In the wake of England’s heart-breaking 6-0 defeat to Australia in December 2017’s World Cup final, fans didn’t have to wait too long for the return of rugby league.
Super League XXIII got underway on February 1st, with defending champions Leeds Rhinos getting the ball rolling with a 16-12 victory at Warrington Wolves.
However, the tone set by that result was the opposite of the fortune of both teams come the end of the season.
Eight-time Super League champions Leeds ended the campaign in ninth after a year of dramatic change in which they sacked Brian McDermott — the club’s most successful coach — in July. They were also thrashed 38-4 by Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge in Australia in February.
Warrington, on the other hand, came within an inch of glory, eventually losing 12-4 to Wigan Warriors in the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 13th.
It was a fairy-tale finish to Shaun Wane’s 30-year association with the Warriors after it was announced in the summer that he was to leave as head coach to take up a position with Scottish Rugby Union.
Wigan’s win signalled their fifth Super League title, but the League Leaders’ Shield went to St Helens. The Saints, who’s Ben Barba was named the 2018 Man of Steel, ended the season six points ahead of the Cherry and Whites, but were beaten by Warrington in the play-offs.Embed from Getty Images
Wigan Warriors celebrate defeating Warrington Wolves to claim their fifth Super League title.
At the other end of the table, Widnes were relegated to the Championship after seven years in the top flight. The Vikings finished the regular season at the foot of Super League and recorded just one win in The Qualifiers, over Halifax.
London Broncos will return to Super League for the first time since 2014 after a tight 4-2 win over Toronto Wolfpack in the Million Pound Game in October.
Super League runners-up Warrington were also left disappointed in the Challenge Cup final in August. Catalans Dragons made history by becoming the first non-English side to win the trophy with a 20-14 win over the Wire in front of over 50,000 fans at Wembley.
This achievement, alongside the encouraging performances of London, Toronto and Toulouse — who just missed out on a spot in the Million Pound Game — in 2018 suggests that the game sits in a strong position beyond the M62 corridor.Embed from Getty Images
Catalans Dragons became the first non-English side to win the Challenge Cup when they beat Warrington in August.
Elsewhere, Sydney Roosters claimed their first NRL title in five years and will face Wigan in the World Club Challenge at the DW stadium in the New Year.
Four-time Super League champions Bradford Bulls were promoted back to the Championship from League One at the first attempt. After an atrocious few years, it seems that John Kear’s side may finally be back on the slow climb to the top tier.
Jamaica qualified for the World Cup for the first time by beating the USA 16-10 in the final of the Americas Cup to secure their place at England 2021.
After their commendable showing in the World Cup last year, England enjoyed a strong 2018. A 36-18 win over New Zealand in Denver in June set the tone, before a crushing 44-6 win over France in Leigh in October.
Wayne Bennett’s side ended the year with a 2-1 series win over the Kiwis across October and November. Despite a 34-0 defeat at Elland Road in the final game, the general performance did much to whet the appetite ahead of Great Britain’s tour of New Zealand in 2019.Embed from Getty Images
England ended 2018 with a 2-1 series win over New Zealand and look strong going into the New Year.
Other things to look out for in the New Year include changes to the domestic structure after it was announced in September that the Super 8s will be scrapped.
Instead, a conventional one up, one down promotion and relegation system between Super League and the Championship will be put in place, while the second tier will expand to a 14-team competition and two teams will be promoted between the Championship and League One from 2019 onwards.
In December, former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams was named as Andy Burnham’s replacement as Rugby Football League President.
The former Wycombe and Portsmouth manager, who has worked alongside the RFL with his charity Sporting Chance to assist with players’ mental health since 2011, will take the reins in summer 2019.Embed from Getty Images
Former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams will take over as RFL President in the summer.
With the New Year just around the corner, this year’s long, winter wait for action is nearly over.
Champions Wigan get the Super League campaign up and running away at St Helens on January 31st, to kick-start what is sure to be another breath-taking year of rugby league.
Featured photograph/Michael Holdsworth/https://www.flickr.com/photos/8580799@N06/