The significance of a difficult year

Talking Rugby League with League Express editor Martyn Sadler

In this week’s issue of League Express, we have decided that the Coronavirus was the single most significant factor in Rugby League in 2020.

Each year we list the 50 most memorable or significant things to have affected the game during the year.

And there can be little doubt that the pandemic changed the world, as well as changing Rugby League, perhaps forever.

We haven’t seen a Rugby League crowd in the northern hemisphere since 15 March last year.

And even now there are no clear signs about when crowds will be back in our stadiums.

Other sports in the UK have been able to have crowds back in limited numbers. But none of them have been allowed to have capacity crowds, and I can’t see that changing for some considerable time, despite the government’s success with its vaccination programme.

It’s interesting to look back on the events that we adjudged to be the most memorable or significant in each year since we introduced the feature to League Express in 2016.

2015: The death of Danny Jones while playing for Keighley Cougars at London Skolars in early May of that year. Subsequent events have demonstrated how significant that tragic event was, as Danny’s widow Lizzie established a charity in his name to provide defibrillators to clubs throughout Rugby League, to avoid anyone else having to go through the pain of losing a loved one to heart failure while playing Rugby League. Lizzie was subsequently awarded an MBE for her charitable work, which raised many thousands of pounds to provide defibrillators throughout the country.

2016: The successful field-goal in extra time by Gareth O’Brien secured Salford Red Devils as a Super League club and sent Hull Kingston Rovers down into the Championship. Trailing 18-10 with less than two minutes on the clock, two late tries from Niall Evalds and Greg Johnson brought the Red Devils back from the dead. O’Brien couldn’t convert either try, however, and the game went to extra-time, where the halfback struck from close to half way to relegate Hull KR to the Championship in the most dramatic manner anyone could imagine. “It will become one of the most iconic moments in the history of Rugby League,” we predicted and we believe it’s fair to say that it saved Salford Red Devils as a Super League club. They would probably have gone into liquidation if they had been relegated, for fortunately Hull KR were able to bounce back with promotion the following season.

2017: Josh Dugan’s ankle tap in the World Cup Final illustrated perfectly that the margin between success and failure can sometimes be heartbreakingly narrow. We decided that when England lost 6-0 to Australia in the World Cup Final that year, the vital ankle tap with 16 minutes remaining by Dugan on Kallum Watkins as the English centre broke downfield with other England players alongside him, looking as though he was heading for an equalising try, was the key moment of the year. Dugan had managed to prevent a try by a hair’s breadth. At that moment it must have dawned on many England supporters that, perhaps, this was again not going to be England’s day and our World Cup disappointment would continue. How different it might have been if Dugan had just failed to connect with Watkins.

2018: Catalans Dragons won the Challenge Cup for the first time, receiving unparalleled publicity in France for their success and giving hope that French Rugby League would gain enormous benefits from the Dragons’ success. Their victory created some tremendously positive publicity in France and in the Catalan region of Spain, which culminated in the decision by Barcelona FC to make their Camp Nou Stadium available for the Dragons’ home game against Wigan on Saturday 18 May, although the RFL’s decision to ask the Dragons for a six-figure bond in order to compete again in 2019 cast a significant shadow over what should have been a triumphant day for Rugby League as a whole.

2019: 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 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 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.

When we list the most memorable moment of 2021 I hope that the Covid virus by then has been banished from the pages of League Express.

And I hope that the most significant and memorable event that we will list next year will be the day that England won the World Cup Final at Old Trafford.

Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column features in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.