Six significant rugby league moments in 2015

1. Ryan Hall v Huddersfield

When it comes to epitomising drama, surely there can be no better expression of the sporting experience than Ryan Hall‘s thrilling last minute try against Huddersfield on September 25.

The score sealed the League Leaders Shield for Leeds, and television viewers were treated to the added drama of a the RFL helicopter flying around northern England, as the ultimate destination of the trophy became uncertain as the final whistle approached at both Huddersfield and Wigan, where the Warriors were hammering Castleford 42-12.

Hall’s joy as he sprinted towards the line, realising that he was about to score, left us with one of rugby league’s all-time great photographs, giving us the image which perhaps best eptiomises the brio, skill and charisma of the 2015 vintage of the Leeds Rhinos.

2. Wembley: Leeds 50 – Hull KR 0

While the game itself for this year’s Challenge Cup final was a major disappointment, with Leeds beating the Robins 50-0, there was still a sense of something special about the occasion on August 29.

Tom Briscoe made history by grabbing five tries for the Rhinos, who showed just how serious they were about winning a historic treble. Certainly, at the press conference afterwards, Brian McDermott made no bones about the fact that his team now wanted to win everything in 2015.

The Rovers fans were also magnificent, and showed just what a successful Hull KR could bring to more occasions like this in the future. With Jamie Peacock, such an iconic part of Leeds’ success in 2015, now in a director of rugby role at Hull KR, maybe they are on the road to more great days out.

But undoubtedly the most emotional aspect of the day was Lizzie Jones singing ‘Abide with Me’. The old Cup final hymn was given an extra significance thanks to Lizzie singing it. The spontaneous applause which rang out when her late husband Danny Jones was shown on the big screen at Wembley sent tingles up thousands of spines that day, and showed just what kind of community spirit our great sport posesses.

3. Wales win European Championship

Although it did not attract much attention in the wider world of rugby league, let alone the world of sport, one of our game’s more significant moments occurred at Bray on November 7. That was when Wales succeeded Scotland as European Champions, by beating Ireland 30-4. Added to close wins at Wrexham over Sotland and Cardiff over France, and it showed that the genuine life is returning to rugby league west of Offa’s Dyke.

What was really significant about John Kear’s 20-man squad for that final clash with Ireland was that it contained 13 Welsh-born players, plus a further three who came through the Welsh youth development system. That was more Welsh-born players than were in the rugby union team’s squad for the other code’s World Cup.

In years to come, this might well be what is seen as a massive milestone on the way to a properly competitive international game in European rugby league.

4. England beat New Zealand at Wigan to claim Test series win

England finally claiming some international silverware had to be included on this list, because it felt like such a relief to rugby league fans in the country where the game was born. Years of defeats to the Southern Hemisphere’s giants had given the game in this country an appalling inferiority complex, and was making it hard to sell the sport to the wider audience it so desperately craves, and deserves.

Well, Steve McNamara’s team might have huffed and puffed a little in the first two Tests, with the Second Test defeat in London probably being one of the worst games of Test rugby league ever, but they made up for it in the Third Test.

To see exciting English players like Jermaine McGillvary, Josh Hodgson, James Roby and Mike Cooper not only standing up to the Kiwis, but putting them on their backsides, brought a sense of hope and optimisim not seen for many years. It was a particularly sweet victory given the failure of the England rugby union team to do anything right in their World Cup, and the idiotic treatment of Sam Burgess by their media.

Now it would be nice to see the Kangaroos brave enough to take England on in a three-match series. Home or away. Any time.

5. Sam Burgess returns home

The idiotic treatment mentioned above may well have played its part in Slammin’ Sam coming back to the code which he loves, and loves him, but who cares really?

What is important is that the sport’s most charismatic figure is back where he belongs, and it will be great to see him smashing it up in 2016 in the green and red of South Sydney again. The international game will also benefit from his presence, with a UK-hosted Four Nations in 2016 to promote.

In truth, Burgess was on a hiding to nothing in the other code, with too many people desperate to see him fail. The lack of opportunity to show his true ability in a code which seemed to stifle his natural ability also apparently frustrated him, and it is easy to see why.

Hopefully, potential code hoppers will see the dangers of jumping across just for the sake of more money and possibly more fame. This could be the moment when incidents of high profile code swapping begin to come to an end.

6. USA qualify for World Cup 2017

Again, it seems like this story was tucked away as a footnote to the end of the rugby league year, but the USA Hawks beating Jamaica and Canada to claim a guaranteed spot at Rugby League World Cup 2017 could well be a turning point for the international development of rugby league.

The American team is coached by Leeds head man Brian McDermott, and there is already an impression of competence and professionalism around the American team, which is composed almost entirely of homegrown American players.

With access to superb facilties, and a heaps of great athletes with a ball handling and impact skillset, the USA is a land ripe with possibilities for our sport. A World Cup campaign can bring all kinds of coverage in a country where even a small section of the population is still potentially millions of people. A national team doing well at World Cups has done soccer some great favours in the States, and there was a rising of interest in American rugby union during the other code’s tournament this year.

It’s time for rugby league to start making and taking similar opportunities.

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