Top 50 moments of 2020 – Part 2 (40-31)

We continue our countdown of the significant and memorable moments for Rugby League in 2020. Here we cover the events from positions 31 to 40.

40 Tigers beat Saints on eve of lockdown

Castleford Tigers emerged triumphant from the last game played before the March lockdown, when they put on a fine display to beat St Helens 28-14 at The Jungle on 15 March.

Derrell Olpherts’ first-half double and Peter Mata’utia’s early score put the Tigers ahead before a fine Tommy Makinson try brought St Helens back into the game at 14-4.

But Cheyse Blair crossed for a fourth Castleford score after the interval to dampen any hopes of a Saints comeback.

Jack Welsby and Luke Thompson scored late consolation tries either side of Castleford’s fifth score, from Jake Trueman.

Yellow cards for Matty Lees and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in either half hampered Saints’ hopes of staying in the contest and their second defeat in a row saw them fall to sixth place in the Super League table, with suggestions being made in some quarters that they were destined not to emulate their title success in 2019.

The Tigers, on the other hand, went into the lockdown full of optimism, having moved to joint top of Super League alongside Wigan, with halfback Danny Richardson having a strong game against his former club.

The match was the only fully professional top-level league fixture in UK sport to go ahead on that Sunday as the coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of swathes of fixtures.

“I thought the performance was outstanding, particularly in the first half. Everything we’d talked about from a plan perspective, the boys delivered,” said Castleford coach Daryl Powell.

“There were a couple of tough periods for us but I felt we handled it really well. Danny Richardson was keen for a big game today and I felt he delivered that.”

39 Toronto go out on a high

Although nobody who was at the game would have recognised it at the time, Wednesday 11 March was a highly significant day because it was the date of Toronto Wolfpack’s last ever game.

And it was the only Wolfpack victory in 2020, as Ricky Leutele scored the only tries of the match as ironically they became the first team through to the sixth round of the Challenge Cup thanks to an 18-0 win over Huddersfield Giants on a rainy night at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Leutele touched down twice in the first ten minutes to put the Canadians on their way to a first win as a Super League club to earn themselves a place in the draw alongside the top eight clubs from 2019.

The victory, which followed six straight defeats at the start of their inaugural season in Super League, was achieved without Sonny Bill Williams and former St Helens loose forward Jon Wilkin, while Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott opted to keep three of his four interchange players on the bench for the entire 80 minutes.

The Wolfpack were boosted by the return of centre Chase Stanley for his first and only appearance of the season following a delayed return from Australia, while stand-off Joe Mellor returned from a four-match absence with a hand injury.

Two conversions and three penalties from Gareth O’Brien went with the Samoan international Leutele’s double.

Sadly the Wolfpack didn’t play in the sixth round and nor did they play another game in Super League.

The Wolfpack squad that played its last ever game was: 1 Gareth O’Brien, 5 Liam Kay, 3 Chase Stanley, 4 Ricky Leutele, 23 Hakim Miloudi, 6 Joe Mellor, 7 Josh McCrone, 8 Adam Sidlow, 9 Andy Ackers, 15 Gadwin Springer, 16 Tom Olbison, 12 Bodene Thompson, 11 Andrew Dixon; Subs: 10 Anthony Mullally, 14 Darcy Lussick (not used), 17 Blake Wallace (not used), 24 Tony Gigot (not used).

38 Huddersfield Giants sack Simon Woolford

Huddersfield Giants parted company with their head coach Simon Woolford in mid-September after the Giants’ had lost five successive games since the resumption of Super League in August.

They had gone into the lockdown in March with four wins in five games, including victories against Wigan and St Helens, but their decline post-lockdown led to the club’s decision to accelerate Woolford’s departure, although three of those five defeats were by one point. The Australian coach had been on a contract only until the end of the season and Giants managing director Richard Thewlis said: “Simon and I caught up (today) regarding the position and we both agreed this is best for both parties.

“I would like to pay tribute to Simon for his professionalism and realisation of the situation once it was known he wasn’t seeking an extension and everyone here wishes him and his family every success in the future.

“He returns to Australia after just over two years’ experience here as head coach and I am sure will have many suitors down under for his services ”

The Giants were lying in eighth place in the Super League table at the time of Woolford’s departure. His assistant Luke Robinson took the coaching reins on an interim basis after his departure, but the Giants would subsequently entice Ian Watson from Salford Red Devils as his permanent replacement.

37 James Graham announces retirement

James Graham was praised as one of Rugby League’s all-time great props following his decision to retire from the sport at the end of the 2020 season.

The 35-year-old had already announced he had decided to call time on his international career, bowing out as England’s record appearance-maker.

But in October Graham, who St Helens signed in June, opted to bring his club career to a close too and St Helens Chairman Eamonn McManus led the tributes to him.

“James Graham has been one of the greatest players ever produced by and played for St Helens,” McManus said.

“Throughout his long and distinguished career both with us, in the NRL and representing his country, he has given everything in every minute, in every game.

“He readily enters the pantheon of all-time great Rugby League props and we are lucky to be associated with him.”

Liverpool-born Graham began his professional career with St Helens and made his senior debut in 2003, going on to be part of a squad which won the Super League Grand Final in 2006 and lifted the Challenge Cup three times, as well as being named Man of Steel in 2008.

He moved to the NRL at the end of the 2011 season, first with Canterbury Bulldogs and then with St George-Illawarra Dragons, making a total of 186 appearances in Australia and being on the losing side in two Grand Finals.

“Playing for St Helens and over in the NRL has been an absolute honour,” Graham said.

“Finishing my career at my boyhood club was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist.

“I have had so many fantastic memories throughout my career. It has all been a huge honour.”

Graham’s career ended in the best possible way with St Helens’ Grand Final victory over Wigan.

36 Salford reach Wembley for first time since 1969

Salford Red Devils came from behind to beat Warrington 24-22 to reach their first Challenge Cup final in 51 years in the Challenge Cup semi-final played as a double-header at the Totally Wicked Stadium on 3rd October.

Warrington, who beat St Helens at Wembley in 2019 and were bidding to reach their third successive final, dominated possession and territory for most of the 80 minutes.

But they were unable to shake off Ian Watson’s dogged Salford side, who reached the final for the first time since losing to Castleford in 1969.

They withstood a period of early Warrington pressure in rain-lashed St Helens before finally falling behind when a man short after Tyrone McCarthy had been sent to the sin-bin for a reckless tackle.

Warrington had a numerical advantage, which they exploited by spreading the play wide for King to score in the corner, with Stefan Ratchford’s conversion and then a penalty giving them an 8-0 lead.

But Salford hit back when Warrington fullback Matty Ashton was unable to gather Tui Lolohea’s grubber and Watkins raced in to touch down.

Austin dummied his way over to give Warrington a six-point half-time lead, only for Inu to claim Kevin Brown’s high kick to reduce Salford’s arrears immediately after the restart.

Warrington appeared to have breathing space once again when Murdoch-Masila went over against his former club.

But Salford, whose only Challenge Cup win came in 1938, refused to give in as Greenwood won the race to touch down Brown’s angled grubber kick before Lussick powered his way over from close range to seal the Red Devils’ trip to Wembley.

35 Warrington announce signing of Greg Inglis

Warrington Wolves surprised the Rugby League world on 19 May by announcing the signing of Aussie superstar Greg Inglis for the 2021 Super League season.

Inglis retired from the game in April 2019 after scoring 150 tries in 265 games for Melbourne and South Sydney. In a glittering career he also played 32 games for Queensland and earned 39 caps for Australia.

In one sense the Wolves were taking a gamble, but if Inglis can get near to replicating the form that made his reputation in Australia, then he could be an inspired signing.

“I can’t wait to get over there and play for a club that has so much rich heritage,” he said, when the news broke.

“I’ve seen the success the team has had in the Challenge Cup and I want to help the team to deliver more glory.

“I’ve played over in England many times in representative footy and love how passionate and vocal the supporters are.

“To get the opportunity to live in the UK, to play for such a powerhouse club that I believe is on the rise is something I’m looking forward to and hopefully I can add value to the team.”

Warrington coach Steve Price was looking forward to Inglis’ arrival.

“Greg is a world class athlete and has received the highest honours within our game,” he said.

“Having had 12 months out of the sport he has had time to refresh both mentally and physically, and he is focused on having a positive influence on Warrington Wolves.

“I’m looking forward to working with him on a professional and personal level, and I’m excited to welcome him into our group.”

34 Newcastle Thunder promoted to Championship

Newcastle Thunder will play in the Championship in 2021, confirmed by the RFL on 10 December, after their submission was chosen by an independent panel for promotion from League 1.

Thunder will replace Leigh Centurions, who were selected to take up the now defunct Toronto Wolfpack’s spot in Super League this season.

Thunder who have stated they would like to win a Super League title by 2030, and are owned and financially supported by wealthy northeast businessman Seymour Kurdi, missed out on promotion via the play-offs in 2019, losing to Oldham.

“Newcastle Thunder was the unanimous choice for the panel,” said its Chairman, Air Commodore Dean Andrew.

“Thunder’s coaching set-up and facilities are superb; its community outreach is well-established and growing.

“Newcastle and the northeast has considerable future growth potential, backed by its owner – as has already been recognised by the decision to play the Super League Magic Weekend at St James’ Park for a fifth time in 2021, and also by Rugby League World Cup 2021, with five fixtures to be played in the region including the tournament opener in Newcastle.

“The club has a clearly-stated aspiration of Super League success this decade. Overall the panel thought its application most closely matched the vision of the RFL’s Strategy Reset.”

The other four clubs that had hoped to be promoted were Barrow Raiders, Bradford Bulls, Doncaster and Workington Town.

Andrew, a former RFL president, praised all five bids for their “aspiration and ambition”.

Thunder last played at tier 2 level in 2009, when they were known as Gateshead Thunder.

Much has changed at the club since then, after the shareholders approved a move to Newcastle and link up with the Falcons union club.

33 Sean O’Loughlin announces his retirement

Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin finally confirmed on 13 November that he would be retiring as a player at the end of the Super League season.

He announced his decision just two weeks before the Grand Final was due to be held, raising the hope among Wigan supporters that he would be able to go out on a high, although Jack Welsby’s final-second try at the KCOM Stadium put paid to that hope.

O’Loughlin had spent his entire 19-season career with his hometown club, having made his debut in 2002 after coming through the youth system and going on to captain both his club and his country, winning 22 England caps and eleven Great Britain caps.

At the age of 38, he would become the oldest player to play in a Grand Final.

In 2021 he was limited to a handful of appearances because of nagging injury problems and

“I’ve always known it would be a difficult decision because it’s something you love doing,” O’Loughlin said on announcing his retirement.

“To not be able to do that going forward is pretty difficult to take.

“The reason you start playing as a kid is because you enjoy it and I don’t think I’ve ever lost that enjoyment. It’s got more difficult as you get older, but the enjoyment is still there.

“We’ve had tough years and years where we’ve done fantastically well, but I wouldn’t change any of it.”

During his career O’Loughlin had racked up four Super League Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cup successes and three League Leaders’ Shield wins with Wigan, along with a World Club Challenge title when they beat NRL champions Cronulla Sharks in 2017.

O’Loughlin had also been named in the Super League Dream Team seven times and he was inducted straight into the Wigan Hall of Fame on retirement.

“It’s the first time since 2016 that we have inducted a player into the Wigan Hall of Fame,” Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan said. “It is absolutely fitting that Sean is that player.”

32 RFL cancels Australian tour

The Australian Kangaroos had been due to play three Test matches against England in October and November, with the final Test due to be played at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in London on the last day of October.

But by the end of May it was obvious that the tour couldn’t go ahead, and the RFL, in consultation with the Australian Rugby League, called time on the series. The ARLC had already decided to re-schedule its postponed State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland to the same months.

“Given the continued complications surrounding global travel and the need to extend the domestic season in both hemispheres because of the significant disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the governing bodies have agreed to take an early decision to allow greater certainty for players and supporters,” said an RFL statement.

But it stressed: “Both the RFL and the ARLC remain committed to the revival of the great Rugby League tradition of the Ashes, which was first contested in 1908 and had been due to be revived after a 17-year absence for its 40th edition in 2020 – and the Kangaroo tour.

“With the Rugby League World Cup to be held in England in 2021, discussions have already been opened on the potential for the Kangaroos returning for a three-Test Ashes series, from 2022 onwards.”

RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer said the announcement was made with “great reluctance and disappointment”.

He said: “We had been looking forward so much to welcoming the Kangaroos for the revival of the Rugby League Ashes in 2020 and the prospect of the series had captured the imagination of our players, broadcast and commercial partners, supporters and media alike.

“It will have a considerable impact on the finances of Rugby League here in England, as we were banking on a significant boost from Australia’s first full tour since 2003.”

31 Prince Harry conducts World Cup draw

Last January the World Cup organising committee pulled off a major coup by having Prince Harry, the Patron of the RFL, make the World Cup draw from Buckingham Palace.

In a video spectacular, the Duke of Sussex (his official title) made the draw not just for the men’s tournament, but also for the women’s and wheelchair tournaments.

Prince Harry had been pencilled in to conduct the draw several weeks earlier, which in itself was seen as a feather in the cap for the tournament then, but the draw came shortly after the official announcement of the Duke of Sussex’s intention to step back from royal duties.

Making the draw for the World Cup was his first public engagement since that announcement, handing Rugby League a glorious opportunity for publicity in all the international mainstream media.

“To have him there, front and centre in Buckingham Palace, was huge for the sport,” the RFL’s then rugby director, Kevin Sinfield, said after the draw.

“His involvement in our sport has been fantastic and he’s been engaging and enthusiastic.”

But while Harry and the host broadcasters were at Buckingham Palace to conduct the draw, there was a gathering of dignitaries at the Lowry Theatre at Salford, given that only a handful of VIPs could go to Buckingham Palace.

“The aim of the England performance unit is to win all three World Cups and that hasn’t changed,” Sinfield said, although much of the interest was in some of the newer nations, such as Greece and Jamaica, who would be participating in the World Cup for the first time.

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