Bold rule changes and fake crowd noises – how NRL’s return has created an impact

English star performers, bold rule changes and artificial crowd effects – Australia’s NRL has burst back onto screens around the world as one of the first elite competitions back in action.

Former Wigan half-back George Williams produced one of the performances of last weekend’s return for high-flying Canberra, alongside fellow countrymen Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead.

The decision to import fake fan noises was met with a largely positive response, along with a rule that scraps penalties for tackle infringements, and instead resets the tackle count. And with the action being shown in 70 countries across the globe – including all eight on Sky Sports – rugby league Down Under has never been more widely watched.

Sky’s former Great Britain international Phil Clarke – who played for Sydney Roosters himself – says the changes have improved to the sport’s spectacle.

Clarke said: “I watched the behind closed doors games before the lockdown and didn’t like the silence, and the crowd effects added to the coverage. They have four different sound engineers working to make sure different noises are added depending on whether teams are attacking or defending and I thought that worked well.

“The rule change seemed to make the game faster and flow better. Rugby league needs a natural flow to it, so that fatigue becomes an important element and it’s not just about power. The new ‘six again’ rule allows the team at fault to be penalised without interrupting that flow.

“I noticed that Eddie Jones commented on it and used it as an example that World Rugby should look at when making rule changes to make rugby union faster and a better spectacle. He loves his rugby league and he’s been saying in rugby union circles that it’s been a success.

“The other important factor is that if the NRL has been criticised for anything in the past it’s for being a bit too structured. The new rule seems to encourage a greater spontaneity and that’s good for the game.”

Clarke sees the Roosters, Canberra and table-topping Parramatta as the most likely champions in the scaled-down 2020 season, which now concludes at the end of October.

He continued: “Canberra are one of the favourites to win it and you could call them ‘Little Britain’ now. Ricky Stuart absolutely loves his British players, he’s got a lot of time and respect for them. George Williams was outstanding last week and he’s one to look out for again.

“I love the Roosters with them being my former club – the people at the club were and are great friends. It would be amazing if they could win it three years in a row.

“But perhaps the most exciting team at the moment is Parramatta Eels. Many people in this country who started watching rugby league in the 1980s had them as their favourite sides, because they had the likes of Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling and Eric Grothe.

“Now after what seems like years of underperforming they look back to their best – they produce a lot of offloads and are really good to watch.”

Despite his admiration for those three sides, Clarke says any newcomers to the sport should look to New Zealand Warriors, who committed to moving their entire squad to Australia to help restart the competition.

Clarke added: “We’ve heard about football teams here not watching to play at neutral venues so it’s a fascinating story of sacrifice. How many people would move away from their home and family for several months to do their job?

“I know a lot of soldiers, NHS and caseworkers have been making what are greater sacrifices, but from a sporting perspective the Warriors have shown they’re prepared to roll their sleeves up.

“They might not win the competition this year but New Zealand Warriors certainly deserve our respect.”

CLUB-BY-CLUB GUIDE

Brisbane Broncos

Position: 9th

English connection: Lancashire-born youngster Herbie Farnworth has broken into the first team.

One to Watch: Giant 20-year-old prop Payne Haas has a big future ahead of him.

Canberra Raiders

Position: 2nd

English connection: The club's 'Fab Five' of John Batemen, George Williams, Elliott Whitehead, Ryan Sutton and Josh Hodgson.

One to Watch: George Williams was on fire in last week's impressive win at Melbourne.

Canterbury Bulldogs

Position: 15th

English connection: St Helens prop Luke Thompson heads there in 2021 and the Bulldogs want him now.

One to Watch: Half-back Kieran Foran has a lot on his shoulders returning from injury.

Cronulla Sharks

Position: 13th

English connection: Tommy Bishop led the Sharks to their first Grand Final in 1973.

One to Watch: Former Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson is a magician on his day.

Gold Coast Titans

Position: 16th

English connection: Richie Mathers, Dan Sarginson and Kallum Watkins all turned out for the Titans.

One to Watch: Forward Jai Arrow often stands tall in a struggling team.

Manly Sea Eagles

Position: 6th

English connection: Prop Kevin Ward played a key role in the 1987 Grand Final win.

One to Watch: Full-back Tom Trbojevic is setting the competition alight at present.

Melbourne Storm

Position: 8th

English connection: Warrington playmaker Gareth Widdop built his career at the Storm.

One to Watch: Hooker Cameron Smith is an all-time rugby league great.

Newcastle Knights

Position: 3rd

English connection: Malcolm Reilly coached the Knights to Grand Final success in 1997.

One to Watch: Youngster Bradman Best is catching the eye at centre.

New Zealand Warriors

Position: 12th

English connection: Andy Platt and Denis Betts were members of the Warriors’ first squad in 1995.

One to Watch: International Player of the Year Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is an excitement machine.

North Queensland Cowboys

Position: 5th

English connection: Well travelled hooker Scott Moore played made six appearances for the Cowboys in 2013.

One to Watch: Electric Valentine Holmes is back in league after a brief flirtation with the NFL.

Parramatta Eels

Position: 1st

English connection: Current Workington coach Chris Thorman played 11 times for the Eels in 2004.

One to Watch: Fijian winger Maika Sivo is unstoppable on his day.

Penrith Panthers

Position: 4th

English connection: Zak Hardaker had a brief spell with the Panthers in 2016.

One to Watch: Fijian back rower Viliame Kikau is a destructive runner out wide.

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Position: 11th

English connection: All four Burgess brothers famously played together there – only Tom remains.

One to Watch: Aussie international Damien Cook is a non-stop live-wire from hooker.

St George Illawarra Dragons

Position: 14th

English connection: Stalwart James Graham is still leading the Dragons from the front.

One to Watch: Hooker Cameron McInnes has an unbelievably high work rate.

Sydney Roosters

Position: 10th

English connection: England and ex-Leeds winger Ryan Hall is in the squad.

One to Watch: Many believe full-back James Tedesco is the best player in the world.

Wests Tigers

Position: 7th

English connection: Gareth Ellis became a local hero during four stellar seasons with the Tigers.

One to Watch: Brilliant veteran Benji Marshall still has all his old tricks up his sleeve.

This weekend’s NRL action

All matches simultaneously on Sky Sports Mix, Sky Sports Arena and Sky Sports Main Event.

THURSDAY: Brisbane Broncos v Sydney Roosters (10.50am)

FRIDAY: Penrith Panthers v New Zealand Warriors (9am), Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs (10.55am)

SATURDAY: Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles (8.30am), North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks (10.35am)

SUNDAY: Canberra Raiders v Newcastle Knights (7am), Gold Coast Titans v Wests Tigers (9.25am)

MONDAY: Canterbury Bulldogs v St George-Illawarra Dragons (7.05am)

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New Zealand Super Rugby event to have ‘red card replacements’

Red-carded players can be replaced 20 minutes after their dismissal in New Zealand’s new Super Rugby tournament.

The country’s five Super Rugby teams will play a domestic mini-series from 13 June after getting approval to restart the sport behind closed doors.

“Paying rugby fans, players and coaches want to see a fair contest,” said New Zealand Rugby’s head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum.

“Replacing a player after 20 minutes strikes the right balance.”

If teams are level at full-time, 10 minutes of ‘golden point’ extra time will follow with the first score decisive.

New Zealand Rugby has also tightened rules around the breakdown, requiring both ball-carriers to play the ball and tacklers to roll away quicker.

Teams playing in the mini-series will use chartered planes to travel on match days and players will be checked daily for coronavirus symptoms.

Last week, World Rugby introduced a series of optional adaptations to laws designed to reduce the threat of coronavirus transmission in the sport.

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Eddie Jones outlines his plan for how to improve rugby union – including fewer subs and scrum resets

England rugby coach Eddie Jones says stoppages and too many reserve players are making rugby too much like American football and steps need to be taken to speed up the game.

In an interview on New Zealand television, Jones said matches of two scheduled 40-minute halves now regularly take more than 110 minutes to complete because of stoppages for scrum resets, head injury assessments and reviews of referee’s decisions. He said the ball was generally in play for only 35 minutes, a statistic which hasn’t changed for 20 years.

Jones has been head coach of national teams in Australia, Japan and England and was part of the coaching group in South Africa’s winning Rugby World Cup campaign in 2007.

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“We need to make the game faster,” Jones, who took over as England coach after a group-stage exit in the 2015 World Cup and guided the team to the final of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, told Sky’s The Breakdown.

He advocates eliminating scrum resets in favour of free kicks and reducing the number of replacement players from eight to six to help make rugby more attractive to fans.

Jones highlighted the recently-introduced “six again” rule in Australia’s National Rugby League, which prevents teams slowing down play at the rucks, as an example of how simple rule changes can improve a sport. He said rugby union has “gone too far down the power line and we need to get some more continuity back in the game.”

“The NRL is a good example of when you make one adjustment to a law and you change the game for the better,” he said of last week’s change in the rules for the 13-a-side version of rugby. “It’s definitely become less of a wrestle in the NRL and a faster more continuous game and I think we need to make that adjustment.”

Jones said reducing the number of bench players in rugby would also help improve the game. The ability to replace almost half a team late in the second half changed how coaches and teams approached matches.

“I’d only have six reserves and I reckon that’d make a hell of a difference,” he said, listing cover for all three front-row positions, another forward for the back five, and two for the backline. “That would introduce some fatigue into the game.”

Endless scrum resets had become the most contentious part of rugby for fans, Jones said.

“We need to go to a differential penalty (free kick) where you can’t kick for goal and you’ve got to take a quick tap or kick to the line,” he said. “We’ve got to try and get some more movement in the game.”

Asked if England would be disadvantage by the rule changes he advocates, because England plays a power game, Jones said all teams should be able to adapt. AP

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Eddie Jones wants to cut the number of subs to speed up the game

‘We NEED to make the game faster’: England head coach Eddie Jones calls on World Rugby to cut number of substitutes to six as part of radical plan to speed up the sport and stop it becoming like NFL

  • Eddie Jones has urged World Rugby to stop rugby becoming American football 
  • A Test match normally lasts around 100 minutes with the ball in play for just 35
  • England head coach said match-day squads should be trimmed from 23 to 21 

Eddie Jones has urged World Rugby to stop the sport turning into American football by cutting the number of substitutes. 

On the day Premiership clubs were given the green light to resume phase one training, the England coach called for a radical shake-up. Jones said match-day squads should be trimmed from 23 to 21 and he also asked rugby’s chiefs to sort out the hotly debated global calendar. 

‘The game has gradually moved along a track and hasn’t been looked at carefully enough,’ Jones told Sky Sport NZ. 

Eddie Jones wants to reduce the number of substitutes in a bid to speed up the game

‘Now we’ve got this game that’s almost like NFL. A Test match normally goes for 100 to 110 minutes. The ball is in play for 35 minutes, which hasn’t really changed in the last 25 years. The ball out of play has increased to 65 minutes. 

‘Now we’ve got this great ball-out-of-play time and this small ball-in-play time. It’s exacerbated the fact, with eight reserves, that we’ve got such a power game now. 

‘It’s gone too far down the power line and we need more continuity in the game. We need to make the game faster. 

The England head coach said match-day squads should be trimmed from 23 to 21

‘I’d only have six reserves. That would make a hell of a difference. Three front rowers, one back rower to cover the back-five, one half-back and one back to cover the rest. I reckon that would introduce some fatigue in the game. 

‘From a scrum reset — and I need to think this one through a bit — we could go for a differential penalty where you can’t kick for goal. 

‘You’ve got to take a quick tap or kick for the line. We’ve got to get more movement in the game.’ 

Rugby could face major reforms when it returns. As revealed by Sportsmail, Premiership clubs unanimously voted for a salary cap overhaul on Wednesday, following 52 recommendations by Lord Myners in the aftermath of champions Saracens’ relegation for repeated breaches. 

English clubs were also given clearance to return to individual training, with strict criteria including social distancing and daily health checks. No return-to-play date has been set, although discussions have been held about postponing the start of the 2020-21 season until next year, with a view to aligning competitions in the northern and southern hemispheres. 

A Test match normally goes on for around 100 minutes with the ball in play for just 35 minutes

Jones backed calls for a global calendar, saying: ‘The opportunity now is for World Rugby to come up with a global schedule and that’s the exciting part. The game does need a restructure. It’s all over the shop. 

‘The opportunity to get a global schedule where the international windows match up would be fantastic.’ 

Meanwhile, Gloucester announced the departure of director of rugby David Humphreys on Wednesday, just weeks after the exit of head coach Johan Ackermann. 

Eddie Jones (above) has urged World Rugby to stop the sport turning into American football

The search is on for a new head coach and they have a shortlist of five. They will interview candidates in the coming week with a view to appointing a new man by the end of the month. 

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley could be involved, with his ban for betting on rugby matches running out later this month. 

A series of trial laws were announced for the New Zealand-based Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, including innovative red-card replacements. Should a player be sent off, their team will lose a man for 20 minutes before a replacement can be brought on. 




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John Barclay: Former Scotland captain reconsiders plans to retire

Former Scotland captain John Barclay says the coronavirus shutdown has made him reconsider plans to retire.

Barclay, 33, has been released by Edinburgh after two years at the club, having retired from international duty last year.

The back row told the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast his initial thoughts were to stop playing this month.

“It’s given me a nudge to think I would like to play a couple more games,” he said of the current halt in the season.

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“But recruitment in rugby has dried up. I’m seeing how things develop over the next few months. Nothing is happening right now so I’ve got to wait and see.

“It’s maybe a bit tricky to find a club potentially, budgets are getting cut, all the clubs are losing money.”

Barclay, who played 76 times for Scotland, stepped away from national duty after the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Having played just 15 times in two seasons with Edinburgh, the former Glasgow and Scarlets player said he had lined up a job with a “leadership development company”, but would prefer a different end to his 15-year rugby career.

“Now this is happened, I feel like it’s not a great way to potentially finish, just peter out and fizzle out into nothing,” he said.

“As of now, when my last pay cheque comes in, that’s it. I’m going to go from rugby player to stay-at-home dad and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“As of a month’s time, full-time baker or stacking shelves in the supermarket, I don’t know.”

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Gloucester's director of rugby David Humphreys quits

Gloucester’s director of rugby David Humphreys quits just weeks after head coach Johan Ackermann confirmed move to Japan

  • Gloucester have lost a second top figure in just three weeks
  • Director David Humphreys is leaving the club with immediate effect
  • Humphreys has decided to depart after six years at Kingsholm 

Gloucester have lost a second top figure in three weeks with director of rugby David Humphreys leaving the club with immediate effect.

Sportsmail can reveal that the 48-year-old Northern Irishman has decided to depart after six years at Kingsholm as the Cherry and Whites wipe their coaching slate clean.

In mid-May it was confirmed head coach Johan Ackermann was leaving, to join a club in Japan, and now Humphreys follows the South African out the door when he still had years left on his contract.

Director of rugby David Humphreys is leaving Gloucester with immediate effect

In an exclusive interview with Sportsmail, club chief executive Lance Bradley explained that while this double-departure is a cost-cutting measure in the aftermath of coronavirus – which has had a devastating impact on rugby finances – Gloucester are also using it as a chance to completely revamp their approach.

‘It is not small changes we need to make in this new era we are approaching,’ said Bradley.

‘I am not sure people appreciate the kind of changes that are going to come. There still seems to be a feeling that once lockdown is lifted everything is going to return to normal. It’s not going to return to normal.

‘There will be economic and social impacts for quite some time. As with everything the organisations that adapt quickest will do the best.

‘The Premiership clubs adopting the Myners report suggestions for the salary cap is a big thing as it paves the way for rugby to be more sustainable, which is what it has to do.

He joins head coach Johann Ackermann (centre) in leaving the Premiership side

‘I know we’ve got one or two rich owners that can support multi-million pound losses, but that doesn’t work if only a couple can deal with that.

‘Rugby has to get to a point where it is more sustainable. The fact is every club is going to have to adapt to the new economic situation and the changes that are going to come because of the Myners report.

‘We feel we’re at the forefront of making those changes.

‘This move will save us some money, but will also give us a chance to properly enter a new era with a new imaginative approach.

‘With a new head coach it gives us the opportunity to have an all-new team with a fresh approach looking at what it means to be Gloucester Rugby and how we can win in the new environment.

‘Keeping doing the same things that have always been done isn’t an option.’

The search is on for a new head coach at Gloucester and it is understood they have drawn up a shortlist of five names and will interview candidates in the coming week with a view to appointing a new man by the end of the month.

Some of those interviews be conducted face-to-face, with social distancing measures adhered to, and Rob Howley could well be involved.

The former Wales assistant coach’s betting ban runs out later this month and he is ready to return to action, as he told the Mail on Sunday in an exclusive interview last week.

Rob Howley could be in the running to take over from Ackermann, who is moving to Japan 

If Gloucester do not opt for Howley – who would come at a knock-down price after his suspension – they are not limiting themselves to taking a coach who is out of work.

As clubs have imposed pay-cuts coaches can leave for Kingsholm without the need for Gloucester to pay compensation, as the reductions are technically a breach of contract.

Humphreys was the director of rugby at Gloucester since 2014, having starred for Ireland, London Irish and Ulster as a player. After retiring in 2008 he moved upstairs with Ulster for six years.

In 2017, when Ackermann joined Gloucester, Humphreys moved to a more senior, behind-the-scenes role as director of rugby, as the South African became the front-of-house head coach.

But now both have left. Alex Brown, who played more than 200 times for Gloucester in the 2000s is moving from his position as commercial director at the club to the rugby side.

The new head coach will report to him and CEO Lance Bradley and will be solely responsible for rugby matters.

Paying tribute to the departing Humphreys, Bradley said: ‘When David joined there was a huge amount of work that needed doing on the rugby side and he’s done fantastically for us.’




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Premiership clubs agree salary cap overhaul after Lord Myners review

A ground-breaking overhaul of the Premiership salary cap has been unanimously approved by clubs.

Last month, Lord Myners made 52 official recommendations as part of his comprehensive report into the cap.

All measures will be applied, including titles being stripped for serious offences and more accountability for clubs, players and agents.

The review comes in the aftermath of champions Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership for repeated cap breaches.

However, changing the level of the cap, currently £7m, and scrapping the two marquee player allowances were not part of the official recommendations.

  • Premiership clubs given go-ahead to resume training

While former government minister Myners did call for the marquee rule – which allows two players to be paid an unlimited amount outside the cap – to be reviewed by the clubs, he did not go as far as to recommend that it should be removed.

His recommendations for the English top flight also included:

  • Greater sanctions for clubs in breach, including relegations, suspension, stripping of titles, and return of prize money.
  • Greater accountability for players, and sanctions for players in breach of their obligations.
  • Greater accountability for agents, and sanctions for agents in breach of their obligations.
  • Greater accountability for club officials, and the introduction of a “fit and proper” test for club owners.
  • Greater transparency and clearer regulations, with clearer definitions of what constitutes salary.
  • Greater power and support for the salary cap manager.

“I am immensely grateful to Lord Myners for his thorough, diligent and robust approach to conducting this review,” said Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs.

“It’s a credit to our clubs that they have acted so quickly to support these recommendations and take the Premiership Rugby salary cap into a new era. We want to create the gold standard for delivering sporting integrity, financial viability and competitive balance.

“The next stage is for us to consult with our clubs, the Rugby Football Union and Rugby Players’ Association and to enshrine these new regulations for the start of the 2020-21 season, which will be created for the long-term benefit of our sport.”

Former Harlequins and Saracens chief executive Mark Evans told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast that the Myners report was “undoubtedly” a step in the right direction, but warned a further governance overhaul at Premiership Rugby is needed.

“I don’t think our league is very well structured. I am a big fan of the salary cap, but the salary cap can’t do it on its own,” Evans said.

“It needs about 10 or 12 other things to happen if we are to build the Premiership into a sustainable league that can grow over time.”

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England head coach Shaun Wane lays out plans after Ashes cancellation

Shaun Wane is confident England’s Rugby League World Cup ambitions will not be hampered by the cancellation of this year’s Ashes series.

England were due to host a long-awaited three-match series against old rivals Australia in October and November, but that has now been shelved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Head coach Wane remains optimistic the national team will be able to get some sort of contest – even if it is against the England Knights team – this winter and is eager to set up a mid-season international in 2021, although even if those plans fall through he insists his squad will be well-prepared for next year’s World Cup on these shores.

  • Wane still striving to become better

“I will never say I am at a disadvantage to someone,” Wane said. “If we do not get any games, we will have camps, have days and sessions.

“Me and my staff just have to make them the best quality for those players. I will never ever make excuses.

“I haven’t got a fixed number of games in my mind, but I would like to have a game at the end of this year and a mid-season game.

I will never say I am at a disadvantage to someone. If we do not get any games, we will have camps, have days and sessions.

Shaun Wane

“A game against the Knights, we would get something out of that because there are certain areas we want to concentrate on and it would be a bit more intense. If that is what we need to do, and if we have two games, then I think we will be in good shape going into the World Cup.”

Wane has already considered the prospect of a revival of the Exiles concept, which saw the best of Super League’s overseas players take on the England team from 2011 to 2013, as a possibility for the end of the year.

Matches involving Wales, Scotland or Ireland, who are all planning for next year’s World Cup too, are another possibility. However, Wane is adamant any potential opponent must provide high-quality competition for the England team.

“The other day I was in the garden and I picked an Exiles team of players I’d seen in Super League, and it was a very strong team – it was as good as any Test team,” Wane said. “So, it would be great for the fans over here to watch a game like that of that standard.

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England v Australia series in October and November cancelled

England’s Ashes series against Australia, scheduled for October and November, has been cancelled.

New England coach Shaun Wane was due to take charge of three Tests against the World Cup holders in Bolton, Leeds and Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in London.

It would have been the first Ashes series in 17 years.

However, the Rugby Football League and Australia’s Rugby League Commission have confirmed it will not go ahead because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They pinpointed complications for global travel and the need to extend domestic competitions in both countries as reasons for the decision.

With the World Cup due to take place in the UK in 2021, talks have begun about possibly rescheduling the Ashes series for 2022.

RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer said: “We make this announcement with great reluctance and disappointment, as we had been looking forward so much to welcoming the Kangaroos for the revival of the Rugby League Ashes in 2020 – and the prospect of the series had captured the imagination of our players, broadcast & commercial partners, supporters and media alike.

“However, the current circumstances have had a seismic impact on rugby league, as on all other sports, and we all now need to give, in order to find solutions for the greater and longer term good of the game.

“After regular discussions with the ARLC over the last few months, combined with those within our domestic competitions, we have concluded that the right thing to do for the game as a whole is to make this decision now.”

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A financially stretched RFL were, in part, dependent on the Ashes tour happening to help swell their coffers. All matches were also to be broadcast live on BBC television.

Rimmer has acknowledged that the cancellation is a financial blow, adding: “It will have a considerable impact on the finances of rugby league here in England, as we were banking on a significant boost from Australia’s first full tour since 2003.

“But as I have said regularly to all parts of the game since the seriousness of the situation became clear, we are all going to have to make sacrifices, and financial adjustments – and we should stress again our gratitude to the government for the significant support they provided at the start of May, which will help us to deal with this major setback.”

The cancellation also leaves England, at this stage, without any games planned for new coach Wane ahead of next year’s World Cup. The RFL will be under pressure to organise a worthwhile fixture for mid-season next year.

Andrew Abdo, the interim chief executive of the NRL, said: “It is disappointing that the historic Kangaroos tour to the UK can no longer take place in 2020. We look forward to the Rugby League World Cup in 2021 and hopefully a tour to the UK by the Kangaroos in a future season.”

Fans who have already purchased tickets to the Ashes are able to either claim a credit for a ticket to attend any major rugby league event in 2020 or 2021, including the 2021 World Cup, or claim a full refund.

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Match Report – Sydney 28 – 12 South Sydney

The latest instalment of the oldest and fiercest rivalry in Australian rugby league ended in a 28-12 victory for the Sydney Roosters over the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Friday but it was quite unlike any of the 246 derbies that preceded it.

The third match after the resumption of the NRL saw action return to Sydney with the Roosters, champions for the last two seasons, taking on the Rabbitohs on neutral ground in Parramatta.

Australia might have made great strides in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the nine weeks since the league was suspended but social distancing restrictions remain and the Western Sydney Stadium was empty.

The few media allowed in along with the teams and officials had their temperatures checked and were required to answer a questionnaire about their recent movements before they entered the 30,000-seat arena.

The Rabbitohs, part-owned by Hollywood actor Russell Crowe, are among the most popular teams in the country but the only support visible on Friday were a few dozen cardboard cutouts that fans had paid to have propped up on empty seats – including a cutout of Dominic Cummings.

All eyes were on Latrell Mitchell, the hugely talented indigenous back who switched between the clubs at the end of last year and was facing his former Roosters teammates for the first time.

Mitchell, great nephew of Australian tennis great Evonne Goolagong, also made a positional switch after moving to Redfern and again struggled with his positioning at fullback.

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