A Shallow Dive into the minor rugby leagues in 2021
Regular readers will know that I like to keep up with all the developments in world football, not just the top level. Because so many second and third class comps were cancelled last year, we aren’t able to do a serious season preview for each one in 2021 (if I even had the time). Many of the players have been on the sidelines for simply too long and, where we have data, it is too old to be of real use.
Nonetheless, there were still movements in the off-season that are worth keeping an eye on and if you missed The Year in Rugby League Football, we’ll cover some old ground to provide context for the season ahead.
Queensland Cup / Intrust Super Cup
If this is your first foray to the QCup, welcome. This is, without hyperbole, the world’s greatest rugby football league (Digicel Cup runs a close second). One game on Sunday will be available for streaming through the QRL website, as well as a few other outlets, with a Saturday game on Kayo Freebies. While its frustrating to lose the free-to-air slot that’s been made available the last few years (which presumably happened because Phil Gould tells Peter V’Landys what to do and Gould couldn’t find Queensland on a map, much less acknowledge the value that the Queensland Cup does and could have), this theoretically makes the competition much more accessible. At some point, we hope the QRL can go its own way with its own broadcast rights and reduce its dependence on the clueless Sydney-based parasites.
The biggest change for this season is Redcliffe’s switch from being the Broncos’ primary feeder to the Warriors’, which I wrote about last year. As usual, unless a transcedent talent emerges (e.g. Harry Grant in 2019, Cameron Munster and Jason Taumalolo in 2013, etc), the main front runners will be the clubs that get the best players from their NRL affiliates. Typically this will be Redcliffe (Warriors), Wynnum-Manly (Broncos, maybe Souths Logan or Norths), Townsville (Cowboys, although their assignments are relatively balanced), two-year defending champions Burleigh (Titans) and either Sunshine Coast or Easts (Storm).
My money is on the latter, given most of the first-rate Storm talents have been assigned to the Falcons but won’t generally be available. Easts Tigers have also rebranded as the Brisbane Tigers and signed former Souths Logan coach, Jon Buchanan, to replace Terry Matterson, who has taken up a role at the Broncos. They also pinched Darren Nicholson from the Magpies and have snaffled up Mitch Frei and former Jet Michael Purcell. I’d say they are having a serious tilt at ending their premiership drought which extends back to 1991 (post-Broncos BRL), 1989 (post-Broncos Winfield State League), 1983 (pre-Broncos BRL but season split with the Winfield State League) and/or 1978 (legit BRL title), depending on your perspective. Either way, like Parramatta, they’ve never won a title that matters despite five QCup grand final appearances since 1996.
Souths have signed up Steven Bretherton to coach for 2021 and 2022 and Karmichael Hunt and Kevin Locke will be appearing for the black-and-whites (and-blue-and-golds) with Tom Dearden if the Broncos decide they don’t want him for some insane reason.
Even after watching the Digicel Cup highlights from last year, it’s difficult to say whether the Hunters will materially improve on 2019’s wooden spoon as part of their post-2017 rebuild, citing a mix of new and old players, including the immortal Ase Boas and the temporary services of Watson Boas, who is unable to rejoin Doncaster. I fully expect the Capras, who currently do not have a coach, to be bringing up the rear as usual. Norths have signed Danny Levi, the perfect replacement level NRL player.
For 2020, I did do a deep dive season preview which was made redundant within about two weeks thanks to this thing you might have heard of called the Novel Coronavirus. A year on, with no play in between, a lot of the information I have from the 2019 season is redundant now. On top of that, the rule changes brought in last year have only just filtered through to State Cup (no word on whether 2021 rules will also be adopted this year). The reality is that we will not know how clubs and players have come through until we have some games in the books.
QRLW / BHP Premiership
We didn’t get much of a chance to get to know the new QRLW competition, suspended after one round in 2020. The BHP Premiership will kick off on April 10 2021, a few weeks after the men’s competition. Eight teams, largely the same as last year, will compete: Brisbane Tigers, Burleigh Bears, Wests Panthers, Central Queensland Capras, North Queensland Gold Stars, Valleys Diehards, Tweed Heads Seagulls and Souths Logan Magpies. It is great to see two heritage clubs returning to second class football, as neither Wests nor Valleys have played in the Queensland Cup since 2003 and 2004, respectively, and the latter was part of a short-lived joint venture with Brothers.
Ali Brigginshaw has gone from Brothers Ipswich to Valleys, after Brothers declined to enter this year’s competition, where she will be coached by Scott Prince. Brigginshaw played for Souths Logan in the Holcim Cup last year. Tamika Upton has also moved on from Souths Logan, and previously the Capras, to Burleigh. Tarryn Aiken will suit up again for Tweed Heads. The rebalancing of the competition’s talent should narrow the gap between Burleigh and Souths Logan at one end, and Wests and Tweed at the other that was experienced during last year’s Holcim Cup.
It is genuinely difficult to know who will be good in the BHP Premiership. One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching this competition will be seeing who comes out on top and learning some new names along the way. The Bears and Magpies already had strong programmes. Valleys aren’t messing around. The Tigers have invested in theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gold Stars, taking talent from Townsville, Cairns and Mackay, also field a competitive team. We’ll have to wait and see.
NSW Cup / Knock-on Effect Cup
Coincidentally, the Raiders made a last second decision to rejoin the NSW Cup shortly after Peter V’Landys announced he wanted all three grades back. For them, it’s probably a much smarter decision than the previous idea of using the Canberra Raiders Cup, i.e. local footy in Canberra, as reserve grade but has meant their withdrawal from some junior competitions.
With the exit of the Warriors, this brings the NSW Cup up to a beefy eleven teams, of which there are several heritage clubs – Newtown (Sharks), North Sydney (Roosters), Western Suburbs (Tigers) – and a couple of the bigger western Sydney clubs – Mounties (Bulldogs) and Blacktown (Sea Eagles) – and Canberra, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith, St George Illawarra and South Sydney just running straight reserve grade sides. For those playing at home, that’s five teams with distinct identities and six running with the “like the NRL but a bit shit” marketing angle.
The Cup is now sponsored by the Knock-on Effect which, depending on what mood I’m in, either sounds like a competition to make the most handling errors or raising awareness for CTE.
Trodden said it was fitting to extend the partnership with Transport for NSW after the success of The Knock-On Effect campaign, which aims to reduce road deaths and serious injuries on NSW roads.Source
The strength of teams runs on how well their senior side goes. The Dragons were minor premiers in 2019 with a 13-6-3 record (Souths won more games but also lost more and finished one point behind) but the Jets won the grand final from seventh place thanks to reinforcements becoming available after the Sharks were knocked out of the NRL finals. I’d expect some of the deeper NRL teams, e.g. Raiders, Sharks and Rabbitohs, to be able to keep relatively talented players in the second tier, setting their sides up for strong seasons barring a crisis in first grade. The top eight (from eleven or twelve) finals system makes for total chaos so I won’t even pretend to know who might win the title.
Super League spent most of 2020 lurching from disaster to disaster, covering its blemishes and saving its graces with a blistering grand final. Not only did the league cut its brightest hope for a wider and more commercially viable future, it retreated further into its own backyard. Super League refused to cast a net as far as York, let alone London or Toulouse, and instead opted for Leigh, a club whose Super League record is 8-42-1 and is only a twenty minute drive to not one but three other Super League clubs.
Between the TV deal going down 25%, sponsorship paid in pizza and £750,000 reportedly spent on a private equity deal rejected by four clubs and the RFL, I’m not sure if Super League is a metaphor for Brexit or vice versa. A wider, Atlantic vision is just not happening because Rob Elstone is about as competent as Boris Johnson but without the sociopathic charisma.
Then again, he’s off, so we’ll see what his replacement brings. It is 2021 and a chance for the Northern Union to think about how to remake itself for the 21st century. They will absolutely not do that, instead preferring to focus on grimly holding on for dear life. In the meantime, there’s liable to be a football competition break out at any second. The start of the season has already been delayed, primarily due to the UK government’s Super League-esque handling of the pandemic, to March 11. Unlike in the lower divisions, Super League has a TV contract to fulfill, so will play with or without fans (expected to return sometime in May or June). Someone will eventually work out what to do with Catalans (and Toulouse), given current travel restrictions. Charter flights should solve the problem but one wonders how much money Bernard Gausch really has.
I briefly toyed with making this into a deep dive but unlike other editions, we don’t have player data to work with for Super League (the player stats on the SL website are an absolute mess) and I only track Elo ratings. The maths work out pretty much the same each season in any case. St Helens, Wigan and Warrington will lead the way, with one of the first two probably winning the grand final, although Wire are long overdue. There’s a constantly shuffling middle pack, comprising Leeds, Catalans, Salford, Hull FC, Castleford and Huddersfield whose fortunes will swing on how far they can get into the Challenge Cup as much as anything. The Rhinos should be aiming to rejoin the top tier clubs this year. At the end of the field, Wakefield Trinity, Hull KR and the re-branded Wolfpack / Leigh Centurions, will be struggling to avoid the drop.
The Challenge Cup is designed to be a bit of a crap-shoot but will likely be dominated by Super League teams in the latter stages, as it almost inevitably is. If a team falls out of contention in one comp but remains in the running in the other, they will swing resources to maximise their chances of winning something. 2021 could be a good year for a lesser light to break through at Wembley, a few teams in the middle tier have done in recent years. The RFL is using this opportunity to see what demand there is for streaming via Our League charging what are, quite frankly, outrageous prices.
£20, or about AU$36 at time of writing, would buy you two months of a basic Kayo sub, which is not limited to lower division rugby league football, while the QRL and NSWRL will broadcast games for free, as did the NRL with its pre-season trials in lieu of charging, wait for it,
$18 just to watch a pre season trial.
If the RFL’s and Super League’s audience buy into this en masse, they’re dumber than I thought. Our League will either be a roaring commercial success, built on extracting ever more shillings out of their C2DE audience, or a catastrophic failure, having priced out some of the biggest victims of Tory austerity. I’m sure it’ll be fine though.
Crowds will return in the near-ish future, which is good news for the Championship and League 1. They will not be forced to play behind closed doors for no revenue for long. The Championship will commence at the beginning of April with crowds returning sometime in May. Without much of a season played in 2020, we won’t know for sure how the teams will sort themselves out but all eyes will be on the promotion race out of the Championship.
It will be fiercely contested between London Broncos, Tolouse Olympique, York City Knights and perennial challenges, Featherstone Rovers. Out of those four, I don’t really care which one gets ahead as long as the promotion doesn’t stretch the club past its breaking point. Likely the best overall outcome for the game would be the ascension of Toulouse or, to a lesser extent, London, or a greater extent if they move to Plough Lane. The scenario of Featherstone being promoted at the expense of, say, Catalans would have sent me into an apoplectic fit not too long ago but I have decided to accept English football for what it is, especially after Rovers’ chairman blasted Super League for their handling of the Wolfpack fiasco.
Newcastle Thunder have been promoted to the Championship in the off-season, which with the aforementioned and Sheffield, gives the Championship a big city twist on the northern game. Hopefully, the Thunder can avoid the drop. A few signings should see them through, leaving the smaller traditional clubs to fight out the relegation battle. Halifax have adopted a new Panthers moniker and branding.
The Elite 1 season, which kicked off at the end of October in 2020, has continued through the pandemic, as a professional sport exempt from France’s ban. Quite how the clubs are generating revenue with no crowds and a minimal TV deal remains to be seen. Still, the Canaries, the Babys Dracs and the Sangliers lead the way after approximately eleven matchdays. There have been numerous cancellations/postponements due to positive tests, so it remains to be seen in what shape the season finishes.
The good news is that Elite 1 is apparently looking to expand from ten to twelve teams, promoting two out of Elite 2. It seems a little strange to me, given Palau, the last promoted team in 2013, and Toulouse Olympique’s reserve side, the former Toulouse Jules-Julien taken over in 2016, have struggled to compete in Elite 1. One questions whether the new clubs might similarly struggle. I also wonder if this weakens Elite 2 too much but perhaps it’s preferable for the FFR to put its eggs in the Elite 1 basket in hopes of breaking out of their rut and perhaps attracting a broadcaster.
Lyon and Toulon are baselessly speculated upon as being the best candidates for promotion, even as they languished at the bottom of the ladder in the previous shortened season and were not much better in the full season prior. Lyon, a large city well outside the French rugby league heartlands, and Toulon, a big rugby (of the Nazi kind) town, is perhaps indicative of the direction the new FFR President wants to take the game, even if the sporting merits aren’t there.
In the meantime, if you need a primer on French football, you can read this season preview I wrote pre-covid or listen to actual French or French-adjacent people explain it:
- Commencing in May, League 1 has been condensed down to just ten teams. Unless there’s been a miracle, West Wales and Coventry will continue to struggle, although one hopes the Raiders and Bears can win a few games each this year. The best rated teams are Doncaster, Workington Town and Barrow, although recent investment in Rochdale might turn them into competitors.
- The Digicel Cup will return in 2021 with the same teams as in 2020. There were several expressions of interest to create new franchises but none were accepted by the PNGRFL. With the Hunters returning to the Queensland Cup and based in Queensland for the foreseeable future, some competitive balance should be restored, although I would expect Lae, Port Moresby and Hela to be the main contenders again. We can only hope it is this year that a broadcast deal is struck for Australia.
- France’s Elite 2 2020-21 season was put on hold due to «la deuxieme vague» after only two rounds, with les Loups de US Entraigues XIII leading 2-0. It will presumably return when the ban on amateur sport is lifted in France.
- The success of last season’s President’s Cup sees the NSWRL trying something similar again in 2021. It appears that some mix of Sydney Shield and Ron Massey will form a central conference, with the Newcastle RL to the north in another conference and Illawarra RL in the south. This surprisingly innovative format from the hidebound Blues has some potential and will be worth keeping an eye on, especially with the participation of the Kaiviti Silktails, who are basing themselves in New South Wales for this season. After it becomes clear no one has any meaningful interest in NSW Cup/NRL reserve grade, it’s possible this becomes NSW’s answer to the Queensland Cup, which would be a good thing.
- BRL A-grade was the second tier of Queensland football below the NRL, after the QCup was cancelled for 2020. It was the first season under the “new” system of having affiliations with the Brisbane-based QCup clubs. Eight teams completed the season (down from the mooted nine after Beenleigh dropped out and the originally planned for ten). Wynnum Manly ran out premiers again, defeating Wests in the final after minor premiers Valleys stumbled earlier in the finals. I assume we’re running out this way again with Pine Rivers and Brighton (Dolphins), Carina and Bulimba (Tigers), Normanby (Magpies), Wests and Valleys (Devils) and Wynnum Juniors or maybe Beenleigh (Seagulls). Marmin Barba has nominally retired from Cup and has been spotted at Wests. Hopefully Scott Prince can suit up for Valleys again.
- The USARL looks primed to kick off in May with twelve clubs, the most since 2017 (and slightly down on the 14 that participated in 2015-16). This is good news considering I wasn’t sure it’d be back at all.
Hopefully, we will be able to complete a GRLFC ranking with a women’s equivalent for 2021.