finals to take place on Saturday, June 8.
It will be the sixth different time of year in six seasons for the Cup since a run of August Bank Holiday finals ended in 2019.
Covid pushed the 2020 final back to October, in 2021 it was moved to June, the 2022 edition was played in May, and last year it was in August, but not on the Bank Holiday weekend.
For much of the previous century, the Challenge Cup final was played on the first Saturday in May, at the end of the old winter season.
“We are pleased to be able to confirm that Challenge Cup finals day will be played at Wembley Stadium in each of the next two years and will be returning to an earlier position in the season in June,” said RL Commercial managing director Rhodri Jones.
“This fits with the reimagining of Rugby League through the sport’s long-term partnership with IMG, as we work towards a restructured calendar, and also maintain the double header of men’s and women’s Challenge Cup finals given the growth potential of the women’s and girls’ game.”
24 The new chief
TONY SUTTON was appointed as the new chief executive officer of the RFL in March.
Since Ralph Rimmer’s departure from the role three months earlier, Sutton has been interim CEO of the governing body.
He previously served for six years as finance director and then chief operating officer.
The latter role was also held by predecessors Rimmer and Nigel Wood, making Sutton the third consecutive internal appointment to the top job.
Prior to joining the RFL, Sutton worked at Hull FC for 13 years in a variety of positions.
“This is a pivotal and exciting time for the sport of Rugby League, and I am immensely proud and privileged to have been given the opportunity to lead the RFL,” said Sutton.
“In six years with the RFL, I have seen first-hand the level of commitment delivered by some incredible people, now including RL Commercial.
“We relish the challenges ahead, working with our strategic partners at IMG, our clubs, our broadcast and commercial partners and our many other stakeholders – with a focus on looking after our people and the sport’s participants, maximising our Reimagining Rugby League project and continuing to deliver our community strategy, to make our sport as inclusive, accessible and engaging as possible.”
23 One Sam arrives…
SAM BURGESS was appointed as Warrington Wolves’ new head coach in August in a surprise decision by the club.
Burgess applied for the role after Warrington parted ways with Daryl Powell with the club in free-fall on the field.
Under interim coach Gary Chambers, the Wolves recovered to reach the play-offs, but they will hope to challenge for honours again under their high-profile new boss.
Burgess retired from playing at the end of 2019 after a distinguished career with South Sydney Rabbitohs and has since been an assistant coach at the NRL club.
“We’re thrilled to have Sam join us as our new head coach,” said Warrington chairman Stuart Middleton.
“He is an impressive, young and determined coach with a huge reputation within the sport.
“He was a leader for both club and country at the highest level throughout his playing career and is extremely well-driven to now make his mark as a coach in Super League.
“The ambition he has for the club and the culture he wants to instil really impressed and stood out for us during the interview process.
“We firmly believe he is the right man to take the club forward.”
22 …as another bows out
SAM TOMKINS confirmed in March that the 2023 season would be the last of his great career.
The Catalans Dragons fullback, who captained England at the World Cup in 2022 and scored 18 tries in 29 internationals in total, decided early in the year to call it a day.
Tomkins enjoyed two spells with Wigan Warriors, winning three Super League titles and two Challenge Cups at his hometown club.
In between, he spent two seasons in the NRL with New Zealand Warriors, who paid a world-record fee of £700,000.
The final five seasons of his career were spent in France, where he helped turn the Dragons into one of Super League’s top teams.
Tomkins saved one of the most iconic moments of his career for its penultimate game, scoring a sensational match-winning try to send Catalans into the Grand Final.
The 34-year-old could not help deliver the fairy-tale ending at Old Trafford, as the Dragons lost to his old side Wigan, but he will remain in Perpignan with some coaching and off-field roles.
“I would love to continue my career on the field with this team, but after 15 years of full-time rugby it’s time to call an end to my playing career at the end of the 2023 season.”
21 London calling
LONDON BRONCOS returned to Super League with victory over Toulouse Olympique in October’s Championship Grand Final.
Their 18-14 victory in France completed a remarkable play-off campaign, after the Broncos finished fifth in the regular-season table.
London hammered Sheffield Eagles 42-0 before returning to Yorkshire to face Featherstone Rovers, the runaway league leaders, in the semi-finals.
A stunning, six-try victory there set up an exciting battle between two clubs far beyond the Rugby League heartlands for a place in the top-flight.
When Toulouse went 12-0 in front after only six minutes, it looked like the French side would be returning to Super League after only one season.
But instead it was the Broncos’ day, as tries from Dean Whare and Alex Walker brought them back into the contest and a double from Iliess Macani secured the win.
It was a wonderful triumph for the Broncos’ coach Mike Eccles, who had served the club for a decade in conditioning and performance roles before promotion to the top job in 2022.
Even more admirable was the fact the club did it without any players from the north in their squad, instead basing their success around a core of homegrown players.
“We are confident that we can be a strong force in Super League and that we will add a lot to the competition,” said Eccles.