The new League Express Yearbook charts a year never to be forgotten

The latest edition of the annual League Express Yearbook is due to be published on 11th December. As always, Tim Butcher and Daniel Spencer have done a wonderful job producing the eagerly waited account of the 2020 season.

Here, Tim gives some idea of what the Yearbook contains and why it is essential reading for any serious Rugby League supporter.

This year’s Rugby League Yearbook is the 25th of the annual series and what an astonishing year it has been.

The word ‘disruption’ doesn’t do justice to the ups and downs the world experienced and it is a huge credit to the Rugby Football League and the Super League clubs for the way they managed to eke out a full season, of sorts, that managed to keep the sport alive and in the public eye.

There was a period after the shutdown, with the world heading very much into the unknown, when it was a distinct possibility that Rugby League wouldn’t appear again in 2020. And with that prospect the Rugby League Yearbook would probably not have appeared either. But we are all glad it did and the switches and cancellations and changes that the game endured has provided a dramatic canvas for the re-telling of the Rugby League year.

It’s a fascinating story and, hopefully, there will be nothing like it again in the future.

After a 302-day season, we were treated to a Grand Final of the highest order, one that won’t be forgotten for a long, long time. The season finally came to an end as the competition’s two most consistent sides tore one another apart in a brutal Super League Grand Final.

St Helens’ second consecutive title was won in the most dramatic way when young star Jack Welsby scored a try after the hooter sounded at the KCOM Stadium to seal an 8-4 win over League Leaders Wigan. No contest could have been tighter or harder fought.

The year began with Toronto Wolfpack, gearing up for their first season of Super League after having won the 2019 Championship Grand Final, announcing the signing of Sonny Bill Williams on a multi-million dollar two-year deal.

Who would have thought that by the end of the year Toronto would be thrown out of Super League? It left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans, particularly after a process that was less than transparent and involved Super League clubs, with understandable self-interests, deciding the fate of another club. The millions of dollars that had been spent building the club over the previous three years, drawing people to a game they previously knew nothing about, all at no cost to the RFL, was thrown down the drain.

The Wolfpack’s fate was sealed when the Canadian government shut off its borders in mid-March. Within months, Toronto was forced to withdraw from the rest of the 2020 season before it resumed and had had their record from the 2020 season expunged, with the RFL announcing there would be no promotion and relegation in 2020.

It made little difference to the table, as Toronto had lost all six pre-lockdown league games. Even those hadn’t gone to plan, with a home fixture against St Helens scheduled to be played at Allianz Park in London having to be switched to Warrington when Saracens rugby union club were relegated because of salary cap transgressions.

The Rugby Football League suspended its competitions on 16th March and initially planned a restart on April 2nd. But it wasn’t until four months later that fixtures could resume – with the lower leagues unable to play at all for the rest of the year – and all games were played in empty stadiums.

The result of it all was the most bizarre season in the history of the game.

The Super League Grand Final was played on a Friday night, 28 days before Christmas, at the KCOM Stadium in Hull in front of empty stands.

The Challenge Cup Final was played in mid-October. It was staged at Wembley. But there were no fans present.

The competition was sailing along nicely until the country went into its first lockdown. Before it could start up again, there had to be a re-draw as non-Super League clubs and Toronto who had battled their way through to the sixth round were unable to take any further part.

Magic Weekend, due to return to Newcastle in May, didn’t happen.

The end-of-season Ashes series was cancelled.

The revived mandatory reserves competition hardly got going at all before it was abandoned. The Academy competition went the same way.

The Championship and League 1 couldn’t find a viable way to re-start their competitions without spectator income. A proposed end-of-year competition for the lower leagues couldn’t attract enough clubs to get started.
Storm Ciara, which hit the UK on the second Sunday in February, seemed a dramatic event at the time. But compared to Covid-19 it was as nothing.

But by the end of the year, the commitment by clubs and players had seen the season through to a satisfactory conclusion. Super League games started up again for the TV audience at least on August 2nd in front of empty stands. It was an over-demanding schedule for players, one positive of which was the premature appearance of some of the next generation of stars, that in the end proved too much, with strict Covid protocols causing a string of postponements and cancellations. Both Hull KR and Castleford Tigers were unable to complete their fixtures before the RFL took the sensible option of ending the regular season early ahead of an expanded play-off series.

As it evolved the season became ‘make do and mend’ with the Covid-enforced fixture re-arrangements making it just about impossible to keep track of which round was which. And with the Challenge Cup to fit in, the schedule meant some players having to play four games in nine days.

We usually find reasons for supporters of every club to feel cheerful about the season just gone. In the end, the only thing that mattered was that the Rugby League season had got through to the end, a special ending as it transpired.

The season was a bright shining light in a year of gloom but sport was put into perspective by the stories around two huge Rugby League personalities in Leeds and Great Britain halfback Rob Burrow, who was cruelly diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease late in 2019, at the age of 37. Throughout the year, Burrow didn’t shirk from facing the disease with the strength and fortitude he had shown through his glorious playing career.

That was mirrored by Hull KR and former St Helens prop Mose Masoe, who was carried off in the Robins’ friendly defeat at Wakefield. Tragically the Samoan’s career was over with a serious spinal injury. He was told he would be lucky to ever walk again. Eight months later he took his first steps unassisted.

The 25th League Express Yearbook contains the full story of the domestic year, the Australian season and match facts for all Super League, Challenge Cup games involving professional teams, Championship and League 1 games. Every player who has played Super League is also listed along with those players to have made their debuts this year. We have also selected six individuals who we judge to have made the biggest impact on Rugby League in 2020. There are scoring and attendance records for every club and a fascinating statistical breakdown provided as always by Opta.

And special mention to my co-editor Daniel Spencer for his dedication in compiling the stats and designing the book.

We hope you enjoy the read.

The League Express Rugby League Yearbook 2020-21 is published on 11th December and costs £19.99 but can be obtained from the TotalRL.com Shop for just £17.99 including free second class delivery within the UK.