Super League / Challenge Cup
English football tends to be a little repetitive with the same characters and actors shaping the season year-on-year. In 2022, as is the case most years, there were interesting narratives to be found if you wanted to find them.
- Catalans – The Dragons were fine once again but never seemed to actually threaten. There’s still plenty of tools in the shed but they never seem to quite zero in how to use them optimally and actually close the deal, and instead flip fop from good to bad on a week to week basis. 2018 is starting to recede into the distance.
- Huddersfield – The Giants had a sneaky good season and enjoyed a huge recovery after 2021. They finished third, made the elimination final (before being crushed by a shit hot Salford) and finished runner-up in Challenge Cup, which is about as good a season as you can have without actually winning something. The roster has some nice pieces – Fages, Senior, Levi, Golding, Pryce – and there should be plenty to look forward to as the Ian Watson experience moves into its third year.
- Hull KR – The Robins, like their cross-town rivals and Castleford, had a fairly uninteresting season: never competitive but never in any real danger. However, they have appointed a new board, which could prove to be the foundation of something longer term.
- Leeds – Turned their season around from relegation scare to a grand final appearance by doing the easiest thing imaginable: going to Queensland Cup, picking up its most talented exponent and bringing them over. Their women’s team is already fronted by a Queenslander and the best “English” player. More English clubs should be doing this. Take guys and girls on the way up in their career arcs, not as they wash out on the way down. No matter how often this proves to be successful, no one other than Limoux will listen to this advice.
- Salford – The Devils mimicked their 2019 rise to contention from nowhere but this time were led by Man of Steel Brodie Croft’s running game and an utter disrespect for their opposition, then were undone at the last hurdle by an injury to the same steel man. I’m not sure if they would have beaten St Helens anyway.
- Toulouse Olympique – Their disappointing initial commitment to their Championship-level squad pretty much doomed them from the get-go. Olympique realised mid-season (and far too late) that this wasn’t going to be enough and began recruiting the likes of Tony Gigot, Daniel Alvaro and Corey Norman to bolster their ranks. Shockingly, it didn’t work.
- Wakefield – Scraped through yet again. Absolute magicians.
- Warrington – Wolves utterly and totally collapsed and finished second last. Daryl Powell’s first year has been nothing short of a disaster and while there is a cavalry coming over the hill in the munted form of Josh McGuire, noted dipshit Paul Vaughan and guy who was so bad his former club got the newspaper to publish a list of his deficiencies, Matt Dufty (who will all probably meet or exceed Super League’s requirements) expectations will be for a quick turnaround in fortunes if Powell is to maintain his position. Whizzy Rascal was the only good thing to happen to the club all year and that was in February.
- Wigan – The Warriors’ decision to not renew Adrian Lam’s contract looks pretty smart as Matty Peet led Wigan to a Challenge Cup victory over Huddersfield, second place in the standings (only two wins off St Helens in the end) and a mildly disappointing showing against an in-form Leeds in the semi-finals. It looks like Wigan’s time in the wilderness – that is a fourth place and week 1 exit – will be limited to 2021.
Still, the season was largely dictated by how much you liked watching St Helens win things, which I assume is a lot if you are a Saints fan and less so for everyone else. The Red V have now won four men’s Super League crowns in a row, as well three of the last five League Leaders’ Shields, after a grand final that was never really in doubt. The only pieces of hardware missing in 2022 was the men’s Challenge Cup, where they were knocked out in the semi-final by eventual winners Wigan by a slim two points, and a failed defence of the women’s Super League title, where they were knocked in the semi-final by eventual winners Leeds by eight points. This was a reversal of the women’s Challenge Cup final, with Saints running out winners for the second year running over Leeds, 18-8. While strictly speaking not as successful as 2021, it’s entirely reasonable to start wondering not if, but where, this club fits into the pantheon of English rugby league dynasties. We may not see its likes again soon, assuming it ever comes to an end.
England saved face and managed to beat the Combined United Nations Team, 18-6, after a slew of players pulled out and Brodie Croft was put in charge. While IMG fusses over potential diet State of Origin formats it can steal, Great Britain (players eligible for England, Wales or Scotland) versus the European Union (players eligible for France, Ireland, Italy, Greece, etc) in the Brexit Bowl sits right there. The spice that makes Origin work is the tension between Queensland and New South Wales, reflected in the battle between the QRL and the NSWRL. Why not resurrect Great Britain to capitalise on the tension between the Brexiteers and the Remainers and Europe? Other sports would be too cowardly but a few riots would be a small price to pay to know people actually care.
As for the World Cup, the immediate aftermath seemed to provoke a total mental breakdown on the part of the English fans. I suppose if you beat a team by 60, you’d expect to at least beat them again in a rematch a few weeks later, no matter how jet lagged and beat up the opposition was the first time around. The semi-final was, in fact, winnable for England but, considering the personnel advantage Samoa had, probably shouldn’t have been. Matt Parish will get a lot of credit for Samoa’s performance in this tournament when making the final probably should’ve been the minimum expectation, given the draw and Tonga’s lack of spine options. England were also never in a million years going to beat Australia, who looked hungover and still had no issues accounting for Samoa in the final and beat a tougher opponent in New Zealand in the semi. England should be, if not happy, then content with making the semi-final and making a game of it, which is more than I would’ve expected pre-tournament. The hard work starts here in figuring out how to close the gap to the southern hemisphere nations while, in the short term at least, the NRL gets stronger relative to Super League and the next tournament is played on foreign soil.
Finally, IMG appeared on the scene, a white knight for the game in England. Their recommendations were not earth shatteringly bold and mostly what the game has needed for some time. The potential to eliminate pro-rel, or at least enact it on a basis among clubs who can survive the fall, is a huge step forward. Agreeing that, actually, England should play France a lot more than they do now is also a huge step forward. Recognising that there’s too many club games of little-to-no commercial value, other than extracting the final few pounds for pints and pies out of a populace that struggles to sustain their standard of living as it is, is key.
Still, there are curious details. Nearly all of the clubs voted in favour without knowing what criteria would be applied to segregate clubs into categories A, B or C. While we can speculate that category A will represent the currently commercially functional top end of the sport – St Helens, Wigan, Leeds, Warrington and probably Catalans and maybe Toulouse – it seems like that would be useful information if you were, say, Huddersfield or Castleford to work out where you will stand in the glorious new future IMG promises. The elimination of Magic Weekend, an event so good that the NRL, Super Rugby and now the AFL have all copied it, is strange, especially as it appears to be making way for a two-legged round 6 of the Challenge Cup, something I don’t think anyone asked for. Limiting the number of “foreign” clubs to two (Catalans and Toulouse) seems regressive, perhaps dog whistling to appease the flat cappers. It seems unlikely that few things would help strengthen French rugby league, and so making Test matches more valuable, as adding more French clubs to the RFL system would.
There’s a long road ahead of IMG and the newly re-conjoined Super League and RFL. The steps taken so far are the easiest: it’s only words and votes. As we saw when Super League was first visited upon us in 1996, the clubs love the vision (and the idea of money) but the devil is in the details and the devil can be awfully intransigent if he wants to be.
Since the emergence of the Wolfpack, the Championship has tended to be dominated by a single team that more or less crushes its opposition. In 2018, Toronto ran 20-2-1 and finished four wins clear of second-placed London before falling to the Broncos in the Million Pound Game, one of the bigger upsets in recent history. Toronto went harded again in 2019, 26-1 and crushed Rovers to gain promotion before that whole operation quickly unravelled. 2021 was dominated by an undefeated 14-0 Toulouse Olympique, made more impressive by the lack of home games due to pandemic travel restrictions. In 2022, it was Leigh’s turn to take their fringe Super League squad, finish 26-1 (their sole loss was in round 2 at Featherstone), bash York 70-10 in a semi-final before dispatching Batley 44-12 in the promotion playoff.
Even though I personally think it’s a huge waste of time and it’s probably a conflict of interest for it to be sponsored by AB Sundecks and won by a club owned by renowned Twitter fighter and anti-vaxer, Derek Beaumont, we should note for completeness that Leigh won the 1895 Cup, 30-16, over Featherstone.
The newly minted Leopards – a suite of branding that looks just hilariously bad – are hoping Kumul heros Lachlan Lam and Edwin Ipape, along with a selection of the usual expat dickheads, will carry them into Super League more permanently.
The irony of this story is that the last team to stay up for more than a season was Hull KR, finishing 2017 with a comparatively weak 19-3-1.
At the other end of the ladder, Dewsbury and Workington Town were relegated after managing to combine for a total of 4.5 wins and conceding over 2000 points between them. This ends the Cumbrian domination of the Championship, after all three teams played in the same division in 2022. It was a less than inspiring year for the expansionists with only York featuring in the playoff places and the likes of London and Newcastle barely avoiding relegation.
In League 1, Keighley went undefeated, 20-0, to secure a return to the Championship for the first time since being relegated in 2014. In echoes of 1995, when Keighley had secured promotion to the top flight only for Super League to kick the ladder out, the Cougars were the only club to vote against the IMG reforms, again just as they gained promotion. Keighley will be joined by Swinton, who finished second, 16-4, and were untroubled through the playoffs by Doncaster, who by fluke of the draw, they played twice earning 32-12 and 16-10 victories.
It was another tough season for the expansion teams with the bottom four places in an eleven team league occupied by 6-14 Midlands (formerly Coventry), 6-14 London Skolars, 1-19 Cornwall and 1-19 West Wales Raiders. The latter managed to concede 59.8 points per game with a points difference that was only marginally worse than the other three, if you combined them together. North Wales, a team with three Welshmen according to Wikipedia, did noticeably better and finished third, 15-5.
As most readers will know, France plays a traditional winter club season. As most readers may not know, the Elite 1 Championship awards bonus points. Curiously, despite having a worse record, Limoux won the minor premiership in the 2021-22 season with a 12-4 record, ahead of Carcassonne with a 13-3 record. They had the same number of competition points with Les Grizzlies having a better points difference through sixteen games. Lezignan, also 12-4, finished third. Saint-Gaudens finished last with a single competition point. A 1-15 record with a bonus point was whittled down thanks to a forfeit against Carcassonne and “suite aux incidents” against Villeneuve.
The final ended up being the top two teams, after they blew past their opposition in the semi-finals: Carcassonne 31-18 over Lezignan and Limoux 36-4 over St Esteve Catalan. The efforts of Zac Santo and Pat Templeman for Limoux were not enough as an early eight point lead was run down by Les Canaris.
At the time of writing, we’re part way through the huitième jour de competition of the 2022-23 season and Limoux, Lezignan and Carcassonne are the top three teams. Lezignan are the only two-loss team but also the only one to have played all eight games. Saint-Gaudens has already immediately improved on last year’s efforts, sitting on a handy 3-4 record. Pia have been promoted out of Elite 2 to bring the Elite 1 league back to ten teams, after Palau dropped down several divisions during the pandemic. They too are 3-4, ahead of the usual voiture-balai Tolouse Olympique Elite, currently 1-5, and Villenueve, traditionally one of the powerhouses of the competition, off to a disastrous 0-6 start.
Elite 2 is looking decidedly less healthy. In the 2018-19 season, Elite 2 had twelve teams. It currently has nine. In that time, we’ve lost teams in the major cities of Toulon and Lyon (neither survived the pandemic) and Gratentour, which I flagged as a potential disaster at the start of the year and it was: 0-18. It’s not looking good. A new team, Tonneins, replaces Pia for this season.
France’s international performance continues to be disappointing, with no real sign of improvement. Les Chants have only made the World Cup finals once in the last twenty years and that was off the back of a 9-8 win over PNG to qualify third in their super pool in 2013. At this World Cup, it was always going to be an uphill battle to qualify past England and Samoa but they looked nowhere near doing it and even then, “only” beat Greece by 22. While the French were down on troops, I don’t think the return of Fages or Escare would’ve made a meaningful difference. France seem content to collect wins over Scotland, Wales, Ireland, PNG and whatever other minnows, but haven’t beaten a tier one since 1990, when they defeated Great Britain, 25-18, in Leeds. Much like plans to get Elite 1 all-pro and all streamed, I’m very curious what the long term plan, if any, is to fix the national teams on-going embarrasing performances.
Right back at the start of the year, the Galway Tribesmen entered the Challenge Cup. This isn’t the first Irish team to enter the Cup. The Dublin Blues entered in 1998 and 2000 and were followed by the Dublic City Exiles in 2003 but it may be the first Irish team in nearly two decades and the first from outside the capital (my research for this was scrolling down the list of teams who have entered the Challenge Cup on Rugby League Project).
While they obviously didn’t win, they became the first Irish team to crack double digits in the first round, going down 36-10 to Pilkington Recs.
It’s pretty rare to get mid-season news of any import but I thought the decision in April of a World Cup year to change national coaches was interesting.
It’s not quite clear if his predecessor was pushed or simply didn’t have the capacity for it anymore. Corcoran seemed to say the right things in the lead-up and managed to land quite the coup with Luke Keary but the measure for success for Ireland’s men was the group stage game against Lebanon. Beating Jamaica by 46 was expected, as was losing to New Zealand by 38, however, the loss to Lebanon, while not embarrassing, was certainly of a higher margin than I expected or wanted. I don’t think I was alone in that. The Wolfhounds held the Cedars at bay for 20 minutes but once the first try came in, it was joined by two more in the next ten minutes. After that, it was over to Mitchell Moses to manage the game, which he did with his usual class, and so ended the Irish experience at the World Cup and it’ll be another three years before players of that calibre suit up for Ireland again. Disappointing.
The domestic season returned with a four team men’s premiership, a four team men’s championship (including a Dublin City Exiles second team) and a two team women’s premiership.
The Exiles ended up winning both the men’s and women’s premierships, losing only the men’s championship final to Banbridge.
While all seasons are a little thin on teams and short in length, it’s clear that the federation has had a lot on its plate this year with the second and third ever women’s test (30-6 victory over Italy followed by a 44-4 defeat to Wales), a last minute call up to the wheelchair World Cup to replace Norway, as well as student’s teams and winning a under 19s European title. At this distance, it’s hard to know if the domestic scene will keep chugging away or fall apart (we seem to be missing a few clubs this year and I couldn’t find a stream of the final) but I hope it does.