Are you looking forward to the new rugby league season? If you are, it is almost certainly because you are a rugby league nut who would watch endless re-runs of a 4-4 draw between Keighley and Rochdale from a cold Wednesday in 1982 if it were the only rugby league available.
If you’re not looking forward to it the first thing to say is that you should be. Despite attempts to dilute it to death with set completion and going through the processes, rugby league remains the most exciting sport in the world for me. Which may or may not be because there is a top flight team on my doorstep but regardless, the fact that the forthcoming season is an exciting prospect is inarguable to those steeped in the game, however much we may moan about Matty Smith’s kicking game. If you’re not looking forward to it then it is likely to be because you didn’t know, before you read the opening preamble of this post, that it was actually happening. It's not exactly been promoted with any great enthusiasm by its paymaster broadcasters at Sky, nor do the national press ever go out of their way to give it a push when there are perfectly good union snoozefests to blather on about. Or the latest playground tussle between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
It is easy to blame the media and I often do, but rugby league is not really helping itself at present. The game is in a bit of turmoil as we prepare to enter the 23rd season of Super League in just 16 days from the time of writing. Amid whispers of yet another change of structure we don’t quite know whether the 2018 season will be the last of the marmite that is the Super 8s format, and whether those battling it out to avoid relegation at the end of it will actually be in any jeopardy at all. Whichever way they go the issue needs sorting out fast. We just can’t let the 2018 season begin without knowing exactly how the sport is going to be structured for 2019 and beyond. Well, that would be like going into a four-year parliament cycle propped up by religious zealots at huge expense without really knowing whether they are going to back you on the major issues. And who in their right mind would do that?
The great sticking point in rugby league at the moment is that it is the clubs, rather than the governing body the RFL, who are charged with making the decision. As great as it is, ours must be one of the few sports on the planet that has a governing body that is all but powerless, totally in thrall to the wishes of the self-styled giant clubs at the top of the British game. Yet even they aren’t bullish enough to do away with the concept of democracy altogether. They need to agree on a way forward and the fact of the matter is that at the moment that agreement is beyond them. Do they want to keep the present Super 8s system? Do they want to move to 14 teams in the top flight? Will promotion and relegation stay, or be deferred for a period of time? They just can’t decide, hence there has been no announcement about what will happen after the grandly titled Super League XXIII draws to a close in October.
The removal of the much maligned Nigel Wood from the top job in the RFL has been celebrated by many amid old jokes about finger buffets and the demise of Halifax, but while Wood prepares to impart the same lack of influence on the international game in his new role in the RLIF it has left the RFL rudderless and even more powerless. Andy Burnham is the kind of personality the game needs, a man who seems to carry real political weight. Yet his recent appointment to the role of RFL President seems largely ceremonial and it is unlikely that he will have any real effect on the way the organisation conducts its business and runs the game. He’ll be around to present cups and shake hands at all the right times, while offering a stream of positive vibes about the game, but he won’t stride into Leeds on horseback and order the Rhinos hierarchy to run a reserve team, nor issue any edicts about how many teams should be in each tier of the structure and whether or not there should be movement between divisions. There is nobody steering the ship and it is somewhat out of control at just the wrong time.
One of the principal reasons why the issue of structure within the leagues is so difficult to resolve is that anything outside the top tier of Super League is still viewed by most clubs as the sporting wilderness. The lack of a proper television deal for the Championship has rendered that competition a graveyard to be avoided at all costs in the minds of those in Super League. Sky currently hold the rights to Championship games but steadfastly refuse to broadcast them, with the exception of the Summer Bash in Blackpool, that one-off fixture at the Magic Weekend between Toulouse and Toronto, and the Qualifiers at the end of the regular season. You get the feeling that as long as this is the case the top flight clubs would like to pull up the drawbridge now and abolish relegation once more, but they’re in a bind over the fact that there are probably more than the requisite 12 clubs who could reasonably be expected to put together a decent Super League club. What to do with the excess?
Some have suggested that a move to 14 teams is all but inevitable, and that the decision to include the Toulouse v Toronto Championship fixture in this year’s Magic Weekend is a foreshadowing of that. But what if we kept the present structure of 12 clubs and instead worked on strengthening the second tier so that it would be a more enticing proposition to the broadcasters? If we could establish 20 clubs of a similar standing in terms of their infra-structures there could be scope for two leagues of 10 clubs, with a two-up, two-down promotion and relegation system in which the drop to the lower level would not necessarily mean the financial abyss and crowds of 500. All would be expected to run reserve and academy sides so that competition at that level would thrive also, and players coming into the game would not fall into the bottomless pit that is the current gap between the under-19s and the first team. It’s a given that we need to have solid foundations in place at the very lowest age groups, but it is just as important that we don’t lose those players who have just got a foothold in the game because they can’t quite make the jump from under-19s to Super League.
In amongst all this moaning and doom and gloom there is plenty to be positive about. Justin Holbrook is talking about the importance of a home semi-final, meaning that we won’t be entering the season with the dubious aim of just about reaching the top four as we have done in the last couple of years under Keiron Cunningham. Ben Barba is a Saints player, and in Danny Richardson, Mark Percival, Regan Grace and Luke Thompson we have some of the brightest prospects in the British game. Away from Saints Hull derbies are back on the agenda with the promotion last term of Hull KR to join what is already a formidable Hull FC side under Lee Radford, while Warrington’s overhaul under Steve Price looks interesting. Best of all, Wigan look like they are going to be decidedly rubbish and I think we can all agree that is something we can enjoy together. But big decisions have to be made about the long term future of the game and they have to be made quickly if the game is to prosper in the coming years.