This week we complete our countdown of the significant and memorable moments for Rugby League in 2021, after listing the events that we adjudged to make up the rest of the top 50 in previous weeks.
Here we list the ten events that we consider the most memorable and significant of 2021, with the decision by the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Leagues to withdraw from the World Cup being adjudged the most significant Rugby League event of the year.
Inevitably the influence of the Covid pandemic features heavily in the most significant events of the year, as does the broadcasting environment and the heroic duo of Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield.
10 Channel 4 to show Super League free-to-air
In November it was reported that Channel 4 will be shown on free-to-air television for the first time in 2022 after securing a broadcast deal with the TV company.
While Sky Sports retain primary rights to the competition for the next two seasons, ten matches each year will be shown live by the terrestrial broadcaster.
Channel 4 will have the second pick of matches in eight rounds during the regular season, plus two matches from the play-offs.
The two-year deal represents the first time Super League has gone free-to-air since its launch in 1996.
“We are delighted to be able to confirm a brand-new broadcast partnership with Channel 4,” said Super League Chairman Ken Davy.
“They have a great track record of showing some of the best sporting competitions.
“The opportunity to offer live Betfred Super League action to fans on a free-to-air platform across the whole season is fantastic and one that we hope will continue to serve our current fans, as well as attract many new fans to the sport.”
Channel 4’s head of sport, Pete Andrews, added: “We’re absolutely thrilled to be bringing Super League to free-to-air television for the first time in its history.”
The first match to be shown on Channel 4 will be on the opening weekend of the competition, when Leeds Rhinos host Warrington Wolves in a new Saturday lunchtime slot of 12.30pm.
9 Sky Sports deal drops in value
Sky Sports signed a new two-year deal with Super League in April, but it came at a big cost.
The value of the two-year agreement, to cover the 2022 and 2023 seasons, plummeted from £40 million a year to around £25 million.
Although there were small caveats – with the Championship no longer included in the deal and secondary rights later going to Channel 4 – it still represented a significant drop in value.
The fall had been long feared from the last deal that was agreed in 2014, especially with the recent impact of Covid on the sports media rights market.
The new contract allows Sky to show 66 live matches each season, including the Magic Weekend and Grand Final, with the first pick of matches in every round, including the play-offs.
“It’s great to be able to extend our excellent partnership with Sky Sports,” said Super League Chairman Ken Davy.
“Sky have been with us from the start of the competition, back in 1996, and are now an integral part of the Super League family.
“Together our partnership has seen Super League achieve record viewing figures in recent years.”
The fall in revenue came with great implications, however, both for Super League clubs and especially for the lower leagues, with their share of funds severely cut as a result.
8 St Helens win Grand Final
St Helens were crowned Super League Champions for the third season running in October by edging Catalans Dragons in one of the greatest Grand Finals to date.
Playing at Old Trafford for the very first time, League Leaders’ Shield winners Catalans were the underdogs against a Saints side more experienced on the biggest stages, and so it proved – but only just.
Kevin Naiqama scored both of St Helens’ tries in a 12-10 win that could easily have gone either way, earning the departing Fijian the Harry Sunderland Trophy by a unanimous decision.
“When you talk about a fairy-tale ending, you could not have written a better script,” said Naiqama, after receiving the award from Rob Burrow.
The Dragons scored their only try through Mike McMeeken while Tommy Makinson was in the sinbin – the first ever to be sent there in a Grand Final – and they were left to rue some tight margins and tough calls.
For St Helens, their place in history was secured as they levelled Leeds Rhinos’ record of three Super League titles in a row, and only Wigan’s 1990s vintage have secured more consecutive Championships.
“It’s a very deserved win from a group of blokes who haven’t just worked hard this year but worked hard for three years to put themselves in this position,” said Saints coach Kristian Woolf.
“It doesn’t get done that often for a reason – because it’s very hard to do.”
7 Kevin Sinfield’s Extra Mile Challenge
Leeds Rhinos legend Kevin Sinfield completed an epic fundraising challenge for his old mate Rob Burrow in November, raising more than £2 million for research into motor neurone disease.
Sinfield had previously raised £2.7m by running seven marathons in seven days, but he embarked on an even more gruelling challenge second time around.
He ran 101 miles in 24 hours, setting off from Welford Road, the home of Leicester Tigers, where he now works, and finishing at Headingley.
The route was divided into sections of around 7km, with Sinfield completing each within an hour to stay on track as he battled through the day and night.
When he reached an emotional Headingley the next morning his friend and former team-mate Burrow was there to see him finish, along with much of the nation, who were inspired watching on television.
“It’s been a real team effort from all the crew and I wouldn’t have got it done without them,” said an exhausted Sinfield after completing the remarkable feat.
“The support along the route was incredible right from the start.
“It was certainly a battle – we wanted a battle and we got one. I’m broken – I don’t know when I’ll be able to run again.
“Rob knows how much we love and care about him.”
6 Fans return to Rugby League grounds
Supporters were back in grounds at long last in May, after more than a year without being able to attend because of Covid restrictions.
Lockdown brought all of Rugby League to a halt in March 2020. While the action on the field resumed for Super League that year, it had to be done behind closed doors.
Some fans were able to return late in the year, just as the game finished its season, but a fresh lockdown meant that competitions would start in 2021 with the punters still locked out.
The gradual easing of restrictions saw Monday 17th May become the date when some supporters could watch their team in the flesh once again, with five of the preceding weekend’s six Super League matches put back.
Only St Helens were able to give their home support a win to cheer as they beat Salford Red Devils, but even with limited capacities in place it was still a night to cherish for all.
Saints had welcomed 4,000, as did Warrington Wolves, while more than 5,500 were at Hull FC.
“It was a bit weird because we’ve got used to no one being able to boo you or chant your name or sing,” said Jackson Hastings, whose Wigan Warriors side won at Leigh Centurions on re-opening night.
Exactly two months later, 40,000 attended at Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final, with restrictions on capacity lifted entirely shortly after.
5 Former players to sue RFL over brain damage
Rugby League’s upcoming reckoning with brain damage was made clear in October when ten former players were reported to be ready to sue the RFL for negligence.
The group, including former St Helens and Great Britain halfback Bobbie Goulding, who has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, claimed the sport failed its duty of care.
The lawyer behind the action was Richard Boardman, who said the ten putting forward that test case were among 75 Rugby League players he represented, as well as 175 rugby union players in a separate lawsuit.
“It’s true to say that the elite game is not safe at the moment,” said Boardman.
“It implies that there have to be changes in the rules and the training protocols to reduce direct contact.
“Everyone involved cares a lot for these sports but we have to be much smarter in protecting their participants.”
While the focus in the past has been on individual cases of concussion, more recent research has indicated the most damaging impact is done by repeated blows which can lead to neurological issues such as dementia and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Throughout the year, some clubs have been trialling mouthguards which can detect if a player is at risk of concussion or head trauma, with these to be introduced game-wide in 2022.
Regardless of the outcome of this specific case, the issue is unlikely to go away and it could have significant implications for the future of the sport.
4 Toulouse win Million Pound Game
A stunning year for French Rugby League was capped in October by Toulouse Olympique’s promotion to Super League.
A day after Catalans Dragons came up just short in the Grand Final at Old Trafford, Toulouse ensured there would be two French sides in the top flight for the first time in 2022 by winning their own showpiece match.
They reached the Million Pound Game on the back of a perfect season, winning 14 matches out of 14, despite having to play the entire regular season in England.
After overcoming Batley Bulldogs in the play-off semi-final, only Featherstone Rovers, the Championship’s other outstanding side in 2021, stood in their way at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Mathieu Jussaume and Latrell Schaumkel helped Toulouse to a 16-0 lead before Rovers mounted a second-half fightback, but they would see the job through with further scores from Jussaume, Harrison Hansen and Johnathan Ford.
“It will be tough, but we’re ready for it,” said Toulouse coach Sylvain Houles of his club’s ascension to Super League.
“We believe in our team and what we’re doing. We know we’re not going to win it in our first season, but we want to be competitive in every game.
“We’re not going to put any pressure on ourselves by setting any goals and we don’t want to change our philosophy. But when we go onto the field, it’s to win.”
3 Rob Burrow returns to Headingley
The most emotional moment of the year came at Headingley in August when Rob Burrow made his return to the ground he played at with such distinction for so many years.
The Leeds Rhinos legend was in attendance with his family for the club’s home Super League match against Huddersfield Giants, which the hosts won 18-12.
But the main attraction of the night was Burrow, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2019, addressing supporters before the match.
“I’m fighting my biggest opponent yet and I’m very determined to live a normal life, no matter how debilitating it is,” he said.
“I hope people find it inspirational and, no matter how it affects me, I will never give in.”
The next day, Leeds announced plans to erect a statue of Burrow and his former team-mate Kevin Sinfield at Headingley, showing the moment the two embraced at a fundraising match weeks after his diagnosis.
“I think Rob and Kevin perfectly encapsulate everything we hold special about the sport of Rugby League and their records on the field alone would merit a statue here at Emerald Headingley,” said Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington.
“However, they have both transcended not just Rugby League but sport to become national figures because of Rob’s battle with MND and Kevin’s unstinting support of his friend.”
2 World Cup postponed to 2022
The postponement of the Rugby League World Cup until 2022 was announced on 4th August.
Two weeks after the decision by Australia and New Zealand to withdraw from the tournament, which was set to take place in the autumn, the organisers confirmed that they would be unable to go ahead in 2021 as originally planned.
They admitted that fans would not be able to see “the best possible tournament” in England without two of its leading nations and many of the world’s best players, who are based in the NRL, leading to a delay of 12 months.
“Following the disappointing decision of the ARLC and NZRL to withdraw, and the subsequent impact on player availability for other competing nations, it is apparent that delivering the tournament this year would not be feasible,” said Jon Dutton, the CEO of RLWC2021.
“Ultimately, time and competing priorities from others forced us to make the most difficult decision in our six-year history.
“However, we and the sport of Rugby League are resilient, and next year we will deliver our vision of the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup ever.”
Later in August, new dates were confirmed for the tournament to take place in 2022 between 15th October and 19th November, while the full schedule for the reorganised event was revealed in November as the focus switches to staging the event the second time around.
1 Australia and New Zealand withdraw from World Cup
In a sensational development, Australia and New Zealand withdrew from the Rugby League World Cup in July, citing concerns over player welfare and safety.
With Covid remaining an issue throughout the world, both nations pulled out of a tournament that was due to start in October, giving just three months’ notice and with no consultation.
The Australians and New Zealanders called for a postponement until 2022.
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said that “the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable”.
His words were echoed by NZRL chief Greg Peters, who claimed that players’ wellbeing “cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction”.
RFL Chairman Simon Johnson fumed over the decision, asking why other teams and athletes from those countries were able to travel the world for major sporting events while their Rugby League sides could not.
“The difficultly I think for us is that this selfish, parochial and cowardly decision is one that needn’t have been taken,” he said.
“The Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and to the Kiwis.
“This is something that their Rugby League authorities believe is insurmountable, while other sports and athletes seem to have no problem.”
With two of three strongest nations in the men’s draw, and the only two winners of the competition since 1972, not taking part, it was inevitable that the tournament would then have to be postponed.
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