Rugby league 2011
It was the year of the Rhino in Super League, while Australia once again ruled the international roost. We take a look back at the last 12 months...
By Rob Lancaster
Last Updated: 27/12/11 10:47pm
To borrow a phrase from a wise man I once saw on television, the 2011 rugby league year was "nothing short of sensational".
It is hard to think we've seen a better Super League season - Warrington and Wigan were the two frontrunners in the regular season, only to fail to make it to the Grand Final. Instead it was once again St Helens and Leeds who met, something few would have predicted at the start of the campaign.
Catalans Dragons, rejuvenated under the leadership of coach Trent Robinson, Huddersfield and Castleford, inspired by Man of Steel Rangi Chase, all provided sparkling moments for their fans, though it wasn't all rosy.
Both Crusaders and Wakefield were deducted points for entering administration, while the Welsh club shocked their players, supporters and probably those at RFL headquarters when they pulled out of the running for a new three-year licence on the eve of the announcement.
As for the international game, England's Four Nations campaign again raised hope but there was that familiar disappointment in the end, Australia crushing them at Elland Road to take the trophy back from New Zealand's grasp and give skipper Darren Lockyer the perfect send-off.
England had also lost out in their mid-summer match against the Exiles, the International Origin a successful new idea that saw Super League's best overseas stars come together to face Steve McNamara's side. The only disappointment was the booing of Sam Tomkins by the crowd.
Down Under, Manly were crowned NRL champions and then quickly saw their coach, Des Hasler, depart in controversial circumstances. The State of Origin series did not disappoint, New South Wales and Queensland turning in three classics before Lockyer was left with the trophy at his beloved Suncorp.
Team of the Year - Leeds Rhinos
It's tough to imagine even the most loyal of Leeds fans believing 2011 would end up as the year of the Rhino, particularly after a mixed start to the campaign. When they were comprehensively beaten by Catalans Dragons as late as the middle of July, Leeds looked in danger of missing out on the play-offs completely, and the pressure appeared to be growing on coach Brian McDermott. Instead, though, they would go on to lose just once more in Super League, defying the logic that home advantage matters in the post season by triumphing away at both Huddersfield and Warrington, who had finished as minor premiers but came up short when it mattered the most. Leeds, in contrast, came on strong in the closing stages from almost nowhere, meaning a St Helens side who had once again done marvellously well to overcome injury problems were left as bridesmaids for a fifth straight year. It's easy to forget that the Rhinos reached the Challenge Cup final too, putting up a brave fight before going down to Wigan, who made sure Michael Maguire would claim a trophy in each of his years at the DW Stadium, in a Wembley thriller that the competition desperately needed.
Player of the Year - Kevin Sinfield
While Leeds were the only real choice to be named team of the year, there were plenty of candidates to be picked out as the top player. Sam Tomkins provided a raft of highlight-reel moments during a campaign that saw him top the try-scoring charts and while James Roby may not grab the headlines quite as much, he was just as effective for Saints - he had 778 runs out of dummy half, more than twice as many as the next player on the list. Both players were pipped by Rangi Chase in the battle to be crowned Man of Steel, but the influential Castleford half-back has missed out on our award. Instead Kevin Sinfield gets the nod, the Rhinos captain having led from the front with class and style during a real topsy-turvy season for his club. Sinfield made a smooth progression from the pack to stand-off, a position he ended up filling for both club and country, and was instrumental in Leeds' unlikely run to the title - it was his last-gasp penalty against Warrington that booked his team yet another trip to Old Trafford. Throw in a golden-point winner against Castleford in a Challenge Cup semi-final and it's fair to say Sinfield has nerves of steel.
Young Player of the Year - Jonny Lomax
Another catergory with a long list of contenders, but it's Jonny Lomax that ends up coming out on top. At the start of 2011 the 21-year-old might have expected to play a supporting role with St Helens, particularly with Leon Pryce and Kyle Eastmond seen as the starting half-backs. But he ended the Super League season as first-choice scrum-half next to fellow youngster Lee Gaskill, suggesting Saints won't miss the departed Pryce (who has moved to Perpignan to become a Dragon) and Eastmond (now in the 15-man code with Bath) at all in 2012. Lomax is recognisable for more than just his scrum cap - he is a serious danger to opponents with ball in hand and is always willing to attack the line. Having signed a new long-term contract Lomax is set to be a cornerstone for Saints for years and years to come, while international recognition is now surely only just around the corner. Zak Hardaker stood up tall for Leeds in their play-off run, while Josh Charnley was another back to impress. A word too for Castleford's collection of young talent, including hooker Adam Milner and backs Daryl Clark and Joe Arundel. In truth, every club seemed to discover fresh faces, suggesting the future of the game is in good health.
Moment of the Year - Burrow's Grand Final try
It is tempting to pick out Darren Lockyer's quite-dreadful conversion attempt that proved to be the last kick of his career, just because it shows he is human after all. Instead, though, let me eulogise over my favourite try of the Super League season - Rob Burrow's moment of individual brilliance in the Grand Final. Having found himself in the role of a super-sub for Leeds in the second half of the season, 'Beep Beep' came off the bench and duly beep beeped right down the middle at Old Trafford, ducking under the first line of Saints' defence before rounding last-man Paul Wellens and galloping away to the line for a score that will live long in the memory. It was a moment of sheer magic on the biggest of stages, one that saw him become the first player to win the Harry Sunderland Award twice.
Lowlight - Seeing Sam Tomkins playing for the Barbarians
It's not that Tomkins played badly against Australia at Twickenham, in fact he did remarkably well considering he'd admitted to never playing the 15-man code before in his life (My favourite quote of the year came in his post-match interview - "Where I am from people don't know what rugby union is and I am glad I have had the chance to play, but I am still a rugby league player"). The disappointment was that it seems inevitable now that Tomkins will one day be plying his trade in union, particularly with older brother Joel having already crossed codes. He has signed a new deal with the Warriors that will mean he can't even talk to a union club for another three years, so league fans should make the most of a once-in-a-generation talent while he's still around. Losing him to the NRL would be bad enough, but another big name crossing the divide? It's a worrying thought for the 13-man game.
Best Performance - England flatten KiwisIn a battle for the chance to meet Australia in the Four Nations Final, England turned in their best performance in a long while to resoundly defeat New Zealand 28-6. Both teams had lost to the Kangaroos and beaten Wales, meaning it was a winner-takes-all showdown at the KC Stadium. England did not disappoint the majority of the sell-out crowd, scoring four tries to one to topple the reigning champions. The Kiwis did not take kindly to losing, with Jeremy Smith and Isaac Luke both lucky to escape anything more than being placed on report for dangerous challenges on Sam Tomkins and Rangi Chase respectively. In the end, a 70-metre score from home-town hero Tom Briscoe put England clear, with James Graham sealing the win with a try from close range in the final few minutes.
Year to remember - Rangi Chase
Chase couldn't quite get Castleford into the play-offs, the Tigers losing a final-week thriller away to Hull KR, the team they were fighting it out with for eighth place in a contender for the game of the season. Still, the half-back was rewarded for his efforts, which included getting his team to the brink of the Challenge Cup final too, by being crowned Man of Steel. The award came on the same day he was selected for England, a nation he had played against for both the New Zealand Maoris and the International Exiles in the last 12 months. McNamara's decision to pick him was controversial, several ex players had their say on the matter, but Chase showed his commitment to the cause by nearly exchanging punches with long-term friend Benji Marshall and relative Isaac Luke in the match against the Kiwis. Most pleasing is the fact that he also committed his long-term future to Castleford, much to the delight of their new coach Ian Millward.
Year to forget - Crusaders
The future looked bright for Super League's Welsh franchise at the end of the 2010 season, their first in Wrexham, after outgoing coach Brian Noble had somehow pieced together a playing squad at short notice that was good enough to reach the play-offs. However, things started to go wrong when they were placed into administration before the turn of the year, triggering a chain of events that ended with them dropping out of the top flight. A four-point deduction left them always chasing the rest (apart from Wakefield, who themselves had a tumultuous year) and they ended up with the wooden spoon. At least they would get the chance to redeem themselves in 2012 and beyond... or so they thought. Right before the new licences were due to be revealed Crusaders announced they were withdrawing their application, giving the Wildcats a reprieve and meaning a rather sudden end of Super League's sortie into Wales, at least for now. They will come again in Championship 1, but their dramatic drop is a major blow to the RFL.
Gone but not forgotten
- The former Australia prop passed away at the start of December after collapsing while cycling on the Gold Coast - he was 66. Beetson was the first Indigenous Australian to captain his country in any sport, skippering them at the 1975 and 1977 World Cups, while he also went on to coach the Kangaroos. The forward played for Balmain, Eastern Suburbs - the team now known as Sydney Roosters - and Parramatta Down Under, as well as enjoying a stint in England with Hull KR. He was 35 when he captained Queensland to victory in the inaugural State of Origin match in 1980.
One of the all-time greats of the game bowed out in 2011 as Lockyer hung up his boots. Fittingly for a man who achieved so much in his illustrious career, the Australian finished as a winner, leading Queensland to yet another Origin series victory over New South Wales before captaining the Kangaroos to glory in the Four Nations final over England (just forget the fact that his last touch on the rugby field was that conversion attempt). Lockyer started out as a skinny full-back known for his support play but was at his best when he moved into the halves, his speed of foot only being surpassed by his speed of thought. His skills, as well as his instantly recognisable voice in post-match interviews that sounded like he'd swallowed a spoonful of gravel, will be greatly missed, not just by Brisbane, Queensland and Australia but by the sport in general. Thanks for the memories, Locky.