The Year In Rugby League Football, 2021

Note: this won’t include everything that happened in the world of rugby league in 2021. There’s been a focus on senior men’s and women’s thirteens football and, to avoid this post being infinitely long and dull, that means there’s no juniors, schoolkids and minimal nines content. I’ve farmed a lot of content from the APRL and the ERL, so follow them if you want even more detail. I’m also going to beg that if you are in charge of some competition somewhere, it’s not enough to post in the lead up to the grand final, you also have to post the result, including the score.

Thank you for reading in 2021.

NRL

As weird as 2020 was, it was a truly baffling year to be a NRL fan in 2021.

The NRL, drunk on the success of their 2020 implementation of the set restart rules, extended the rule changes to cover 10 metre infringements. It was either something about flow, the little man or fatigue, until it wasn’t, but mostly it was media cheerleading those that could do no wrong, despite the evidence to the contrary. As a result, teams simply chose to be off-side, the “penalty” being a set restart (tacking on, generally, only 2.3 tackles to the set), and smothering their opponents into submission. No one important seemed to care, even as scorelines blew out to crisis levels, and then to historic levels.

Later in the year, V’Landys cracked down on hits to the head to deflect from the fatigue he insisted on bringing into the game, which had resulted in more high shots from exhausted players and those high shots going unpunished by the overwhelmed referees. There was no warning, it just happened and it was supposedly to appease mothers of prospective rugby league juniors. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster, neither addressing the actual problem nor improving the entertainment value, leading to still more horrific blowouts and ruining the on-field component of Magic Round, until it was quietly wound-back with the NRL admitting no wrongdoing.

That was the story of the season: so many games were decided by bigger margins, earlier in the game, compared to what we were used to. I found myeslf willing teams to a 20 point lead so I could excuse myself from watching any further. More often than not, I got my wish half an hour into the game. I realised this was stupid and just stopped watching altogether from round 17 to round 25, a full third of the season, and I did not miss much.

Once it became incontrevertible that these changes were a net negative, there was just enough time to wind them both back for finals, which seemed to be played under a 2019 ruleset. It turns out it wasn’t that complicated to undo the damage after all.

The Panthers won the premiership when for all money it looked like the Storm’s to lose. The Panthers only just got there, beating the Eels by two, the Storm by four and then the Rabbitohs by two in consecutive weeks. Sometimes, that’s all you need and irrespective of the margins, Penrith did it against the best in the comp.

The Panthers get their name on the trophy (that they broke) and everyone else doesn’t. Here’s how everyone fared:

Next year shapes as, to put it bluntly, potentially dull. This year’s competition was as predictable as any season in NRL history. Form Elo succesfully predicted 74% of regular season games in 2021; the next highest was 2020 with 72% and after that, 2011 with 68%. It’s early but I’m not convinced that there’s going to be enough churn to really upset the established order. The teams that were outside looking in will be the same but in a different order in 2022, and the teams in the hunt will likewise re-arrange but not change identity. We will have to wait for the the introduction of the Dolphins Football Team in 2023 to see sufficient disruption to dethrone our current aristocracy.

Off the field, I’m hoping there will be fewer brain farts to get unnecessarily excited about. Surely V’Landys and co have learned the lesson that it’s better for people to complain about the referees – they must complain about something after all – than it is to repeatedly have to answer for a mid-season head high crackdown that made no sense and destroyed the entertainment value of the product you are ostensibly there to protect and promote.

Hopefully, between this year’s backlash and the departure of Wayne Pearce, who reportedly has some interesting beliefs, the ARLC and NRL will choose to think before they act in 2022. I am giving them a spectacular benefit of the doubt that they have absolutely not earned.

While it might be quieter, I don’t think that means that there won’t be substantial changes in the works. Phil Gould wrote an editorial in June of last year that served as one part love letter to Peter V’Landys (the relationship has cooled somewhat since then) and one part manifesto of boomer nostalgia and the supremacy of Sydney rugby league.

Until recently, I thought this was aimless garbage and was critical of the NRL for not having a real strategic vision. I’ve come to realise that this is the strategic vision and that the NRL are consciously working towards this outcome. The idea is to return to the NSWRL premiership in 1981 – when footy was great and Phil Gould was a player – but with the likes of Newtown replaced with teams in weird places like Canberra and Brisbane. Melbourne and New Zealand will be retained but only under protest.

Consider that Sydney’s stadium policy is to focus on the construction of suburban stadiums to encourage the alleged tribalism that unqiuely forms the backbone of this sport and is not found in any other sport or aspect of life. Capping attendances at 15,000 locals makes a strong statement about what the NRL considers possible in Sydney and where it thinks its Sydney clubs will be in the next few decades, which is exactly where they are now.

The addition of the Dolphins, a new suburban team in Brisbane, will surely only be the first of at least two. Instead of trying to get the league to elevate to the level of its biggest club, this move should chip the Broncos into a form more congruent size with the rest of the league and encourage the formation of Sydney-like fiefdoms of juniors in Brisbane (and with the merger of the CRL and NSWRL, in country NSW), which are currently the loose preserve of the QRL clubs.

2020’s cost-cutting exercise at head office has resulted in a shifting of pathways responsibilities to individual NRL clubs. Mandatory spending on juniors pathways looks like being a condition of holding a perpetual NRL licence. This undoes the work of the previous administration to streamline and centralise player development. Instead of minimising club’s individual power (and costs) and letting them float on top of a well engineered pyramid, the NRL clubs will become indispensible structural elements of the sport.

The previously mooted return of all three grades was testing the waters for what I think will be the inevitable introduction of a national NRL reserve grade and the return of an under 20s NRL competition in a couple of years. State cup will be cast aside as the second tier and who knows how the QRL and NSWRL will respond but it’s clear that their needs are not as important as the NRL (not the same as rugby league!) extending its brand as far as possible. No one will care except for me and a few other weirdos because god forbid we acknowledge any rugby league heritage outside of the Sydney comp.

Then when we’re at eighteen teams, conferences will be introduced to segregate Sydney teams from the rest, allowing Sydney to form a rugby league hermit kingdom. This will guarantee one Sydney club will be in the grand final, benfitting from home ground advantage for the next twenty finals, no travel and roughly 50% of the premierships to justify their continued existence against all commercial imperatives.

It all fits in with the bringing-back-of-the-little-man ethos that dominated the game in 2021 and while that was tried and largely failed, facts also do not matter in the slightest. For example, you might be inclined to think that this in no way sets the NRL up to overcome any problems it might face in the coming decades and there’s a reason no other sport in the world structures itself this way and at best, it is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. You’d be right but it also does not matter. We’ll be told conferences and all three grades will fix nose-diving attendances (which can’t grow anyway due to the suburban stadiums) and ratings and participation. It won’t but we’ll be told that it has.

There may be plenty of opposition from Twitter, the media still seems broadly on-board, if a little more circumspect after some of the blowback received over the last twelve months.

It turns out that circumspection was just a figment of my imagination. They’ll get along just fine, especially now that Telstra and NRL dot com are effectively out of the picture as competitors to traditional broadcast and print operations – another nod to the past.

The media coverage should ensure a large minority, if not majority, of the public is broadly supportive of the coming changes. The rest of us will just have to make our peace with it until those people die. The problem is that they seem intent on living forever and so our culture, rugby league and more broadly, will remain in stasis, trying and failing to replicate the superficial trappings of the two decades following the War without ever addressing the underlying psychosis and collective trauma that defined the time.

NRLW

What better way to kick off the 2022 NRL season than by playing out the 2021 NRLW premiership that the NRL forgot to organise.

The NRL decided to add new teams without actually asking the players if the salary offered was enough to get them to relocate from their homes to Newcastle for a few months on really short notice. It turns out it was not. It must have been a shock that some players would prefer to take pay cuts to stay in Brisbane and win, than move to Newcastle for what passes for marquee money and lose.

Not for the first time, coronavirus saved the administration from looking too stupid. The competition was delayed due to Sydney’s lockdown and was originally slated to return rather conspicously when the World Cup was meant to be played. No one at head office thought to organise any of the biosecurity measures that allowed the men’s competition to be played in Queensland and so when it turned out that – surprise, surprise – coronavirus was actually a much bigger problem in Australia than the UK because basically no one was vaccinated, the women’s comp was deemed a 2022 problem.

It was all too hard and too expensive. Then the NRL announced a profit of $50 million on the year. It’s amazing how much money you can make when you don’t look after your talent or invest in the future.

Speaking of the future, has anyone really considered how these athletes are meant to play two NRL premierships, State of Origin, a World Cup and, presumably, state comps for basically no money? That’s a twenty to thirty game 2022 season for a semi-pro.

I’m sure it’ll be fine and the NRL has this well in-hand. Women played footy in the 80s right?

International

The year began innocously enough.

As a sport whose supposed value lies in its heritage, rugby league has an awful track record of officially preserving its own history. Any trivia that involves the phrase “since the game began in 1908” or some variation of, is not worth a damn. Getting experts together from around the world with open minds gets as close to an ‘objective’ record of events as we can reasonably hope for. Consequently, internationals now go back to 1904 and, if we really wanted to, rugby league could claim pre-split rugby as part of its heritage, instead of leaving it uncontested to the heathens in the bad rugby.

Federations and governing bodies came out of the Christmas break and various lockdowns armed with a newfound enthusiasm to get back on track, spawning a series of plans and statements of intent that generally aim towards expanding members and increasing the number of players and making more money.

This was promptly derailed by finally adopting the dumbest rule set in recent memory, fresh off the back of the success of the 2020 NRL experiment but shortly before it became abundantly clear that the set restart simply does not work.

The northern and southern and international rulesets are still not harmonised but they’re closer than they were twelve months ago.

Comedic aside: how do you lose a game when you pick both sides and have a clear interest in one of those sides beating the other? If nothing else, this was probably the funniest result of the season.

And then, it got worse.

It was simply infuriating. The ARLC, joined by the lackeys at the NZRL, decided they didn’t want to partake in the World Cup and withdrew, issuing a pathetic statement attributed to member clubs.

The selfish, parochial and cowardly ARLC blamed covid. Cases were allegedly spiralling out of control in the UK as they re-opened but spoiler alert, case numbers aren’t an emergency if a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At the time, the UK had just hosted the Euros and would be hosting the Wallabies when the RLWC was meant to be played. There were idiotic arguments tossed around by lots of extremely ill-informed, dumb people – some with media platforms – that were easily shot down but in a recurring theme, facts did not matter. Practically no one was vaccinated in Australia because old people decided they just feel like it and so travel to the UK was deemed an unacceptable risk. The World Cup organisers did their best to assuage any concerns with a biosecurity plan but it seems unlikely anyone in the southern hemisphere even acknowledged that, let alone perused it.

The World Cup was postponed to 2022 and by the time it was due to be played, Sydney and Melbourne were in lockdown and the UK was not. Amazing.

Europe decided to get on with it while the southern hemisphere nations, paying the price for months of pandemic inaction, decided anything that crossed a border wasn’t for them. England yielded and played France at season’s end.

The Chanticleers fought back from a 0-20 first half to a 10-all second half. If France wants to be taken seriously by England as a rival and equal, then they cannot turn up to Test matches so grossly underprepared. France was one half Catalans, one half Toulouse and Morgan Escare of Salford and should have had England’s measure. That said, it seems unlikely that an understrength England taking their foot off the gas adequately respresents France’s strength, in much the same way as a full strength France mentally collapsing in the first fifteen minutes and racing the clock is any indication of France’s weakness. They need more games and better coaching.

The women’s result – England 40 defeated France 4 – was considerably less surprising, not least because the French women have not had a league to play in for two years now.

Elsewhere, England Knights monstered Jamaica, 56-4, on October 16, which was very concerning for their debut at the delayed World Cup. Fortunately, the Reggae Warriors managed a 30-all draw with Scotland the following week, which has allayed my concerns and suggests that Jamaica might be able to sneak a point or two against Ireland or Lebanon.

Other results included:

  • Philippines 40 defeated Brazil 8 in the wonderfully named Magellan Cup on June 13 in Syndey.
  • Russia, Serbia and Ukraine (minus Greece) played out the Euro B championship, with Serbian cleaning up Ukraine, 54-18, in the final.
  • Euro C was cancelled.
  • Turkey, Netherlands, Malta and Czechia played out the Euro D, with the Netherlands running out winners, 36-10, over Czechia.
  • Netherlands beat Germany, 48-16, to take the Griffin Cup – one of the few international fixtures played at all in 2020 – on September 1.
  • Ireland’s women beat Wales, 26-24, on October 17.

I still have some lingering doubts as to whether the 2021 World Cup will proceed in 2022. The NRL will run their players as long as possible and then will want them back for pre-season trials – now televised – in February. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for elite players to recover, although it seems as Australia begins to open up, at least the burden of quarantine will likely be eliminated by the end of year.

I wouldn’t past the scumbags to pull another trick out of the bag, and repeat each year until Phil Gould gets his way: the overthrow of the IRL and the establishment of the NRL (and by extension, the Panthers’ leagues club) as the sport’s supreme authority. This will somehow see rugby league – a sport which postponed its own World Cup due internicene in-fighting and has a lesser global footprint than cyclocross – added to the Olympics in time for the 2032 Brisbane games.

I will concede that is unlikely and that we should be looking forward to a full World Cup at the end of 2022 – that miraculously doesn’t clash with the FIFA equivalent – which is both good and exciting.

What the rest of the calendar looks like remains to be seen. If the ARLC maintains its outsized dominance, then any attempts to standardise and, god forbid, actually hold the same event more than once, will need their blessing. I’m not holding my breath.

State of Origin

After last year’s domination by Queensland, we’ll call this one a draw. With all four Origin games played in Queensland, the Maroons won two (and one series) and the Blues won two (and one series). Anything else would be sexist.

Will the dinguses that run the sport will follow through on making the women’s series an actual series in 2022, comprising multiple games in a single calendar year, as promised? I’m sure we’ll find out about five minutes before kick-off.

Super League

It was St Helens’ year. The Merseysiders won all but one of the major trophies on offer in 2021, winning both Super League titles and both Challenge Cups. The men’s Super League title was St Helens’ third in a row, prompting a discussion as to whether Lachlan Coote features in an historically great team and how 2019-21 St Helens compare to the other elite Super League dynasty, the 2007-09 Leeds Rhinos (they still have some work to do to close in on the Wigan dynasty of the 1990s).

Saints only missed out on the mens’ League Leaders’ Shield, which went to Catalans after a bonkers 31-30 extra time win at Magic Weekend.

St Helens were able to reverse the result in the grand final. It was clear from the get-go that Saints held the upper hand but it was not so clear cut as to rule the Dragons out of the game. Catalans went through every trick they had but by the the last ten minutes, were throwing the ball to Sam Tomkins, hoping to deliver them a result. He did not and the French side went home empty-handed, although acquitted themselves relatively well under the circumstances.

Moving into 2022, despite the slashed broadcast deal, the mooted 10+10 structure for the professional level, paired with more equal central funding across divisions, offers an excellent opportunity to set up rugby league for future growth in England and France following the World Cup.

That is, provided that the adminstration brings in sharper salary and squad regulations and a calendar in which clubs play each other twice, leaving more room for the Challenge Cup to breathe, avoiding repeating the same fixtures being played ad nauseum, more representative games with a broader audience and potential for hosting fees and other innovations. Let’s check in with the brains trust to see what they have developed:

Ah. Well, nevertheless…

Queensland

QRL took over broadcasting responsibility for the Queensland Cup after the NRL let Nine out of its obligations during the 2020 phase of the pandemic. There were some early hiccups – coverage would simply drop out for lengthy periods – that seemed to be resolved by the end of the season, with all but one game of the finals series available for streaming.

The ladder was topped by the Norths Devils, who only dropped two games all year to finish 15-2, including a last round loss to the Jets that prevented them from having the best season record in QCup history. They finished three wins clear of the chasing Wynnum Manly, who were easily the second best side across the season, and Burleigh, followed by a pack from fourth to ninth separated by three wins.

The finals series was a relatively straightforward affair. The top two teams won their qualifying finals and seventh and eighth (Townsville and Sunshine Coast respectively) lost their elimination finals. The preliminary finals were played at Suncorp as curtain raisers to the grand final and while both Tweed and Burleigh put up some resistance, they were steamrolled by their Brisbane-based opposition in Norths and Wynnum Manly.

This set up the ideal grand final one week after the NRL final at Redcliffe’s Moreton Daily Stadium. The game was a tight affair with the Devils leading for most of the game. The Seagulls equalised in the 66th minute before a late Connor Broadhurst try sealed the Devils’ first premiership since 1998.

Next season, the Queensland Cup will become the Host Plus Cup. There is a rumour that the broadcast offering will expand to all seven games each weekend, which will be an enormous step forward. If they can keep the NRL from smothering the Cup, there’s a bright enough future if the QRL can keep investing its gains in itself.

The Western Mustangs, now Clydesdales, have put out an official expression of interest to join/re-join the senior competition after Toowoomba exited in 2006. Pacifique Treize is naturally quieter but still active. Fingers crossed we’ll have both in the competition before too long.

After last season’s inaugaral women’s premiership was canned after a single round of matches, the QRLW or BHP Premiership returned in 2021 with a slightly different look. Souths Logan were a late withdrawal, replaced by a Barbarians-style Valkyries side, joining Burleigh, Tweed, Central Queensland, North Queensland (opting for the superior Gold Stars branding in lieu of a lame Cowgirls marque), West Brisbane, Valleys and Easts, sorry, Brisbane.

Valleys romped through the season undefeated, with a borderline unfair amount of talent, including the world’s best player, closely pursued by Burleigh, whose only loss came at the hands of the Diehards. After the Gold Stars, there was a drop off in ability that some mixing and matching of rosters might ameliorate for 2022. The Valkyries finished last, 0-7, but considering the lack of cohesion (the roster changed week to week) and even the lack of opportunity to train together (training groups were set up in several locations in Queensland), this was hardly a surprising outcome.

Burleigh and Valleys met in the inevitable grand final re-match and one of the finest football matches I’ve watched. The Bears, led by a double to Tamika Upton and an aggeressive performance from Zehara Temara, beat the Diehards, 24-20, despite the best efforts of Ali Brigginshaw and the emergence of Destiny Brill at lock. It would serve as a fantastic trial for Origin selection with the majority of the Maroons and some of the Blues coming from both rosters.

The Colts competition was won by Wynnum Manly, edging ever closer to that senior premiership, 17-16, over Townsville in the 87th minute after an amazing and gutsy short kickoff recovery, setting up for a field goal that both sides seemed reluctant to take. The two sides had finished the regular season in the first two positions, albeit the Seagulls had a two and a half win advantage over the Blackhawks, who finished with four other teams with nine wins.

The XXXX State League Championship – a name that surely has to be rationalised – was played to fill in some of the Queensland Cup bye weekends, in a throwback to old Winfield State League days. Brisbane beat Toowomba in the final, 46-26, on July 24. I really like this idea (perhaps more than I’m actually inclined to make an effort to watch it) and hope it can get some legs.

There’s got to be a market for sub-state rep games within Queensland, given our history, distributed population and the QRL’s need to fill out their digital offering, that we can fit in around the state club competitions. One idea to work towards might be to find 16 teams (14 participated this season) and have a straight bracket, with players selected on an origin basis for state level players or residential basis for district level players. Bonus points if you can work in the Bulimba Cup name and keep the Foley Shield into the format. Another might be to have a North, South and Central Queensland rep teams play each other in a round robin with a final. Both would take four weeks each to play out and either would be a better alternative to the Residents interstate game of pre-covid times (Cody Walker – the guy who insisted his kid was born in Tweed Heads – can’t be playing for Queensland, or else what are we even doing?) and I think better than the regional qualifying carnivals currently used.

New South Wales

New South Wales lost all of its state leagues to covid, being unable to contain the Delta variant and collectively deciding that it was better to be in lockdown for four months. In NSW Cup, after fifteen rounds, the Panthers had a convincing three win lead over the Eels and Magpies. The regular season of the Women’s Premiership had concluded but weren’t able to play finals, with the Central Coast Roosters undefeated, 11-0, Mounties one win behind and the Sharks another win back. At the other end of the ladder, Cabramatta were 0-11. Jersey Flegg was being led by the Tigers with a truly bizarre 8-0-4 record, technically undefeated over twelve games. Ron Massey Cup has disappeared from the NSWRL website.

Despite covid canning state cup twice in two years, the integration of the the Country Rugby League and the NSWRL is ongoing, with some announcements. City-Country is back, as a representative fixture for men, women, juniors, physical disability and wheelchair, but not as a game for professionals, which seems fine to me. Various regions began merging competitions: Macarthur and Group 6 forming the Macarthur Conference Competition; Group 10 and 11 forming the Western Premiership with a berth into the President’s Cup; Newcastle/Hunter region and Central Coast are under review; Illawarra’s premiership is expanding by two teams to seven. All of this is fairly promising for the NSWRL to actually resemble an organisation that represents the entire state, and not just Sydney.

The North Sydney Bears announced an intention to return to the NRL as The Bears. It’s highly dubious any significant number of people are asking for this, the NRL will never put them out of their misery and the media loves writing about them so I assume a) this won’t become a reality and b) we will hear about it forever. Still, stranger things have happened recently. I still think the Bears, and Newtown, should join the Queensland Cup.

Papua New Guinea

I didn’t pay as much attention to the Digicel Cup as I did last year. That was partly because we got Queensland Cup back and partly because the season was delayed twice due to covid. This year, the Cup ran for eleven rounds, enough for each team to play each other once, mimicking the format from 2020 and down on the eighteen games played in 2018 and 2019.

In a total rejection of the NRL’s lopsidedness, the Tigers, Muruks and Tumbe all finished with nine wins with Lae snatching the minor premiership on the last day. The Vipers, the defending champion Wigmen and Gurias (with a losing record) rounded out the rest of the top six.

Lae defeated Mendi in the major semi final, 14-10. Waghi accounted for Hela in the minor semi final, 20-19, after double overtime. The Tumbe would go on to upset the Muruks in the preliminary final, with a comprehensive 31-16 scoreline, leading to a showdown with the all-conquering Tigers in the grand final.

The covid situation in Papua New Guinea is still not great, largely thanks to the total abdication of responsibility of those in the West to help out the Third World, resulting in criminally low vaccination rates. At the time of writing, only 300,000 doses had been administered in a nation of 8 million. The country’s geography and decentralisation might provide some insulation against the worst of the pandemic until white people remember they could offer assistance.

Whether this affects the football in 2022 remains to be seen but the future looks bright otherwise.

Championship / League 1

Finally, some good news. Toulouse were unable to play any home games – the precedent set when the nominally full time London Broncos refused to travel to and quarantine in France – and still played an undefeated season with a 14-0 record. Featherstone could only manage second best, losing a single game against the French club in their twenty-one matches. The two met in the Million Pound Game but the result could only go one way, with Olympique clearing away Rovers, 34-12.

Fev extend their run of MPG losses but with Toulouse out of the way and Toronto defunct, Featherstone are poised to finally earn promotion to Super League just in time for the format to change again.

Halifax were best of the rest, leading a pack of the newly branded Panthers, Batley, Bradford and surprise packets Whitehaven. York disappointed (9-11), failing to build on last year’s momentum, as did London (11-8-1), now an officially part time operation moving forward. Newcomers Newcastle (7-12-1) held on to their place, which is probably the most we could have hoped for them. The Championship will have some presence as a Monday night football product, although it’s a little ill-timed now that the teams I would consider interesting are no longer in the Championship.

Let’s check in with how Super League are taking the fact that two of the twelve teams will not be English.

From League 1, Barrow and Workington Town (the latter defeating Doncaster in the promotion final, 36-12) were both promoted, ensuring that the Championship is now free of foreign teams but will include all three Cumbrian clubs. Oldham and Swinton went the other way, the latter notable for turning down an opportunity to be forward-thinking and rebrand as Manchester with the fanbase instead choosing to send death threats to the board. There’s some justice there.

France

Hell yeah! World Cup 2021 baby! Let’s fucking go France!

Merde. When god closes a door in this sport, he also closes the window to ensure any life suffocates. Fortunately, Monsieur Lacoste seems to be fine and is back to work, but in the same month that the set restart was adopted internationally, that the one person in power with a seeming modicum of sense was struck down – not long after this interview outlining his roadmap for the future – was a real blow.

Rugby league waits for no man, however, and Lezignan were crowned champions two months later, defeating minor premiers Carcassonne, 16-12, in the Elite 1 grand final.

With the “collapse” of the “bid” for the US to host the RLWC in 2025, Lacoste began a campaign to have France host in lieu. It’s early days but with no other options, the IRL has thrown their support behind the proposal. It looks promising and will be cool as hell if it comes off.

I feel that between the World Cup hosting bid, Toulouse promotion, a Catalan grand final, James Maloney signing for Lezignan and Trent Robinson coaching at the national level, we can safely say France is indeed back, baby.

The new Elite 1 season kicked off on 16 October. This season will run with only nine teams, as the Palau Broncos have dropped from Elite 1 to Nationale, the level below Elite 2. At the time of writing, two rounds have been completed. Limoux, Carcassone and Lezignan are undefeated.

Ireland

The club season kicked on June 19, with six clubs in the men’s top division, a second men’s division and a women’s competition all running concurrently (minus a few postponements) in an extremely positive sign for the game in Ireland.

The finals were played on August 29. Galway won the men’s All-Ireland division 1 over Dublin City, 30-16. Clondalkin won the division 2 final with a monster 52-46 scoreline over Banbridge, which is probably one of the highest scoring rugby league matches in history to be decided by only six points. Dublin City women’s reversed the men’s result, 44-0 victors over Galway (a much improved result on 72-0 result earlier in the year).

Nรญ neart go cur le chรฉile.

New Zealand

It’s debatable whether it’s worth covering New Zealand rugby league this year, given:

The Counties Championships still went ahead, but this time without teams from Auckland. This included a few surprises, not least Upper Central defeating Canterbury in the men’s final.

Fiji

It’s not often that rugby league goes viral for good reasons but this was a nice start to year 2021.

Unfortunately for the Silktails, the Ron Massey Cup was cancelled once again. League Unlimited has the Silktails on a 6-6-1 record in sixth place with a +7 points differential. In other words, competitive at that level. With that in mind, it’s difficult to know if their plans for next season will see them slide backwards or if this is putting in place a push for a spot in the NSW Cup.

The local Vodafone Cup was delayed to kick off in July before being cancelled in September. Let’s hope they’re back in business next year.

Asia-Pacific

Europe

And file under I’ll believe it when I see it –

Americas

It was a big year for American rugby league football. The North American Rugby League (NARL) launched in a way that sounded far, far too good to be true and the reason was that it was too good to be true.

An investor, notionally associated with the New York bid to enter the English pyramid (which seems to have disappeared?), pumped some money into existing USARL and not-existing clubs to give the impression we were on the precipice of something like a fourteen team semi-pro competition, including teams in some really far flung locations that don’t play rugby league, like Austin, Vegas and Portland. The USARL weren’t going to sanction it, which didn’t matter because no games were played. The house of cards fell over, having bitten off more than could be chewed in the face of the Delta variant and the immensity of the task they had set themselves.

Some clubs left the USARL competition, some remained aligned with both and some stayed loyal to the status quo. Between the Super League-style rift and the ongoing impacts of coronavirus, the USARL season was fairly limited with Tampa Mayhem joining their fellow Buccaneers and Lightning of that town in winning their respective trophies (yes, a Super Bowl or a Stanley Cup win is as important as a USARL title and better than losing an ALDS, Rays).

California is also still going. There’s something off-putting about a rugby league competition that’s built from nothing, is oriented to the future, is growing and understands the interplay of the digital and real worlds. Very concerning.

Having said that, it’s still rugby league. It remains to be seen how the expulsion of two teams clears the decks ahead of an alleged merger with the western half of the NARL. That kind of move is one of those risks that either really pays off and Cali RL goes to another level, or it destroys the whole enterprise.

Speaking of destroyed enterprises:

Sort of, not really, and certainly in no way resembling the previous incarnation of the Wolfpack. Still, they played at least one game. New Toronto seemed to be in tight with ROOTS Rugby and were nominally one of the NARL East teams.

It remains to be seen what the future of rugby league in that half of the continent looks like between the Canadian Co-op Rugby League (which, if it ever gets started, seems to have a reasonable model), what’s left of the USARL, the NARL East and whatever other fresh hell will emerge in the next twelve months. Put it all together and it might be something but for now, it’s just some things.

To cap off the year, the Ottawa Aces announced a permanent return to the United Kingdom, having decided that the transatlantic model is not feasible. No. Shit. I’d forgotten that they existed and they’re still pretending they’ll be in League 1 for 2022, having announced a move to Cornwall but no roster yet. I assume they will join Merthyr Tydfil and Gloucestershire in the RFL Hall of Opportunities Pissed Away By Systemic Conservatism And Structural Parochialism in due course.

Elsewhere:

Africa-Middle East

In Nigeria, the Lions defeated Haven in the grand final, 24-8, with the Gazelles finishing third, 24-14 over the Rhinos.