Toulouse Olympique are the 13th best rugby league team in the world

The Global Rugby League Football Club Rankings are back, baby, and even a global pandemic couldn’t keep us down for long. We skipped the rankings in 2020 due to the coronavirus wiping out most minor league football for the year and it would not have been that fun or interesting to rank the 16 NRL clubs and 11 still operational Super League clubs.

Here’s your top 25 for 2021.

And by way of comparison and as a reminder, this was the top 25 for 2019.

The full current and past rankings can be viewed here. Some fun highlights from 2021 to pick over:

Melbourne > Penrith

Yes, the Storm are still very good at football and Melbourne are seeded number one without winning the grand final, as they were in 2019. While people will think that the premiership should trump all the preceding games’ performances, for most of the year, the Storm were the superior team to the Panthers, in a class of their own. This system, and me personally for what it’s worth, don’t place a huge amount of stock in the outcome of one or two games. After all, anyone is supposed to be able to win on their day.

Here’s the specific breakdown of the input criteria.

The ranking system rewarded the Storm’s superior offence and class Elo rating over the Panthers’ form Elo and defence. 24 ranking points is not a huge gap and had things gone slightly differently, we might be considering Penrith the number one team in the world.

St Helens

St Helens won everything they could this season, bar the minor premiership. The historic three-in-a-row of Super League titles from 2019 to 2021 merits discussion about their place in the all-time pantheon of greats but for this season, they are ranked the sixth best globally.

Nonetheless, Saints have slipped slightly, from fifth in 2019 to sixth in 2021, with Manly and Penrith improving significantly and overtaking them in the standings (a fact for which they can thank Peter V’Landys). St Helens has been the top Super League club since 2018 with a fifth, fifth and sixth, which is a phenomenal run of both performance and consistency, considering the top Super League club usually sits between ninth and eleventh (the record is held by 2011 Warrington, who were given the number 2 seed) and further underlines my supposition that St Helens would be a finals team in the NRL with only half the salary cap.

Since the inaugural GRLFC rankings in 2009, St Helens has accumulated more ranking points than Newcastle, Gold Coast, New Zealand, Wests and Parramatta, despite the noticeable handicap placed on Super League clubs compared to their NRL counterparts. Interestingly, Wigan are only 150 points behind and have a 3 seed from 2010, so that’s a fun tussle to think about for the real GRLFC sickos out there.

Catalans and Toulouse Olympique

Few clubs – perhaps only Souths Logan, Western Suburbs, Batley and Whitehaven – have improved their ranking as much between 2019 and 2021 as the French duo in the English system. Catalans are coming off a season where they won Super League’s League Leader’s Shield (minor premiership) for the first time and had a serious tilt at winning the whole thing, losing by only a handful of points to St Helens in the grand final. Les Dracs are now ranked 12th in the GRLFC, their best showing since finishing 20th in 2012, the previous high water mark for a French club.

Toulouse Olympique’s ranking at 13th is considerably more surprising. No club from the AAA level has finished so high on the GRLFC rankings. Typically, they begin to appear in the high 20s, around the mark set by the tail end of Super League with the best set by Featherstone in 2011 and London in 2018, both 27th. If we look at the stats – a 14-0 regular season record (all away games to boot) and averaging nearly 50 points scored while giving up fewer than nine per game – it’s hard to distinguish Olympique’s performance from what a major league team would’ve come away with from a similar schedule. While I don’t think Toulouse’s squad would cut it much above 15th in the NRL or 10th in the Super League, the eye test doesn’t factor into it here: we are merely crunching the numbers for novelty purposes.

Despite this, it isn’t all roses in French clubland. Palau has exited Elite 1 and dropped two divisions to Nationale. Two teams – Lyon-Villeurbane and Toulon – have left Elite 2 with only one replacement team – Gratentour – and don’t appear in either Nationale or Federale. Les Ours de Saint-Gaudens aren’t looking good, faring worse than Elite 2’s Pia in GRLFC score, and Gratentour is not performing much better in the level below and would be the lowest ranked team if they had played a full calendar year. The pandemic will have done possibly irreparable damage to an already weak French club scene and we will see if Monsieur Lacoste can staunch the flow.

Featherstone > Leigh

As highlighted earlier in the year, Leigh were an historically bad team. A 2-20 record is the fifth worst in Super League history coupled with the seventh worst defence over the same span (but not the worst in Leigh’s Super League history, as the 2005 team was even worse).

Featherstone, who were runners-up in the Championship, and have been perpetually knocking on the door of the Super League without actually crossing the threshold, finished one place higher in the GRLFC rankings than relegated Leigh. I think this provides some interesting (read: damning) context for the Super League’s decision to promote the Centurions over Rovers or Olympique to replace the defunct Wolfpack.

Now that Toulouse is in the top flight and after Fev’s chairman blasted the Super League for their handling of the promotion fiasco, I am firmly in the flatcappers’ corner for 2022.

Some things to keep in mind about the rankings:

  • The rankings are designed to represent performance in several areas over the year – such as both form and class Elo ratings, as well as points scored and conceded per game – and do not necessarily reflect the results of a handful of finals games. If you’d like Penrith to be the number 1 team in the world, I cannot stop you from declaring it so and you’re more than welcome to derive your own rankings based on whatever it is that you value. For more detail, you can re-read how the ranking system was derived.
  • Each club is only listed once, so reserve grade teams that have the same name as their parent club are excluded. This is to avoid clogging the list up with multiple Parramattas and Wynnum Manlys which would make for a less interesting list. This does have a disadvantage that clubs are only compared against ranked teams in their league, not against the league as a whole. This primarily affects NSW Cup and, previously, BRL.
  • Elite 2 clubs are given provisional rankings only, as the 2020-21 season was cancelled, so we only have eight rounds of the 2021-22 season to calculate their score. This has been done in the past when teams have joined Elite 2 between their seasons, which is in the middle of the calendar year.
  • The USARL is no longer ranked until the North American continent gets its act sorted out. The most recent USARL season only featured 18 games in total, which I arbitrarily deem insufficient.

Moving forward, I still have fingers crossed to establish a women’s ranking. We don’t have one for 2021 due to the following: the NRL forgot to organise a women’s premiership and it would’ve only been five rounds; the QRLW was seven rounds; the NSW WP didn’t play finals; the Women’s Super League’s scheduling seemed haphazard through covid cancellations; Elite Feminin has been cancelled two years running. While some of these also apply to men’s competitions, I don’t have much of a foundation to work off for these competitions whereas the men’s are better established.

I am inclined to keep an eye on the newly merged NSWRL-CRL competitions with entry into the President’s Cup (Newcastle, Illawarra, etc). We’ll see how these pan out before introducing them into the rankings. There might be scope for similar competitions in Queensland, France and England to be added but this will depend on workload, availability of results and stability of competitions.