The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020
Over the off-season, I created a ranking system for every-ish rugby league club in the world and updating the rankings for the 2020 season would be an opportune time to reflect on the year that’s been. However, it seems like that this act of statistical hubris has angered the gods so much they gave us a global pandemic that ruined everything. While we’ll have to live with the impact of the pandemic for many years to come, one of the most immediate is that there will not be a GRLFC ranking for 2020.
While we wait for normality to return, 2020 may have been a season for the coronavirus-loving anti-expansionists, plenty still happened in rugby league football and we’re going to through as much of it as we can.*
*Even with a global pandemic, I wasn’t able to include absolutely every competition and match that occurred becuase a lot of rugby league was still played. Where possible, I’ve talked about the senior men’s club competitions, because that’s usually the easiest to get information for, but this didn’t mean that women or juniors or 9s or local competitions didn’t also go ahead. A lot of the coverage in less traditional countries comes via the IRL, RLEF and APRLC, who have all really stepped up their social media game over the last twelve to eighteen months and should be congratulated for doing so.
The year began relatively promisingly. The 9s in Perth attracted a decent crowd – despite the garbage spewed by the east coast media – and a lack of a video ref cost Phil Gould $1000. And as a side note, the North Queensland Cowboys won something.
The Indigenous and Maori sides gave us the first All-Stars matches both sides actually cared about for the first time in a decade.
As we would later discover, it’s unfortunate that the sport is run by a mouth-breathing culture warrior that thinks its important to placate the very loudly racist part of the fanbase in New South Wales and Queensland instead of, you know, everyone else.
However, that was still ahead of us. Despite the pandemic introducing a little break between rounds two and three, the NRL came back very early relative to other sports. The break gave the sport time to reflect, the results of which were:
- The NRL found itself in breach of contract with its broadcast partners
- CEO Todd Greenberg was turfed, nominally for daring to speak to anyone but Channel 9 about the free-to-air rights
- Chairman Peter V’Landys renegotiated the deals, taking a reported 20% haircut and then throwing a huge chunk of the sport’s infrastructure into the cost-cutting shredder
- V’Landys then introduced a slew of poorly thought out rule changes, presumably to make the game more exciting and improve TV ratings (it worked for almost two weeks and then ratings finished down on the year)
- The media coverage that followed was capital-c Cringe
This is your irregular reminder that Peter V’Landys is the chairman of the ARLC and not the CEO. No one seems to care and Super League 2.0 is not coming.
The result was one of the most dismal NRL seasons of recent years, with only a couple of teams finding a way to entertain the masses (round 8’s Roosters-Storm clash was the year’s on-field highlight). A large number of clubs completely failed to develop any competitive spirit while stuck in isolation from their friends and family and the product on field reflected it. A noticeable gap formed between the top eight and bottom eight. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Then, seven sick finals games followed (Canberra’s preliminary final exit excluded), because rugby league is alright if everyone actually tries, and we limped home with a bizarre grand final that was over at half time and then wasn’t because refs.
You can read the individual team season reviews here:
- Brisbane Broncos
- Canberra Raiders
- Canterbury Bulldogs
- Cronulla Sharks
- Gold Coast Titans
- Manly Sea Eagles
- Melbourne Storm
- Newcastle Knights
- New Zealand Warriors
- North Queensland Cowboys
- Parramatta Eels
- Penrith Panthers
- South Sydney Rabbitohs
- St George Illawarra Dragons
- Sydney Roosters
- Wests Tigers
The ripple effect of the cost cutting measures will likely start to be felt next year. Without knowing exactly what’s being cut and by how much, it remains impossible to know what’s coming next. Phil Gould outlined his brain fart of a master plan in a column for the Daily Telegraph in June which, given he has the ear of the Greek god V’Landys, is probably where we’re going. It’s a framework for the sport which purports to save money but is actually more expensive and really just transfers power from head office to the NRL clubs because none of these idiots actually know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
At least, scheduling and attendances will start to return to normal next year, as the virus comes under some semblance of control in Australia and New Zealand. Brisbane still looks likely to gain a second team in 2022 or 2023, although at the time of writing we do not know which one it is. I hope someone has at least done the numbers to make sure the NRL comes out ahead.
My biggest fear was that the cost cutting measures would eliminate women’s football. For once, my worst fears were not confirmed and the NRLW went ahead as it has the last two years. While the lack of expansion was disappointing, we should be glad we got a competition at all.
The pandemic still affected the competition. All the players were forced into the bubble, unable to mix with family and friends and, for the Broncos and Warriors, unable to play home games. Quite why the NRL didn’t go to bat for the women’s competition with state governments, as they did for the men’s, is known only to them.
I assume this was the rationale for the scheduling of the competition, with games kicking off at 12.30 and 4.00 before the men’s finals’ kickoff at 7.50. This all occured at the same stadium, leading to the ridiculous arrangement in round 1 of Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand and St George Illawarra playing in Canberra, a place that doesn’t have a NRLW team, and the first game having zero attendance because it would mean spectators would have to be at the stadium for eight hours to see all three games. It didn’t suit fans or broadcasters (ratings were down on last year), both of who would have benefited from later kick offs and/or alternative venues for the women’s games.
Brisbane were the undisputed champions for the third year running. Ali Brigginshaw somehow seems to be getting better with age and the Broncos have managed to continue to unearth talents (the media still seems to be getting to grips with Tamika Upton, despite already being a two-time premiership winner), even as the other clubs siphon off players to pad out their own rosters. The Broncos’ regular season record is 8-1 with 3-0 in grand finals. If the season weren’t so short and the opposition so few, we’d hail this as one of the greatest rugby league sides of all time. I may still do that anyway.
At the other end of the scale, the Dragons were hopeless. I blame the coach for their logic-defying ability to underwhelm and not win a single 13s game in 2020.
It’s even more baffling when you remember the Dragons won the 9s at the start of the year.
The Roosters roster seemed relatively low on star factor compared to their cross-town rivals, barring the obvious exception of 7s convert Charlotte Caslick. By the end of the season, we were more familiar with Zahara Temara, Hannah Southwell and Corban McGregor, despite all three being veterans of the game. The Roosters demonstrated that cohesion on the field is far more important than lining up brand name Jillaroos to play like shit.
The Warriors struggled to pull together a proper roster, which is hardly surprising as players would have been forced to be away from home in the bubble for what is at best a part time job for a few weeks. Nonetheless, like their male counterparts, the Warriors can hold their heads high knowing they did their best under trying circumstances. Another 7s convert, Elia Green, caught the eye with her running, strength and aggression.
This year’s competition was as close as it has been so far. There’s little doubt in my mind that the 2021 edition will be more closely fought still. The Broncos might not even win it. Indeed, the talent pool is now large enough that the NRL should be expanding the competition, preferably from four to six teams and from three to ten rounds. Melbourne and Canberra would be my choices (and possibly flicking the hopeless Dragons for a western Sydney or Queensland team), especially if the NRLW is to continue to follow its preference for bigger market teams. The ARLC will probably opt for Souths and Cronulla, thereby ensuring that the NRLW follows the NRL into Sydney’s stupid quagmire, but they are at least looking at increasing the number of games.
The NRL will also want to consider how the NRLW will work commercially moving forward. At one time or another, the Dragons, Roosters and Warriors have complained about the (relatively minimal) cost of running a women’s program. If extra central funding came with a NRLW licence, we’d probably see more interest from reticent western Sydney clubs. Given that the NRLW matches rated around 100,000 each (down on last year but still ahead of most non-AFL/NRL domestic football content), de-bundling the NRLW rights from the NRL rights might be a good way to begin channelling funds into the women’s game, with the aim of establishing independence from, but parity with, the men’s game.
Super League / Challenge Cup
The Challenge Cup made it through the first five rounds by mid-March, with Super League clubs due to join the fray in round 6. By the time round 6 was actually played, in August and September, most of the lower league clubs had been mothballed for half the year. Consequently, the Cup was only really contested by eleven teams, of which Leeds were the winners, 17-16 over Salford.
Putting aside the fact that it was extremely unlikely that any lower tier club would make the final, by not having them participate at all and playing the final at an empty Wembley makes something of a mockery of the supposed point of this competition. Without modernisation from the RFL, the Cup is going to be a liability, and not an asset, moving forward.
Like the NRL, Super League had managed to play a few rounds before the rona became a Thing. At one point, Super League looked like ignoring it entirely and continuing on before being forced to stop by government decree. The same government offered £16 million in bailout loans to mitigate the financial fallout, which were met with a mixed response from stakeholders. Loans, after all, have to be repaid. If we consider Workington Man’s assistance (middle-aged, suburban Little Britain male adults – men is a stretch – that seemingly make up the bulk of Super League’s audience with no awareness of the cognitive dissonance involved in being a rugby league fan and a Tory voter) in getting the government elected, this was a terrible effort at pork barrelling.
Upon resumption, Super League had intended to complete twenty-two rounds. When it appeared that they weren’t even going to get all teams to play the same number of games, they switched from the traditional means of sorting the ladder by competition points to winning percentage. What was going to be a top four finals became a top six finals. Then, when it became clear that some clubs weren’t even going to complete their reduced fixtures, being more profitable to simply stop playing and go onto government furlough, Super League made the snap decision to end the season and go into the finals.
Salford used this opportunity to welch on their debts from years ago, taking a penalty of being deducted three wins which mattered naught this year.
Hull surprisingly dispatched Warrington and Catalans sent Leeds home in the first week, before both were coolly eliminated by Wigan and St Helens 29-2 and 48-2 respectively in the second week. The grand final, played in an empty KCOM Stadium in Hull, was a high quality, entertaining example of modern rugby league, although it was undoubtedly being written up as a dour cliche of the northern game. And then, magic:
There’s still life in the old girl yet.
With another Wigan-St Helens grand final in the books, if I have to read how the salary cup doesn’t work, I may murder someone. The salary cap doesn’t work because it’s not paired with a salary floor. SL can’t implement a salary floor because it would send half of their competition broke. And it is this, that there is a huge gap between the commercially strongest and weakest clubs in Super League, that is the actual problem. Even with the salary cap, the chasm between the big four (or six, if you want to be generous and include recent Challenge Cup winners) and the rest of the competition, never mind the lower levels, and is simply unbridgeable. There are myriad reasons for this but rugby league needs not only significant reform and new ideas but also a shitload of pounds injected if it is to be viable into the future. Scrapping the competition’s primary mechanism for parity is not it.
I touched on this and other parts of Super League, RFL and the Toronto Wolfpack saga on NRL Boom Rookies.
The three men’s competitions were able to complete just one round being before shut down by coronavirus fears and shortly after, cancelled altogether. With PNG and Tweed in the Queensland Cup, traversing borders to complete the season would have been nearly impossible, never mind the strain on the league’s predominantly semi-pro player base. The right decision was made but it was a shame that a smaller competition could not be organised later in the year to give the players some game time.
Some district comps cancelled, while others went ahead, including the BRL.
Disappointingly, the new women’s BHP Premiership also played a single round before being cancelled. This deprived the players of an opportunity to build up their skills and strength ahead of the original State of Origin date and then leading into the NRLW season. Hopefully, it will return next year with at least the same clubs involved. It was replaced by the Holcim Cup in south-east Queensland, won by Burleigh over Souths Logan.
As is a recurring theme looking back on 2020 and forward to 2021, there are a number of consequences of the pandemic which are yet to be addressed. In renegotiating the TV deal, V’Landys has hung both state cups out to dry by releasing Nine from their requirement to broadcast one game a week in each state. As of yet, there’s no obvious replacement. While all games are filmed for data collection and some clubs have set up their own streaming, there is no league wide platform and, unlike NSW, Fox does not provide coverage of a second game. Taking the Queensland Cup off free-to-air would be a huge step backwards for all the hard work that’s been done to build the competition up. While some may boldly hope for an over-the-top streaming platform or for the QRL to sell its own broadcast package in competition with the NRL, I’d settle for what we had.
As part of immediate cost cutting measures, the Broncos severed their ties with their feeder clubs. Redcliffe immediately jumped ship to join the Warriors system. Rumour has it that the Broncos will re-establish with just one club, leaving three of Wynnum Manly, Norths, Souths Logan and Central Queensland needing to find new NRL partners. If the NSWRL unbunches its undies about cross-border feeder arrangements, then it will likely resolve itself, possibly for the benefit of all.
How the pandemic has affected the prospects for the competition’s future expansion remains unknown. Pacific Treize, a new Queensland Cup bid launched in May (what feels like a million years ago) primarily focuses on nations that were relatively untouched by the virus but may find corporate support extremely hard to come by in the post-pandemic world.
We do know that juniors competitions will be modified (presumably for this year only) to give kids that missed out this year a chance in 2021.
New South Wales
A lot of what I wrote about the Queensland Cup can be repeated for the NSW Cup but with some notable differences. Unlike the QCup, NSW Cup gets two games broadcast a week, one on Fox (having already set up for the NRL game, it costs practically nothing to broadcast the curtain raiser as well) and a second on Nine. With the Warriors having gone north and the Raiders declaring that they will go it alone in 2021, the Canterbury Cup will only be contested by ten teams, most a facsimile of their parent club.
As I wrote earlier in the year, the NSWRL needs to decide what the Canterbury Cup actually is. Is it a NRL reserve grade comp or is it a state-wide competition like the Queensland Cup? It can’t be both. Having it as a reserve grade comp buries the second tier of talent in jerseys no one cares about. Consider the difference between watching North Sydney versus Newtown and watching the Roosters reserves against the Cronulla reserves. The former offers something different to the NRL, while the latter suggests the NRL but shittier. You can make all the pathway arguments you want but you’d have to find a mountain of evidence to contradict the success that the Storm have had with Easts and Sunshine Coast in producing a pipeline of rep-quality players to replace their future Immortals. To me, the concept of reserve grade as it’s imagined in the past is dead and should be buried, with the superior alternative made clear in Queensland, but it would require Sydney NRL clubs giving up space to others and that never happens.
Unlike Queensland, NSW has the Ron Massey Cup, which sits slightly above the other district competitions, and they were able to combine clubs from this and the NSW Cup to hold a one-off President’s Cup, won by Maitland over Glebe Burwood, demonstrating that under extreme circumstances that a compact local competition has its advantages.
Papua New Guinea
With the Queensland Cup cancelled, I threw the energy I would normally reserve for that comp into Papua New Guinea’s Digicel Cup. The Cup wasn’t scheduled to start until after the pandemic had thrown the world into chaos but it did result in a much shortened season of just eleven rounds (each team played the others once). The first few rounds were played entirely at the John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby but as the situation in PNG relaxed, particularly after the split round five, teams gradually returned to their own home grounds.
The Lae Tigers were the dominant team for most of the season, although they were pipped at the end for the minor premiership by the Rabaul Gurias (9-1-1) and Hela Wigmen (9-2-1), as the Tigers slowed down in the last two weeks (9-2). The Port Moresby Vipers (8-2-2), Mendi Muruks (8-3-1) and Enga Mioks (3-5-4) made up the rest of the finalists. It’s no coincidence that the teams with the most Hunters players, most of whom returned to the Digicel Cup for the season, did the best.
The Mioks and Muruks were early cannon foodder, both eliminated in the first round of finals as expected. Lae’s comprehensive rout of Rabaul in the second week, 30-10, put the Tigers into the grand final as firm favourites. In the other final, the Wigmen dispensed with the Vipers, who continue to disappoint after not winning the competition since 2013. Hela snatched an upset in the preliminary final, downing Rabaul 11-10 with a late field goal to Solomon Pokari to seal the win and set up a rematch of the 2019 grand final. The Wigmen’s form continued into the grand final, narrowly beating out the Tigers 16-14 and winning their first premiership since 2014.
I haven’t followed the Digicel Cup that closely previously but the coverage of the competition this year, taking everything into consideration, was superb. High definition highlights are on Youtube for all the regular season games that were played in Port Moresby. It remains a baffling mystery as to why Hunters home games (the broadcast rights to which belong to the PNG RFL and not the QRL) and the Digicel Cup games cannot be broadcast in Australia but one hopes that in time Fox League will come to their senses and broadcast some content that is actual football and not total garbage from opinionated morons.
Hopefully, with the Hunters basing themselves in Queensland for their 2021 Queensland Cup campaign (and further noises suggesting the Port Moresby Vipers might be angling for a licence in future), that will restore some of the competitive balance to the competition and the likes of Gulf and Mount Hagen can close the gap to the rest of the league. On the other hand, new teams might offer a buffer.
Championship / League 1
At the time of the suspension of competition, Toulouse Olympique led the Championship, Great Britain’s second division, 5-0, followed by Leigh and Featherstone (4-0) and London (4-1). In League 1 (third division), only two rounds were played with Hunslet, Barrow and Newcastle all on 2-0. At the bottom of the table, West Wales Raiders had somehow already given up 100 points.
Only a handful of clubs took up the RFL’s offer to compete in an autumn mini-competition among the non-Super League clubs. This is hardly surprising because if there’s no matchday attendance, paltry prize money (a total pot of £250,000 was offered) and no broadcast dollars to top up the tank, there’s no revenue and therefore no football. So that was it for the bottom two tiers of allegedly professional football in the United Kingdom.
Things took a brief turn for the comical towards the end of the season, as Championship clubs jockeyed for position to get into Super League, replace Toronto and lose money even faster than they currently do (Leigh offered to forgo central funding for 2021 altogether). Irrespective of who is promoted, and it seems it will almost certainly be Bradford, Super League has already decided they will be given a much lesser share of central funding because they have not had the bear the costs of operating in 2020. This is somewhat baffling logic but hardly surprising given that half a dozen clubs are currently tendering for a licence without knowing what weighting is being applied to the judgement criteria by the “independent” committee – three from the RFL, three from Super League, led by a Tory lord – formed to award the licence that will see them almost certainly relegated at the end of 2021.
A much less competitive bidding process seems to be underway in League 1 to gain the empty Championship slot, which Rochdale are campaigning for. If successful, there would only be ten teams left in League 1. It would perhaps make more sense to take this opportunity to restructure to three leagues of twelve each.
For 2021, dual reigstration has already been canned, as have academy leagues. If crowds are not allowed to return, will the Championship and League 1 both get canned again in 2021? If so, when will they return?
Without football, is there really a football club?
New Zealand suspended all sport in March. Rugby league returned in June, with the Fox Memorial Premiership kicking off June 22. That came to a halt when play was suspended in Auckland in mid-August and finally cancelled on September 4.
In October, the provincial representative premiership and championships were played, with four teams in each of the men’s and women’s premierships. The grand finals in both were the same but results were inverted.
If you watched the men’s final, have read this far into this post and/or consider the IRL has New Zealand ranked as the number one men’s nation in the world, you can probably fill in the blanks on what would be coming next, which can be briefly summarised as “Why isn’t this better and where’s the money to make it better and seriously, how is it not a priority to get top-level domestic New Zealand rugby league on at least the same level as state cup?”
The women in New Zealand are well ahead of the game.
In March, the FFR declared a “saison blanc” because of the pandemic. At that time, Limousin were surprisingly leading the competition (8-4), five points clear of St Esteve-Catalan and Albi. In Elite 2, Villefranche were ahead on a 12-2 record, seven points clear of Pia (9-4) and Carpentras (10-3).
Elite 1 recommenced on 31 October but the situation is as bad, if not worse, now than when the 2019-20 season was cancelled. The second wave claimed two matches on the opening weekend (one since made-up, Palau and Villeneuve currently have a game in hand) but the following two rounds were completed without issue. Carcassonne currently leads the Elite 1 with a 3-0 record.
We wait with bated breath to see if the French Magic Weekend goes ahead.
Visitez treizemondial.fr pour plus d’informations.
Bhuaigh Baile Átha Cliath an sraithe rugbaí a trí déag na-hEireann. Ruaigeadh an Longhorns an Tribesmen na Gaillimhe, 24-10, i Claddagh.
The Vodafone Cup went ahead, delayed and shortened by the threat of coronavirus. Split into eastern (8 teams) and western zones (10 teams), teams played each other once with the top four of each zone proceeding to the knock-outs. The Ravoravo Rabbitoh topped the west (8-0-1), while the Namuaniwaqa Sea Eagles won the east (6-1). Both teams were knocked out in the quarter finals. The grand final will was contested by the Police Sharks (2nd in the east, 5-1-1) against the Coastline Roos (4th in the western zone, 7-2), with the Sharks running out victors 18-16.
Game 3 of Fiji’s Origin series will be on December 5, as Maroon sides go for a clean sweep of Origin series.
Samoa’s club premiership kicked off in late August with eight senior teams and four under 20s. The Apia Barracudas beat the Letava Bulldogs 24 – 8 in the senior grand final, with the Vaitele Wests Tigers coming in third, 22 – 18 over the Matniuel Lions. The Under 20s Final was won by the Matniuel Lions over Vaitele Wests Tigers, 22 – 16.
The Tumua Maroons won the Island of Origin series 22-22, 36-38 and then 24-14 over the Pule Blues.
In Western Australia:
In Cook Islands:
In Japan and Phillipines:
In the United States, the USARL was cancelled. Who knows if it’ll be back?
Apparently, the Balkan Super League is still going ahead. We’ll see how that pans out, given last year’s edition ran out of steam and that was without a global pandemic.
In Russia, the season was suspended.
In South Africa:
Nigeria and Ghana have affiliate status with the IRL, while Burundi and Cameroon are playing rugby league.
Remember the 2017 World Cup and how good international football was looking for a brief fleeting second? Also remember when the Lions did a southern hemisphere tour and lost all four games and didn’t even play Australia? That was as hilarious as it was completely pointless.
Then coronavirus said no and took it all away. At the time of writing, a single international men’s rugby league match has been completed in 2020 with the Netherlands defeating Germany 20-18 in the Griffin Cup. New Zealand hosted two women’s matches, with the Kiwi Ferns defeating Fetu Samoa 28-8 (an improvement on last year’s fixture) and Tonga defeating Niue 66-8.
The problem is that there’s another World Cup in 2021 and it will be one that many participants will come into not having played since the end of 2019. Here’s what’s scheduled for 2021 so far.
The lack of attention paid to the world arena would only happen in this sport, with its fetish for suburbs and pit towns.
The UK government has shown no signs of being able to get on top of the pandemic, so it may well be that the World Cup is delayed a year or moved down under. We just don’t know, which is crazy considering this is meant to be the sport’s centrepiece.
In the interim, someone is going to have to develop a feasible commercial model for international football and other representative fixtures that aren’t the senior men’s and women’s State of Origin games. Even though internationals usually do pretty good numbers on TV in Australia, having to pay match payments of $30,000 to Kangaroos for no extra broadcast revenue irrespective of the number of games played, is not it. Until then, half assing it will be the way forward.
State of Origin
New South Wales won the men’s series 3-0.
Hahaha fuck you.