29th January 2021
It was on this weekend one year ago that I enjoyed a mini-tour of rugby-watching in and around Leeds. Four matches in three days: the rugby union encounters between Yorkshire Carnegie and Nottingham Rugby in the Championship (Arresting Decline, 5th February 2020) and Otley and Caldy in the National League Division 2 North (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020) and the double-headed opener of the Super League season at Headingley, where the Castleford Tigers played the Toronto Wolfpack and the Leeds Rhinos took on Hull FC (The Return of Sonny Bill, 7th February 2020).
To date, this remains the most recent live action sport that I have watched in the flesh.
When we consider the events of the last year – and the pervasive impact of the coronavirus – it is tempting to think that much of the world has been put on hold. Foreign holidays have been cancelled, weddings postponed, concerts re-arranged for some future date… In the global sporting arena, the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the Euro2020 football championships have been held over from last year to this. For the four rugby union teams noted above, their 2019-20 seasons were brought to a premature halt in March and, later, the start of the 2020-21 season delayed until March at the earliest. And so on.
It was not quite so straightforward, of course. The combination of financial and broadcasting pressures meant that the truncated seasons were completed in the elite sports (The Icing and the Cake, 10th December 2020). Thus, an abbreviated rugby league Challenge Cup competition (involving only the 12 – later 11 – Super League clubs) was conducted (in empty stadiums) and reached a thrilling conclusion at Wembley in August, when Luke Gale’s late drop goal gave Leeds a one-point victory over Salford in the final.
In the league, Leeds and Hull qualified for the Super League play-offs by finishing 5th and 6th, respectively, in the shortened 2019-20 season. (This itself represented the Super League authorities thinking on their feet, as the original plan had been for a top-four play-off). There was the possibility, therefore, of Hull FC lifting the title at the Grand Final having finished the regular season half-way down the division. In the event, although they impressively defeated the Warrington Wolves in their first match, they were then heavily beaten by the Wigan Warriors in the semi-final.
At this point, I should probably own up to one of my occasional “what do I know?” mea culpa. In The Return of Sonny Bill, I remarked that Hull had invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and that this looked to have been money well spent, given that Leeds had been overwhelmed by 30 points to 4. I noted that, as Hull could also draw on the evident firepower in their three-quarters and the accuracy of Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, there was “much promise for their new Super League campaign”. In the event, the club’s almost immediate slump in form saw the coach, Lee Radford, lose his job in March and it was only a late-season rally that took them into the final play-off place.
Off the field, there has also been action. At the time of their match with Nottingham, Yorkshire Carnegie were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of their division, having taken only one point from their opening 10 matches. Nottingham added to their woes by winning by 62-10. Conversely, in their lower league, Caldy were striding away at the top of the table. The respective relegation and promotion of Yorkshire Carnegie (who have subsequently been re-branded as the Leeds Tykes) and Caldy were confirmed and, when the hostilities are eventually resumed, the two clubs will confront each other in National League 1.
In contrast with my expectations for Hull FC’s prospects for the Super League season, I was more accurate in my assessment of the lower part of Otley’s division. With three teams to be relegated, I did suggest that it would be a close-run affair, as Otley were then fourth-from-bottom and level on points with Luctonians. It did not turn out well. Otley had slipped down a place by the time the coronavirus-induced drawbridge was raised on the league season and, notwithstanding that they and the sides around them still had 5 matches left to play, the Rugby Football Union decided that Otley would join Preston Grasshoppers and Scunthorpe on the downward path to the North Premier Division.
In the Super League, the off-field events have certainly been significant. Toronto Wolfpack lost their 6 league matches before the season was halted in March. In July, the club announced that the “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges” brought about by the pandemic meant that it would not fulfil the remainder of its fixtures once the league resumed in August. Toronto’s 2020 results were expunged from the records, including the 10-28 loss to Castleford that I had witnessed in February. In November, a formal vote was held by the 11 remaining Super League clubs – plus the Rugby Football League and the Super League Executive – on whether Toronto should be allowed to return to the competition in the 2021 season. The vote was 8-4 against with 1 abstention.
At present, there remain plans in place for a rugby league team from Ottawa to enter the National League 1 (the sport’s third division in Britain) in 2022. Let’s hope so. However, the huge uncertainty about any Toronto-based revival casts a long shadow over the development of regular transatlantic competition, notwithstanding that there are also eventual hopes for a New York-based team.
The sense of events moving on applies in the wider world, of course, as well as in the narrower sporting context. One year ago, the US Senate was conducting the first impeachment trial of the former President Trump, whilst at the same time – on the Friday evening on my rugby-watching weekend, to be exact – the UK formally left the European Union and entered the transition phase for finalising the details of separation. This was to last for the remainder of the year, of course, the denouement only being revealed – like the stopping of the bomb’s ticking clock at the end of a third-rate James Bond film – at the 11th hour.
And what of the predictions that were being made a year ago? The introductory paragraph of the February 1st 2020 edition of The Economist opened with the low-key statement that “[A] new coronavirus continued to spread rapidly in China”. Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank was quoted as stating that the virus would probably case “some disruption” to the global economy, though it was unclear how far that would extend. Powell, having drawn on the vast armoury of the Fed’s analytical resources, is the winner of our Understatement of the Year Award.
By contrast, an editorial in the same newspaper referred to the “sparse data and conflicting reports” about a disease that was spreading exponentially. “The medical and economic cost will depend on governments slowing the disease’s spread. The way to do this is by isolating cases as soon as they crop up and tracing and quarantining people that victims have been in contact with… If… that proves inadequate, they could shut schools, discourage travel and urge the cancellation of public events”. For an early insight into how events would turn out in the UK, that was impressively accurate.
Likewise, in the section on US politics anticipating the first of the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries (in Iowa later in the week), the publication suggested that, of all the major candidates on view (including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), the one who would be the most likely to win the election against Trump was… Joe Biden.
I wonder if The Economist has views on Hull FC’s likely performance in the 2021 Super League season.