2020 – a significant and memorable year
League Express editor Martyn Sadler introduces our annual five-part series of articles that look back at the season just gone and picks out the significant and memorable moments we’ll all remember, whether they are triumphs, tragedies, great moments in games or memorable matches.
The 2020 Rugby League season has been unlike any other, and at one stage it looked as though it would come to a grinding halt in March, never to resume.
But the Super League season did get back on track in August and there were plenty of moments to remember, both on and off the field.
Below we consider moments 41 to 50, while the next four features will see us counting down to number 1.
We hope that this is a series you won’t want to miss and that you will broadly agree with our selection of significant moments from the year just gone.
First of all we should define the scope of the moments that we will include in this series with the dictionary definitions of our two key terms.
“Significant: important, large, or great, especially in leading to a different result or to an important change.”
“Memorable: worth remembering or easily remembered, especially because of being special or unusual.”
50 Warrington release Luther Burrell
In mid-September Warrington pulled the plug on an experiment that many had hoped would succeed, when they terminated the contract of former England rugby union centre Luther Burrell.
Burrell, who won 15 caps for England, joined the Wolves in July 2019 on a two-and-a-half-year contract from Northampton, becoming one of a very small number of rugby union internationals to join Rugby League since that code went professional in 1995.
But he made just three appearances in 2019 and, after being selected on the bench for the first five games of 2020, he had failed to gain selection in the matchday squad since the restart of the season on August 2.
Burrell spoke of his frustration in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, in which he said he continued to push himself in training despite the lack of opportunities.
“There has to come a point where you look at the situation honestly and ask: how much more can you take of this?” he said.
“I was doing everything I could, but the opportunities just weren’t presenting themselves.”
Now 32, Burrell has since returned to rugby union with Newcastle Falcons, but his failure to make an impact, despite having junior experience in Rugby League, will probably close the door on any more rugby union signings.
49 RFL withdraws attempted Autumn Invitational
Throughout the period of the Covid lockdown the RFL had been hoping to revive some sort of competition for clubs outside Super League.
In July the governing body revealed its plans, which were for a competition based on a 16-team entry, and with participation voluntary, although proposed prize money of £250,000 was thought to be a major attraction.
The competition was projected to last nine weeks, beginning on the weekend of October 3/4 and concluding on the weekend of November 28/29.
Unfortunately, however, the problems of running a competition proved insurmountable, with the clubs’ players on furlough, while they faced significant costs in dealing with Covid if they were to bring them back into training.
When Leigh Centurions withdrew their application for the competition in late August, the only other four clubs who still were proclaiming their interest in the competition were Batley, Barrow, Bradford and Dewsbury. Sadly, the writing was on the wall and the RFL finally admitted defeat soon afterwards meaning both Championship and League 1 clubs were unable to see any action in the final nine months of the year.
48 Danny Kazandjian takes charge of the IRL
Danny Kazandjian was appointed the Secretary-General of International Rugby League from 1st December, taking over from the outgoing chief executive Nigel Wood.
Kazandjian, who first came to prominence when he played a leading role in establishing Lebanese Rugby League, had worked for both the Rugby League European Federation and International Rugby League (IRL), which used to be called the Rugby League International Federation.
In a World Cup year he is taking over the reins of the IRL at a vital time for the game, but his experience in developing the game in new countries should prove to be a great advantage at a time when Rugby League is being played in more and more nations.
“I am honoured to be asked to take on this vital role for IRL,” said Kazandjian.
“We continue to both improve our support for our 52 members and develop core functions as an international federation, including anti-doping, match officiating, judiciary, the laws of the game, our regulatory framework in addition to other strategic areas such as improving our approach to women’s and disability Rugby League and further regional devolution. All of this work is ultimately intended to underpin a vibrant, coherent international calendar, which remains the federation’s principal objective.”
47 Salford appoint Richard Marshall
Salford Red Devils suffered a major blow soon after the end of the season, when they lost their head coach Ian Watson to Huddersfield Giants.
But they moved quickly to appoint a successor, and they settled on St Helens assistant coach Richard Marshall, the former Halifax coach, who had been due to leave the Totally Wicked Stadium as St Helens were cutting back on their expenditure, so he was available without the need for the Red Devils to compensate Saints for the appointment.
Marshall faces a tough challenge in maintaining the momentum built up over recent years by Watson.
“I’m really excited about joining the club. I’ve been really impressed by the organisation and everyone I’ve met,” said Marshall.
“The ambition of the club aligns with my own, which makes this a perfect role for me.
“I learned a lot in recent years, from Justin Holbrook and Kristian Woolf at St Helens and as a head coach in my own right, so I think I’ve got the skills necessary to be successful.”
The club’s director of rugby Ian Blease said: “Richard has really impressed us, and it’s already clear that he has bought into the vision of the club.
“He joins us from a successful club with a winning culture, having won two consecutive Grand Finals during his time at St Helens.”
46 KCOM Stadium hosts Grand Final
Ever since Super League introduced the Grand Final as a way of deciding the Super League Champions, in 1998, the climax of the season has been held at Old Trafford, the home of football giants Manchester United.
But the Covid crisis put a stop to that, when the regular season was extended to the end of October, meaning that the Grand Final was due to be played on the final weekend in November.
Unfortunately on that weekend United couldn’t offer the use of Old Trafford, so Super League had to look elsewhere for a venue and with just five weeks to spare, on 22nd October, it announced its decision.
“After full consideration of a number of options, we’re delighted to confirm that we will be taking the 2020 Betfred Super League Grand Final to the KCOM Stadium in Hull, a city and stadium with a proud Rugby League heritage and one worthy of hosting the game’s showpiece event,” said Executive Chairman Robert Elstone.
“We will miss Old Trafford. Most of all we all will miss the nerve-jangling atmosphere created by 70,000 fans.
“The absence of supporters will bring into focus the challenges, and all too often tragedies, of a year we are all anxious to put behind us.
“For the first time in our history, the Super League season will reach its thrilling conclusion on a Friday night.’
45 Wigan extend Bevan French’s contract
During the latter part of the season there was considerable speculation linking Wigan star Bevan French with a return to the NRL with his original club Parramatta.
French had joined Wigan midway through 2019 on a contract that ran until the end of 2020.
But on 1st November Wigan announced that French would extend his stay through 2021, ensuring that the club’s biggest crowd pleaser would remain at the DW Stadium when spectators are back in the stands some time in 2021.
“It is really sad that Bevan is producing moments of magic in front of empty stadiums,” said Wigan executive director Kris Radlinski.
“Bevan is box office and people like him need to be seen live to be appreciated. He is everything that the English Super League should be about. Young, exciting, articulate and the good news is that he is going to get better and better.
“We need to thank our owner Ian Lenagan for making this bold statement in challenging times. This is for the fans of Wigan to thank you for your continued love and support.”
On his new deal, French said: “I’m very happy to be here. Ever since I arrived, people in the club, teammates and all the Wigan community have been really welcoming and I wanted to be able to spend the next year or two years here.
“Making my decision has been easier thinking about the pros at Wigan. We’ve got great coaching staff here and a great bunch of players. It’s an honour to play with some of the players in this team.”
44 Roosters retain WCC trophy
In February St Helens hosted Sydney Roosters in the World Club Challenge at the Totally Wicked Stadium, fortunately before the Covid-19 virus caused the season to close down.
The Roosters triumphed with a 20-12 scoreline, and in doing so they created a new record, winning the World Club Challenge for a record fifth time under their coach Trent Robinson.
Saints were missing Mark Percival, Regan Grace and Lachlan Coote, who were replaced by James Bentley, Matty Costello and Jack Welsby respectively. They fought manfully, going in 8-6 down at the interval after
Luke Thompson scored the opening try, before Daniel Tupou and Joseph Manu scored unconverted tries.
In the second half Saints then spent what seemed like the whole of the third quarter camped on the Roosters’ line.
But then the Roosters struck back, with Manu scoring his second try and another by Luke Keary, while Saints responded with a late touchdown by Alex Walmsley.
It was new coach Kristian Woolf’s first game in charge of St Helens where a major trophy was at stake.
It was a much improved performance by St Helens when compared to the last time they featured in the World Club Challenge, when they were beaten 39-0 by South Sydney in 2015.
But it now means that English clubs have only one two out of the last twelve World Club Challenge matches – the exceptions being Leeds Rhinos’ 26-12 defeat of Manly in 2012 and Wigan’s 22-6 defeat of Cronulla in 2017.
43 Gareth Ellis announces retirement
Former Hull FC captain and England international Gareth Ellis announced his retirement from Rugby League for the second time at the age of 39 in November.
Ellis was in his 22nd season as a first-grade player, having made his debut for Wakefield in 1999 and by playing into the year 2020 he joined the select band of players who had played at the highest level in four separate decades, having played for Wakefield until 2004, then spending four seasons with Leeds from 2005 to 2008 before joining the NRL’s Wests Tigers for four seasons from 2009 to 2012.
He returned to join Hull FC in 2013, leading them to victory in the 2016 Challenge Cup Final and repeated the feat when the club retained the trophy 12 months later.
He retired for the first time at the end of the 2017 season, but returned in 2019 and carried on into 2020. He played his last game for Hull in the sixth round of the Challenge Cup against Castleford Tigers on 13 September, helping Hull to a 29-16 victory.
Ellis also played 17 times for Great Britain and 16 times for England.
“Now the dust has settled on our season, it seems the right time to officially confirm my second retirement,” Ellis said.
“Whereas the decision to retire at the end of the 2017 season was very difficult and one I wrestled with for some time, as you can imagine this time around it was much more straightforward and something I have alluded to throughout this year’s campaign.
42 Super League table to be decided on win percentages
In early September the RFL decided that positions in the Super League table would from then on be determined by points percentages following several postponements because of positive Covid-19 test results.
The RFL made the change because of the “possibility that not all clubs will be able to play the same number of matches”.
The switch, which was implemented immediately, saw Catalans Dragons, who had played fewer games than any other club, move from fourth place in the table to the top of the league.
At that stage the plan was still that the top four clubs would qualify for the play-offs. That number was extended to six clubs later in the year.
The Dragons, who had a win percentage of 71.43% from their seven games, leapt above previous leaders St Helens, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors, who all sat on 14 points from their ten matches.
At the time the French side were narrowly on top, with St Helens, Warrington and Wigan all on 70%, followed by Leeds Rhinos in fifth on 62.5% and Castleford adrift in sixth place on 50%.
To qualify for the play-offs, the RFL stated that a team must play a minimum of 15 games, unless they would end the regular season in the top four on competition points anyway, but that provision was later dropped and Catalans were able to participate in the play-offs despite having played only 13 games in the regular season.
The RFL board had decided on the measure, which was the first of its kind since Super League’s formation in 1996, after five games had already been postponed since the season restarted.
41 Hull FC appoint Brett Hodgson
Hull FC Chairman Adam Pearson had shocked the Rugby League world in March when he very publicly sacked his coach Lee Radford, with Radford’s assistant Andy Last taking over on an interim basis and taking Hull to within one game of the Grand Final.
But at the end of the season it wasn’t Last who would get the job permanently.
Instead Hull announced that former Super League Man of Steel Brett Hodgson, the assistant coach at the NRL’s Wests Tigers, had been appointed as the club’s new head coach.
A former assistant coach at Widnes Vikings, the Australian returns to Hull FC, where he had previously been a coaching consultant.
He had also spent time with Sale Sharks in rugby union, before returning home to Wests Tigers as assistant coach to Ivan Cleary in 2017, and then working under former Wigan coach Michael Maguire when he joined the club twelve months later.
Hodgson will commence pre-season training with the Hull squad today (Monday).
“I’m very excited – I spent nine years over in England playing in Super League and then moving into coaching, with one of those years as a consultant at Hull FC, so I know some of the people at the club already,” said Hodgson.
“Hull FC have probably the most passionate fan-base in the game, and we’re hoping to have some real success for them.”
Last has since joined Wakefield Trinity as an assistant coach.
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