2008 World Rankings

Published in Rugby League World after the 2008 World Cup

Rugby League World’s World Rankings

There were over 30 League-playing nations in the world in 2008 which I ranked them in order of how strong Rugby League was in each country, taking both international and domestic matters into account. Each nation has played Rugby League internationally or domestically in 2008.

1 Australia
Australia boast the strongest domestic competition by far and that is unlikely to change for some time. The Kangaroos are an awesome team but they choked when it really mattered in November. But with a new coach and a new trophy to play for this year, they will be favourites to win the 2009 Four Nations, and rightly so.

2 New Zealand
The world champions! The future looks bright too, as they had 13 players in our top 50 teenagers last month – more than England. They may not have a domestic competition to rival the NRL or the Super League but they have a multitude of players starring in both leagues and in many key areas they had more strength in depth than England last year.

3 England
A dismal World Cup showing was a huge disappointment to everyone connected with English Rugby League. On the plus side, there are two more teams in Super League now and new quota rules should soon increase the amount of Englishmen playing the game at the highest level. The number of high-quality backs available for the World Cup was depressingly low but class youngsters like Joe Westerman, Kallum Watkins and Richie Myler are being produced although England aren’t producing quite as many as the top-two ranked nations.

4 France
Dreadfully disappointing at the World Cup, but Catalans’ performances in 2008 are well worth remembering. In only three years a high number of Super League standard Frenchmen have been produced which is a wonderful effort. Players like Thomas Bosc, Sebastien Raguin and Jamel Fakir have gone from part timers to top-quality players quicker than most would have expected. We’ve placed them in fourth position because of the Dragons’ remarkable progress.

5 Papua New Guinea
Their SP Cup goes from strength to strength and they performed credibly against the Prime Ministers’ XIII from Australia, coached by Mal Meninga. In the World Cup, they shocked England for an hour and did well against New Zealand and Australia. Not a bad year for the only country in the world who can call Rugby League its national sport.

6 Fiji
A fantastic World Cup for the Batis and wasn’t it lovely to hear they were running out of satellite dishes back home with the public eager to watch their heroes? Their ten-team domestic league is strong, split up into East and West Conferences, with Vodafone pumping generous amounts of money into the game. They have some high-profile players in the NRL and the Super League.

7 Samoa
They underachieved at the World Cup but their domestic game is healthy and they have plenty of big names to call upon internationally. They still remain the side most likely to take a Test match off one of the big nations but 2008 was still a disappointing year for them. They aimed for the semi-final of the World Cup and came up short.

8 Tonga
There are a lot of big-name players with Tongan heritage but their World Cup plans were hampered by the enforced unavailability of Taniela Tuiaki and Fuifui Moimoi while Anthony Tupou trained with the Tongans only to be called up by Australia. They have 22 clubs in their two-division competition and the same number of school teams, which are excellent numbers.

9 Wales
The Welsh may not have played in the World Cup (they missed out on qualification by a fraction) but they enjoyed a fantastic year with news of Celtic Crusaders’ inclusion in Super League. The Crusaders have their share of homegrown players who will improve playing at the elite level. Coaching changes at international level look promising as well. At Under-18 level, they won the Euro Nations Cup, beating France in the final.

10 Ireland
Ireland enjoyed a wonderful World Cup, proving wrong those who predicted they would return home winless. Their domestic league continues to improve and don’t be surprised to see an Irish team in the Co-operative Championship One in the near future. Their game is well run back home.

11 Scotland
Scotland pulled off their first-ever World Cup win last year when they beat eventual semi-finalists Fiji in a classic encounter. There is a domestic competition too and people have discussed the merits of a Scottish side entering the professional game. As with Ireland, they need more homegrown players in the professional ranks.

12 Cook Islands
Cook Islands Rugby League is run by League legend Kevin Iro who has overseen commendable progress at domestic level where they have six open-age teams, sometimes attracting crowds of 1000, as well as Under-17 and Under-14 games. The winners of the 1995 Emerging Nations World Cup would be capable of getting together a more-than-handy side if they were to be included in the next World Cup. They were runners-up in the Cabramatta 9s and won the Valley 8s in February.

13 Russia
A good year for the Russians internationally saw them win the RLEF Euro-Med Challenge in September as they swept aside Serbia 30-4 and Lebanon 80-0. Russia’s domestic league continues to grow and they had two entrants in the 2008 Challenge Cup, Lokomotiv Moscow and Vereya, with Moscow giving Celtic Crusaders a run for their money in the first half of their match in Wales. Plenty more is planned for 2009.

14 Lebanon
The NRL contains a number of players with Lebanese heritage and they have a promising five-team domestic league with healthy financial backing from the Bank of Beirut, who sponsor their championship. They were desperately unlucky to miss out on a place in the World Cup. Had they not been denied the services of star hooker Robbie Farah they would have probably made it. They have more international plans for 2009.

15 USA
The Americans have a fair way to go internationally but their domestic progress has been superb – on and off the pitch. Last year’s challenge match between Leeds and South Sydney drew over 12,000 people and over 1,000 people can often be found on the sidelines cheering on Jacksonville Axemen. Their ten-team league is now over a decade old and thriving.

16 Serbia
The Serbians enjoyed an eventful year losing to Morocco but beating Celtic de Mably XIII on the same tour. They have a five-team competition and host an annual Origin match between Belgrade and the rest. They lost 38-42 to Scotland in the Shield Final of the Under-18 Euro Nations Cup and they will host a RLEF International Youth Festival in 2009. Along with Russia and Lebanon, they will play in October and November’s Euro Nations Cup with Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

17 South Africa
Their domestic set-up is strong with a number of participants spread across the Tom van Vollenhoven Cup, the Johan Roodt Cup and the Dave van Reenen Cup. They also toured England late in the year playing BARLA representative sides but struggled. The SARL has been going since 1995 and has enjoyed an up-and-down existence.

18 Jamaica
Big things could be happening for Rugby League in Jamaica with the appointment of former Gateshead Thunder boss Dean Thomas as their coach. Former Newcastle Knights halfback Dane Campbell is heavily involved too and a number of NRL or Super League players would qualify for their national team. They hosted the RAF in January and they have a promising domestic competition.

19 Italy
There are stirrings of a domestic competition in Italy which is great news for League lovers. They also host an annual 9s competition, named after Simone Franchini, a former player who died in a game five years ago. In 2008 they won the RLEF Euro Shield, beating Germany and the Czech Republic.

20 Morocco
With an number of Moroccans in the French Elite Championship, they can field a useful Test side and in 2009 they beat Serbia 44-6 and Catalonia 62-12. They also have big plans for 2009.

21 Greece
Greece entered the Student World Cup, winning the Plate Final against France. They beat Scotland along the way and pushed England close.

22 Germany
Germany beat the Czech Republic handsomely by the score of 62-20 but were thrashed by Italy. They also hosted a 9s tournament in Heidelberg which was won by Karlsruhe Raiders.

23 Czech Republic
In 2008 the Czechs hosted the Under-18 Euro Nations Cup, where they beat the Euro Celts, and they entered the Euro Shield. They have a couple of domestic teams, one of which, Beroun Black Panthers, came third in the Heidelberg 9s. They have also hosted tours.

24 Latvia
Winners of the RLEF Euro Bowl, the Latvians scored over 100 points in two games against Estonia but they lost 88-0 to a British pioneers side in July.

25 Portugal
In February an Australian-based Portuguese side beat Japan in Sydney. They also played in the Cabramatta 9s and they beat Cumberland (the Australian version, not the English!) 34-4 in the autumn. They plan to take the game to Lisbon in June, playing a Select XIII made up of rugby union players, with a 2010 tour to South Africa in the pipeline.

26 Estonia
Estonia played Latvia twice in the RLEF Euro Bowl competition, losing the home match 48-10 and the away game 62-10.

27 Ukraine
Unfortunately Ukraine pulled out of the Euro Bowl competition last year but they are expected to enter in 2009. They pushed a British pioneers side all the way in July before going down 34-18. They have a team, Legion XIII, in the Russian league.

28 Malta
Sadly Rugby League hasn’t progressed in Malta in the last 12 months and the only sign of the game was a Nines tournament they hosted. Their record prior to that had been good and RLW understands that there are plans for games this year. They’ve shown in the past that they can be strong.

29 United Arab Emirates
UAE played Liban Espoirs from Lebanon in March and lost 48-18 while also hosting Saddleworth Rangers in May who beat them 36-18.

30 Japan
Tokyo XIII Warriors played a best-of-three series with Tokyo Crusaders last year. Japan lost 28-16 to Portugal in February in Sydney and entered the Cabramatta 9s.

31 Holland
Holland have proved to be an up-and-down Rugby League nation although they have a poor relationship with the Rugby League European Federation. There has been little activity in the last 12 months, although Zuid Holland beat Oxford University Old Boys in August.

32 Spain
Catalonia played Morocco last year, losing 66-12 while Barcelona will host Catalans v Warrington in May.

33 American Samoa
Entered the Cabramatta 9s last year.

 

*There have been positive noises about Rugby League coming from Denmark, Pakistan and the Soloman Islands recently and we still have hope that old friends such as Georgia and New Caledonia will pick up the greatest game again.

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The Top-10 Super League matches

Published in Rugby League World in 2009

1996 London Broncos 28-32 St Helens
Forget Paris v Sheffield – this was the game of 1996!

Saints won the league by one point from Wigan and it was the two sides’ results against London that proved crucial.

The Broncos had snatched an unlikely point at Wigan in June but Saints avoided the same banana skin – just – by pulling out all the stops to beat the Broncos at The Valley when all looked lost.

An incredible game was eventually settled in the 78th minute when Apollo Perelini crashed over for a hotly disputed try – one of the most talked about video referee decisions since its inception.

1997 Leeds Rhinos 13-12 St Helens
Having been jeered by the home fans for the entire match, former Loiner Bobbie Goulding silenced the 12,683-strong crowd with a last-minute try next to the posts which left an easy conversion which would inch the champions a point ahead.

But, incredibly, the pressure got to Goulding who fluffed his kick and the South Stand roof was almost lifted off by the explosion of noise which erupted underneath it.

The game had been an absolute belter with Iestyn Harris’s kicking – for goal and in general play – on his full debut for Leeds, playing a significant part in the Rhinos’ win.

1998 Wigan Warriors 8-15 Leeds Rhinos
In one of the most brutal games of recent times, Leeds showed they were no longer the soft-centred under-achievers as they stormed through to win an absolute classic.

Wigan hooker Robbie McCormack lasted about ten seconds as an Adrian Morley tackle straight from the kick off led to him being carried off – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HCyzM0V4pk.

Mick Cassidy later sorted out Morley with an outrageously high elbow as the Great Britain forward charged into the Wigan defence – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqBZa1HLvQ8.

Francis Cummins scored twice with Simon Haughton replying for Wigan with a long-range effort but Brad Godden sealed the game in the final moments with a superb solo score.

 
1999 Wigan Warriors 28-20 St Helens
The last-ever game of Rugby League at Central Park was a match to savour as Wigan beat St Helens in one of the best games of the summer era played by that point.

After an inconsistent season by his own high standards, Jason Robinson came good when his fans wanted it most. In a dazzling performance, he mesmorised the Saints defence making a number of clean breaks. He ended up with two tries and set up Denis Betts for another beauty. Highlights from the afternoon are here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wQ1PKjReY8

But Saints had the last laugh, lifting the Super League trophy at Old Trafford just over a month later.

 
2000 Wigan 28-30 St Helens
Saints turned over table-toppers Wigan in an incredible game at the JJB Stadium in July 2000, with stand-off Tommy Martyn at his imperious best.

If you watch a tape of this game now, you’ll wonder how Martyn never played for Great Britain. His hat-trick, which included a last-minute winner, was absolutely magnificent.

Anthony Sullivan weighed in with a trademark long-distance try while Steve Renouf scored twice for the eventually shell-shocked Wiganers.

Saints had endured a difficult start to the season with the sacking of Ellery Hanley but this win proved to be a crucial turning point for Ian Millward’s men en route to another title.

 
2003 Leeds Rhinos 22-23 Wigan Warriors
Danny Tickle’s late drop-goal, from a scrum that should never have been, was the ultimate difference in this magnificent final eliminator match.

It was also the late Mike Gregory’s finest hour as a coach, and he was still unbeaten as Wigan’s head coach at this point haven taken over at the end of the July following the sacking of Stuart Raper.

It was also Brian Carney’s finest match in a Wigan jersey with the Irishman scoring two sensational long-range tries to break Leeds’ hearts after Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire seemed to have done enough for the home side. Carney’s crucial second-half try is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSGiVB3SYU0

 
2006 Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 29-17 Castleford Tigers
The ultimate local derby – relegation for the losers and Super League safety for the winners. There couldn’t have been any more at stake.

The Wildcats looked gone two weeks earlier when Cas beat Harlequins but they bounced back to win at Odsal a week later.

Cas were first out of the block with tries to Willie Manu and Adam Fletcher but Wakefield hit back to lead 14-11 at the break.

Danny Nutley struck first for the Tigers in the second half but tries by Monty Betham, Kevin Henderson and James Evans sent the home crowd into raptures and the Tigers into National League One.

2007 Bradford Bulls 38-42 Leeds Rhinos
Going into the last minute of this Millennium Magic encounter in 2007, the Bulls led 38-36 in what had been an entertaining, but relatively unintense game.

But you don’t hear anyone mention that now – most people have forgotten about the first 79 minutes.

As the clocked ticked down, referee Steve Ganson awarded Leeds a harsh looking penalty. Kevin Sinfield’s 40-metre goal kick hit the crossbar but the chasing Jordan Tansey, clearly offside, caught the rebound and scored the try that won the game.

Pandemonium, as you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Gf80CVX3M

As a footnote, the Bulls later unsuccessfully challenged the Rhinos for the two competition points.

 
2007 Bradford Bulls 30-31 Wigan Warriors
The greatest comeback? The greatest play-off match?

For 55 minutes, the Bulls were dominated a disappointingly one-sided game, leading 30-6, against an atrocious Wigan outfit.

But then Mark Calderwood scored. A consolation try surely? Then he scored again.

With 15 minutes to go, Harrison Hansen crossed and mission impossible began to look more and more achievable. Even so, any Bradford score would end the contest there and then.

But it didn’t come and with nine minutes left, Calderwood streaked away for a long-range to level the scores before Pat Richards kicked a late drop-goal to keep the Warriors’ season alive. The crucial try and drop goal are here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7E67Spw4aU

 

2008 Catalans Dragons 32-26 Harlequins
Trailling the Dragons 0-14 at the break last July, the Quins produced an almighty second half fightback to tie the scores at 26-26 when Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook scored with just three minutes remaining.

It had already been one of the games of the season but what happened in the final minute defied belief.

An 80th-minute brawl saw Adam Mogg and McCarthy-Scarsbrook sent from the field. The Dragons were awarded the penalty, in their own half, and had one tackle to make something happen.

And sure enough Thomas Bosc kicked ahead and Clint Greenshields followed up to score one of Super League’s most dramatic ever tries. The incredible action – and commentary! – is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRniqQokcxU

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Video Referees – Are They Needed?

Published in Rugby League World in 2010

 
HERE are some stats to warm you up.

In the 60 regular-round games of Super League that were shown on Sky Sports in 2010, the video referee was called upon 175 times. In those 27 rounds, there was not one game where the fourth official was not consulted at least once. Those 175 decisions took over three hours in total – 188 minutes to be precise.

The video referee was introduced to the Northern Hemisphere game in 1996 and was first used in Super League’s inaugural game in Paris, as the host team famously defeated Sheffield Eagles. It was the brainchild of Neville Smith, Rugby League’s top man at Sky Sports, with Maurice Lindsay, the game’s chief executive, needing little persuasion to have it introduced. Clamour for the facility had heightened the year before, when Martin Offiah was denied a try in the World Cup Final, something he complained about bitterly in front of the nation at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year programme, little over three months before one of the game’s most exciting innovations for years was eventually wheeled out.

In the ensuing 15 years, its function has remained largely unchanged, but gradual changes have been made along the way. For instance, in the early days, if a try was scored on the fifth tackle, a referee could ask the video official to go all the way back to the first tackle to check for a possible infringement, something which was largely derided. In that first season, it was most famously used to adjudicate that Apollo Perelini had indeed scored a vital late try against London Broncos, as St Helens snatched a narrow late-season win which contributed heavily to them pipping Wigan to the title by a solitary point. But the decision caused controversy at the time with Terry Matterson sin-binned for arguing with Stuart Cummings over the legality of the four-pointer.

At the end of the season, Sky’s veteran pundit, Mick Stephenson, commented: “It’s been a tremendous innovation. I’ve always thought that referees need help and they got it this season. Quite a few decisions went right down to the wire and without the technology, we couldn’t have been given the correct decision. Without the slow-motion replay [of the Perelini try], I don’t think anybody would have been capable of coming up with the right decision. It probably won Saints the championship.”

As things currently stand, the video referee is employed in both domestic and international games televised live by Sky Sports and the BBC, and in Catalans Dragons home fixtures which are televised live across the Channel, as well as in all NRL games. In these games, the in-goal judges, who are used in all non-televised matches, are not used. But with the novelty having long worn off, the concept has, over the last few years, begun to attract doubters. One of them is Lindsay himself, who complained last year about the time the video referee sometimes takes to reach its decisions.

“The video referee has become a joke,” he said. “Apologies for the brief history lesson, but this started with myself and Neville Smith, at Sky, who came to me with the idea and we talked about it. We were so keen on it that we contributed, I think, £200,000 for it in the first year towards the installations etc. Sky now pick up the total cost but we used to share it at first.

“I thought it was fabulous at first because some major games have been lost, including at Wembley, because of doubtful decisions so it was good to do something about that. The principle is sound but the implementation has got out of hand. There has to be more common sense because some of the decisions are taking far too long now. The referees also must have the bottle to award the try because they’re using the video referee for too many decisions that don’t need a second look. Just like the on-report system, they’re bottling out. And after showing the first replay that comprehensively proves the decision one way or another, why do they have to carry on looking at the other angles? In Australia, they’ll often just look once and give it. I think it’s got out of hand to be honest. We’re starting to alienate the customers – some games the video refs are used up to ten times and you can hear the groans from the crowd.”

In fairness to the RFL, the longest decisions this year have been around the three-minute mark. Lindsay’s comments came a few months after one of Super League’s most infamous video decisions, when a possible Jamie Peacock try in a Leeds-Wigan play-off game required over five minutes’ deliberation, with the crowd audibly frustrated and the players having to conduct another brief warm-up. This year’s average decision took a far more acceptable 64 seconds to make.

Earlier this year, Tony Smith, the coach of Warrington, spoke out – not for the first time – against the use of video referees, going so far as to call for them to be scrapped from the game altogether. His comments came after a wonderful ding-dong early-season clash with Wigan, with a crucial late call – a David Solomona no try – correctly going against Smith’s side. Smith, though, was careful to point out that that night’s decisions hadn’t prompted his outburst, pointing to a disallowed Ryan Hudson try against his side a week earlier. That his comments came in just round three of Super League perhaps indicates that the fact that a number of 2009 showpiece games included a controversial video refereeing decision maybe influenced his opinion. Those games included the Challenge Cup final (twice, although he benefited from both dubious decisions), the Super League Grand Final, the Four Nations Final, the ANZAC Test down under and the first State of Origin, as well as a mid-season top-of-the-table clash between St George and Canterbury which kicked off a row that seemed to last for weeks in the Australian media.

“I think they’re boring and they’re a big momentum drop in games,” Smith said. “From most of the Rugby League I watch, when there’s two in-goal judges, two touch judges and a referee [non-televised games], they get it right most of the time. I’m over the video ref and have been for a long time. In our last game against Cas, I got bored waiting for a decision which went on for three minutes. I nearly had to do another warm-up with my players. It creates as much controversy as it fixes up in my opinion. You guys [the media] still aren’t sure about a few decisions, so does it clear things up or create more [problems]? I think it creates more and stops the momentum of the game. I don’t think we’re any worse off without them. I know some people would be crying to death if we lost the video ref, but I’m not a fan of it.”

Smith’s stance is perhaps backed up by the fact that well over 30 decisions last season, in just the 60 regular-round games, were still being hotly debated after several replays. Whether a decision is wrong or not often boils down to a personal opinion, and I believe that of the 175 decisions, 24 were dubious and eight were definitely wrong – but I am willing to accept that others would invariably argue with some of those. On the other hand, I believed that Liam Watts’s winning try in the last ten minutes of the early-season Castleford-Hull KR game, which was hotly disputed by a scathing Tigers’ coach Terry Matterson, was a fair try.

Those eight ‘wrong’ decisions include a try awarded ludicrously – again, that’s just my opinion – to Ali Lauitiiti in the opening Super League game of the season for Leeds against the Crusaders. And the last decision that left me scratching my head in bemusement was a try awarded to St Helens’s James Roby, also in north Wales. There were even two instances within 25 minutes of one St Helens game that attracted incredulity from the game’s leading broadcasters, with Terry O’Connor describing a Kyle Eastmond no-try call against Salford as a ‘shocking decision’ and Eddie Hemmings later calling the decision to allow a Scott Moore try ‘unbelievable’.

The video referee’s most-outspoken critic is Phil ‘Gus’ Gould, the Channel Nine summariser in Australia, and the man who was the most successful State of Origin coach until Mal Meninga’s recent run of glory. Gould has regularly panned not just individual decisions but the entire concept both on air and in his newspaper columns. This makes a refreshing change for British fans with a keen interest in the NRL, as Sky Sports, while prepared to criticise individual errors, have always firmly endorsed video refereeing with not a single word to the contrary in 15 years, presumably because it was their idea in the first place. A debate on the pros and cons of the technology regularly takes place down under but, on TV at least, is long overdue in this country. Surely the role of a magazine show like Boots ‘N’ All is to discuss the opinions of a high-profile coach like Smith, especially when they are of such an incendiary nature.

But back to Gould. “Video refs show us time and again they just don’t know the game,” he said shortly after the Bulldogs were denied that last-minute winner against the Dragons last year. “They continually confuse themselves on issues of stripping and obstruction. They try to apply black-and-white interpretations to these actions when such adjudications require knowledge and discretion. Any player of any era would have awarded a try to the Bulldogs, who deserved to win the game. Somehow, video referee Steve Clark managed to convince himself Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward was impeded. His clanger of a verdict absolutely destroyed a great game of football between two courageous teams. We had to go upstairs to the eye in the sky to check on a bump in running to one of the Dragons defenders 40 metres back up-field. Replay, replay, replay. Wait, wait, wait. More replays. More waiting. Crikey, if he had to look at it this many times it’s obvious it had to be a try. But no. Clark stunned everyone with a decision that destroyed the atmosphere, the mood and the game. Instead of all the post-match talk being about heroics, great players and great plays, the headlines are all about this ridiculous decision. Personally, I would like to see an end to the use of the video referee for all general-play decisions.”

Happy to go into bat for the beleaguered video ref, however, is the Wakefield coach and twice Challenge Cup winner, John Kear, who brings another argument to the table when pointing out the increased entertainment and drama which can only be a good thing for the fans. “Ultimately we have to realise that we’re there to provide entertainment for the spectators,” he said. “Us coaches can be control freaks and we think that when X happens then Y is the consequence, but it’s going to be a bit boring if that’s always the case for spectators and it’s them who pay our wages. I’m a fan of the drama of it and it’s upped the percentage of correct decisions, although there is an element of error in it. But it certainly entertains and that’s the business that we’re in.

“I don’t think it’s overused, but one change I’d make is to ensure that the last replay is in real time. Sometimes groundings can look a little bit iffy and separations might not be seen unless they’re slowed down to the Nth degree, so I’d like to see the last replay at normal speed to even that out.

“I think they’re more likely to produce correct results than the non-televised games that have in-goal judges instead, and it’s also useful for 40-20s etc. I wouldn’t be happy for them to go for forward passes, but I’m happy for them to look at obstructions etc. And I think it’s fair enough that they use it as much as they do. Obviously some referees are more competent than others and we’ve got to accept that, just as some players are better at decision making than others.”

But Kear stops short at suggesting that video referees should be used at every game, like they are in the NRL, and as the Hull KR and England coaches, Justin Morgan and Steve McNamara, have also suggested previously. “We’ve got to be realistic,” said Kear. “Times are hard aren’t they, so we’re not going to get it. I’m not going to insist that it should be at every game because Sky are our broadcast partners and they pay very well to be that. We should give them that entertainment.”

Back to the stats which lead to a multitude of questions. 143 out of 175 decisions were definitely correct, in my opinion, this season, which, on the surface, suggests that the video referee is worth every penny. But surely a very high percentage of those calls would have been made by the referee anyway, and how many times is he completely sure of the decision, but, given the pressure, wants to double check out of fear of being humiliated? And how many times does a referee not use the technology and make the wrong call – Paul Cooke’s wrongly awarded try for Wakefield against his former club Hull being an obvious example. Would a well-placed in-goal judge – scrapped due to the presence of the video ref – have spotted the stand-off’s fumble?

In soccer, there is a clamour – largely on the back of Frank Lampard’s infamously disallowed goal at the World Cup for England against Germany – for goal-line technology to be introduced; an idea that would solve those specific queries for certain. It is unlikely, however, that the round-ball game would consider having a video referee to judge possible penalties, as debates would go on forever on the terraces. Such an amendment in Rugby League – restricting its use to the definite yes-or-no calls such as foot-on-the-line decisions, rather than obstructions for example – would suit Gould, and even Smith, it appears. And, with this number of queries per game, is it really the case that every game prior to 1996, and every non-televised match since, has had a referee awarding or disallowing a try every 27 and a half minutes that he and his officials were unsure about?

With two former England coaches like Smith and Kear, both still big names in the game, holding completely opposing views, there’s obviously plenty still to be debated.

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Review of the Noughties

Published in 2009 in Rugby League World:

ANOTHER decade has been and gone.

Another ten years of brilliant, spellbinding action on the pitch produced by the finest of athletes. Only three teams shared the ten Super League titles, however, and we came no nearer to winning a competition involving Australia.

Coaches have come and gone; so have great players and off-field stories have occasionally provided a serious or amusing distraction. Administratively, the same issues and uncertainty that have dogged the sport for over a hundred years continue to put hurdles in front of the Rugby League’s development.

Over the next eight pages, we looks back over the noughties, at the best and worst moments, the biggest stories and we choose the 2000′s XIII from the last ten years of World Ratings, which are published annually in Rugby League World.

 

2000
The decade, from a British point of view, started pretty depressingly with St Helens copping a hiding from Melbourne in the World Club Challenge at Wigan. Everything that could have gone wrong for Saints did so. Paul Wellens was used as an emergency hooker and their captain, Chris Joynt, a Wiganer, was so ill that he was back home in bed before the end of the game.

Shortly after, in one of the year’s most sensational stories, the club parted company with Ellery Hanley, who had so gloriously led them to the title just months earlier. The virtually unknown Australian Ian Millward took over and, for some, it appeared that Saints’ bubble had burst. It wasn’t to be the last time in the decade that such a sentiment was unwisely expressed.

Bradford won their first Challenge Cup since 1949 by edging out a dreadfully out-of-form Leeds in the final at Murrayfield in a match that only went ahead after several feet of water was removed from the pitch in the days leading up to the game. Henry Paul won the Lance Todd, Adrian Morley was magnificent in defeat for the Rhinos and Leroy Rivett, the hero 12 months earlier, never played for Leeds again after suffering badly under Paul’s bombs.

Saints, under Millward, steadily improved throughout the year and pulled off a notable mid-season win away at Wigan thanks to a hat-trick from the irrepressible Tommy Martyn. Wigan paid them back by hammering them at Knowsley Road to claim the Minor Premiership but the play-offs were all about Millward’s men. Chris Joynt scored the decade’s most famous try – now widely regarded as the “Wide to West” try – which gave them the momentum to overhaul the Warriors at Old Trafford with Joynt, once again, magnificent.

But there wasn’t much to smile about for the rest of the year. The 2000 World Cup proved to be the ultimate damp squib as the crowds stayed away amid the terrible weather and the general doom and gloom surrounding England’s chances of success. In truth, coach John Kear was brave enough to assemble a young team, giving first international starts to Jamie Peacock, Paul Wellens, Chev Walker, Leon Pryce, Stuart Fielden, Kevin Sinfield and Paul Deacon.

They played promisingly against Australia at Twickenham but were badly exposed in a nightmare semi-final against a rampant Kiwi outfit who eased to a 49-6 win. It was Wales who provided the cheer in the latter stages of the tournament, assembling an incredible 20-8 lead before the predictable late Australian onslaught took them to the final, where they beat the Kiwis.

2001
With the game’s morale at such a low after the World Cup, St Helens cheered everyone up by beating Brisbane Broncos in a classic World Club Challenge at Bolton. The Broncos, mourning the death of one of their founders, Paul ‘Porky’ Morgan, and appeared to be doing him proud as they raced into an 18-6 lead but two Saints tries in three glorious minutes brought the house down and they held their nerve in the late hailstorm to clinch the win 20-18 with a couple of drop goals.

They picked up the next trophy on offer too, but there was little for the neutral to get excited about this time, as they beat Bradford 13-6 at Twickenham in a painfully dull game. Sean Long’s kicking proved to be the difference and he picked up his first Lance Todd award.

In Super League, Leeds were failing to deliver yet again as big-name signings from Australia, Brad Clyde and Brett Mullins, struggled for form and, more often, fitness. Dean Lance, by now, had been sacked and replaced with Academy coach, and recently retired player Daryl Powell.

The War of the Roses was revived and Lancashire confirmed their pre-match status as favourites by beating Yorkshire 36-24. Kris Radlinski won the Roy Powell medal as man of the match.

An injury to Long saw Saints’ title hopes fade and it was Bradford and Wigan who dominated the rest of the campaign. The Grand Final looked certain to be a cracker but from the moment Henry Paul booted an early, long-range penalty, there was only ever one winner. Michael Withers’ first-half hat-trick was an indication of what a surprisingly easy evening’s work the Bulls had.

Again, the international scene did much to test the patience of League fans everywhere. Firstly, the much-anticipated Ashes series was cancelled in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities in America. Then, thanks to the negotiating skills of Maurice Lindsay, who pointed out to the ARL that the RFL was on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the World Cup, the Kangaroos flew in for a shortened tour.

A Paul Sculthorpe-inspired Great Britain secured a wonderful opening-Test win at Huddersfield but the Aussies steamrollered their way to a 40-12 win at Bolton before winning the decider at Wigan 28-8 – a scoreline which, in truth, flattered them.

2002
The World Club Challenge trophy remained on British shores after Bradford hammered Andrew Johns’s Newcastle 41-26 in a fairly unintense game at Huddersfield.

Wigan got their hands back on their favourite trophy, the Challenge Cup, by beating the much-fancied Saints in Edinburgh. In a classic game, Wigan fullback Kris Radlinski – who so nearly missed the game with a foot infection – stole the headlines with a series of wonderful cover tackles.

Leeds, now without Iestyn Harris who was playing rugby union in Wales, were the early pace-setters in Super League but, again, faded away when the time came to step up.

At rep level, Lancashire held onto their Roses crown by beating Yorkshire in both matches of a two-game series. The first was a nailbiting 22-18 at Wigan before they secured an incredible 36-28 win at Leeds. They had led 30-0 at half-time before needing a late try to bat away a superb Yorkshire fightback.

But the lack of intensity, compared to the Australian State of Origin, pointed to only one thing ahead of Britain’s mid-season trip to Australia to play a one-off Test. A badly planned and rushed trip saw the British hopelessly underdone and the subsequent 64-10 annihilation provided the British game with perhaps its most humiliating moment of the decade.

As the year went on, it was clear that Saints and the Bulls were the stand-out teams and they went on to contest an absolutely magnificent Grand Final, famous for Sean Long’s last-minute drop goal and an even later alleged voluntary tackle by Saints’ skipper Chris Joynt which was deemed acceptable by referee, Russell Smith.

Down Under, Adrian Morley played a huge part in Sydney Roosters ending their 27-year wait for Grand Final success. After a frustrating first 18 months in the NRL, Morley reeled off a succession of top-notch performances at the end of the season.

Hull FC, who, by now, were back at the right end of the table, waved goodbye to the Boulevard with a match against the touring Kiwis.

Great Britain restored come pride with a drawn series against the Kiwis but, bizarrely, they were allowed to keep the newly inaugurated Albert Baskiville shield on the basis that New Zealand hadn’t won it from them; still, anything to ensure a good crowd for the last Test.

 

2003
Saints were soundly beaten 38-0 by a Roosters side who had far too much class for them on a bitterly cold night at Bolton. Morley posted one of their five tries.

Leeds made another good start to Super League and this time they were able to maintain their form for much of the season. They beat Saints in one of the decade’s most thrilling games as their Cup semi-final was taken to extra-time by Kevin Sinfield”s magnificent last-minute touchline conversion.

But in the final, they were edged out by Bradford Bulls in a game remembered for Sinfield’s refusal to take a late shot at goal which would have levelled the scores. Gary Connolly, in floods of tears, accepted his Lance Todd trophy from guest of honour Neil Kinnock. Jamie Peacock was in great form for the Bulls.

Yorkshire gained some emphatic revenge on their county rivals by winning the Roses match at a canter. Chris Thorman was superb for the home side as they won 56-6. Only one game was arranged in the series and it proved to be the last as the RFL went on to pull the plug on the concept.

The Bulls and Rhinos continued to set the Super League pace but on the five occasions they met, Bradford were too good. It was expected that they would meet again at Old Trafford but, having appointed Mike Gregory in the wake of Stuart Raper’s sacking in July, Wigan had found some irrestible late-season form and beat Leeds in one of the best-ever play-off matches at Headingley. Brian Carney was the hero with two sensational long-distance tries.

At Old Trafford, the Bulls were again too good for Wigan but, unlike two years before, the Warriors at least made a game of it. They led through Danny Tickle’s first-half try but the Bulls were far too strong for them in the second half.

The year ended with another Ashes series and pre-tournament British expectation was high as the Kangaroos landed shorn of a number of top-class players, such as Andrew Johns, who had withdrawn from the squad. The first Test was an all-time Ashes classic but from the 12th second the home side were up against it as fiery prop Adrian Morley was dismissed for a high shot on Robbie Kearns. Britain fought back magnificently but were denied by a late Darren Lockyer try.

Late leads were also squandered at Hull and Huddersfield as the Aussies regained the Ashes with their first whitewash since 1986. But only 13 points separated the two sides after 240 enthralling minutes of Test football.

 
2004
The World Club Challenge trophy returned to British shores as the Bulls, amid a halfback crisis, were too good for Penrith Panthers. Karl Pratt and Leon Pryce, moved from the three-quarters to the halves and delivered an aerial bombardement that Panthers’ much-acclaimed fullback, Rhys Wesser, couldn’t deal with.

The Rhinos continued to improve under their new coach, Tony Smith, and with the Bulls not as impressive as the year before, expectation rocketed at Headingley. But it was Saints who won the Challenge Cup in the most impressive fashion. They stunned the Bulls 30-10 at Odsal, before beating Leeds 24-14 and Hull 31-26 to make the semi-final, where they thrashed Huddersfield.

It emerged that Wigan coach, Mike Gregory, would be flying to America after the final for medical treatment for a “chronic bacterial infection”. Sadly, the final, which Wigan lost 32-16 to a Sean Long-inspired Saints, goes down in the record books as Gregory’s last game in charge of his hometown club.

But for Saints, their season went into freefall as Long and Martin Gleeson were suspended for three and four months respectively for betting on them to lose an Easter Monday clash with Bradford. Both players took advantage of their knowledge that Ian Millward had decided to field a virtual Academy side for the fixture, betting £1000 each on a Bulls’ win. Gleeson, on his way back from injury, even scored for Saints but Long didn’t play.

Back in Super League, Leeds’s faith in their young guns Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow was starting to pay dividends. They stayed at the top of the table, even beating Saints 70-0 along the way.

Off the field, they became embroiled in a bitter argument with Bradford as their neighbours unveiled Iestyn Harris as he retured to League. The Rhinos claimed Harris was still effectively contracted to them but the RFL cleared the way for Harris to don a Bulls jersey and he was instrumental as they won at Headingley to be the first side into the Grand Final.

The Rhinos joined them with an emphatic win over Wigan and they went on to beat the Bulls 16-8 to win their first championship in the modern era.

Castleford were relegated, beginning a four-year yo-yo period for the club.

Great Britain also topped a table – the Tri-Nations table after they, Australia and New Zealand had played each other twice in an exciting new competition. But, with expectations surging that Britain would collect their first silverware against the Aussies since the 1972 World Cup, the visitors delivered the ultimate Rugby League masterclass at Elland Road, as they led the final 38-0 at half-time, with many of the crowd streaming out of the ground. The game finished 44-4.

2005
That heartbreaking final proved to be British captain Andy Farrell’s last game of League as he switched codes and joined Saracens.

Leeds won their first-ever world title beating a weakened Canterbury at Elland Road. Sonny Bill Williams was magnificent in defeat for the Bulldogs but the young Leeds backline ran riot in the first hour.

Wigan lost not just Farrell but a host of top players like Adrian Lam, Craig Smith, Terry O’Connor. An early-season struggle saw St Helens coach Ian Millward recruited to the club to reverse their fortunes. In one of the stories of the year, Millward had been sacked by Saints for, among other things, swearing at two Super League media officials. Daniel Anderson, the New Zealand coach, took over at Knowsley Road.

Humiliatingly for Millward his first trip back to his old club saw Wigan dumped out of the cup by the incredible scoreline of 75-0. A week earlier they had lost 70-0 at Headingley.

Having already beaten Bradford in an earlier round, Hull were handed the challenge of stopping the Saints march towards Cup success in the semi-final. They responded with a magnificent 34-8 victory before going on to win the final with a last-minute Paul Cooke try and Danny Brough goal against Leeds, who decided to risk a half-fit Keith Senior in the centres. Kevin Sinfield won the Lance Todd in defeat.

In early July, Bradford lost a Super League match at home to a rampant St Helens 66-4, one of the lowest moments of the club’s modern history. Two more defeats followed in July before a wonderful run of eight wins took them into the play-offs.

Warrington fancied their chances of play-off success by audaciously snapping up Andrew Johns, widely regarded as the world’s best player on a short-term loan. He kicked off in great style, helping the Wolves thrash the Rhinos, but his joy was shortlived as Hull dumped them out of the play-offs.

Hull, themselves, were battered 71-0 at Odsal just five weeks after winning the Cup. Eventually the Bulls avenged their 2004 Grand Final loss by beating Leeds 15-6 at Old Traffford.

Britain hosted another Tri-Nations but, despite hammering the Kiwis in Huddersfield, they failed to make the final, where New Zealand produced one of the international game’s great performances to stun Wayne Bennett’s Australia 24-0.

The RFL plan for the future by announcing that a licensing system will soon replace Super League promotion and relegation while, controversially, they indicate that England will replace Great Britain at the highest level.

 

2006
With Stuart Fielden in outstanding form, Bradford hammer Wests Tigers 30-10 to become world champions – their last trophy of the decade. The Bulls had already seen Jamie Peacock and Leon Pryce leave the club after the Grand Final and Fielden and coach Brian Noble followed shortly, both leaving for Wigan, following their sacking of Ian Millward.

Catalans Dragons began life in Super League in the best possible fashion, by beating Wigan 38-30 in a high-scoring classic. They went on to finish last 12th out of 12, but showed enough throughout the year to indicate they would become a force to be reckoned with.

Another new name in the competition was Harlequins RL – formerly London Broncos. Their start was less convincing as their return to the Stoop saw them hammered 40-16 by St Helens, who served early notice of what they would go on to achieve in 2006.

They won the Challenge Cup, beating Huddersfield at Twickenham. The Giants had accounted for Leeds – and their new signing Jamie Peacock – in stunning fashion in their Odsal semi-final but even after a bright start in the final, Saints were far too strong for them. Sean Long won a record third Lance Todd.

Saints stayed at Super League’s summit for the whole year and were too good for Warrington and Hull in booking yet another Old Trafford appearance. Hull provided the opposition but five tries undid them and Saints prevailed 26-14 to win their first title in four years.

There was still time for more silverware for the Knowsley Roaders as they picked up the prestigious BBC Sports Team of the Year award, beating golf’s European Ryder Cup winners while Daniel Anderson was named sport’s best coach.

Two of the decade’s big stories came on the international stage as Britain travelled Down Under to compete in the Tri-Nations. Having lost their opening match to New Zealand, they were savaged in a newspaper column by Phil Gould, the former New South Wales coach. Leon Pryce then caused a further furore by infamously telling the BBC that Blackpool beach wasn’t as good as Bondi.

The pressure, therefore, couldn’t have been greater as the Lions stepped into a Sydney cauldron to face the world’s best but after seeing enforcer Stuart Fielden floored by Willie Mason and after conceding a trademark interception try, the Lions hit back with tries by Paul Wellens, Jamie Peacock, Lee Gilmour and Gareth Raynor to produce a sensational victory.

But, predictably, their peak had been reached too soon. The Lions were beaten soundly by the Kiwis in Wellington before Sean Long stunned the sporting world by walking out on the tour. Britain, needing a win in Brisbane to make the final, replaced Long with Richard Horne but were outclassed by the Aussies. In a pulsating final, Australia beat New Zealand in Golden Point.

 

2007
Saints won their second world title of the decade beating Brisbane again at Bolton before setting the standards at the top of Super League for most of the year.

Catalans Dragons showed immense improvement in their second year and even with an injury crisis looked a much-improved team. They won at Hull in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals and humiliated a complacent Wigan in the semi-finals at Warrington, by 37-24. They led 24-6 at half-time.

Saints, however, had too much for them as the sport returned to Wembley for the final. They competed gamely in the first half before an Ade Gardner try on half-time broke them. Paul Wellens and Leon Pryce shared the Lance Todd honours.

Competition new boys Hull KR stunned League fans everywhere by brazenly poaching their neighbour’s star player, Paul Cooke. Even by the end of the decade, Cooke’s every touch was being booed by the Hull FC faithful.

In the last year of his contract at Leeds, it was announced that Tony Smith would be leaving Headingley at the end of the year to become the full-time coach of Great Britain. For the rest of the year he would combine club duties with part-time national coaching commitments.

Super League embarked on a new venture, taking an entire round of fixtures to Cardiff, with all six games to be played over two days. Millennium Magic appeared to go down well with those who attended, although it emerged later that ticket sales had been poor locally.

The big talking point of the weekend came at its conclusion. The Bulls were wrongly penalised for a ruck infringement as they were holding on to a two-point lead over Leeds. Kevin Sinfield’s long-range penalty hit the crossbar and rebounded perfectly for an elated Jordan Tansey to score. But TV replays showed Tansey was well offside. The Bulls appealed to the Rhinos for the two competition points but were rebuffed.

Saints and Leeds ended the regular season in spots one and two and met in a brutally intense play-off encounter at Knowsley Road. Saints edged it 10-8 but the Rhinos forwards travelled home having laid down an important marker by getting the better of their opposition pack.

A 30-point hammering of Wigan fixed up a quick rematch with Saints where they took apart the champions in the most clinical fashion. Leading by two points at half-time, two tries in three minutes from Ali Lauitiiti and Scott Donald put them in the box seat before further late scores handed them a 33-6 win.

There were further reasons for Smith to be cheerful as he landed Great Britain’s first series win in 14 years as they impressively whitewashed the Kiwis. Jamie Peacock and Gareth Ellis were in great form for Great Britain.

Sadly for everyone involved in Rugby League, the former Great Britain captain and Wigan coach, Mike Gregory, passed away after losing his four-year battle with a degenerative illness, caused by an insect bite.

2008
Under new coach, Brian McClennan, the Rhinos won possibly the most gripping World Club Challenge of them all as they beat the superstars of Melbourne 11-4. Their excellent form continued throughout the first half of the season as they lost only once at the midway stage.

But despite their excellent form, their Challenge Cup hoodoo continued as Saints beat them in a belting semi-final at Huddersfield to set up a final with Hull FC.

Hull had been woefully out of form all season and had replaced Australian coach Peter Sharp with his assistant, Richard Agar. They took the risk of fielding a underweight Richard Horne, whose diabetes hadn’t yet been detected and who was recovering from a serious neck injury. Horne played well but Saints were too strong and lifted yet another Challenge Cup.

The RFL announced the 14 successful Super League licence bids on live television and there was heartbreak for Widnes as they lost out to Welsh outfit Celtic Crusaders, who only entered the professional leagues in 2006. Salford were the other newcomers.

Saints clawed back Leeds’s lead at the top of the competition ladder to secure the Minor Premiership and they thrashed them 38-10 in the play-offs to reach Old Trafford. Again, Leeds beat Wigan to reach the final and, despite their underdog status again, they once again broke Saints’ hearts at Old Trafford to win 24-16. Brian McClennan became the eighth Super League coach to win the title in his first season in charge of the club.

England headed off to the World Cup in high spirits, confident that they could come back with the trophy. Smith was unbeaten as Great Britain or England coach, winning those three matches against New Zealand and two mid-season Tests against France.

But a tough opening game with Papua New Guinea suggested England had a huge amount of work to do and they failed to respond, going down 52-4 to Australia in Melbourne, 36-24 to New Zealand in Newcastle and 32-22 to the Kiwis again in the semi-finals. League fans seethed with outrage at the performances, which highlighted only too well that the British game continued to lag behind the NRL.

Another year ended tragically for the Rugby League community with news that Wakefield’s popular prop Adam Watene had collapsed and died during a gym session.

 

2009
Manly took the World Club Challenge trophy off British shores for the first time since 2003 by producing an excellent performance to beat Leeds 28-20; a scoreline which appeared to flatter the hosts.

Warrington were the early-season strugglers and soon brought in England boss Tony Smith to repair the damage. He didn’t exactly make an immediate impact but the improvements that he instilled came gradually throughout the year, culminating in a wonderful Challenge Cup triumph at Wembley. Adrian Morley and Lee Briers rolled back the years to help them get there and Michael Monaghan was magnificent in his new hooking role – he won the Lance Todd. Huddersfield were the beaten finalists, having accounted for St Helens in a wonderful semi-final display.

More devastating news emerged from the Wakefield camp as reserve-team player Adam Walker died during a match with Celtic Crusaders in Maesteg. But to their credit, the club not only coped strongly with the two deaths; they produced their best-ever Super League season to finish fifth. John Kear was named our coach of the season for his efforts.

In a mirror image of 2008, the Rhinos struggled for early-season form and defeat to Catalans in June was their fifth league defeat of the season. They had already exited the Cup, again to St Helens. But they soon found the consistency they were looking for, losing only once from mid-June until the end of the season, where they beat St Helens for a third time in the Super League Grand Final.

England went into the Four Nations looking to repair some of the damage caused by the World Cup and emerged with significant credit. Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins, the 20-year-olds who had enjoyed excellent seasons with St Helens and Wigan, formed an exciting halfback pairing for the do-or-die clash with New Zealand, a week after England had been thrashed by Australia at Wigan.

England sent the world champions packing and took an early lead in the final as Sam Burgess stormed through the Australian defence, side-stepped Billy Slater and scored under the posts. The Elland Road decider was a magnificent game, delicately poised with 20 minutes to go before the Kangaroos produced a wonderful final quarter, scoring a series of scintillating tries.

Greg Inglis emerged as the game’s latest superstar, picking up the Golden Boot at the end of the game. Tony Smith stepped down as England coach, leaving our international future clouded in the same uncertainty it had started the decade with.

 

A club-by-club guide to the highs and lows

Bradford
High: Their 12-match run of wins that culminated in the 2005 Grand Final win.
Low: The last minute of the 2002 Grand Final.

Castleford
High: Returning to Super League in 2008 and hammering rivals Leeds
Low: Relegation in 2004 saw the club embark on five years of uncertainty.

Catalans
High: The 2007 Challenge Cup semi-final against Wigan. Magnificent.
Low: Stacey Jones’s broken arm in their second-ever Super League game in 2006.

Crusaders
High: Winning a Super League licence.
Low: Their embarrassing move to Wrexham after the 2009 season.

Halifax
High: An early-season 24-16 win over Leeds in 2000.
Low: Their nightmare 2003 which saw them relegated with zero points.

Harlequins
High: As London Broncos, they finished fifth in 2003, a point behind Saints.
Low: The end of 2009 which saw them plummet down the table.

Huddersfield
High: Man of Steel night in 2009 when they scooped three major awards.
Low: Their absurd merger with Sheffield which saw them finish bottom in 2000.

Hull FC
High: The closing minutes of the 2005 Challenge Cup Final. Ecstasy.
Low: Losing Paul Cooke to Hull KR of all clubs.

Hull KR
High: Overtaking Hull FC as the city’s best team.
Low: The 2009 play-offs, which promised so much.

Leeds
High: The 2009 Grand Final, their third successive win.
Low: Failure to land a Challenge Cup in the noughties.

Leigh
High: Promotion via a thrilling Grand Final with Whitehaven.
Low: 2005. Hopelessly out of their depth.

St Helens
High: Being crowned the best team in sport by the BBC in 2006.
Low: The complacent performance in the 2002 Cup Final against Wigan.

Salford
High: Winning at Leeds in 2009.
Low: The 2007 home defeat to Hull KR left them staring relegation in the face.

Wakefield
High: Beating Castleford in Super League’s relegation shoot-out in 2006.
Low: The deaths of two players in a heartbreaking five-month period.

Warrington
High: The 2009 Challenge Cup final
Low: A home defeat to Castleford was a painful end to Paul Cullen’s reign.

Widnes
High: Beating bitter rivals Warrington three times in 2002.
Low: Missing out on a 2009 Super League licence.

Wigan
High: Murrayfield 2002.
Low: Being caught over the salary cap level not once, but twice.

 

The team of the decade

At the end of every Rugby League year, members of the Rugby League media in both hemispheres vote towards the World XIII, which is published in this magazine along with the top five players in each position.

Based on those ratings, the following players make the World XIII for the period 2000-2009.

 

1 Darren Lockyer (Australia)

2 Brian Carney (Great Britain & Ireland)

3 Keith Senior (Great Britain & England)

4 Nigel Vagana (New Zealand & Samoa)

5 Greg Inglis (Australia)

6 Trent Barrett (Australia)

7 Andrew Johns (Australia)

8 Shane Webcke (Australia)

9 Danny Buderus (Australia)

10 Adrian Morley (Great Britain & England)

11 Jamie Peacock (Great Britain & England)

12 Nathan Hindmarsh (Australia)

13 Brad Fittler (Australia)

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2010 Warrington v Wigan

Published in League Express in 2010

WARRINGTON WOLVES 20
WIGAN WARRIORS 22
The Halliwell Jones Stadium

 
WHAT a game!

A last-minute video-referee decision ultimately decided this magnificent game of Rugby League between two teams who have been widely tipped to break open the Leeds-St Helens stranglehold on Super League.

Whether either club does that remains to be seen, but the 34 players on display at the Halliwell Jones on Saturday night produced a wonderful spectacle that deserves to be remembered as one of the great Super League contests in its 14-and-a-bit-year history.

That late decision involved David Solomona who, with a minute left, was adjudged to have lost control of the ball in the act of scoring what would have been the winning try. Even after a couple of replays, the Wolves’ fans were jubilant, but the ‘No Try’ verdict which Phil Bentham delivered was spot on.

“He’s distraught in there, saying sorry to all his team-mates,” revealed Warrington’s coach, Tony Smith. “But it’s not all down to him and he’ll score plenty this year.

“It’s fine-line stuff sometimes, we were within a centimetre or two of snatching the victory. It’s not just down to one thing, we had a few opportunities. In the second half we didn’t perform the way we wanted to. We went a bit flat and allowed our opposition to get back into it.”

Smith’s men made the better start and forced Wigan to defend 18 consecutive tackles by forcing a couple of goal-line drop-outs. Lee Briers had obviously brought his kicking boots and was in the mood to ask Wigan questions all night on the last tackle.

Having defended their line so stoutly, Wigan broke away and stand-in fullback, Amos Roberts, posted a superb individual try. He broke through Ben Harrison’s tackle on the halfway line after taking Andy Coley’s pass, used Sam Tomkins as a foil, stepped past Matt King and arced away to the corner for a glorious score.

In truth, that score had come against the run of play and nine minutes later Warrington made their territorial advantage count as Michael Monaghan probed from dummy-half close to Wigan’s line and found Richie Myler, whose eye for the gap was as sharp as ever. Briers tagged on the goal to edge his side ahead by a couple of points.

They extended that lead in the 28th minute following a penalty which piggy-backed them downfield. With the Wigan defence stretched, Warrington moved the ball from left to right with a speed and crispness that saw them score in the corner courtesy of the prolific Chris Riley. In a flowing move, Bridge’s final pass to Riley, in particular, was a beauty.

Wigan countered immediately, aided by two penalties, but the home fans’ roar when the Warriors’ attack came to nothing was deafening. Warrington were well on top, and looked to have scored again, but Monaghan’s try was turned down by the video referee as he knocked on in trying to touch down Briers’ grubber.

They didn’t have too long to wait for the next try, though. The superb Solomona crashed over from Myler’s pass close to the line and the stand-off’s second conversion opened up a well-deserved 12-point buffer. They left the field at half-time to a standing ovation.

But Wigan’s coach, Michael Maguire, was confident his side to come back. “I told them at half-time to go back to what we’ve been practising and they did that.” He made it sound simple – it was anything but that.

They almost endured a nightmare start, however. Lee Mossop, otherwise so impressive this season, lost the ball straight from the kick off as he was smashed by Solomona and Simon Grix. On Warrington’s last tackle, Briers kicked for the former Bradford and Wakefield forward and touched down himself as the ball ricocheted back his way, but the try was ruled out by video ref Bentham who spotted a knock on from Solomona.

But that was Briers’ last significant contribution injury as he injured his left ankle with around half an hour still to play and had to be helped from the field, and within a couple of minutes the home side received a further blow when Wigan began their fightback with another try from the excellent Roberts, awarded by Bentham who judged that Martin Gleeson hadn’t impeded King. With Warrington’s talisman off the field, Wigan’s fans fancied their chances but Richards missed a very kickable goal and the deficit stayed at eight.

Before the Wolves touched the ball again, the Warriors had closed the gap further. A penalty gave them the field position to attack and Roberts’s jinking run foxed Warrington’s defence before he offloaded to the supporting Darrell Goulding who touched down. Richards’ touchline goal was a pearler and the gap was down to just two. Game on!

Wigan immediately broke downfield again with Carmont’s run but a relieved Warrington defence held out. But could it do so for another 19 minutes?

A cheap Wigan turnover and then a penalty gave them decent field position but they lacked Briers’s last-tackle direction and Wigan kept them out with relative ease. And the visitors were soon back on level terms as Richards potted an east penalty goal after Morley’s high tackle. Wigan were clearly on top and playing with a new-found vigour. The Wolves badly needed some inspiration.

But it was Wigan who immediately produced one of the plays of the night when Sam Tomkins, who had had a quiet game up to this point, chipped magnificently over the defence, regathered and freed Thomas Leuluai who sent Tomkins’ brother, Joel, to the line. Richards’ goal opened up a six-point gap in what was fast becoming the match of the season.

The Wolves re-introduced Solomona and badly needed one of his trademark pieces of skill to prise open a dominant Wigan side, but it was one of their other overseas stars, Monaghan, who kicked a 40-20. Sadly for them, the ball was lost on the first tackle by Bridge, although tryscorer Tomkins handed it straight back.

And how he was made to pay! Within moments, Louis Anderson crashed over from Richie Mathers’s pass to give stand-in kicker Chris Bridge the chance to level the scores ten metres from the touchline. The home fans cheered his seemingly goal-bound attempt but it faded agonisingly wide. Five left – Wigan still two in front.

Carmont saved Wigan’s bacon when he got a hand to Monaghan’s pass after the hooker had broke free, but after Sam Tomkins kicked weakly, Warrington were right back at them. And he kicked poorly again with just a couple of minutes left when his halfway-line kick went out on the full.

Warrington surged forward with the clock against them and on the last tackle Solomona appeared to have won the match as he crossed outwide. But after a couple of minutes’ deliberation, Bentham’s decision went against him. A relieved Tomkins clenched his fists in celebration.

There was still time for more! Adrian Morley hit Hansen with the mother of all bellringers and the former England Academy player did well to hold on to the ball. Wigan cleared, but Mathers and King set up one last attack. Monaghan’s kick, though, with seven seconds left on the clock, was too deep and was easily diffused by Richards.

Unbelievable stuff!

 
Albert Goldthorpe points:
3pts Andy Coley Wigan
2pts Amos Roberts Wigan
1pt David Solomona Warrington

Story of the game
9 Amos Roberts try, Pat Richards missed goal (0/1) 0-4
18 Richie Myler try, Lee Briers goal (1/1) 6-4
28 Chris Riley try, Lee Briers missed goal (1/2) 10-4
35 Michael Monaghan try disallowed by VR
37 David Solomona try, Lee Briers goal (2/3) 16-4
42 Lee Briers try disallowed by VR
52 Lee Briers injury
56 Amos Roberts try, Pat Richards missed goal (0/2) 16-8
59 Darrell Goulding try, Pat Richards goal (1/3) 16-14
67 Pat Richards penalty goal (2/4) 16-16
68 Joel Tomkins try, Pat Richards goal (3/5) 16-22
73 Louis Anderson try, Chris Bridge missed goal (0/1) 20-22
79 David Solomona try disallowed by VR

WOLVES
1 Richie Mathers
2 Chris Riley
4 Chris Bridge
23 Ryan Atkins
3 Matt King
6 Lee Briers
7 Richie Myler
8 Adrian Morley
9 Michael Monaghan
10 Garreth Carvell
11 Louis Anderson
12 Ben Westwood
13 Ben Harrison
Subs (all used)
14 Mickey Higham
16 Paul Wood
17 Simon Grix
26 David Solomona

 
WARRIORS
2 Amos Roberts
24 Darrell Goulding
3 Martin Gleeson
4 George Carmont
5 Pat Richards
6 Sam Tomkins
19 Paul Deacon
8 Stuart Fielden
7 Thomas Leuluai
15 Andy Coley
16 Harrison Hansen
14 Joel Tomkins
13 Sean O’Loughlin
Subs (all used)
14 Paul Prescott
16 Phil Bailey
17 Iafeta Paleaaesina
23 Lee Mossop

Penalty count: 10-9
GLDO forced: 2-0
Half-time: 16-4
Referee: Richard Silverwood
Attendance: 13,024

 
GAMEBREAKER: Paul Deacon replacing Thomas Leuluai at dummy-half transformed the Wigan attack.
GAMESTAR: Andy Coley, who captained Wigan for the first time, was immense up front.
TOP TACKLE: Adrian Morley’s monster hit on Harrison Hansen in the last minute was the sort of tackle he’s built a great career on.

Rugby Leaguer & League Express Men of the Match
Wolves: David Solomona
Warriors: Andy Coley

 

 

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2009 Huddersfield v St Helens, Challenge Cup semi-final

Published in League Express in 2009

ST HELENS 14
HUDDERSFIELD GIANTS 24
The Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington

  
HUDDERSFIELD Giants reached their tenth Challenge Cup final yesterday with a magnificent victory over Cup-holders and Super League leaders, St Helens. Their 24-14 triumph gives them their first visit to Wembley since 1962 and providing fitting reward for a magnificent season so far.

Twelve months ago, lying third last in Super League, only victory in the Carnegie Floodlit 9s, could provide them with any cheer. But after three-quarters of a season under the coaching of the affable Australian, Nathan Brown, their fortunes couldn’t be more contrasting.

With halfbacks Luke Robinson and Kevin Brown in magnificent form, the Giants provided a constant threat in attack. The two Hodgsons – Brett and David – as well as right winger Leroy Cudjoe, were just as incisive with ball in hand and their forwards laid a great platform. Defensively, Brett Hodgson was a rock, saving them twice in the first half by preventing Saints players from grounding the ball.

“We knew what a dangerous player he is,” lamented the St Helens coach, Mick Potter.

“I thought he was a major player for them today.”

Potter sprang a major surprise by including his champion hookers, Keiron Cuinningham and James Roby, both who had been doubtful with injury. Cunningham showed no ill-effects of the leg injury he had picked up against Wigan nine days earlier, playing well in his two spells on the field, but Roby was somewhat below par as he returned from a broken hand.

Sean Long, however, who was surprisingly named in the initial 19 during the week, missed out with Kyle Eastmond starting at scrum-half.

Giants coach, Nathan Brown, had the luxury of picking from a near full-strength squad, with no recent injuries disrupting his preparation.

The Giants were the first to threaten when Robinson made a wonderful break and fed the supporting Brett Hodgson who sent Jamahl Lolesi away but Saints’ centre Chris Dean saved a try with a wonderful tackle.

Far from being disappointed, the Giants continued to attack and made another break with Cudjoe surging down the right. He drew his opposite number and fed his captain Hodgson, supporting on the inside as ever, who scored ten metres to the right of the posts. But the tryscorer missed the relatively easy kick.

The Giants were well on top with Saints struggling to stop them making significant metres.

They eventually found their way into Giants’ territory thanks to a Darrell Griffin chargedown which gave them consecutive sets. A penalty followed and Francis Meli scored on their 18th consecutive tackle out on the left. It was against the run of play but a team as good as Saints require few invitations to reassert their authority.

Saints continued in the ascendancy but a superb ball-and-all tackle by Cudjoe on Wellens halted another attack.

Roby replaced Cunningham who had put in an excellent 25-minute spell. He broke a tackle immediately and Saints forced a goalline drop-out with an Eastmond kick to the corner.

Leon Pryce then crossed but video referee, Ian Smith, ruled that Brett Hodgson had held him up.

The Giants badly needed a foothold in the game and they got it four minutes before the break.

Brown broke down the left, freed Whatuira who shipped the ball onto the galloping Stephen Wild who scored down the left. Hodgson curled in an impressive conversion ten metres in from touch and, having been under the cosh for at least 20 minutes, the Giants led by six.

Late in the first half, Hodgson was still in the thick of the action; firstly, taking a superb catch to diffuse a steepling bomb but then kicking out on the full from the halfway, handing Saints cheap possession. He then knocked on near his own line.

From the scrum, the electric Eastmond broke away and dummied his was to the line with a scintillating run. But the former New South Wales Origin fullback managed to hold him up.

But, dramatically, there was still time for Lee Gilmour to further employ the video referee, who was called upon for the fourth time in the half. But Smith disallowed the try for a double movement, bringing a tremendous half to a close.

If that was exciting, the second half started in the most sensational fashion. Andrew Dixon, the Saints’ substitute, fumbled the kick off and from the scrum, Brown kicked enterprisingly to the corner on the first tackle. His delivery was perfect and Cudjoe slammed the ball down in front of the delirious travelling Yorkshiremen.

Hodgson pushed his goal disappointingly wide but the Giants led by ten. Would the skipper be punished for his one-third conversion rate so far?

But perhaps they wouldn’t need his kicks as the Giants brought the house down with another try.

Eorl Crabtree broke through a Paul Clough tackle just before he was replaced, bringing to a close a superb spell on the field. Moments later Robinson kicked high to the left-hand corner where David Hodgson challenged for the ball with Gardner. The ball squirmed free to Brown who gathered and touched down. But Hodgson missed another goal.

Would Cunningham’s re-entrance re-awaken the Cup kings? The immediate answer was an emphatic ‘yes’.

Coming out of defence, on the last tackle, and still in their own half, they fired the ball to the left where Gilmour kicked ahead. The ball ricocheted to Wilkin who sent Meli to the posts on an arcing run. Saints were back and Eastmond reduced the arrears further by tagging on the simple conversion.

The gap was back to eight. Was that enough of a cushion for the meanest defence in Super League?

With Cunningham and Eastmond in great form, they attacked again but this time Eastmond’s teasing kick was knocked on in the air by Pryce close to the line.

Saints then received consecutive penalties on the Giants’ line. From the second, Eastmond scampered over but Silverwood hadn’t restarted the game.

Sixteen minutes remained, the Giants led by eight and the tension was close to breaking point.

But it was relieved beautifully by the Giants’ matchwinning score. Brett Hodgson, shaping to kick, dummied and broke through and, calmness personified, he kicked ahead for Wild to score. Ian Smith gave the nod, sending the Giants to Wembley for the first time in 47 years.

There was still time for Meli’s second try late on but nothing was going to silence the celebrating legions of Huddersfield fanatics.

“The end result is very exciting for everyone involved in the club,” said a delighted Brown who has now reached his first final in a decade of first-grade coaching.

“It’s the first time for the club in nearly 50 years.

“Our ability to stop them scoring [was a factor]. Our defence was pretty good against a very good side.

“Brett Hodgson’s obviously a quality player and he came up with the quality play to put the game out of reach. Everyone on the field, in some way, contributed.”

 

Story of the game

6 Brett Hodgson try, Brett Hodgson missed goal (0/1) 0-4
13 Francis Meli try, Kyle Eastmond missed goal (0/1) 4-4
27 Leon Pryce try disallowed by video ref
37 Stephen Wild try, Brett Hodgson goal (1/2) 10-4
39 Kyle Eastmond try disallowed by video ref
40 Lee Gilmour try disallowed by video ref
41 Leroy Cudjoe try, Brett Hodgson missed goal (1/3) 14-4
51 Kevin Brown try, Brett Hodgson missed goal (1/4) 18-4
55 Francis Meli try, Kyle Eastmond goal (1/2) 18-10
75 Stephen Wild try, Brett Hodgson goal (2/5) 24-10
77 Francis Meli try, Kyle Eastmond missed goal (1/3) 24-14

SAINTS
1 Paul Wellens
2 Ade Gardner
3 Matt Gidley
19 Chris Dean
5 Francis Meli
6 Leon Pryce
18 Kyle Eastmond
10 James Graham
9 Keiron Cunningham
16 Tony Puletua
13 Chris Flannery
12 Jon Wilkin
11 Lee Gilmour
Subs (all used)
17 Paul Clough
14 James Roby
15 Bryn Hargreaves
24 Andrew Dixon

 
GIANTS
1 Brett Hodgson
21 Leroy Cudjoe
11 Jamahl Lolesi
4 Paul Whatuira
5 David Hodgson
3 Kevin Brown
7 Luke Robinson
16 Keith Mason
20 Scott Moore
10 Darrell Griffin
13 Stephen Wild
6 Liam Fulton
9 David Faiumu
Subs (all used)
24 Shaun Lunt
8 Eorl Crabtree
15 Paul Jackson
18 Danny Kirmond

Rugby Leaguer & League Express Men of the Match
Saints: Keiron Cunningham
Giants: Brett Hodgson

Penalty count: 8-11
GLDO forced: 2-0
40-20: 0-0
Half-time: 4-10
Referee: Richard Silverwood
Attendance: 10,638

GAMEBREAKER: Only when Stephen Wild scored late on did the Giants know they were at Wembley.
GAMESTAR: Brett Hodgson was superb in defence and came up with many of the Giants’ big plays in attack.
TOP TACKLE: Chris Dean prevented an early Jamahl Lolesi score with a great trysaver.

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2003 Great Britain v Australia, 1st Test

Published in Thirteen in 2005

First Ashes Test 2003
Great Britain v Australia
Wigan, November 8th

12th-Second Red Card costs GB

You convince yourself all season that this is the year we’ll beat the Aussies, and twelve seconds into the first Test, Britain’s best forward is sent back to the changing rooms for a high tackle on Robbie Kearns. Nightmare!

Few would have predicted that one of the great Test matches would follow as the hosts attempted to win their third Test match since 1989 after having a man sent off. Steve Hampson also went in the first minute that year against the Kiwis and five years later, Shaun Edwards was marched for a high shot on Bradley Clyde.

Morley had been in magnificent form for Sydney Roosters and his defensive ferocity had led them to back to back Grand Finals and had pundits like Peter Sterling labelling him the best forward in the world. Morley had been impressive against the Australians in 1997 and 1999 but had missed the 2001 Ashes series though injury. Neither was he fully fit during the 2000 World Cup, had also had to sit out the one off test match in Sydney in 2002 and had under performed against the Kiwis later that year so Morley had a point to prove.

And didn’t he try to prove it?! The opening kick off of the entire series hung in the air and in the blink of an eye, Morley hit the Melbourne prop like a train. The crowd rose to their feet to cheer a huge hit. It had happened so quickly that no one seemed to question its legality. What did for Morley was the fact that Kearns needed treatment and during the break the fourth official in the stands had time to study the incident and advise referee Steve Ganson that Morley should see red. This was the most sensational possible start to a test match and even the stoniest of hearts couldn’t have felt for Morley as the big screen showed him in tears in the changing room.

Under the circumstances, Britain’s subsequent performance was of the highest order; perhaps better than some of their past wins over the old enemy, bearing in mind the circumstances. The record book shows a defeat but it took a late Australian try to seal the match, something that would become a recurring theme through the series. Phil Bailey scored Australia’s opening try when he ran onto a great long pass from the mercurial Darren Lockyer. Brian Carney struck back for Great Britain moments later with Sean Long failing to convert after missing a sitter of a penalty goal earlier.

Lockyer engineered Australia’s second try when his grubber kick was collected by Trent Waterhouse to score on his debut. Craig Gower again missed with the conversion as Australia went into half time leading 8-4.

Great Britain struck immediately after half time when Keith Senior got on the outside of Phil Bailey from a scrum base to score as Michael Crocker spent 10 minutes in the sin bin for fighting. Long finally nailed a conversion to put Great Britain up 10-8 and added a penalty goal to push the lead out to 12-8.

Brett Kimmorley ran the ball on the last from dummy half close to the line and picked up Gower with a brilliant flat pass to score a decisive try. Fitzgibbon was spot on with the conversion to push the Kangaroos in front.

Gower messed up from the kick off and from the field position Carney scored his second try, after much perusal from the video referee. Substitute Paul Deacon converted from the sideline to give Great Britain a lead of 18-14 with less than ten minutes to go. One of test football’s most famous results was on the cards.

However, Australia once again ran the ball on the last tackle where Lockyer put Craig Wing into the clear with the inspirational Australian captain backing up on the inside to score the match-winner. Fitzgibbon converted and added a late penalty goal for the 22-18 victory.

Morley escaped a suspension and redeemed himself instantly in the second test at Hull by providing a miracle ball out of the tackle on the try line for Terry Newton to score but, despite a comfortable first half lead, Great Britain were beaten and the Ashes were gone for another year. The third Test merely rubbed salt into the wounds as Australia scored 12 points in the last four minutes to win 18-12 and complete a whitewash.

All three games had been absolute classics, with Australia only scoring 13 more points over the three games.

 
Great Britain 18 (Carney 2 & Senior tries. Long 2 & Deacon goals)
Australia 22 (Bailey, Waterhouse, Gower & Lockyer tries. Fitzgibbon 3 goals)

 
Great Britain: Radlinski, Carney, Connolly, Senior, Horne, Sculthorpe, Long, Fielden, Newton, Morley, Peacock, Farrell, Forshaw. Subs: Anderson, McDermott, Deacon, Gilmour

Australia: Lockyer, Hegarty, Bailey, Wing, Minichiello, Gower, Kimmorley, Webcke, Buderus, Kearns, Fitzgibbon, Simpson, Ricketson. Subs: Civoniceva, Waterhouse, Mason, Crocker

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2000 Wales v Australia, World Cup semi-final

Published in Rugby League World in 2008

2000 World Cup semi-final
Wales 22
Australia 46
McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield

“Did we believe we could win? Probably not but we knew we could give them a fright and it was one of the proudest days of my career,” – Lee Briers

For nearly an hour, this game shaped up to be the biggest Rugby League shock of all time.
Wales were beating Australia. And at one point in a crazy first half, they were 12 points to the good.
They had three players who had gone to rugby union in their 17 – Jason Critchley, Paul Moriarty and John Devereux. The latter two hadn’t played Rugby League for five years! They also fielded three players from the Northern Ford Premiership – scrum-half Ian Watson, loose forward Chris Morley and big David Luckwell on the bench.
Yet, they took on the seemingly invincible Aussies and gave them the fright of their lives just 24 hours after England had been absolutely humiliated 49-6 by New Zealand.
England’s hammering had typified a tournament that failed to live up to expectations. Poor crowds and atrocious weather had seen the competition largely derided in the media. Surely Wales couldn’t do much to lift people’s spirits?
Well, they did plenty. In a mad ten minute spell in the first half – possibly the most sensational ten minutes in international Rugby League history – they posted three tries before Lee Briers booted two long-range drop goals; all this after Brett Kimmorely and Wendall Sailor had scored early tries to give Australia a totally unsurprising 8-0 lead.
Firstly, Watson took an Anthony Farrell offload to score by the posts with Iestyn Harris goaling. Then, unbelievably, they had the temerity to take the lead when Kris Tassell – an Australian himself – picked up a long Briers ball to score outwide, with Harris converting again.
Then, in the 23rd minute, Harris hoisted a huge bomb and Briers timed his run and jump to perfection to beat an astonished Lockyer to the ball and swallow dive over the line, leaving Harris with a simple goal.
Wales were 20-8 up and the 8,114 crowd could scarsely believe what they were witnessing, although Brad Fittler pulled a try back in the 28th minute to cut the deficit to six points at the break.
Iestyn Harris kicked the first points of the second half, meaning Australia were two scores behind once again and the Welsh bravely clung onto that lead until the 54th minute when Bryan Fletcher twisted over iin Moriarty’s tackle to score.
But it wasn’t until the 57th minute that the Aussies finally took the lead with Darren Lockyer scoring. Minutes later, Fittler added his second and further tries to Lockyer, Craig Gower and Ben Kennedy gave the Kangaroos a 46-22 win and a place in the final to play Frank Endacott’s Kiwis.
A number of the Welsh were magnificent, not least Briers who, according to League Express, “was simply outstanding in a wonderful effort by his side, producing a memorable try in an astonishing first half.”
Briers himself added later: “Did we believe we could win? Probably not but we knew we could give them a fright and it was one of the proudest days of my career,” he said. “The togetherness and spirit in the team was fantastic. It was a special day despite the eventual defeat.
“I’ve just read Iestyn Harris’s book and he likened the Welsh to a club side. I certainly thought that when I came into the set-up. We didn’t have many players to choose from so there’s continuity there. England have so many to choose from that they sometimes struggle for the continuity and camaraderie which is massive in sport. It’s there straight away with Wales.”
Wales may not have actually done the impossible and beaten Australia, but on that cold Sunday night in Huddersfield they lit up the World Cup.

Wales: Iestyn Harris, Chris Smith, Kris Tassell, Jason Critchley, Anthony Sullivan, Lee Briers, Ian Watson, Anthony Farrell, Keiron Cunningham, Paul Moriarty, Justin Morgan, Paul Highton, Chris Morley. Subs: Wes Davies, Paul Atcheson, John Devereux, David Luckwell

Australia: Darren Lockyer, Adam MacDougall, Ryan Girdler, Matt Gidley, Wendall Sailor, Brad Fittler, Brett Kimmorley, Shane Webcke, Craig Gower, Michael Vella, Gorden Tallis, Bryan Fletcher, Scott Hill. Subs: Trent Barrett, Robbie Kearns, Ben Kennedy, Nathan Hindmarsh

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1999 Leeds v Castleford, Super League play-offs

Published in Rugby League World in 2009

Leeds Rhinos 16
Castleford Tigers 23
Friday 24th September 1999
Play-offs – Elimination Semi-Final

1999 was a great year to be a Castleford Tigers supporter.
Easily their best season in the summer era, Cas were a minute away from getting to Wembley and one game away from making Old Trafford. The club also provided Super League with its Man of Steel; Adrian Vowles, a likeable Queenslander who – someone once said – gave the impression that he was held together with plasters.
Coach Stuart Raper was the man who made everything possible. Son of Johnny – one of Australia’s seven ‘Immortals’ – and brother of hooker Aaron, Raper came to Wheldon Road with the club in crisis in 1997. With relegation very much on the cards, Raper turned the season around spectacularly. The Tigers even won at champions Bradford in the top-eight play-offs of the old Premiership competition.
1998 saw more improvement, underlined by a memorable Challenge Cup run that started with a last-minute Andrew Schick try knocking out Leeds at Headingley on Valentine’s Day, before Bradford – remember Shaun Edwards’ brief and unhappy spell there? – were given the same treatment in the fifth round. The Cup run was ended by eventual-winners Sheffield in the quarter-finals; the game when Keith Senior floored Barrie-Jon Mather with one of Rugby League’s more infamous punches.
Steady progress was being made under Raper but no-one expected us to push so closely for honours in what turned out to be a wonderful 1999 campaign. Hull, York and Salford were put to the sword in the Cup meaning that Cas were in the semi-final where they met London Broncos. Unfortunately, a last-gasp Steele Retchless try handed the game to the southerners in one of the finest-ever matches in Challenge Cup history. Having looked certain to win with just minutes remaining, the defeat was agonising and Dean Sampson’s distraught reaction at full-time, captured by BBC cameras, summed up the mood of the whole town.
But there was still the league to concentrate on, as they say. The Tigers found themselves in third on a couple of occasions, sometimes fourth before ending in fifth, the last of the play-off places, one place above Gateshead Thunder in their one-and-only Super League campaign. The highlight for Cas in the regular season was probably a league double over reigning champions Wigan with Danny Orr crossing twice in the Wheldon Road match up. Thirty matches brought about 19 wins and three draws.
Finishing fifth, no-one gave Cas a prayer in the play-offs. Surely they were cannon fodder for fourth-place Wigan, in a game which was to be the first-ever game of Rugby League played at the JJB Stadium. But Raper had other ideas – one of which was to make his squad watch videos of Canterbury’s incredible run from ninth (yes, ninth!) to the NRL Grand Final the year before.
It worked. Against the odds, Wigan’s team of stars were humbled 14-10 on their own turf as the Tigers set up a dream date at Leeds, their biggest rivals, on the ground where Retchless had so ruthlessly had broken Cas hearts six months earlier.
The Rhinos had already won the Challenge Cup and were keen to send coach Graham Murray back to Australia with a Super League winner’s ring as well. They were also saying farewell to Brad Godden and Marc Glanville while, conversely, Keith Senior was making just his second appearance for the club. Before the game, Ronnie The Rhino held up a sign taunting Wigan’s absence, but 80 glorious minutes later, the joke wouldn’t seem quite as funny to the Southstanders.
The game started wonderfully for the visitors as 11 minutes yielded 12 points for Cas. Dean Sampson broke through to set up a Michael Eagar try which Orr conveted for a 6-0 lead after seven minutes. Then, with the fans still celebrating behind the sticks, Aaron Raper kicked a superb 40-20 and then laid on a brilliant flat ball for Adrian Vowles to score. Orr goaled and Cas’s fans were in heaven.
The game calmed down after its whirlwind start and the only other scores in the half were a penalty to each side.
The second half saw Leeds come back – but only after the Tigers controversially had a try disallowed. The second Barrie McDermott mistake in as many minutes saw Orr swoop on the loose ball and race 70 metres to score. Ref Stuart Cummings wrongly ruled that a Cas hand had freed the ball. To intensify the sense of injustice, Leeds got the penalty for offside and Iestyn Harris reduced the arrears to 4-14.
After another Orr penalty for a McDermott infringement, Francis Cummins scored two very similar tries in the left-hand corner in a five-minute spell which nearly blew the roof off the South Stand. Both were converted magnificently by Harris to break Lewis Jones’s record for goals in a season at Headingley. 16-16, with 14 minutes to go, and the ‘smart’ money was on Leeds.
But the South Stand’s gloating was promptly ruined by another McDermott knock on. Then Andy Hay was offside but Orr missed the goal. The incident at least halted Leeds’s momentum.
Man of the match Aaron Raper then halted it further. In the 73rd minute, he kicked a drop goal to inch the Tigers a point ahead at 16-17. With time against them, Leeds then went for the short kick off, Morley tapped it back but McDermott knocked on.
Soon after Darren Rogers kicked ahead and regathered but Paul Sterling raced back to knock down the inside pass to Eagar five metres from the line. It was a smart enough play, made even more amazing given that Sterling’s left eye was closed. How could he have even seen the ball to save the try?
But the Tigers didn’t have to wait long for their clinching try. A Keith Senior knock on turned the ball over, and on the next play, Aussie second-rower Dale Fritz saw that Lee Jackson had come up too quickly and went through the gap to score his first try of the year. Orr’s goal gave Cas an unassailable seven-point lead and a trip to Knowsley Road, one win away from Old Trafford.
After that Raper was taken off and kissed by his coach and brother, Stuart, for his wonderful performance. In his 80 seconds on the pitch, Fijian prop James Pickering managed to get himself into a fight with a frustrated Godden in his last Leeds appearance.
Fritz’s last try had been two years earlier in the Australian Super League for Perth Western Reds against Hunter Mariners – who were coached by Graham Murray! And, of course, it had been Cas who had beaten Leeds at Headingley in the Challenge Cup in Murray’s first game in charge. His last, against the same opposition, must have hurt even more and his last act as coach was to have a post-match pop at Cummings. But in fairness, Murray deserved better – he had presided over a superb two seasons at Headingley and successfully constructed a platform for future Rhinos success in Super League.
So Cas went to St Helens but couldn’t raise themselves for a third-straight week. Ellery Hanley’s team beat them 36-6 en route to a stunning Old Trafford success against Minor Premiers Bradford. Kevin Iro’s try secured a famous 8-6 win.
Castleford were Super League’s ‘Club of the Year’ in 1999 and, until Wigan in 2007, they were the only side finishing outside the top three to make a serious impact on the Super League play-offs.
Ten years on, Cas have put together another excellent side. Can McGoldrick, Sherwin, Westerman, Owen and Shenton et al have the Tigers’ faithful dreaming as they did ten years ago?

Leeds: Harris; Sterling, Senior, Godden, Cummins; Powell, Sheridan; Masella, Speak, Fleary; Morley, Farrell, Glanville. Subs: Jackson, McDermott, Hay, St Hilaire

Castleford: Flowers; Gay, Maloney, Eagar, Rogers; Orr, Davis; Sampson, Raper, Sykes, Harland, Fritz, Vowles. Subs: Tonks, Hepi, Pickering, Wells

Half-time: 2-14. Attendance: 16,912. Referee: Stuart Cummings

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1998 Warrington v Bradford

Published in Thirteen in 2005

Super League III
7 June 1998
Warrington Wolves 28
Bradford Bulls 10

Champions Bradford Bulls came to Wilderspool after eight games of the 1998 season already six points ahead of the Wolves. There had been some warning signs that they wouldn’t have things all their own way that year, as they had had in the 1997 Super League campaign, most notably being thrashed at home to Leeds on Easter Sunday and suggestions that signing Shaun Edwards wasn’t gelling with his team mates o or off the field.

Still, it seemed that a game against Warrington would provide them with two points especially as the Wire had, a week earlier, lost embarrassingly to the previously winless Huddersfield by 22 points. Warrington had also lost their first four Super League games.

The Wolves were in something of a rut, stuck in between the mid 1990s, when the young talent of Iestyn Harris and Paul Sculthorpe generated talk of silverware, largely from Sky’s Mike Stephenson who predicted a league championship in the 1995/96 Centenary Season, and the days of Allan Langer and Tawera Nikau; two glorious signings that were still eighteen months away. Whilst they didn’t challenged for a play off position in the thirs Super League season, they had a squad which was good enough to keep them from the foot of the table and provide difficult tests for visiting teams at Wilderspool.

There was no better example of this that than the game against the Bulls although a Tevita Vaikona try after a minute seemed to suggest otherwise. Bradford were without James Lowes but the Wire had playmaking problems of their own with the inexperienced John Duffy at scrum half, instead of the injured Lee Briers. It was perhaps inevitable that Bradford would target Duffy and, indeed, Graeme Bradley did just that; being sent off for an incident 15 minutes from half time. The Bulls were winning at this point but not for much longer.

Six minutes later they had scored two tries. Steve McCurrie broke through some weak goal line defending for the first and, to mark his 400th appearance for the club, Mark Forster scored in the corner from a Danny Farrar offload. Forster had led the teams out and had been presented with a pair of golden boots prior to the kick off in recognition of his feat. Matt Calland reduced the deficit for the 12-man Bulls but, on the stroke of half-time, the outstanding Farrar set up another try for Forster, this time from a kick, to give the home fans an eight point lead and genuine belief that this was to be their day.

The Bulls’ anticipated second half comeback didn’t materialise. They turned the ball over from the kick off and a gleeful Mike Wainwright extended their lead further. They made a token effort to get back into the game but Michael Eagar sealed an emphatic win when finishing a move created by Ian Knott and Duffy with just over a quarter of an hour remaining.

The win was the highlight of the season for the club. They went on to win only one from the next nine and ended a disappointing campaign in tenth place; only above Salford and the largely dreadful Huddersfield.

However, over 6,000 punters went home happy and even in a poor campaign the Wire had beaten the Champions.

Warrington: Lee Penny, Chris Rudd, Toa Kohe-Love, Michael Eagar, Mark Forster, Jonathan Roper, John Duffy, Gary Chambers, Danny Farrar, Danny Nutley, Steve McCurrie, Chris Morley, Mike Wainwright. Subs: Ian Knott, Warren Stevens, Mark Hilton & Jason Roach.

Bradford: Stuart Spruce, Tevita Vaikona, Graeme Bradley, Matt Calland, Abi Ekoku, Robbie Paul, Shaun Edwards, Bernard Dwyer, Nathan Graham, Brian McDermott, Sonny Nickle, Mike Forshaw, Steve McNamara. Subs: Jon Scales, Jeremy Donougher, Tahi Reihana & Andy Hodgson.

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