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

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 31 to 40, while the next three 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.

40 They think it’s all Rover

FEATHERSTONE ROVERS’ promotion hopes went up in smoke when they were stunned by London Broncos in the Championship play-offs in October.

They were the dominant force in the second tier all year long, winning 25 matches out of 27 in the regular season and finishing twelve points clear at the top of the table.

As a result, Featherstone were overwhelming favourites to beat the Broncos, who finished fifth, in a home semi-final to reach the Grand Final.

But the capital club ripped up the script in remarkable fashion, scoring four unanswered tries in a scarcely-believable 25-minute spell to end Rovers’ hopes.

It was the second consecutive season that Featherstone failed to make the Grand Final, despite finishing in the top two, after losing to Batley Bulldogs at the same stage in 2022.

With no promotion on the field from 2024, and Rovers placed 15th in the provisional club gradings, it appears the end of their Super League dream in the short term.

High investment in the playing squad brought little reward, while questions were asked of their decision to replace Sean Long as head coach with James Ford mid-season.

“I’m just really disappointed for everybody associated with the club – players, supporters, the owner, board and sponsors,” said Ford afterwards.

“They’ve put so much time and effort in so for us not to be able to get it done, I’m gutted for them.”

39 Brits level up down under

FOR the first time ever, Englishwomen became full-time Rugby League players in April.

Hollie Dodd left York Valkyrie to sign a two-year deal with Canberra Raiders, while Georgia Roche swapped Leeds Rhinos for Newcastle Knights on a mammoth five-year contract.

At the ages of 19 and 22 respectively at the time, Dodd and Roche became the first English players to join Australia’s NRLW competition, which is full-time, in contrast to the largely amateur Women’s Super League.

Backrower Dodd moved after winning the Super League Young Player of the Year award in 2022, while halfback Roche won the first Woman of Steel award in 2018 and has gone from strength-to-strength since.

It proved to be a particularly successful season for Roche, whose Knights side won the NRLW with their English star at the heart of their team.

Roche told the latest issue of Rugby League World: “Life is certainly a bit different now – living by the beach, the sun, the lifestyle. 

“It’s completely different to living in Birstall, working full-time in a job in construction and then training on top of that.

“Working in a labour-intensive job and then going to training and playing could take its toll, so just being able to train full-time now is very different and I’m really grateful to be able to experience that.”

38 Dragons breathe fire

CATALANS DRAGONS reached the Super League Grand Final for the second time in three years thanks to the semi-final heroics of Sam Tomkins in October.

A sell-out Stade Gilbert Brutus crowd brought a fevered atmosphere to their home semi-final with St Helens, earned through a second-placed league finish when they were denied the League Leaders’ Shield by points difference alone.

With seven minutes to go, the score was tied at 6-6, Will Hopoate’s try for the visitors cancelled out by three penalties from the boot of Adam Keighran.

Twice Tomkins was positioned for a winning field-goal, only for the Saints defence to close him down. Third time around, he had a different plan, dodging the oncoming traffic and then scything through the defence to score an unforgettable try.

“It was an incredible effort from Sam to nail it,” said his coach Steve McNamara.

While the retiring Tomkins did not get his fairy-tale ending at Old Trafford, with Catalans unable to secure that first French title, he did cap another memorable campaign in that part of the world.

A fourth-consecutive top-four finish under long-serving McNamara showed that the Dragons are here to stay at the elite end of Super League.

And that applies just as much off the field as on it, with a provisional Grade A rating reflecting the huge progress made in Perpignan.

37 Capital loss

LONDON SKOLARS pulled out of League One after a 21-year spell in the professional ranks in September.

It was a season of real struggle for Skolars, both on and off the field, as a proposed takeover by Australian sports management company AMC fell through.

They lost all 17 of the matches they played in League One and failed to fulfil their penultimate fixture, a midweek trip to Rochdale Hornets.

Their average attendance at the New River Stadium in 2023 was just 271, and Skolars decided to pull the plug after the campaign finished.

The club said in a statement: “The board of directors have unanimously decided to withdraw from League One with immediate effect.

“This regrettable decision was taken after the close of the current season and will allow the board to seek investment, consolidate and rebuild, with a view to a possible return to League One in the future.

“We still feel that there is potential to grow with the right investment and we are now exploring a number of options to secure the long-term future of the club as one that continues to maintain its strong community roots.”

Founded in 1995, Skolars went semi-pro in 2003 and spent every season in the bottom tier, their highest performance being a fourth-placed League One finish in 2013.

They will play in the Southern Conference League next year. 

36 Bevan heaven

BEVAN FRENCH won the Man of Steel award in October as reward for a sensational spell of form.

Moved to stand-off at Wigan Warriors midway through the season, after starting the year as a winger, French delivered a string of brilliant performances.

He helped the team win the League Leaders’ Shield, then four days after scooping the Man of Steel prize at Old Trafford cricket ground, French was a Grand Final winner across the road at the football stadium.

A record of 30 try-assists (the most in the competition), 17 tries, 126 tackle busts, and 21 clean breaks in Super League reflected his high value, and was all the more impressive as he moved between several positions.

He said: “It’s funny how it all pans out, isn’t it?… Covering three positions throughout the year definitely wasn’t part of the plan. It’s crazy. 

“It started off as injuries as well, that’s the reason for (moving to that) position. Then everyone started killing it in those positions.”

French won his award at the biggest-ever Rugby League Awards night, as Super League’s gongs were handed out alongside all the other RFL competitions.

Sinead Peach, of York Valkyrie, won the Woman of Steel while London Roosters’ Lewis King was the inaugural winner of the Wheels of Steel, for the best player in the Wheelchair Super League.

35 Lewis ain’t leaving

HULL KR tied down star man Mikey Lewis to a new five-year contract in November.

The homegrown halfback was a key contributor to the Robins’ excellent 2023 season, as they reached the Challenge Cup final and Super League play-off semi-finals.

Lewis then transferred his domestic form onto the international scene, with a man-of-the-match display on his England debut in the first Test against Tonga.

After that series, Hull KR announced he had signed a new deal to stay at Craven Park until the end of 2028, a pivotal piece of business for a club seemingly on the rise.

“This deal is a credit to everyone involved at the club who has helped Mikey get to where he is now,” said the Robins’ head coach, Willie Peters.

“It’s huge for the club and wouldn’t be possible without the fantastic support from our board.

“We want to keep our homegrown talent and we want to keep them long-term.

“Mikey played in most games this season, and the most pleasing part for me is that as well as seeing him grow as a player, I’ve also seen his growth as a person.”

Lewis said: “I’m really happy where I am and looking forward to what the future holds.”

34 Trin in a spin

WAKEFIELD TRINITY’S 25-year stay in Super League came to an end in the penultimate round of the season in September.

The final blow was delivered in a cruel manner, via a golden-point defeat after a courageous performance away at Leigh Leopards.

The sides traded penalties and field-goals in a tense final half-hour which finished 19-19, and only in the ninth minute of extra-time did Gareth O’Brien strike the one-pointer that downed Wakefield – seven years after he did the same to Hull KR.

“As head coach it’s my responsibility. I feel that on my shoulders,” said Mark Applegarth, a faithful club servant as player and coach whose spell as head coach turned into something of a nightmare.

“The table doesn’t lie. We’ve got some improvements to make – the team, the club, everyone.

“Of course it’s not good enough, is it? We’ve been relegated.”

That Wakefield came close to survival at all, after losing their first 14 games, was testament to some good mid-season recruitment as well as the struggles of neighbours Castleford Tigers.

The two clubs were level on points going into a blockbuster August derby at Belle Vue – where Trinity were on a four-match winning run – but a Greg Eden hat-trick helped the Tigers to victory and Wakefield never recovered.

33 Ford focus on Oldham

A CONSORTIUM including hometown hero Mike Ford took over Oldham in March.

The former Wigan, Castleford and Great Britain player, a coach in a number of high-profile rugby union roles over the past two decades, returned home to League and to Oldham and took a hands-on role.

He became director of rugby after helping a group including local businessman Mick Harrington purchase the League One club from long-serving owner Chris Hamilton.

“We are really excited about the future of the Roughyeds,” said Ford on behalf of the consortium.

“It’s close to all our hearts and we know the importance of a vibrant, thriving Oldham Rugby to the town and its people.

“We certainly don’t take our responsibility as club custodians lightly and it’s our vision to give the people of Oldham a Rugby League club they can be proud of, a club they are excited and inspired by and one they can identify with.”

The impact has already been felt, with Oldham to leave the Vestacare Stadium for Boundary Park in 2024, when an expensively-recruited squad of high pedigree will compete for the title under coach Sean Long.

Ford even took over as interim coach himself – 22 years after last coaching the side – in the final weeks of the 2023 season when they dispensed with Stuart Littler, but led an unsuccessful play-off bid.

32 Third tier, third rate

DESPITE the strong demands for change from League One clubs, the lower-league structure was maintained for 2024 in November.

The withdrawal of London Skolars and Newcastle Thunder from the professional ranks left the third tier facing a season with as few as eight teams, although Newcastle Thunder’s inclusion has pushed that figure up to nine teams.

For clubs already on the breadline it was the final straw, but attempts to amalgamate League One with the Championship were rebutted by second-tier outfits.

Instead there will be more matches between the remaining League One teams next year, plus an expansion of the 1895 Cup which will hold a group stage to start the season.

Lower-league clubs are also set to imminently discuss the structure for 2025 and beyond, with a merging of the competitions still on the table.

Rochdale Hornets chairman Andy Mazey was a vocal supporter of structural change but said afterwards: “I’m confident it’s going to be a really good season.

“We’ve pushed the RFL towards giving us more local fixtures within an expanded 1895 Cup competition, so that will bring more local derbies as well as more home games.

“And it will be a less stop-start season. It’s been difficult in the last couple of years with the lack of numbers (in League One). There have been too many gaps and no continuity.”

31 Tongan whitewash

ENGLAND secured a clean sweep of Test victories against touring Tonga in November.

They wrapped up the three-match series – a first-ever against those opponents – with a game to spare with two gritty wins in St Helens and Huddersfield.

Mikey Lewis starred at the Totally Wicked Stadium, scoring one try and playing a key role in a Toby King score before Tom Johnstone’s double wrapped up a 22-18 win in the first Test.

The following weekend, it was Matty Ashton’s turn to grab two tries, the only scored by England in a 14-4 success at the John Smith’s Stadium.

But England saved their best for last at Headingley, producing their biggest performance in front of the biggest crowd – 15,477 – of the series.

All four tries, by Ben Currie, Ashton, the retiring Elliott Whitehead and Harry Newman (from an exquisite kick by player of the series Harry Smith), were a joy to watch as Shaun Wane’s side steamrolled to a 26-4 win.

“The first two Tests were in conditions different to today. It was firmer and dryer and we played a bit more,” said coach Wane after the final win against a disappointing Tonga.

“I’ve heard comments from ex-players (in the media) talking absolute rubbish about not entertaining. They don’t think about the weather.

“We so badly wanted to win this game, no matter what. I was desperate for 3-0.”

Part one of this series can be read here.

Part three of this series can be read here.

Part four of this series can be read here.