Sky Sports rugby league pundit and former Super League player Barrie McDermott on what he’s looking forward to seeing again when the 2021 season kicks off. Watch all six fixtures in Rounds 1 and 2 live on Sky Sports
Sky Sports rugby league expert Barrie McDermott tells us what he has been missing during the off-season as Super League gets ready to return to action…
It seems a long time since last November and the Grand Final at Hull’s KCOM Stadium where St Helens walked away with the title in the last seconds.
Everything about that game deserved the fans there, the atmosphere and appreciation of a live audience. But, unfortunately, we are where we are.
During this time of reflection in the off-season, I’ve really missed certain things. I always do – but this off-season has been longer than usual, so I’ve had a bit of a reminisce and a bit more of a nostalgic look at what makes our game special.
In no particular order, these are six things I’m looking forward to seeing in 2021…
1. Spectacular tries scored by wingers
A few years ago, we changed the rules so the corner post no longer counted in touch so whether a player hits it or not is irrelevant.
All they have to do is get the ball inside the try-line and that means we’ve seen some sensational finishes from players like Tommy Makinson, Tom Johnstone, Josh Charnley and Ash Handley.
I think every winger is practising that skill so they can take the ball, lengthen their body, hold it in one hand, keep a good grip of it and stretch that arm to get to the point where – even if their whole body is outside the touchline – they can still dab that ball down on the right side.
We’ve seen some wonderful examples of that over the years.
2. Coaches showing their emotions
Being a coach is the most stressful job in the world of sport, let alone Super League where we demand our teams win and if they don’t, they’ve got to play well and give everything they have got – and there have been some brilliant reactions by coaches.
I love seeing coaches with that passionate, emotional reaction – whether it’s a cheer and arms up in the air like David Furner did or a complete lack of composure, hitting tables and shouting.
For the best example of that, we have to go back to 1997 when Matthew Elliot’s Bradford Bulls were away at Halifax and they were behind on the scoreboard and never looked like winning but mounted a stunning fightback – and Matthew was unable to articulate his thoughts.
The best post-match interviews are the ones where people are very raw and emotional, and I can think back to a couple of times where Brian McDermott was very passionate and Daryl Powell, a couple of years ago, just didn’t want to give anybody anything. It was compelling viewing.
3. Crowds singing and chanting
I was lucky in that I played for a few teams in my career where there was always a terrific atmosphere at their home grounds – Watersheddings as an Oldham player, Central Park when I was at Wigan and then at Headingley for Leeds.
When you’re favoured by the Rhinos fans in the South Stand and you’re given your own nickname and chant, it’s something that lifts the players.
We’re fortunate enough to be on top of those crowds in the commentary gantry and when you’re at somewhere like Hull Kingston Rovers when there is a try scored – especially the atmosphere of a derby game – the whole gantry shakes and the whole stand is too with celebration.
Some of the chants, songs and celebrations are unique to this country and our game. All of the Australians and New Zealanders when they come over, the first thing they talk about is looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere.
4. Pre-match entertainment
This is perhaps something that doesn’t necessarily add to the special nature of the game itself and most of the time the 80 minutes of match action deliver and are the things we take away.
Occasionally though, there is a piece of pre-match or half-time entertainment which is the talk of the group of mates you’re with or the bar afterwards.
Bradford really set a strong precedent back in the mid-1990s and I think of some of the great bands we’ve had at the Grand Final.
My favourite was James in 2014. I was down around pitchside speaking to some players trying to get a flavour of it and it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when lead singer Tim Booth started going into the crowd, it was on the big screen and there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t singing along.
As I said, the 80 minutes should be what we talk about, but as an addition and a little side hors d’oeuvre to that it’s worth some of the clubs in Super League putting a little bit more thought into what they do.
5. Outrageous and spectacular kicks
Our game is about collisions, speed and skill, but occasionally kicking comes into play whether it’s out of hand from people like Kevin Sinfield and Lee Briers, or kicking off the tee from people like Andy Farrell, Danny Brough and Marc Sneyd, who is one of the most consistent kickers in Super League at the minute.
There comes that point for everybody where it is their last game and out of respect for what you’ve done for your team and your club, that player will often be offered a chance to kick at goal and we’ve seen some crackers over the years with the likes of Luke Burgess and Paul Anderson nailing it from the sidelines.
We’ve seen some match-winning, clutch moment kicks where people have stepped forward too. I love to see forwards kick it off the tee and that gets me applauding, but I also love to see that steely nerve and composure where people who have it in them step up to the tee and nail it. It’s a much under-rated facet off our game.
6. Big hits and try-saving tackles
I’m wired up in a certain way and I love to see the beautiful violence and brutality of our game, a full-blooded, shoulder-to-shoulder, bone-on-bone collision.
But the one thing which is better than a big shot or a big tackle is when a break is made and it looks like everything is nailed on for a try is seeing the character of a player who can chase back and make a try-saving tackle.
The best example of that in recent years was Niall Evalds for Salford Red Devils on Castleford Tigers’ Jordan Rankin in the 2019 Super League play-offs.
Whether the match is on the line or it’s a case of the player’s personal pride, those defensive efforts are the type of thing that even if I’m on commentary, I can’t help but stand up and applaud. It’s part of our game which has everybody looking at the player’s endeavour and effort.
This year has so much promise for us. We should, fingers crossed, get people gradually back in the stadium although it will be limited numbers at first.
But when we get back to full stadiums, the big chants, the big collisions, the match-winning conversions, the spectacular tries and the after-match, passion-filled, emotional coach interviews, we as fans and spectators are looking forward to it so much.
Hopefully, we’re almost there.