THE new Super League campaign begins in just three weeks - here, Phil Wilkinson highlights five areas the game needs to address in 2015...
Make no mistake, the new competition format marks the biggest shake-up to Super League since the introduction of the Grand Final in 1998. It’s a fine line between madness and genius, and only time will tell which side the RFL – and the majority of clubs which backed the change – have fallen with the radical new structure.
Under the system, two 12-team divisions – Super League and the Championship – will compete for 23 rounds, before splitting into three leagues of eight for the rest of the campaign. It’s been branded as ‘every minute matters’ – and it may make the season more exciting.
The play-offs has been cut from eight teams to four, a move widely welcomed. An eight-team play-offs was ludicrously generous, rewarding a team in the bottom-half of the ladder with a crack at winning the title, while giving the bigger teams the luxury of cruising through the domestic campaign.
Now, competition has really been ramped up, and it should be an intense battle for the likes of Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Warrington - especially if Catalans, Huddersfield, last year’s surprise package Castleford and big-spending Salford fulfill their promise.
With only two play-offs matches before the Old Trafford decider, it should also avoid the embarrassing sight of half-empty stadiums for the deciding semi-finals.
And for the ‘lesser’ clubs, the Widnes’, Wakefields and Hull KRs of this world, the risk of falling down a tier – and the subsequent risk of missing out on the following year’s Super League – should add intrigue to even the least glamorous of fixtures.
So far, so good.
So where’s the problem?
The trouble is, the new concept is confusing. And if many players don’t yet understand it – and they don’t – then what hope have passive fans got?
There is a danger this new concept will alienate potential new fans – rather than entice them.
The RFL has produced a website video to illustrate the new structure, but it isn’t enough; much more needs to be done over the next month to ensure that – when Widnes and Wigan kick-off the new campaign on February 5 – all spectators and viewers know what they’re playing for, and what is at stake.
Expect the debate to rumble on all year. When Kevin Sinfield – one of Super League’s most diplomatic figures – says something needs to be done to raise the cap from its current £1.85m, you know it’s a big issue.
Salford owner Marwan Koukash is among those concerned at the number of stars being lured by the bigger money on offer in the NRL and rugby union. The NRL has a wage ceiling of more than £3m; English union’s premiership is £5.5m.
There are some club bosses happy with the current limit, and why shouldn’t they be? A bigger cap would mean they have to spend more. But the biggest opposition to the case for a rise is that it would widen the gulf between the top and bottom clubs – and create more one-sided games.
With a new lucrative TV deal and a brighter portfolio of sponsors, the game’s finances appear to be in ruder health than just a couple of years ago.
But if outfits such as Wakefield still aren’t spending up to the £1.85m maximum now, what hope would they have against team spending even more than that amount?
Currently, clubs which produce England players are allowed to spend up to an additional £100,000 – so Wigan, in effect, have £1.95m to spend on their top 25 players.
But a previous clause discounting part of the wages of a homegrown player was scrapped.
Koukash’s idea for a union-style ‘marquee allowance’ – meaning one star’s salary wouldn’t count on the cap – was shot down by his rival chairmen. Shame, because that idea may have proved a compromise between those happy with the current cap, and those wanting a raise to lure or retain the sport’s most bankable stars.
Rugby league risks being further marginalised in the national sporting psyche if it doesn’t scream for attention.
Super League and its clubs need to think big.
Bigger than their own websites.
Bigger than Twitter.
Look at the Challenge Cup - everyone loves it, but everyone knows it could be bigger and better.
Meanwhile, on Sky Sports, there’s been a distinct lack of Super League trailers and festive compilations to whet the appetite, while their BackChat programme has been shelved.
And with many national newspapers - and their websites - ignoring the sport, league can not afford to be passive – it needs to market its stars and thrust them onto the big stage.
Since Sam Tomkins’ departure more than a year ago no other player has come close to matching his profile.
The Magic Weekend in Newcastle gives the sport something fresh to work with. So, too, does the World Club Series.
Rugby league faces a challenging year. With the Premier League beast consuming so many headlines and so much airtime, other sports are left to compete for attention. And with a rugby union World Cup and cricket Ashes series looming, league has its work cut out.
The sporting landscape has become even more congested as American sports make inroads into the UK; basketball and gridiron are staging further competitive games here this year, the UFC is growing in popularity (it has a category on the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail websites; rugby league doesn’t), darts has gone big-time, and athletics and cycling are still basking in the glow of their 2012 spotlight.
Rugby league needs to be aggressive if it is to grow. Think big. Think outside the box.
A sport aiming to stay still will only go backwards.
The shake-up to Super League has, sadly, not altered the reserves system. Clubs will still field Under-19s teams, which have no allowances for players older than that age.
So any fringe players not in the first-team frame must keep fit by playing on dual-registration – a week-to-week loan system – for lower-league clubs (in Wigan’s case, for Workington). It has not been without its flaws and controversies.
The one league game Leigh lost last season was against a Doncaster outfit featuring several Hull FC players on dual-registration. Keighley threatened to sue the RFL over the system. And, incredibly, until a year ago, overseas players were prevented from playing on dual-registration – which meant Bradford Bulls’ Adrian Purcell was denied a lower-level match, despite being out for nearly a year since a heart attack!
It appears money – or their distinct lack of it – is the reason many Super League clubs oppose the return of a reserve team competition, but surely there is space for compromise; the old Under-21s competition, which allowed up to three open-age players, seemed much less problematic than the current situation.
And there’s a fresh problem.
There is more at stake for Championship clubs in 2015 – thanks to the competition shake-up offering a pathway to Super League – and so week-to-week dual-reg movements will be blocked after round 23 (when the Super 8s begins) to try and reduce the scrutiny – but where are the fringe players going to play from July?
Wigan’s rugby manager Kris Radlinski admits it is a problem, and one they hope to solve by arranging reserve-level friendlies. Wouldn’t a return to a U21s competition (allowing three ‘open age’ players) solve the problem?
This was supposed to be the year the Great Britain name was revived. Trouble was, Australia wanted a break from internationals, and so told the Lions to stay home – prompting England to organise a three-game series against New Zealand instead.
The successful World Cup was supposed to usher in an exciting new era for international rugby league.
But the Kangaroos’ continued reluctance to join the party – they will only play two Tests in 22 months – is doing the sport no favours.
Not even the loss of the NRL’s biggest stars, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess, to union has jolted them into breaking their blinkered attitude. This year is expected to see the appointment of a chief executive to the toothless Rugby League International Federation – which will hopefully see things improve.
Because league fans deserve much more from their administrators. Samoa, for example, were widely praised for their performances in the Four Nations – yet when will they next play? Who knows.
Thankfully, while it will be nearly two years before England tackle Australia again, fans here will get a chance to see some of their top stars in action next month.
The World Club Series, involving three Super League clubs and three NRL outfits, is a step in the right direction. But it needs transparent qualification: Brisbane and St George Illawarra are involved despite finishing 8th and 11th respectively, while Warrington are only taking part because Huddersfield and Castleford turned down the chance.
It needs to involve the top-three teams of Super League and the NRL to gain credibility ... as well as the imagination of supporters, old and new.