The wooden spoon is now an integral part of the rich tapestry of rugby league, and most fans dread their club’s moments of wooden spoon shame as much as they cherish the occasional euphoria of premiership glory.
The memory of ‘winning’ the spoon is hard to shake, but where does the term come from, and is there an actual spoon involved?
According to the impeccable sources of Wikipedia, in the 18th century a wooden spoon was awarded by the students of Cambridge University to their fellow student who scored the lowest marks while still being eligible for a third-class degree. The spoons were actually awarded and came to be quite large and more elaborate over time. It was a bit of a student prank.
The tradition made its way into UK rugby when the team finishing last in the UK domestic rugby union competition, the equivalent to today’s Six Nations Championship, was said to be the recipient of the wooden spoon, an ignominious title.
So like many things in rugby league, including the game itself, the term ‘wooden spoon’ has come to us from rugby union.
Having very much made a home for itself in the NRL, the competition is rich with wooden spoon stories.
The defunct Western Suburbs Magpies hold the record for the most wooden spoons with 17. That’s a pretty high wooden spoon strike rate in just 92 years of competition.
Both Parramatta and Manly entered the competition in 1947, and while Manly are yet to win the spoon, Parramatta have done so on 14 occasions with a similar strike rate to the Magpies. Parramatta also hold the record for the most consecutive wooden spoons, with six between 1956 and 1961. Dark days indeed.
The back-to-back wooden spoon has been achieved 30 times – Parramatta six times; Wests and Sydney University five times; Newtown three times; Souths, Newcastle and the Gold Coast Seagulls twice; and North Sydney, Canterbury Bankstown, Eastern Suburbs, Illawarra Steelers and the South Queensland Crushers once each.
Statistically back-to-back spoons are won 26.5 per cent of the time, or on average at least once every four years. The Newcastle Knights were the last club to take out back-to-back spoons in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, so we’re due for a back-to-back performance.
Of the current 16 clubs, only Manly, New Zealand, St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers are yet to take out the spoon. With the exception of Manly, all of these are relatively young clubs, which makes Manly’s achievement in avoiding the spoon even more remarkable. Even the Storm has won the spoon, doing so in 2010 when they had to play for zero points due to their salary cap breach. Tough luck.
The Broncos broke through in 2020 and won their first-ever spoon and, understandably, nobody involved with the club was happy. So what are the chances of the Broncos holding on to the spoon in 2021? I’d say very good. In fact it’s really theirs to lose.
Let’s look at how the Broncos shape up in their quest to go back to back.
Firstly, they have an even poorer playing roster than that which managed just three wins last season with a horrific points differential of -356. On a positive note, they’ve let Darius Boyd go, which can only strengthen both their squad and defence, but they’ve also lost David Fifita, easily their best player when on the paddock, and Joe Ofahengaue, who has the talent to be one of the top front-rowers in the game when he puts his mind to it.
Add to that the fact that Kotoni Staggs, who was easily their best player last year, is likely to miss most of the 2021 season with injury and things are looking properly grim.
Their only signings of note are Dale Copley, who could be fairly described as a steady player, and John Asiata, a useful bench player at best. When you look at their probable spine, it’s hard to see where their points are coming from this year.
Secondly, their new coach is Kevin Walters, who has little coaching experience and none to speak of in the NRL. Walters is a Broncos legend and by all reports a terrific bloke, but is he made of the stuff to turn the Broncos around? I personally don’t think so, as this has to be the most difficult coaching assignment in the NRL.
Brisbane expects success and they’ll expect it almost from the first weekend. Failing to make the finals next season isn’t an option for Walters. There can be no rebuilding phase here. If they don’t get off to a good start, expect the Brisbane press, the fans, us social media hacks and the Broncos good old boys to start calling for blood. We saw how that ended up last year.
Their only real hope of avoiding the spoon is for another club to step forward and snatch it from their grasp. So are there any contenders?
Well, you can safely rule out any team from last year’s top eight, as while a couple, like Newcastle and Cronulla, might just slip out of finals contention, they won’t drop far enough to trouble the Broncos in their pursuit of last place.
The Gold Coast Titans look to be one of the big improvers next year and may finish in the top eight. No joy for the Broncos there.
The New Zealand Warriors appear to be building some momentum and have seriously reinforced their already powerful forward pack. They’ll improve on their 2020 performance provided Nathan Brown and Phil Gould can work together.
Wests Tigers have lost both Harry Grant and Benji Marshall along with fortunately a lot of deadwood but have otherwise recruited reasonably well. They may struggle for points next season, however, so they just could challenge the Broncos in the race to the bottom.
The St George Illawarra Dragons appear to be on an upward trajectory following the departure of Paul McGregor, the appointment of new coach Anthony Griffin and the decision to finally give some of their talented youngsters a go. They had their chance to pick up the spoon in both 2019 and 2020 but failed to capitalise.
Manly had a terrible year with injuries in 2020 and their 2021 recruitment isn’t all that impressive, with the exception of the addition of Keiran Foran. If Tom Trbojevic makes it onto the field, I expect his combination with both Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans to drag Manly back up the ladder and possibly all the way into the top eight. They’ll have to wait a little longer for their chance at the spoon.
The North Queensland Cowboys won just two more games than the Broncos last season, but their for-and-against tally was over 200 points better. They have a new coach in Todd Payten, and even though not much has happened on the recruitment front, they have a more than useful spine and the ability to score points. They’ll certainly be a contender for the spoon, though, if they aren’t able to keep their key players on the field for most of the season.
Canterbury-Bankstown avoided the spoon last season only by virtue of a substantially better points differential than the Broncos. They have a very strong forward pack next season but lack a top-line five-eighth and hooker, so they may struggle to turn a strong go-forward into enough points next season. They have to be a serious contender for the spoon next season.
So there you have it. For my money the Broncos already have one hand on the 2021 wooden spoon and are a real chance to go back to back. It’s theirs to lose. Who knows, perhaps a three-peat isn’t out of the question.
Their only hope of avoiding the unwanted prize next season rests in either the Tigers, Cowboys or Bulldogs having an even worse season than they did in 2020. The key for each team, as always, will be getting off to a good start and having some luck with injuries. This may be the Broncos’ best chance for a while of picking up back-to-back spoons, and they look like red-hot favourites to me.