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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
High: Their 12-match run of wins that culminated in the 2005 Grand Final win.
Low: The last minute of the 2002 Grand Final.
High: Returning to Super League in 2008 and hammering rivals Leeds
Low: Relegation in 2004 saw the club embark on five years of uncertainty.
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.
High: Winning a Super League licence.
Low: Their embarrassing move to Wrexham after the 2009 season.
High: An early-season 24-16 win over Leeds in 2000.
Low: Their nightmare 2003 which saw them relegated with zero points.
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.
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.
High: The closing minutes of the 2005 Challenge Cup Final. Ecstasy.
Low: Losing Paul Cooke to Hull KR of all clubs.
High: Overtaking Hull FC as the city’s best team.
Low: The 2009 play-offs, which promised so much.
High: The 2009 Grand Final, their third successive win.
Low: Failure to land a Challenge Cup in the noughties.
High: Promotion via a thrilling Grand Final with Whitehaven.
Low: 2005. Hopelessly out of their depth.
High: Being crowned the best team in sport by the BBC in 2006.
Low: The complacent performance in the 2002 Cup Final against Wigan.
High: Winning at Leeds in 2009.
Low: The 2007 home defeat to Hull KR left them staring relegation in the face.
High: Beating Castleford in Super League’s relegation shoot-out in 2006.
Low: The deaths of two players in a heartbreaking five-month period.
High: The 2009 Challenge Cup final
Low: A home defeat to Castleford was a painful end to Paul Cullen’s reign.
High: Beating bitter rivals Warrington three times in 2002.
Low: Missing out on a 2009 Super League licence.
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)