It’s the final countdown!!
10 St Helens appoint Kristian Woolf
In early September St Helens announced that Kristian Woolf would replace Justin Holbrook as head coach of St Helens under a two-year contract from the start of the 2020 season.
Woolf, 44, had spent the past five years in charge of the Tongan national team, leading them to a World Cup semi-final in 2017, although it’s fair to suppose that when the announcement was made, few St Helens supporters would have heard of him.
He had been working as assistant to ex-Saints boss Nathan Brown at NRL side Newcastle Knights and became interim head coach when Brown left in August.
“I’m confident we can achieve great things together,” Woolf said.
“I’m excited and privileged to be joining St Helens as head coach. It’s a great opportunity for me.”
Saints Chairman Eamonn McManus said Woolf, who previously held a number of coaching jobs at North Queensland Cowboys, is “ideally qualified” to build on the club’s recent successes.
“We are very confident that the Saints will seriously compete for honours under his tenure and that we will continue to play attractive and exciting Rugby League,” said McManus, whose opinion seemed to be confirmed when Woolf led his Tongan side to victories over Great Britain and Australia in the autumn.
9 Jackson Hastings wins Man of Steel award
In the week leading up to the Super League Grand Final, Super League confirmed that Salford Red Devils halfback Jackson Hastings had won the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award for 2019, after a stellar season for the Red Devils that saw him lead them to Old Trafford.
The 23-year-old, who had come second in the Albert Goldthorpe Medal table to St Helens’ Jonny Lomax, had joined the Red Devils in July 2018 following his release by Manly Sea Eagles following reports of a bust-up with a team-mate.
After the Red Devils battled against relegation in 2018, Hastings signed a new one-year deal with the club after helping preserve their Super League status.
His fine form for Salford saw him agree a deal to move to rivals Wigan Warriors for next season, while he was also selected for Great Britain’s tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea during the autumn.
Hastings beat his shortlisted rivals, Warrington’s Blake Austin, St Helens’ Lachlan Coote, Castleford’s Liam Watts and Wigan’s George Williams to the award.
8 Red Devils and Rhinos swap Lui and Lolohea
In late June Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils announced that they had agreed a player-swap deal that would see Robert Lui joining the Rhinos and Tui Lolohea going to the A J Bell Stadium.
The swap saw both players initially move on loan, with each of them signing a two-year deal from 2020.
Leeds paid an undisclosed loan fee for 29-year-old Lui, who scored 26 tries in 87 league games for Salford.
Lolohea, 24, who moved to Yorkshire from Wests Tigers, left Leeds less than a season into a three-year deal.
The Tonga international made just 15 Super League appearances for the Rhinos, but when discussing the move his words were prophetic.
“This is a new challenge for me and I really want to be competing in those play-offs with Salford,” he said.
“The level of footy at Salford has been really high and I think I can get back to playing my best there.”
So successful was Lolohea at Salford that he would play for the Red Devils in the Grand Final before helping the Tongans defeat Great Britain and Australia in New Zealand.
7 PNG shock Great Britain
Great Britain was revived in 2019 for the first time since 2007, as the RFL sent a touring squad to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea under the control of Australian coach Wayne Bennett.
After suffering a defeat by the Tongans and two defeats to New Zealand, the Lions arrived at Port Moresby to face a PNG side that had few players from the NRL or Super League.
But, after going ten points behind, the Kumuls played Great Britain off the park, with a try just before half-time by Edwin Ipape, a Queensland Cup player who ran almost the length of the field from dummy-half to score. That brought them back to within four points, and in the second half the Kumuls blitzed the Lions, with Doncaster halfback Watson Boas pulling the strings, and ending with a comprehensive 28-10 victory.
Bennett admitted his disappointment after the game, while acknowledging the opposition.
“We’ve got to swallow a bitter pill as Great Britain, but on the other side of the ledger I see the game getting stronger. It was a wonderful game of football here. Everybody was entertained throughout.”
The RFL directors will decide whether to retain Bennett’s services in February, when they will also decide whether Great Britain as a Rugby League entity will survive or will be consigned to the history books.
6 Sam Burgess retires
At the end of October Sam Burgess, the South Sydney and England forward, announced that he had been forced to retire because of a chronic shoulder injury that blighted his 2019 NRL season, despite the fact that he had three years remaining of his South Sydney contract.
“This decision was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life,” said Burgess, 30, who played 182 times for South Sydney after joining them from Bradford Bulls in 2010, helping them win the Grand Final in 2014.
“However the decision was out of my hands essentially. I am no longer able to be myself day-in, day-out on the training field and consequently the playing field.”
“I have loved absolutely every minute: the highs, the lows, the Grand Final, coming home, my injuries, my dates with the judiciary. It really has been a fantastic ride.”
Burgess’ decision was a blow not just for South Sydney, but also for England’s chances of winning the World Cup in 2021. The former Bulls’ star, alongside his brothers Tom and George, had played a key role in England’s development since first playing for his country against New Zealand in 2007.
5 Saints send Holbrook out as a winner
Justin Holbrook (pictured) has been widely acknowledged as one of the outstanding coaches to take charge of any club in the Super League era.
But until he led St Helens into the 2019 Grand Final at Old Trafford on Saturday 12 October, he had failed to win either of the two major trophies, having lost in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup and Super League play-offs in 2018 and having lost the Challenge Cup Final to Warrington Wolves in 2019.
If St Helens were to lose the Grand Final against the resurgent Salford Red Devils, then Holbrook’s reputation would be inevitably tarnished as he returned to the NRL and the Gold Coast Titans.
So his response was a mixture of elation and relief as St Helens secured the Super League title with a convincing 23-6 victory over the Red Devils in front of 64,102 spectators at the Theatre of Dreams.
It was St Helens’ first major trophy (excluding the League Leaders’ Shield) since winning the Super League title in 2014.
“If we hadn’t won tonight, it would have been a real hollow feeling, so there’s never an easy time to leave, especially when you do love the area,” said Holbrook.
4 Catalans play Wigan at the Camp Nou
On 18 May the Catalans Dragons broke the Super League attendance record for a game in the regular season, when they faced Wigan at Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium and attracted a crowd of 31,555, comfortably exceeding the figure of 25,004 that attended a game between Wigan and St Helens in 2004.
Around a quarter of the crowd were estimated to have bought tickets directly from Barcelona, suggesting that there is clear potential for a return to the capital of Catalonia, although the Dragons will not be paying a return visit there in 2020.
The Dragons triumphed 33-16, going third in the league after their landmark victory, although their season would hit the rocks from that point onward.
But Catalans owner Bernard Guasch was thrilled with his club’s achievement.
“Historique, fantastique, énorme,” he told League Express after the game.
“It was an incredible spectacle. I am a Catalan and a Rugby League supporter. Today was a celebration of both of these things and I could not be any more proud.
3 Toronto secure their Super League dream
Saturday 5 October will be marked as a historic day in Rugby League, after Toronto Wolfpack secured promotion to Super League by overcoming a strong challenge from Featherstone Rovers at the Lamport Stadium to secure a 24-6 victory, gaining a place at the top table after only their third year of existence.
It was a massive achievement for the Wolfpack that could open many doors for Super League, both in North America and elsewhere.
But in a game watched by a sell-out crowd of more than 10,000, the Wolfpack certainly didn’t have everything all their own way. They were 4-6 behind at half-time, and they didn’t take the lead until the 57th minute, when Blake Wallace touched down, later adding tries by Bodene Thompson and Joe Mellor to seal their victory, which was greeted ecstatically by their supporters.
“We’re not going into Super League just to be in Super League, we’re going into that competition to compete and that’s what this has got to be about,” said Toronto and former St Helens loose forward Jon Wilkin.
“It can’t be about Toronto idling mid-table in Super League, we’ve got to get into Super League and push things, push boundaries, push the standards.”
2 Wolfpack sign Sonny Bill Williams
Just a month after securing promotion to Super League, Toronto Wolfpack stunned the world of both codes of rugby by announcing the signing of cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams on a two-year contract worth an estimated $10 million.
The former Sydney Roosters and Bulldogs forward will return to Rugby League after completing his second stint with the All Blacks, for whom he won the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015. He also lifted NRL Premierships with the Roosters in 2013 and the Bulldogs on 2004.
By signing the 34-year-old Williams, the Wolfpack had pulled off one of the biggest coups in Super League history, giving them instant recognition all around the sporting world.
“Toronto Wolfpack has established themselves as a multicultural and economic powerhouse, not only in the city but across the world,” Williams said.
“The club has big ambitions and big goals. I want to be part of all this and do all I can to help reach those lofty goals.
“On the field, I’d like to bring high-quality play and do all I can for the betterment of the team. Off the field, I’d like to use my experience to mentor the young players and be helpful where I am needed.
1 Tonga beat Australia
The Tongans produced one of the greatest shocks in Rugby League history by taking down world champions Australia 16-12 in Auckland in front of a pulsating crowd of 25,257 at Eden Park on 2 November.
They came back from six points down at half-time to defeating Australia for the first time in their history, in what was Australia’s first defeat to a side other than New Zealand, England or Great Britain since going down to France in 1978.
With this victory the Tongans completed a famous triumvirate against the three tier 1 nations of international Rugby League, having beaten New Zealand 28-22 in the World Cup in 2017, then beating Great Britain 14-6 in Hamilton a week before beating Australia.
Their raucous sea of supporters dressed in red was sent into raptures when Tevita Pangai Junior crashed over off for the winning try to give the Tongans a four-point lead.
The Kangaroos had entered the match as hot favourites, but the Tongans breathed new life into the international game and they will come to the 2021 World Cup ranked alongside Australia, New Zealand and England as one of the competition favourites.
The government of Tonga declared a public holiday on Friday November 15 to celebrate the victory, while Kristian Woolf, the coach who had overseen it, headed to St Helens to take over as the club’s head coach after the departure of Justin Holbrook.
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