Talking Rugby: Standing with Ukraine, David Stephenson's passing, and the return of the NRL

The last few rounds of fixtures have seen clubs show solidarity with Ukraine.

It has been devastating to see the scenes on the news and the impact it has had on some many people.

In a matter of weeks an entire country has been turned upside down, and the lives of individuals have been changed forever.

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Sport has certainly shown its support, with multiple gestures across a range of events.

Rugby league players stand in solidarity with Ukraine

Interviews with athletes from the country have been heartbreaking to watch, with Oleksandr Zinchenko’s conversation with Gary Lineker being one of the more notable ones that sticks in the mind.

The links between rugby league and Ukraine are probably not too well known, but it was a sport that was growing in the county.

A curriculum for children had been created to get more people involved.

In 2020 a partnership with Sheffield Eagles and Khmelnytskyi was announced, as the National Rugby League Championship looked to align their clubs to English sides.

The purpose of this was to receive support and advice where possible, in order to grow their game.

Closer to home, there was some sad news this week, with former Wigan centre David Stephenson passing away at the age of 63.

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During his time at Central Park, he played a key role in the club’s first-ever World Club Challenge victory, due to his impressive kicking game.

In 1987, Wigan had won the Championship for the first time in over 25 years.

Chairman Maurice Lindsay decided to invite Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, the champions of Australia's NSWRL season premiers, for a match.

Previously there had only ever been one game of this kind, with Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs taking on St Helens in 1976.

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This match would start a much more regular occurrence, as the fixture would become an official feature and regular part of the rugby calendar.

The fixture between Wigan and Manly kicked off at 7.45pm on October 7, on what was a dry night at Central Park.

The official number of people packed into the stadium to see the two teams go head to head was 36,895, but it could’ve been more.

It was a close clash between the sides, with no tries being scored throughout the whole 80 minutes.

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Tempers flared during the occasion, leading to a number of penalties being awarded.

Stephenson was on hand to successfully kick four of them, which proved to be Wigan’s only points of the game.

Michael O’Connor was on the scoresheet for Manly, but only for a consolation as his side lost 8-2.

The man of the match in that game was none other than current England head coach Shaun Wane, but it was Stephenson’s kicking that proved to be the difference in the game.

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Elsewhere in the last few weeks, the NRL has got back underway.

Penrith continue to play some sensational stuff, and even with the absence of Nathan Cleary looking incredibly strong in their first outing.

They’ve been the best rugby league team in the world for the last two seasons.

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After losing the 2020 Grand Final to Melbourne Storm, like all true winners, they brushed themselves down and went again.

Someone suggested that if the World Club Challenge was going ahead this year, then St Helens would beat them.

While Kristian Woolf’s team would certainly be able to compete against a good number of NRL sides, the Panthers are still head and shoulders above them.

This is in no way playing down the strengths of Saints, or just saying that they will lose because it’s an NRL opponent; it’s just a simple fact that there is a huge difference in class between the two Grand Final champions.

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Nonetheless, it is admittedly a huge shame the World Club Challenge hasn’t gone ahead this year.

If Penrith had come over to England, it would’ve been great to see them play live.

Equally, it’s a shame for St Helen’s fans, who might've had the opportunity to go to Australia if the fixture had gone ahead.

While it’s understandable with Covid why these matches haven’t been played in the last few years, they need to be reintroduced for next year, as it’s a great part of the rugby league calendar.

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On the topic of NRL, it will always hold a special place in the hearts of a lot of people for the role it played during the first national lockdown.

Just like the Bundesliga, it was there in our darkest hour.

The novelty of being at home, an occasional Zoom quiz and playing Xbox for the most of the day had quickly worn off.

Highlights of great sporting events were no longer quite wetting the appetite, something was needed to fill the hole.

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Then came the restart of the NRL, which provided some structure in life once again.

Sleeping for most of the day was no longer on the cards, as the first of a triple header of matches was starting at 6am.

The commentators on Fox Sports became familiar voices, bringing joy to lockdown life.

It was also a period where a couple of ex-Wiganers were playing for Canberra.

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Seeing how the likes of John Bateman or Ryan Sutton were doing added an extra bit of interest.

The routine of NRL in the morning and Bundesliga in the afternoon could very well be known as the golden days of lockdown, unless you worked a number 10 Downing Street, and your highlights are very much the endless parties.

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