Rugby league and the transfer deadline day the sports world forgot

So, that was the rugby league transfer deadline day. Oh, you missed it? Never mind. If you forgot there was one, let alone that it was last Friday, in the words of St Etienne – the band, not Arthur Mourgue’s hometown – join our club. You are not alone.

You didn’t miss Dave Woods reporting from Robin Park on the latest big-money Wigan signing. There was no Stuart Pyke with hourly updates from the University of Chester sports complex on new faces trying on Warrington training gear. No Steve Brady coming live from a roasting Stade Gilbert Brutus car park. No Mark Wilson excitedly informing TalkSport which NRL star has been spotted looking through an estate agent’s window in Hull. And clearly no countdown clock on Sky Sports News.

Deadline day – indeed the whole week’s countdown towards it – went under the radar, again. It’s a major missed opportunity, one of many from a sport that, in the wise words of Tony Collins, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are very few staging posts each season when the game can give media outlets – and therefore fans and the wider sporting public – reasons to focus on league. The transfer deadline day should be one of them. And this year’s came on one of the deadest days in the sporting year.

One reason could be the lack of action. Rugby league, more than any other sport, likes to “get its business done early”. Anti-tampering laws theoretically prevent players from talking to other clubs until they have just six months left on their contracts, but that merely encourages deals to be done on the quiet. Impending transfers are announced in May and June, six months before players even trains with their new clubs.

In the NRL, some signings have been announced two seasons before a player moves. In one classic faux pas, Penrith’s magnificent Fijian second rower, Viliame Kikau, foolishly – or naively – posed in a Canterbury Bulldogs shirt last year, thinking the photo would not be seen until he joined the club in 2023. He was wrong. None of that feels right.

With only seven rounds of fixtures to go in Super League after this season’s deadline, many clubs kept their powder dry. Most clubs are calmly building their squads for 2023 – the biggest surprise of deadline week was Huddersfield bringing Kevin Naiqama back to Super League after only one season in the NRL, but he won’t arrive until January – with only the teams in desperate need wanting new talent in high summer.

Daryl Powell had a wretched first half to the season at Warrington, as did Lee Radford at Castleford, so it was inevitable that they would go on major recruitment drives. Barely a day went by without movement at the Halliwell Jones and Wheldon Road. Earlier this month Powell brought in Saints stalwart Kyle Amor until the end of the season (when he will join Widnes) and let Josh Charnley go to Leigh, signing dual international forwards Paul Vaughan (Italy and Australia) and Josh McGuire (Samoa and Australia) for next season. Whether those recruits have Super League-only clauses in their contracts remains to be seen as Warrington are undoubtedly in serious danger of a cataclysmic drop.

Last week Powell signed Matt Dufty from Canterbury Bulldogs to replace Gareth Widdop, whose contract expires in the autumn and could be a Castleford player by the time he recovers from a shoulder injury. Having had a bust-up with Powell, England forward Mike Cooper was expected to join Wigan after the World Cup but instead turned out for them on Thursday night at Leeds. He put in an unusually chaotic performance, suggesting he was befuddled by his sudden change of surroundings.

Cooper could, however, prove to be one of the shrewdest signings of the window. Wigan have been challenging for the title admirably, despite having no one with vast Super League experience in their front row since the retirement of Tony Clubb last winter, a role Cooper can fill perfectly.

The jungle drums are also rumbling across the Pennines at, erm, the Jungle, where Radford lost patience and swung the axe. Hull-bound halfback Jake Trueman is expected to be one of many high-profile names to leave the club when their contracts expire in November. But while Powell’s Wolves nightmare continues – every time he thinks he has woken from it, another horrible performance sends him shuddering back into the abyss – Cas boss Radford has managed to deliver wins while gradually changing personnel, a considerable feat. What is certain is the Wire and Tigers teams that finish this season will bear little resemblance to the line-ups that started it, and the class of 2023 will be vastly different to those of 2021.

Freefalling Hull FC are also wheeling and dealing now to get the squad their coach wants for next season. Having fielded half a team of strangers – who played like it – in the last couple of games, Brett Hodgson has strengthened his decimated squad, signing former Gold Coast utility player Will Smith until the end of the season and snaring NRL half Tex Hoy to partner Trueman next season. Hodgson has said that on-loan trio, Jack Walker (the young Leeds full-back), St Helens outside back Josh Simm and Warrington forward Ellis Longstaff, could all sign permanently, too. There is space on the salary cap given that their star back rower, Manu Ma’u, is heading to Catalans Dragons at the end of the season.

Radford was apparently keen to put his former star full-back Jamie Shaul out of his misery and reunite at Cas, but it is Wakefield who have rescued him from Hull purgatory, Trinity blinking first in the relegation shootout. Willie Poching had already brought in veteran NRL winger Jorge Taufua and Hull forward Josh Bowden, allowing Tom Lineham to join Featherstone on loan. With Max Jowitt injured, the Dreadnoughts needed another full-back immediately, Shaul filling in until the end of the season.

Toulouse have stuck to their guns for the survival shootout, only to see forward Justin Sangare heading to Leeds. Whether he will be joined in Super League next season by Toulouse, Wakefield or Warrington may just come down to the recruitment decisions made last week – even if nobody was taking much notice.

World Cup watch
We already knew that the eight sides that reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup this year will be given places at the 2025 tournament, but now we have a better idea of how the other eight teams will qualify. It’s entirely possible that England could be the only European nation to qualify by reaching the last eight, with France guaranteed a place as hosts, which leaves the rest to fight over between four and six places via the returning European Championship next autumn.

The RFL have finally committed to entering an England side in the Euros, which will see two groups of four, while the winner of the six-nation Euro B competition can also qualify for the World Cup. All seven Pacific places in France in 2025 could be taken automatically by quarter-finalists. And all eight women’s and wheelchair teams will automatically be at France 2025, a logical decision that gives each programme another three years to develop.

One last thing
Having featured as an exhibition sport at the two previous Commonwealth Games, you may have expected another rugby league nines tournament in Birmingham this week. Not so.

The long-term plan to get league nines into the Olympics began with an Under-19s tournament prior to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow back in 2014. Even though it was low-key, the games were enjoyed greatly by those involved. Two brothers, Wellington and Stanton Albert, helped Papua New Guinea win the gold medal, provoking wild celebrations back home.

Four years ago the Gold Coast Games were preceded by an Under-23 nines tournament in Brisbane. A team of England amateurs, featuring current Hull KR star Frankie Halton, and Scotland’s mix of students and Antipodean part-timers coached by current World Cup boss Nathan Graham, unsurprisingly fail to threaten the podium. Poasa Faamausili starred for Samoa, while Tonga Tongotongo – now a professional boxer – played for … wait for it … Tonga.

Australia gave coach Adrian Lam the best emerging NRL talent to go and get gold. Corey Allan, David Fifita, Harry Grant, Paul Momirovski, Jack Murchie and Kotoni Staggs duly delivered, Staggs scoring the gold-medal-winning try in the final against Tonga.

The plan was for nines to be an open-age elite event at the Commonwealth Games this year but, with the 2021 World Cup delayed until this year, and the Commonwealth Federation recategorising members and sports, the International Federation decided not to pursue 2022. Will we see nines at the Commonwealth Games again? Don’t hold your breath.