Talking RL: ‘Finishing top deserves a bigger reward’

Sam Tomkins in action against St Helens last month
Sam Tomkins in action against St Helens last month

Sam Tomkins expects St Helens to keep their league leaders’ shield celebrations in check.

They will secure top-spot if they beat Wigan tomorrow. Failing that, it will – barring a mathematical miracle – come at some point over the following four rounds.

It will be well deserved. They have been the best team all year.

But Tomkins’ admission that he isn’t bothered about missing out on the shield – published here yesterday – raised an interesting talking point.

Look, it would be easy to read it and say, ‘Sam’s just adding a bit of spice to the derby’. And our game would profit from more players being like that.

But it wasn’t.

In early 2013, he said something similar; that winning the 2012 league leaders’ shield didn’t feel like a triumph, because they missed out on the finals.

And having been there – he has won two each of the shield, Grand Final and Challenge Cup – he thinks that is how the Saints players will look at it, too.

Outspoken? More like telling it like it really is.

Look, we can all argue that topping the league should feel like a massive achievement. But that doesn’t mean it actually does.

And former St Helens and Bradford favourite Leon Pryce echoed Sam’s sentiment on Twitter, stating: “Having won the shield more times than I can remember I can honestly say they mean nothing to me or any player I played with. The GF ring is the only thing that matters.”

Pat Richards backed that up, saying it was “all about the ring”.

Club chairmen want to finish top, because it comes with a £100,000 reward. But with no World Club Series spots to aim for anymore, there still needs a further incentive to finishing top other than a sudden-death semi-final at home. The same reward which is handed to the team finishing in second, too.

Which is why, under the structure for 2019, I’d trim, rather than expand, the play-offs.

Let the team finishing in 1st go straight to the Grand Final, and those in 2nd and 3rd face each other for the other spot.

It’s a format which would be easy to understand, it keeps the ‘play-offs’ – notoriously poorly attended – to one game, and it ensures only those who have had really good seasons have a crack at winning the competition.

If players, like Leon in his era, only remember the Grand Finals, at least let finishing top carry the reward of making it easier for them to reach Old Trafford.

As for tomorrow’s game, this isn’t a must-win derby, not really; whatever the outcome, I expect both sides to finish in their current positions and – probably – meet again in the Grand Final.

But the last few games at the Totally Wicked Stadium have been crackers, even a couple of narrow defeats for Wigan, and I expect this to be the same, especially as both sides should be refreshed after a break for the Challenge Cup Final.

On the Challenge Cup Final, I watched it in a pub in the Lake District. I swear it could have been Perpignan!

The room was full of rugby league fans and all, from what I could tell, wanted Catalans to win. They realised what the victory would mean for the sport and, on top of that, the Dragons deserved it.

Learn a bit about the history of French rugby league – it was banned by the government during the second world war, although some of the damage since has been self-inflicted – and consider Catalans were 40 minutes away from being relegated a year ago, and you see why so many welcomed their victory against Warrington.

And it was good to see those stories retold in the national media.

Tony Gigot won the man of the match – and rightly so – but ex-Warrior Micky McIlorum must have pushed him close for the Lance Todd Trophy (for whatever reason, the voting count was not released this year).

But it was a thoroughly enjoyable game and a memorable win.

Well done to Catalans.

And well done, too, to the BBC for a sterling job... even if I wish Robbie Hunter-Paul would keep off the pitch!

On Wembley, I mentioned the crowd last week.

I didn’t believe the attendance was really 50,672. Not with the entire (39,165) top-tier closed.

But inflating a Wembley crowd is not uncommon – it wasn’t until last year that thousands of empty Club Wembley seats stopped being counted on the attendance figure.

Without the risk of repeating myself, the problem wasn’t a lack of travelling fans of one of the clubs involved (understandable, given the cost for Catalans supporters) but the lack of neutrals.

When the NFL is played at Wembley, the crowd isn’t made up of 90,000 Americans!

Whisper this, but new Super League chief executive Robert Elstone could help. He has no control on the Challenge Cup.

But his job is to revitalise Super League, to broaden its appeal, to strengthen its weak position in the sporting psyche, to make it relevant, to create more stars.

If he achieves that, the Challenge Cup could be a winner as well.

On the Challenge Cup Final, did anyone see any advertising for England’s Test series against New Zealand?

Were leaflets handed out? If so, none of my friends and colleagues who attended saw any. Seems like an open goal, missed.

On promotion, the man who bankrolled England’s Test against New Zealand in Denver earlier this year has yet to pay the NZRL and RFL, according to the NRL’s website.

He has until tomorrow to do so.

Whether he does or not, the delay has raised questions about the due diligence process done beforehand, and surely raised doubts about the prospect of returning to Colorado next year.

Once bitten, and all that.

And remember, the 2025 World Cup has been awarded to North America – an “historic moment in the global development of rugby league” was how International Federation boss Nigel Wood branded the decision.

It wouldn’t be alarmist to suggest that may now be in jeopardy. Let’s hope all becomes clear, soon.

On international rugby league, a press release dropped in my inbox yesterday, informing me England’s Test against New Zealand at Anfield has been put back a day to Sunday, November 4 to avoid a fixture clash with Everton.

I feel for anyone who has already booked hotels and made travel plans.

If you think that is short notice, Australia are hoping to next week confirm a Test with Tonga for mid-October.

Next week is early September. That would be little more than a month’s notice!

Rugby league. At times, you’d cry if you weren’t laughing so hard...

On emails, another this week told me Wigan season tickets are now on sale.

Prices have been frozen, again, which is great.

Or at least, it might be.

Because we still don’t know how many games Super League clubs will have at home next year.

Wigan had 15 this year. Take out the one they moved to Sydney (which wasn’t included in the cost of a season ticket) and it’s 14.

They had 14 last year, too.

But to have 14 home matches under the proposed new structure – no Super-8s, still 12 teams – they would need to play six, extra ‘loop’ games (three at home) in addition to the 22 home and away games. If Magic is still played, that would be 29 regular game fixtures.

Without stating the bleeding obvious; a price freeze is only a freeze if you get the same thing for the same money.