A lot has happened in the world of rugby league in 2021. Since the season kicked off in March, we’ve had doubles, trebles, a French renaissance, the long-awaited return of the game at all levels away from the Betfred Super League, and perhaps most significantly, supporters took their place on the terraces as well.
A lot has not happened as well, I should of course be writing this just a few weeks on from a triple header of World Cup Finals, but of course we’ll have to wait until next Autumn.
However, as monumental a blow as the postponement of the World Cup was (thanks again, Peter V'Landys and co), rugby league showed a resilience it can be proud of in 2021, overcoming trying circumstances to deliver another calendar year of sporting brilliance on the field.
I’m absolutely certain whilst writing this that plenty of people will think I’ve got this completely wrong, and that’s great; it shows the year we’ve had.
Before we go any further, I’d like to put something of a disclaimer in. For a long time whilst writing this article, I had Kevin Sinfield’s ‘Extra Mile’ challenge, which saw him run 101 miles in 24 hours to raise awareness and money for MND causes, as the number one moment of the year.
Ultimately, I decided to take it out. Partly because I am a massive believer that Rugby League needs to be more outwardly bullish about our product on the field, and I don’t want to detract from that, but also because it wasn’t just the rugby league moment of the year; it was the moment of the year. Period.
Leadership has been a contentious subject in this country recently. Sir Kevin Sinfield wrote the book, and he’s still scribbling away.
So, onto the top five rugby league moments of 2021…
5. The Betfred Challenge Cup Final
Thirty-odd thousand at Wembley would be a massive cause for concern in any other year, but this July it felt like a crowd ten-fold that amount had descended on the capital for the Betfred Challenge Cup Final; the largest rugby league crowd since October 2019.
Both St Helens & Castleford went into this game looking to end their respective Wembley hoodoos, and they served up an absolute stormer, on one of the hottest days of the year as rugby league got its feel-good factor back.
It was Saints who came out on top of a game that was played at 100 miles per hour, but I would imagine fans of both sides, in retrospect, would look back on that day with extremely fond memories as rugby league finally got back to something resembling normal.
4. Betfred Super League Play-Offs: Warrington Wolves vs Hull KR
If you’re a Warrington fan, maybe just skip this one…
Everyone loves an underdog, and in 2021 Hull KR played that role to near perfection. Tipped by many (myself included) to struggle at the bottom of the table, the Robins came within 80 minutes of the Grand Final, whilst at the same time playing perhaps the most entertaining football in the league.
A halfback pairing of Mikey Lewis and Jordan Abdull took the league by storm, the likes of Ryan Hall and Shaun Kenny-Dowall went through some kind of renaissance, and Tony Smith cut the figure of a man who had fallen back in love with the game.
The pinnacle of their season came at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in the play-offs, where they beat Warrington 19-0 with a super performance, bringing back memories of Salford’s remarkable run to the 2019 Grand Final.
Only four clubs have won the Betfred Super League Grand Final, and that needs to change, but it’s nights like that one in Warrington that keep us all on the hook, utterly addicted to the drama that the Betfred Super League delivers year on year.
It’s hard to say at this point whether they can back their heroics up in 2022, but for the last 12 months at least, Hull Kingston Rovers became a lot of people’s second team.
3. The Betfred Super League Grand Final
The Betfred Super League Grand Final had a lot to live up to after the drama of 2020, and whilst we didn’t quite get a Jack Welsby moment, what we did get was an occasion packed to the brim with stories.
Catalans Dragons became the first team from outside of the north of England, and only the ninth club ever to reach rugby league’s showpiece event after lifting the league leaders shield, and they brought plenty of their Catalonian flair to occasion as their team pushed St Helens all the way.
For Saints, they wrapped up their third consecutive title, and in the process said goodbye to a number of players who have been at the heart of this golden generation, such as Harry Sunderland Trophy winner Kevin Naiqama and Lachlan Coote.
I’ve no doubt there is plenty more to come from Saints in the next few years, but that night at Old Trafford had the feeling of a crowning moment for one of the great rugby league sides we’ve had the privilege of seeing on this hemisphere.
2. The Betfred Women’s Super League Grand Final
The day after St Helens men’s side asserted their dominance of the game at Old Trafford, it was the turn of their Women, who secured a historic treble in front of a record crowd for a women’s game at Headingley.
Saints had been the side to beat all year, and they were almost note perfect again as they overcame 2019 Champions Leeds on their own patch.
The 2020 Women’s season was written before it had even begun by the pandemic, but any fears that the momentum that had been building being lost were put firmly to bed on that afternoon in Leeds, as 4235 people, and thousands more watching on TV, were treated to a game of genuine quality.
You don't have to watch women’s Rugby League on a weekly basis to appreciate a good side, and this generation of St Helens players are at the forefront of the ever-improving standard of the Betfred Women’s Super League, something that bodes well for next year's World Cup.
1. Magic Weekend – day one
There are some days in life, and in sport, where it feels like an absolute privilege to be present in that exact moment in time and space. Saturday at this year’s Magic Weekend was one of those days.
The annual Rugby League roadshow returned to Newcastle in September, a slightly later billing than usual. That bought with it plenty of games fraught with meaning and significance, in a way we’ve not seen at Magic before. There was a sense in the run-up that we might get something special. The reality was a whole lot more than that.
St Helens vs Catalans always had the potential to be a classic. First vs Second, Woolf’s pragmatic perennial winners against McNamara’s great entertainers in what would prove to be a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final.
With four minutes on the block, Catalans were dead and buried, 18 points behind and looking well beaten, then everything went a bit nuts.
The Dragons mounted one of the most remarkable comebacks you are ever likely to see, and with St James Park feeling more like the South of France as the neutral fans got behind the Catalonians, they forced the game into golden point. Enter stage right, James Maloney.
The Australian veteran rattled over a long range drop goal, and Catalans confirmed their first ever League Leaders’ Shield. Pandemonium.
The following game, Leeds Rhinos vs Hull FC had the feeling of after the Lord Mayors Show. How wrong we were. Another golden point thriller, this time won by Leeds, rounded off the greatest day in Magic Weekend history, a day where everyone inside that stadium (with perhaps the exception of Saints and Hull FC fans) fell in love with the game all over again.
So there we go, that’s my five. There were a lot of moments that didn’t make the cut, so some honorary mentions to Toulouse, and the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair side who both had stand out years.
As I mentioned early, I’m sure plenty will disagree with me, if you do, well done for getting this far down the page without closing it, but the one thing that writing this article has done, is get me really excited for what’s around the corner.
It’s felt like a long long time since we’ve had competitive rugby league to get stuck into, but there’s a World Cup year around the corner. Bring it on.