Top 50 moments of 2020 – Part 3 (30-21)

We continue our countdown of the significant and memorable moments for Rugby League in 2020. Here we cover the events from positions 21 to 30.

30 Melbourne win NRL title

Melbourne Storm didn’t play a single home game in the 2020 season, instead moving to Queensland to play the majority of their ‘home’ games in the Sunshine Coast Stadium.

But that didn’t stop them from winning the NRL competition, beating the Penrith Panthers 26-20 on the last Sunday in October at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.

Nothing we’ve seen in NRL history is comparable to the Storm’s achievement.

Some players even had to leave their families behind and we could see the nature of the situation at full-time in the Grand Final. Normally the players of the winning team embrace their loved ones who have contributed to the victory, but Storm captain Cameron Smith was unable to embrace his children due to the strict rules in place.

Given what his club had been through, Storm coach Craig Bellamy had no doubt about the significance of the result.

“For what our guys have been through and their families, I would put it up at the top of the Grand Final wins we’ve had,” said Bellamy.

“2012 was a special one after what happened in 2010. This year there have been circumstances where the boys would have wanted to pack up and go home. They haven’t. They’ve stuck in with some difficult circumstances at times.

29 Paul McShane wins Man of Steel award

The Steve Prescott Man of Steel award had been reorganised in 2019 so that the winner was decided on the basis of votes in each match, adopting a similar format to the way the Albert Goldthorpe Medal voting is organised.

The award is made on the basis that each player has the potential to play the maximum number of games in the regular season.

Inevitably in the 2020 season that condition couldn’t be complied with, as clubs played different numbers of games and player appearances were disrupted by the pandemic.

Nonetheless, Paul McShane was still able to emerge as the winner at the end of the season.

McShane was actually in second place when the regular season ended, but the RFL decided that a five-player shortlist should be drawn up, based on the points they had been awarded during the season, and the Man of Steel panel Chairman Ellery Hanley should be given the right to make the final choice.

Hanley opted for McShane ahead of Bevan French and Liam Farrell of Wigan, Lachlan Coote of St Helens and Aidan Sezer of Huddersfield Giants.

McShane therefore became the fifth Castleford player to win the Man of Steel award after Adrian Vowles (1999), Rangi Chase (2011), Daryl Clark (2014) and Luke Gale (2017).

28 Sonny Bill Williams makes his Toronto debut

When Toronto Wolfpack announced the signing of Sonny Bill Williams in November 2019, the Rugby League world was aghast at the thought that the former Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters star would be returning to Rugby League after his stint with the New Zealand rugby union team that had culminated in the 2019 World Cup in that code.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of all, at least in the southern hemisphere, was that Williams would be returning to action in Super League with the game’s newest club.

Toronto coach Brian McDermott warned that it might take Williams some time to adapt to the rigours of playing Rugby League after having been out of the game since he had played for the Roosters in 2014.

Williams would make his debut for the Wolfpack against Castleford Tigers at Headingley in a sold out double header, with Leeds Rhinos facing Hull FC in the second game of the day.

Williams was selected on the bench, but came onto the pitch when he replaced Tom Olbison.

But, perhaps ominously, he knocked on the first pass he received and he generally looked awkward and out of sorts.

Williams couldn’t prevent the Wolfpack from sinking to a 28-10 defeat to the Tigers, and he would go on to play in just five out of the Wolfpack’s seven games.

27 RFL suspends promotion and relegation

In July, with the season set to be resumed on 2nd August, the RFL decided to scrap promotion and relegation for the 2020 season.

The announcement came soon after Toronto Wolfpack withdrew from Super League for the remainder of the season.

It was a decision that was welcomed by the Super League clubs, although there was inevitably less enthusiasm among Championship clubs.

“Our clubs have made their views clear for some time on both matters and maintain strongly that neither promotion nor relegation is fair or appropriate given the significant financial and operational challenges presented by COVID-19,” said a statement issued by the Super League clubs.

“Given the material compromises to the Super League schedule, it would be wrong to relegate a Super League team at the end of the current campaign. That logic applies equally to promotion from the Championship.”

The Super League clubs did hold out an olive branch, however, to their Championship counterparts, agreeing to pay a “substantial sum” as a contribution to a total of £250,000 that the RFL proposed to use as prizemoney for a shortened Championship competition later in the season.

In the event, that competition didn’t happen.

26 Clubs veto Toronto salary cap dispensation

Those Rugby League observers who feared that Toronto Wolfpack were not being wholeheartedly welcomed into Super League had plenty of ammunition in support of their opinion in January last year.

The Wolfpack had been having trouble managing their salary cap after gaining promotion, having spent virtually to the limit of £2.1 million but without having been able to recruit a full 25-man squad.

They had signed Sonny Bill Williams as a marquee player, but made no secret of their desire to sign other major stars, either from the NRL or from the other code.

Toronto coach Brian McDermott pleaded for a salary cap dispensation from the RFL, arguing that the Wolfpack had to pay its players more than clubs in the north of England in order to persuade them to join the club. It was the same argument used to justify London Broncos having been given a 10 per cent dispensation on the cap when they were promoted to Super League for the 2019 season.

However, the proposal went before a meeting of the Super League clubs and there was a huge backlash, with a majority of the clubs apparently believing that granting a dispensation to Toronto would increase their own chances of relegation. In the last week of January they voted 8-1 against the move.

However, the clubs did agree to allow the Wolfpack to recruit two young players to take their squad up to a nominal 25 players. But as a signpost to what would happen later in the year, the decision was ominous.

25 Hull Kingston Rovers sign Ryan Hall

Hull Kingston Rovers finally confirmed in November that they had signed former Leeds Rhinos and England winger Ryan Hall until the end of the 2022 season.

Hall had spent two seasons in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters, but in that time he had only made eleven appearances and hadn’t scored a single try.

With over 300 Super League appearances, 234 tries, six Super League Grand Finals and two Challenge Cup titles with the Rhinos, Hall admitted that he was looking forward to returning to Super League and perhaps reclaiming his England place in this year’s World Cup.

“I loved my time over in Australia; it was a great experience for me and my family,” he said.

“But I’m back to more familiar territory now, back in England and Super League.

“I started off under Tony Smith, he gave me my debut at Leeds and then again with England, and also he’s going to hopefully give me my debut for Hull KR as well.

“It’s pretty cool and familiarity is a comforting thing, so as long as I get settled in as soon as possible I can get back to playing my best rugby. With my relationship with Tony and Danny McGuire, that should come pretty easily.”

Smith was delighted to have got his man.

“Ryan had a number of choices in front of him, and he’s chosen us, so we are delighted about that,” said Smith.

24 Leeds Rhinos win the Challenge Cup

Leeds Rhinos won the Challenge Cup for the fourteenth time on 17 October, when they overcame a gallant challenge from Salford Red Devils, winning by a single point, 17-16, thanks to a late Luke Gale field-goal.

The Challenge Cup Final had originally been scheduled to be played in July, but because of the coronavirus it was put back to October with the later rounds reorganised as the non-Super League clubs, as well as Toronto Wolfpack, dropping out of the later stages of the competition.

And the 2020 final made history by becoming the first Cup Final ever to be played behind closed doors.

The decision to close the doors to spectators was inevitable at that time of the year, but it was particularly tough on the Red Devils, whose previous appearance at Wembley had been in 1969, when they lost to Castleford.

It was appropriate that Gale, wearing the number seven shirt, landed the winner for the Rhinos in tribute to Rob Burrow, who had also worn that squad number for most of his career.

Burrow had played for the Rhinos on their previous visit to Wembley, when they defeated Hull Kingston Rovers 50-0 in 2015.

The game was a thriller, with Salford taking a 16-12 lead with a James Greenwood try just 21 minutes before the end of the game. But the Rhinos replied with Ash Handley’s second try on 65 minutes and it was appropriate that Leeds captain Gale should step up to win the game.

Leeds fullback Richie Myler was awarded the Lance Todd Trophy, voted for by members of the media. Myler gained half of the 24 votes cast, with eight for Gale, two for Salford fullback Niall Evalds and two for Handley.

23 Toronto announce premature end to their season

On Monday 20 July Toronto Wolfpack announced that they were to withdraw unilaterally from the rest of the Super League season. It was only ten days before the season was due to restart.

A statement from the club said: “Toronto Wolfpack can confirm that the club has informed both Super League Europe (SLE) and the Rugby Football League (RFL) that the team will not be restarting the campaign as scheduled on August 2.

“The Wolfpack will not participate in the conclusion of the 2020 Betfred Super League season, or in the remainder of the 2020 Coral Challenge Cup.

“This decision has not been taken lightly, and in consideration of a range of factors specific to the club as the only transatlantic team in the league.

“The Covid pandemic has presented unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges to the Wolfpack organisation.

“The club fully intend to field a team in the 2021 season, and will be working with SLE and the RFL to understand the process moving into the next season.”
Super League issued a statement in response.

“Betfred Super League and the RFL are very disappointed to learn that Toronto Wolfpack will not be able to fulfil their obligations to Super League 2020,” the statement said.

“Super League Europe and the RFL have been in regular dialogue with the Wolfpack over the past weeks and months regarding the club’s ability to take part in the competition and firm assurances had been received as recently as last Thursday, 16 July.

22 Catalans sign Israel Folau

Catalans Dragons announced on 28 January last year that they had signed sacked Australia rugby union international Israel Folau, despite the controversy surrounding Folau after he had made an Instagram post in which he had denounced homosexuality, claiming that “hell awaits” gay people in accordance with his interpretation of the Bible.

Folau, whose career had started in Rugby League with Melbourne Storm, had reached a settlement with Rugby Australia in December after his sacking.

He initially signed a one-year deal with the French club and it was extended to two years later in the season.

The RFL and Super League said they “deplored” Folau’s previous comments and it was “a difficult decision” to allow him into the competition.

Super League Executive Chairman Robert Elstone said that “strict guidelines are in place” to avoid Folau again making such comments and warned that a repeat would see his contract “terminated immediately”. Catalans would also face a “substantial fine” if Folau breached the guidelines.

News of the deal came shortly after an announcement by Wigan Warriors that their match against Catalans at the DW Stadium on 22 March would be “Pride Day”, for which they would invite LGBTQ groups to help celebrate equality in the game, although that game would not take place after the season closed down.

21 Stevie Ward stands down with concussion

Leeds Rhinos announced on 27 February that their captain Stevie Ward had been stood down “indefinitely” following his concussion in the opening round of the Super League season.

Ward had not played since going off in the opening game against Hull FC at the beginning of February.

“We’ll stand him down indefinitely until we get more medical checks,” Leeds coach Richard Agar said.

“He’s failed his return-to-play protocols for the past three weeks.

“For him to still be showing symptoms after three weeks is concerning.

“As soon as he’s started exercise, the dizziness and blurred vision have come back, so we’re sending him down to see a specialist in London to have some more cognitive tests.

“The person we’re sending him to see had ten cases in rugby union last year of concussions that lasted three months. We’re not saying Stevie is going to be out for three months but it tells you when you are dealing with things like this it is not straightforward.”

Sadly, the symptoms didn’t improve for Ward as the year went on.

And earlier this month he finally made what was probably the inevitable decision to retire from Rugby League at the age of 27.

In recent times the subject of concussion has risen to the top of the agenda in relation to player welfare for both rugby codes.

Sadly, the career of Stevie Ward, which was so cruelly cut short, symbolises the importance of Rugby League’s concussion protocols on the field being as transparent and effective as possible.

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