Talking RL: Uncertainty over Super League future casts a shadow over season launch

Sean O'Loughlin will be hoping to lift Wigan back into the top-four
Sean O'Loughlin will be hoping to lift Wigan back into the top-four
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It’s snowing in Yorkshire – a clear sign it’s time for another ‘summer’ Super League season!

The new campaign kicks-off tonight and we’re all wondering: Who will climb? Who will slide? Which of the ‘big guns’ will miss out on the play-offs?

All good questions.

Related: Wigan second-favourites with bookies

Sadly, there are also some questions we can’t yet ask.

Like: Could a team be relegated at the end of the season?

We don’t know.

We don’t know, because we go into the campaign not knowing what the structure is for 2019.

The relegation-deciding ‘Million Pound Game’ may just be a ‘Game’ at this rate!

It’s all because the clubs, led by Wigan’s Ian Lenagan, have become frustrated at the direction Super League has been heading – ‘backwards’, some would say – and are enforcing changes at the top.

They want more of Sky Sports’ money to remain with the Super League clubs, rather than be filtered out among the lower-league outfits.

Long-term, the hope is it makes the top-flight stronger.

But the uncertainty over the structure for 2019 and beyond has cast a shadow over the start of this campaign.

And yet...

I’m still excited about the new season. Because – as usual – while we can’t rely on the men in suits to do their jobs, we can rely on the men in different coloured kits: the players.

I’m looking forward to seeing Wigan this season.

I want to see how they respond.

I want to see other clubs, too; Thursday night TV will be a lot better now Super League is back, starting with Warrington-Leeds tonight.

And what really excites me is the race.

Because, ultimately, only four teams will make the play-offs at the end of the season.

And yet I count six teams – Wigan, Warrington, St Helens, Leeds, Castleford and Hull FC – who look capable of making the Grand Final mix.

We only need Wakefield, Catalans or Huddersfield to come good, and the battle at the top will really intensify.

Interestingly, the bookies have Wigan as second-favourites for Grand Final glory.

But the absence of any big-name arrivals, the loss of Micky McIlorum to Catalans and the disappointing end to last season has prompted some to tip them to finish fifth or sixth.

I’m more optimistic than that.

The return of Ben Flower and Morgan Escare from injury, the fact Sam Tomkins starts the season fit (and has had his first pre-season in years), the extra competition for prop spots and the talk of changes at the club has me thinking they can have a successful, and enjoyable, campaign.

Their chances, of course, depend greatly on the strength of their opposition.

Does anyone look much stronger than last year?

Leeds have lost Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, Hull FC have lost Gareth Ellis and Mahe Fonua, Castleford are missing Zak Hardaker – have they been adequately replaced? And even if they have, will they be flying straight away?

St Helens have had little turnover in the off-season, but look strong. Warrington? They’re anyone’s guess. They’ve got all the tools to be successful, but they are in transition. I hope Catalans improve, and in Micky McIlorum they have a player capable of tackling their soft-underbelly, but will they fulfil their promise?

Wakefield have punched above their weight recently – will they keep it up?

And how will newly-promoted Hull KR, with Danny McGuire pulling the strings, adjust to the top-flight?

All interesting questions.

It’s just a shame that on the day the new season starts, there are bigger, more important, questions still left unanswered.

When Nigel Wood announced he was leaving his role as chief executive of the Rugby Football League, he said: “It’s important to know the right time to go.”

He then side-stepped into the CEO’s role of rugby league’s international federation – a body which he was already chairman of – and, on Monday, League Express report he pocketed a £500,000 severance pay-out.

Oh, and he’s still being paid by the RFL as a consultant for future franchises... which required him to fly to New York on business.

You seriously couldn’t make it up, could you?

This, remember, is a game which says it’s too strapped for cash to run a reserve or Under-21s league!

It’d be easy to blame Nigel for taking the compensation, but who on earth signed if off?

It’s shameful. Absolutely shameful.

Mentioning reserves, any regular reader will know my thoughts on the farcical situation.

I’ll not repeat myself here.

But the clubs’ solution for not having a reserves is to send fringe players, who are too old for the Under-19s, on dual-registration with a lower-league club.

Castleford have a dual-reg agreement with Halifax. Yet this week, they’ve loaned players to two of Fax’s Championship rivals, Featherstone and Sheffield, who themselves have dual-reg deals with Leeds and St Helens respectively.

What a mind-boggling mess.