Two games, two impressive victors and plenty of entertainment throughout. Super League’s version of Project Restart went well enough on the field, but there was one notable moment before a ball had been kicked which threatened to overshadow the day rugby league had waited 140 days to celebrate.
Had any of the 68 players involved in this double-header on Sunday opted against taking the knee it, as it has in Formula One, it would have caused a stir. The fact the only man who took that decision was Israel Folau meant it cast a shadow over rugby.
The Rugby Football League insisted afterwards that it wanted to celebrate the players who took a stand. The Catalans coach, Steve McNamara, spoke well about standing against racism and allowing his players to make their own decisions when it came to taking the knee. But Folau is never far from the headlines and the image of him stood upright while others knelt was striking, irrespective of his right to do so.
“As a club we are completely against racism and all for equal opportunity,” McNamara said after his side were beaten 34-6 by the reigning champions, St Helens, in the opening game. “Some players and staff made the decision not to take the knee and we decided we would respect anyone’s personal choice on the matter.”
Folau and Catalans were comfortably outplayed in their first game back, something McNamara conceded post-match. Their only try did not arrive until the final quarter and, by then, the Dragons’ woes across the Channel were well on the way to continuing. They trailed 28-0 at that stage, with a combination of disastrous defending and imperious attack from St Helens their undoing.
The majority of the tries Kristian Woolf’s side scored were sublime and far above the standard some would have expected from a team without a game of rugby in 20 weeks. From Lachlan Coote’s second, a magnificent team effort, to the mazy solo efforts from Tommy Makinson and Alex Walmsley in the final moments, there was plenty to like from the Saints.
But St Helens are not top of the table following the restart. That honour goes to Leeds Rhinos, who continued their pre-lockdown form courtesy of one of Super League’s great all-time comebacks to defeat Huddersfield 27-26 and round off a thrilling opening day.
With 12 minutes remaining, Huddersfield led 26-6 and looked on course to not only go top but do so in some style. Led by the excellent pairing of Lee Gaskell and Aidan Sezer in the halves, the Giants were in complete control thanks to a hat-trick of tries from Darnell McIntosh and two for the young winger Louis Senior.
But in 10 incredible minutes, Leeds responded with four tries to level the game. Luke Gale’s 68th-minute effort initially seemed nothing more than scant consolation. But then Luke Briscoe produced a diving finish, before tries from Alex Mellor and Konrad Hurrell forced golden-point extra time.
The cat-and-mouse nature of golden point, with both teams trying to kick the winning point, was the climax such an impressive opening day perhaps deserved given how well all those associated with the competition had done to get the games on. It was Leeds who held their nerve, as Gale kicked the winning drop goal to leave Huddersfield’s players crestfallen just 15 minutes removed from them looking sure‑fire winners.