The year has not been a vintage one for rugby league in my view – too many low quality games in Super League, a sense of drift from the game as a whole at times, and a failure by those who administer the game to plan and prioritise properly has made this a difficult 12 months for the sport.
But, as ever, this magical game still manages to throw up classic events and moments which keep us hooked. These are three which stood out for me.
1. Scots become Kings of Cumbria
Steve McCormack’s Bravehearts became the first nation to take points off a top three nation in the Four Nations tournament in its history. (That is as much an indictment of the tournament and its format, as much as anything, but that’s for another day.) A disparate band of heritage players, whose fierce commitment to their families and ancestral homeland was a real inspiration, the Scotland team recovered from a hiding from Australia to test England, before producing the game of their lives to draw 18-18 with New Zealand at Workington in their third game.
Undoubtedly the Australian-raised players in the team helped with their will to win and quality, but Danny Brough proved his international class, playing through pain and having injections before the game and at half-time so that he could play. Brett Phillips produced one of the hits of the tournament, and players like Danny Addy and Adam Walker showed qualities which had slipped under the radar for many rugby league spectators.
The way the squad then gathered in the dressing room, waiting for Brough to join them, before belting out ‘Flower of Scotland‘ for the cameras, was a true moment of inspiration.
2. Wolfpack starts to run
While certain rugby league types continue to erroneously blame the existence of the Wolfpack for rugby league’s commerical problems, its international issues and seemingly everything else that’s ever happened that’s slightly bad, the birth of the Toronto Wolfpack is genuinely something to celebrate.
Entirely self-funded, they are bringing new fans and, crucially, new money into the game. The RFL cannot function like a socialist government, propping up failing clubs all across our heartlands – new finance is needed from new sources, and the Wolfpack could well be the start of a new revenue stream in North America for the game.
What is perhaps just as important, however, is the way that they have run trials to ensure that there will be a North American element in their squad. Three players were selected from a group of 18 triallists who came over to the UK and played against Brighouse Rangers in the club’s first ever game. More trials are set to be held in Canada soon to find two more players for the final squad.
With a powerful playing squad of hardy professionals named for their League 1 campaign in 2017, watching the Wolfpack run will be one of the more interesting and uplifting rugby league narratives to follow next season.
3. Super Leage for super Leigh
It is probably fair to say that Leigh haven’t been many people’s favourite team over the last couple of seasons. A brash assertivenss, coupled with a no-nonsense approach to stating the scale of their ambition, plus a willingness to flash the cash and spend big on players, has put a lot of people’s backs up, probably due to envy as much as anything.
But 2016 was when the big talk came good and Leigh made it to Super League. An impressive regular season campaign bloomed fully into a superb Super Eights, with Leigh emerging from the Qualifers to reach the top tier. They beat Salford Red Devils and Hull KR in the Qualifiers, as well as recording convincing wins over Dewsbury, Featherstone and Batley, and beating London, to claim their spot in the top tier. It will be interesting, and doubtless entertaining, to see how they do in Super League in 2017. Well done, Leigh.