The final few seconds of the Super League Grand Final will for ever stand as one of the most memorable moments in rugby league history. But the legacy of 2020 and the long-term impact this season will have on the sport runs far deeper.
It was undoubtedly the most dramatic Grand Final in history and perhaps it was only right that a season that hung precariously in the balance for so long throughout the summer was settled by such fine margins. The Saints secured back-to-back titles when Jack Welsby reacted quickest to Tommy Makinson’s drop goal hitting a post with the scores level, consigning Wigan to defeat after the full-time hooter had sounded in Hull on Friday night.
It was the culmination to a season that had to be finished. It can sometimes be forgotten, but rugby league is not a cash-rich sport. Only a £16m government loan earlier in the year stopped many clubs from going out of business.
Even the biggest clubs, such as St Helens and Wigan, would not have been immune to financial ruin if Super League had not run to a conclusion, which would have meant a failure to fulfil broadcast obligations and a huge financial black hole.
“This season has been done at a significant financial loss,” the competition’s chief executive, Robert Elstone, says. “From a financial perspective, it’s been the most challenging year in our history as a sport. Everyone’s projections for 2020 have been obliterated, and we needed to finish this season.
“There was no alternative. The other outcome wasn’t worth thinking about. We will look back in years to come on this as a season which preserved the sport for future years.”
That makes the incredible spectacle Friday’s final provided all the more impressive. Super League has endured structural changes and the withdrawal of Toronto Wolfpack, and implemented severe player pay cuts – which could continue into 2021 – since the competition was suspended in March, but still somehow delivered when it mattered.
Elstone is negotiating a new broadcast deal with Sky Sports that will determine the sport’s long-term future – a deal lower than the current £40m per year is believed to be close. The challenge now is building on the relative success of 2020, with a World Cup in England next year making 2021 the most important year in the sport’s recent history, after somehow surviving this season.
“We’re hoping that the TV ratings for the final will be strong, and we’re working really hard to get the best deal we can,” Elstone says. “But we have to look forward. We have to be ambitious and drive the game forwards. The gravity of Covid built throughout the year; first we thought we’d shut down for a fortnight, then a month, then it became an issue of whether we could finish.
“But we’ve knuckled down as a sport, which we had to do. The final was the game of a lifetime. We had messages from colleagues in other sports full of wonder and praise, and we did justice to one of the country’s most iconic events. The challenge for us now is to move forwards, and while we’ll select on 2020 as significant, we can’t let it define us.”
Elstone hopes fans will return by the time the next season begins in mid-March, as the sport begins to reverse the financial impact of a pandemic that had threatened to put the game in jeopardy. Super League has, in the end, achieved what it wanted to do in 2020: it has completed the season by any means possible. Now, the game must plan for a year that, if all goes to plan, will be even more significant than this one.