Written by Zack Wilson
As the year comes to an end, Zack Wilson takes a personal look back at six things that pleased him in rugby league in 2018.
International rugby league remains the best hope for our struggling sport. The only way that rugby league can hope to be anything like a global sport in the future is for our international game to grow and spread to as many countries as possible. While Tonga’s development was largely the result of chance, and was entirely reliant on prominent heritage players jumping ship, it at least triggered the kind of explosion of interest that the international game has needed for years. Jamaica also managed to qualify for the 2021 World Cup. There are bright spots all over the world, now they need to be built on.
For international rugby league to be strong and able to generate big TV deals and plenty of coverage, it needs good teams at the top. For too long England have been mediocre. Under the coaching of Wayne Bennett, the English team has rediscovered steeliness and ruthlessness, and now looks like a team that can grind out victories when things are tough. The Third Test defeat to the Kiwis showed that work still remains, but England are definitely on the up.
It might seem strange to celebrate something that is not actually going to happen until 2020, but the announcement that Shaun Edwards was going to return to the 13-man code as Wigan coach was a big thing for rugby league in the UK. Edwards is one of the few rugby league personalities who has a national profile in Britain, thanks to his extensive and successful coaching career in rugby union. He was also part of the last generation of RL players to really achieve any kind of nationwide celebrity. As things build towards him taking on his Wigan role in 2020, we can expect the press coverage and interest in our game to build significantly.
Another highlight in 2019 was seeing so many domestic English players start to show real quality at Super League level. The likes of Chris Atkin and Robbie Mulhern at Hull KR, Danny Richardson and Luke Thompson at St Helens, Jake Connor at Hull FC, Tom Johnstone at Wakefield Trinity, a whole heap of Wigan players, and many more scattered throughout Super League was genuinely heartening, and offers up plenty of hope for the future of the game.
France has been the sleeping giant of rugby league for too long. But in 2018 there were signs at last that the sport was experiencing a long-overdue revival in L’Hexagone. Catalans Dragons won the Challenge Cup, of course, bringing plenty of attention to their region, and even parading the trophy over the border in Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Toulouse were strong again too, with players like Paul Marcon making an impact at international level too. Surely it cannot be long until we have French derbies in Super League now. The only cloudy spot was the non-event of an international against England. This needs to become a proper annual event again, and its scheduling and venue need to be properly sorted. If we can get that right, our game in France can become a beacon in continental Europe once again.
Many lower league clubs in England are badly run, continually experience financial issues, struggle to attract crowds and offer very little in terms of player development. None of those things are true about Coventry Bears. Operating in Warwickshire and the West Midlands, an area where rugby union has a significant working-class following, the Bears have been able to attract decent crowds of between three and four hundred, attendances which have grown from around the 250 mark early in the season. They have also developed players from the local area and from other non-traditional rugby league areas, such as Ireland, with Peter Ryan starring for the team in 2018. The Bears are a model for how expansion should work, and anyone wanting to achieve anything similar should make sure they take a look at them.
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