#1 – Latest in League – Unbeaten seasons, Widnes, Salford and Toulouse.

Despite a valiant effort in the second half Wigan Warriors unbeaten start to the 2017 Super League season came to an end at the hands of Lee Radford’s Hull FC.

Just a week earlier Castleford’s perfect start to the season also came to a halt after Gareth O’Brien’s drop-goal saw Salford come away with the victory at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Daryl Powell said after the defeat: “People mentioned us going unbeaten for the season – well that’s put an end to that.”

Powell’s comment alongside Wigan’s defeat this past weekend got me considering the idea of an unbeaten league campaign in the world of Rugby League.

I’d almost convinced myself that Wigan would have achieved such a feat during their glory years between 1987-1995 however after some digging around I found out they hadn’t. In fact, no side has ever gone unbeaten in the top tier of British Rugby League.

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Wigan won the Challenge Cup on nine consecutive occasions but never managed an unbeaten season. (Photo: Wigan Warriors)

 

However, it has been achieved in Australia – but not since 1959. South Sydney managed to win every game (12 from 12) in their 1925 campaign while Balmain, North Sydney, East Suburbs, and St George all achieved unbeaten seasons with the East Suburbs managing it in consecutive seasons.

Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm are the only sides who still have perfect records in this year’s NRL however with the quality of the competition, the effect of the State of Origin games, and the golden-point rule it is extremely unlikely a side will ever remain unbeaten for a whole season again.

Hull KR still have a perfect record in the Championship this season with seven wins from seven and if they were to manage an unbeaten season they would match the achievement of their cross-city rivals Hull FC who won the second division in 1978-79 without a loss.

However, KR will have to compete in the qualifiers at the end of the season which means facing four Super League sides reducing the chance of an unbeaten campaign dramatically. Also, going unbeaten in the Championship is no easy task ask the Leigh Centurions who suffered one regular season defeat in each of their last three seasons – Doncaster (2014), London (2015) & Batley (2016).

Toulouse Olympique came close to an unbeaten last year in the Championship One however a defeat to Rochdale Hornets in the play-offs ended their run and emphasised the difficulty of an unbeaten season.

Dewsbury Rams managed to go through the 2009 season in the third-tier without a loss and it looks like it could be in the Championship One where we see an unbeaten season in 2017 with newbies Toronto Wolfpack.

The Wolfpack have already overcome to of the stronger sides in Whitehaven and Keighley as well as knocking Championship side London Broncos out of the Challenge Cup. Toronto could very well go unbeaten this season and it seems more likely that the Canadians will achieve the feat rather than KR.

As mentioned, Salford were the side who ended Castleford’s early season winning streak and they followed that up with a clinical destruction of Widnes at the Select Security Stadium on Friday night.

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Salford destroyed Widnes this past weekend in the Super League. (Photo: Daily Star)

 

A one-sided affair was an indication of the difference in recruitment and club management between two sides who I view as very similar in Salford and Widnes. Both are stereotypically lower-mid Super League sides who competed in the middle-eights last year – with Salford surviving by the skin of their teeth thanks to Gareth O’Brien’s unforgettable drop-goal against Hull KR.

However, Salford have recruited well in pre-season and have put faith in head coach Ian Watson and it is already proving a good decision with the likes of Ben Murdoch-Masila, Lama Tasi, Junior Sa’u and coach Watson all signing new contracts this week.

As for Widnes, it seemed that they thought signing several players to long-term deals following their fantastic start last season would see them through however poor recruitment in pre-season has singled them out as possibly the weakest side in the Super League. Tom Olbison and Tom Armstrong were their only additions over the winter and Dennis Betts failed to replace half-back Kevin Brown which was proved detrimental to the start of their season.

I personally believe Salford have finally got it right with their recruitment and management off the field after years of trying but failing to climb the table but for Widnes it could be a long season with the threat of relegation possible.

I’d like to finish my first ‘Latest in League’ piece talking about Toulouse Olympique who I had the pleasure of watching for the first time this weekend as they defeated Featherstone Rovers at the Big Fellas Stadium.

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Toulouse celebrate their promotion last year. (Photo: Ladepeche.fr)

 

Toulouse returned to British Rugby League at the beginning of last season and earned promotion from League One after winning the league leaders shield before victories over York and Barrow in the play-offs.

Sylvain Houles’ forwards were extremely impressive with the likes of Sebastien Planas, Andrew Bentley, Clement Boyer, and Tyla Hepi causing the Rovers defence all sorts of issues and consistently getting their nose through the defensive line. Olympique’s offload game saw them blitz Featherstone in the early stages going 16-0 up in as many minutes.

In Mark Kheirallah they have an extremely talented full-back, clever halves with Stanislas Robin and Johnathan Ford and the powerhouse winger that is Kuni Minga.

Toulouse, I feel, can fight for promotion in the coming seasons and it will be extremely interesting to see a Super League with two French sides and how that could develop in the future.

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Toronto Wolfpack’s Debut and the Globalisation of the Rugby League Challenge Cup

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The Challenge Cup – the most historic competition in Rugby League.

 

This weekend will see Canadian-based side Toronto Wolfpack, who are already the first ever trans-Atlantic professional sports team, also become the first to compete in the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

With Paul Rowley and Brian Noble in the Wolfpack’s coaching staff along with the additions of numerous players with Super League experience Toronto head into their first competitive game against National Conference side Siddal surrounded by hype, but also expectation.

However, despite being the first trans-Atlantic side to compete in the Challenge Cup they aren’t the first non-English side to enter the competition with over a dozen foreign sides trying their hand in the historic competition over the years.

In 2007 Catalans Dragons became the first non-English side to reach the Challenge Cup final when they were defeated 30-8 by St Helens. Incidentally, this was also the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley Stadium.

Catalans had already begun to break down the barriers for sides in countries without a prominent Rugby League history and their 2007 Challenge Cup run was the beginning of an ever-growing trend of globalisation in Rugby League.

But, the Dragons weren’t the first French side to ply their trade in the Challenge Cup.

2001 saw the Villeneuve Leopards progress to the quarter-finals of the competition knocking out established English side Rochdale Hornets in the process. Unfortunately, a 32-0 defeat at the hands of Warrington at Wilderspool ended any hopes of cup heroics.

Four years later and clubs from across the Channel were again making an impact with three sides in the competition – Pia XIII, UTC and Toulouse Olympique. Pia and UTC both reached the last sixteen before defeats to Leeds and Wigan meaning it was left to the latter to make history.

Toulouse overcame Wath Brow Hornets, Doncaster and Widnes on their way to a semi-final clash with Leeds. A 56-18 defeat prevented them making the final but they became the most successful foreign side the competition had ever seen – until Catalans’ 2007 exploits.

Following Toulouse’s remarkable run there was a small influx of non-English sides to the tournament.

Again, Pia XIII, Toulouse, Limoux Grizzlies and Catalans represented France but Celtic Crusaders’ introduction to British Rugby League made room for Welsh representation. The Crusaders first Challenge Cup game also came against foreign opposition as they hosted Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.

Russian duo Lokomotiv Moscow and Kazan Arrows debuted in the competition in 2001 but Moscow’s fixture against the Crusaders was the first all non-English tie in the Challenge Cup. The Crusaders came out on top in comfortable fashion and Leigh dispatched of the Arrows with an 80-0 victory.

A Russian side hasn’t featured in the competition since 2009 when Lokomotiv Moscow suffered an 82-6 defeat to Leigh.

Celtic Crusaders (now North Wales Crusaders) have continued to compete in the Challenge Cup since their debut back in 2006 but have only managed a 5th round appearance in 2010. Other welsh teams such as the Valley Cougars, Bonymaen Broncos and semi-professional side South Wales Ironmen (formerly known as South Wales Scorpions) have all entered.                      

Over the past four seasons the Aberdeen Warriors have represented Scotland in the Challenge Cup but are yet to earn a victory with defeats to Pilkington Recs, Skirlaugh and Northumbria University. Another defeat to Pilkington Recs saw them exit this year’s competition in the first round.

Mixed results for non-English sides over the years means it is difficult to completely welcome the idea of a more global competition.

Toulouse and Catalans’ cup runs encourage the idea of a wider competition but heavy defeats Russian, Welsh and Scottish sides would indicate the rest of the world aren’t quite ready to challenge consistently at the top level.

With discussions regarding the World Club Series taking centre stage again in recent weeks it’s important to remember Australia don’t have a knockout competition like the Challenge Cup.

Could Australian sides enter the Challenge Cup instead of the World Club Series? Possibly a far-fetched idea but the possibilities for the competition are endless if the world of Rugby League allows it room to grow.

Whatever the arguments for, or against, more non-English sides entering the competition one thing is for certain and that is that this weekend, no matter the result, Toronto Wolfpack will make history.