The second part of our countdown.
40 Danny McGuire bows out
Hull Kingston Rovers captain Danny McGuire finally called time on his playing career on Friday 13 September at the age of 36 in the Robins’ 17-16 golden-point defeat at Salford Red Devils.
It was a game that Rovers might have needed to win, if London Broncos had defeated Wakefield Trinity on the same night, to avoid relegation. But by the time the game entered golden point the Robins knew they were safe. McGuire marked his final game with a vintage try assist and then a sin-binning as he questioned the referee.
Relegation would have been a cruel end to McGuire’s glittering career, which had seen him debut for Leeds Rhinos in 2001 and win eight Super League titles and two Challenge Cups, with his Rhinos career ending with Grand Final glory in 2017.
He joined Rovers in 2018 for two seasons, and will now stay with the club as its director of recruitment.
39 Niall Evalds’ stunning tackle
Every so often a single incident in a game can sum up a season, and in the second week of the Super League play-offs in September, Niall Evalds pulled off a stunning tackle on Castleford Tigers’ Jordan Rankin that will be talked about by Salford Red Devils fans for as long as the club exists.
The Red Devils had lost at Wigan in the opening round of the play-offs, while the Tigers had won at Warrington Wolves.
The Red Devils took an early 12-0 lead over the Tigers.
But the Tigers were determined to get back into the game. A superb break from Jordan Rankin saw him cut through the home defence and race downfield towards the left corner, where he looked certain to score. The only defender in sight was Evalds, but it looked a hopeless cause.
But not only did Evalds pull off the tackle, but the fullback had the wherewithal to roll his opposite number over and bundle him into touch.
It prevented the Tigers from coming back into the game and was a massive confidence booster for Salford, who held on to win and then won again at Wigan the following week to reach a historic Grand Final.
38 Gareth Ellis to play into his fourth decade
Gareth Ellis will make history if and when he plays his first game for Hull FC in the 2020 season, when he will follow in the footsteps of legends Neil Fox and Jeff Grayshon by playing in his fourth decade as a professional Rugby League players.
Ellis, 38, will also become the oldest player in Super League, following the retirement of Ben Westwood and Jamie Jones-Buchanan. He signed a new one-year playing contract in October, admitting that that the disappointment of Hull’s finish to the 2019 season, as well as a desire to lead them back to the Grand Final, were among his reasons for opting to carry on playing next year.
“We’ve had a few disappointing finishes to the seasons since I’ve been here,” said, who retired initially after the 2017 season but came out of retirement in February.
“As the year was going on and I saw players like Manu Ma’u, Mahe Fonua and Josh Jones commit, you start to think this team could be a real force next season.
“If I were a player, which thankfully I still am, then I’d really want to be a part of this squad. We’ve got an opportunity to do something special now, and get to the Grand Final. It will be only down to us if we fail.
37 Morgan Smithies Rookie of the Year
In September League Express revealed that Wigan’s teenage forward Morgan Smithies would be awarded its Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year Medal after an outstanding debut season for the Warriors.
Smithies made his first-team debut for the Warriors in their 42-0 home victory over Catalans Dragons on 31 March and from that moment onwards he was an ever-present in the Wigan side, making 24 appearances, including 13 in the starting side. It was a remarkable achievement for a youngster who only turned 19 in November.
And Wigan coach Adrian Lam believes that things will get even better for his young star.
“You’ve got to remember, he hasn’t had an off-season with us yet,” said Lam.
“Without building the young players up too much, because we need to make sure we keep their feet ground, but they will get better.
“Where Morgan’s going to be after one or two off-seasons with us… he’ll be outstanding, he’s a shining light for this club.”
36 Tim Sheens sacked at Hull KR
At the beginning of June Hull KR revealed that the club had sacked Australian head coach Tim Sheens (pictured) in a shock move.
The 68-year-old former Kangaroos coach, who guided the Robins back to Super League in 2017 in his first year in charge, was out of contract at the end of the season and he left with the Robins in danger of automatic relegation. At the time they were only two points clear of bottom-placed London Broncos after winning just five of their 16 Super League matches.
Sheens’ future had been in doubt for several weeks but it was an ignominious departure for the former World Cup winning coach of Australia, who had won the tournament in 2013 with victory over New Zealand at Old Trafford.
A career coach of over 28 seasons coaching in the NRL, at Penrith, Canberra, North Queensland and Wests Tigers, had seen him in 2010 become the first man in Australian Rugby League history to take charge of 600 games.
And with four Premiership titles, he is second only to Wayne Bennett as the most successful coach in the NRL.
Sheens would bounce back, however, when Widnes Vikings announced in October that he would be their new coach for the 2020 season.
35 Greece qualifies for World Cup
Greece secured their qualification for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England after thrashing Serbia 82-6 on 9 November in Belgrade.
The Greek fullback Chaise Robinson scored a hat-trick as the Greek team, which was ranked 16th in the world, ran in 16 tries to secure the final European qualifying spot.
“We hope it’s the step forward needed and everyone back home will be proud of us,” said head coach Steve Georgallis.
Greece’s win came against a difficult situation in their home country, however, where they are currently not allowed to play matches as the government and the Hellenic Modern Pentathlon Federation (HMPF), who claim governance of the sport, do not recognise the Greek Rugby League Association.
Police have been called to matches and facilities were made almost impossible to organise for home fixtures.
It meant that Greece had to play their home qualifying game against Scotland a week earlier at London Skolars’ New River Stadium, rather than in their home country.
34 The first female NRL referee
Belinda Sharpe, an Australian referee, made history on 18 July 2019, when she became the first female to referee a first-grade NRL game, taking charge of the game between Brisbane Broncos and Canterbury Bulldogs at Suncorp Stadium, where she officiated alongside Ben Cummins.
Sharpe had previously made history when, after officiating at various levels of Rugby League in Queensland, she became the first woman to officiate at an NRL game when she was one of the touch judges for the match between Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks in the last round of the 2014 NRL season.
At the start of the 2019 season Sharpe was one of two women, the other being Kasey Badger, to be given full-time referee contracts by the NRL.
Her appointment to step up to become one of the two onfield officials at Suncorp Stadium in July coincidentally was her 100th game as an NRL official.
33 Goodbye to two games at Easter
When Super League announced its 2020 fixtures on 5 November, attention focused on one significant change that will see teams play just once across the Easter weekend, as the clubs finally agreed to scrap the contentious Easter Monday games.
Instead, in 2020 six fixtures will span four days, from Thursday to Sunday, and the decision was immediately welcomed by coaches and players.
“I was always hopeful this would happen,” said Hull KR’s Tony Smith.
“And I knew once there were some changes in our sport – and how it’s run – that we would see sense in it. Fewer games can sometimes produce a better product.
And Smith was supported by Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton.
“From before I even started playing it’s been an issue in the game,” said Shenton.
“Players and coaches alike have wanted rid of it for a long time. I know some of the clubs will like the revenue the Monday game brings in and fans might like it, too, but for us this is a good thing.
32 Wigan sign George Burgess
In late July Wigan confirmed that they had signed England forward George Burgess from South Sydney Rabbitohs on a three-year deal from the 2020 season.
Burgess, who played alongside his brothers Tom and Sam at South Sydney, had been with the Rabbitohs for ten years, having never played in Super League after leaving Bradford Bulls while still an Academy player.
“George is one of the world’s best frontrowers,” said Wigan head coach Adrian Lam.
“He is respected highly by his peers in the NRL and at international level and his experience, leadership and physicality will be of real benefit for us.”
Burgess has been capped 15 times by England and was part of the South Sydney team that won the Grand Final in 2014.
“Although it’s a huge decision to leave the NRL and say goodbye to Souths, I’m excited as to what the future will hold at Wigan Warriors and the Super League,” he said.
31 Lionesses blaze a trail
History was made in November, when the England Lionesses played their first ever Test series in Papua New Guinea, when they featured in an opening game in Goroka and the following week in a double-header that also included Great Britain’s clash against the Kumuls.
A trip to PNG to play the Orchids was a remarkable statement about how far women’s Rugby League has travelled in recent years and the Lionesses, just like the Great Britain men’s team, were treated like royalty by the enthusiastic PNG supporters, with a programme of visits to schools and villages to cement a strong connection between the two teams.
England defeated Papua New Guinea 24-10 in Goroka, with their captain Emily Rudge scoring four tries, but the Orchids got their revenge a week later in Port Moresby, when their halfback Shirley Joe snatched a late try to secure the Orchids’ first ever victory with a 20-16 final score after what had been a thrilling game watched by an appreciative crowd.
“It has been a life-changing experience for the girls involved,” said Rudge after their narrow defeat in the second Test.
(First published in League Express, Mon 9th Dec 2019)
Part three of our countdown from 30 to 21 will be online from 6pm tomorrow.