They’re coming. The changes are coming.
With just three weeks to go until the start of the new season, there is uncertainty over the shape of Super League beyond 2018.
What should be expect? A return to franchising? Ditching the Super-8s? Expand to 14 clubs? Don’t rule it out.
The clubs have already enforced major changes, with chief executive Nigel Wood stepping aside weeks after being dislodged from the board (Nigel has side-stepped into the role as chief executive of the international federation - which he was chairman of!).
Chief commercial officer Roger Draper has also walked.
Draper, a former Winstanley College student by the way, says it was always his intention to leave after two years. He didn’t last that long.
Officially, everything is quiet. Nothing to see here.
But behind closed doors, something big is taking place, and perhaps a look in the recent past provides a big clue as to what the clubs want from the competition’s future.
The owner of Batley, Kevin Nichol, told League Weekly he had seen a letter sent by Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan last October to the other top-flight clubs suggesting: “Super League should be making all the decisions on where all the (TV money) goes, and should have complete control – not the independent RFL board.”
As part of the restructure to the Super-8s model – and on the back of a new TV deal – a change was made to the way central funding is distributed to clubs. Instead of receiving around £90,000 each year, Championship clubs got up to £750,000 from central funding, dropping on a sliding scale (the team in 4th receives around £450,000).
Ian said from the start he felt that was unfair. That it has made Super League weaker.
“I’ve nothing negative against the Championship, but they have spread the money among too many clubs,” he told this website 18 months ago. “All we’ve done is dumb-down Super League.
“People are saying raise the cap in Super League... if we had more of the money that has gone into the Championship, we could raise the cap.
“Our focus should be on Super League, in that the money which comes in from broadcasting, should stay in Super League - and we would have a healthier game because of it.”
Wigan, remember, reported a loss of £600,000 last year – a shortfall which Lenagan plugged. Elsewhere, some clubs don’t spend up to the salary cap limit.
Of course, nobody wants to see lower-league clubs go out of business.
But at the same time, there seems to be a recognition that Super League has at best, stagnated. At worse, gone backwards.
“We need some young, fresh ideas in there to take the game forward,” said Hull KR’s Danny McGuire, one of Super League’s most decorated players from his time at Leeds. “We’ve got a great product... but I’m not sure at times we’ve got the right people in the right places selling it.”
There are interesting times ahead.
Wigan will be one of only three Super League clubs running reserve teams next season.
What an absolute, shambolic joke.
At a time when the talent pool is shrinking as NRL players become less and less accessible, our game responds by making our own production system worse.
Sam Tomkins described it as “madness”. It’s hard to disagree.
It hasn’t always been this way.
The second-tier had several names but, from memory, the last banner before the drastic shift to an Under-19s was an Under-21s, with an U18s below it.
There were some blowout scores in the U21s, but it was a real league. They were real games.
And the fact each club was allowed three or four open age players allowed some fringe players, or maybe coming back from injury, to play.
And it seemed to work.
Then, presumably, rugby league bosses decided they didn’t have enough problems to face, so they decided to create another one.
So they ditched the U21, in favour of the - cheaper - one academy side, the U19s.
Anyone older would have to play on dual-registration (like a ‘week to week’ loan agreement) for lower league clubs.
It was fraught with problems from the start.
At first, overseas players couldn’t go on dual-reg owing to visa rules. For them, it was Super League or nothing.
And so we had the farcical situation of Bradford’s Adrian Purtell having to make his comeback from a heart attack at Super League level. A heart attack!
No sooner had they sorted that visa issue, along came another problem - the promotion and relegation element of the Super-8s left dual-reg open to abuse of clubs bringing in ‘ringers’ from their full-time partner clubs.
To combat this, for many, dual-reg halts at the end of July. Meaning many fringe Super League are frozen out.
They are prevented from playing for any team, at any level, for the last 10 weeks or so of the season.
Their crime? For many, being 20 or 21 years old.
It’s a disgrace.
Sure, there are one or two clubs who like dual-reg’ - Leeds, for one. And it’s worth noting Hull coach Lee Radford only pulled the plug on their reserves because it was so poorly organised – he would back a real competition. Even went as far as to say he would forfeit a quota spot to get it off the ground.
But for many, they voted for this system simply to save some money.
“I understand that a reserve set up comes out of the clubs’ pocket,” tweeted Tomkins. “But surely if there’s anything worth investing in, it’s developing your own players?”
Amen to that.
And if clubs can’t be forced to run academies or reserves, then maybe it’s time to offer real, ring-fenced, six-figure incentives to clubs that do.
I hope the issue forms part of the top-level discussions taking place among clubs.
It’s the question I’ve been asked most about Wigan in the off-season; Who are they bringing in?
Aside from young Australian Gabriel Hamlin’s arrival, and Dan Sarginson’s like-for-like replacement of Anthony Gelling, there has been little movement.
Kris Radlinski’s candid interview with our sister paper, the Wigan Observer, this week cast some light on the reasons why.
Young players have contracts which increase each year.
And I don’t know the figures, but I’m guessing the three-year deal Morgan Escare signed was for more money than when Wigan took a punt on him and offered him a one-year contract – and rightly so.
Retaining existing players doesn’t generate the same excitement as recruiting new ones, but at least we know why the club haven’t moved for a big star in the off-season.
Among the other insights, Radlinski revealed Wigan are (within the rules) spending £2.2m on players’ wages - possibly more than any other club - and Micky McIlorum’s agent instigated his move away.
I applaud Rads for being so candid. If you’ve not read the piece, check it out here: Radlinski exclusive Q&A
Few things are a surprise in rugby league, but the Frank-Paul Nuuausala saga was certainly a strange one.
A coach of a semi-pro’ Australian club said a deal had been agreed; Wigan– and even the prop’s agent – didn’t know anything about it!
It’s all calmed down now, and it seems the Kiwi will be staying put.
However, the uncertainty revived the debate about his form, which was way below what he produced for the Sydney Roosters when he became a New Zealand international and earned the frankly-brilliant nickname, ‘The Wrecking Ball’.
But here’s the thing.
Frank didn’t miss a game for Wigan last year.
In fact, he was the ONLY player who figured in all of their matches, even though his form was poor.
How wrong is that?
We had in-form wingers missing out, and yet a prop not in-form played every week!
To a large extent, the situation was dictated to Shaun Wane – in terms of injuries to Tony Clubb, Ben Flower and Joel Tomkins, who all had long spells out.
The coach, who has prided himself on a transparent selection policy, didn’t really have the option to drop Frank, or any of the senior props.
And when players tell you that competition for places makes them play better, than surely the opposite is true.
Complacency can inevitably creep in, whether intended or not, when players are all-but guaranteed their places.
But with a full contingent of front-rowers now fit and firing – Ben was a bigger loss last year than some realised – and young forwards such as Sammy Kibula and Oliver Partington knocking on the door, as well as recruit Gabe Hamlin, let’s hope the increased cover and competition gets the best out of all the front-rowers.
Including the one with the best nickname in Super League.