Spring into Super League: late start will create season spectacular
There is a long-running joke in rugby league that the only thing you can really predict with any certainty is sheer unpredictability. Never was that more evident than in 2020, as Super League finished a season many felt would be impossible to restart because of Covid-19 in the most spectacular way possible, with St Helens’ last-gasp Grand Final victory against Wigan. Oh, and throw in the ignominious expulsion of Toronto Wolfpack, and £28m in game-saving government loans, too.
So just another typical year, then: followed by a typical off-season. Hours before the new season starts on Friday, there were boardroom developments hogging the headlines again, when the Huddersfield owner, Ken Davy, was confirmed as the interim chairman of Super League while a permanent successor to Robert Elstone is found.
You will have heard before just how big an upcoming season is for rugby league’s future, but the 2021 campaign will truly define where the sport goes in a way that no year in recent memory has.
Davy says: “There is a real sense for unity in the game, and the emphasis must be on what happens on the pitch, not what happens at boardroom level.” He certainly has a point. For too long, rugby league has obsessed over authoritarian restructure and neglected its on-field product which, on the evidence of last year’s Grand Final, remains as attractive as ever. But the sport is in the final stages of a negotiation with Sky Sports over a renewed TV deal which will undoubtedly shape both its short- and long-term future.
It is widely acknowledged there is no chance rugby league will get the same deal as before, worth about £40m per year. That is likely to profoundly affect the lower leagues rather than Super League, but until those discussions are concluded, we can at least take solace from the fact there is some actual rugby for us to enjoy this weekend.
Starting in late March as opposed to late January could be fruitful for the game, too. The grounds are firmer and the weather is milder, meaning Super League players have a chance to go all guns blazing, and entertain from minute one.
The Warrington coach, Steve Price, says: “Clubs haven’t had an opportunity like this for a while. With a longer pre-season, the players are fitter, and the clubs have a chance to showcase some good stuff from the very start.”
It is a sentiment shared across the competition. Castleford’s Daryl Powell says: “With the way we want the game to look, the later start is great. The sun’s out, the pitch is firm and it’s hopefully going to reflect well on the quality of the game.”
The pandemic and the impact it has had on the calendar have potentially offered rugby league an unlikely opportunity to reset its schedule, trim the fixture list and become the bona fide summer sport it was when Super League was launched amid a blaze of glory in Paris in 1996. The players will be fitter than ever, with longer off-seasons, and the quality of entertainment is likely to increase.
But the significance of 2021 for rugby league unquestionably goes beyond Super League. People in the sport have long spoken of building a legacy to attract new fans; nothing quite gives you a platform to do that like a World Cup on home soil. Many major sporting events were pushed back into 2021, but the Rugby League World Cup in England has long been scheduled for this autumn.
Super League executives are mindful that a strong domestic season will lead directly into a strong World Cup for England, and vice-versa. There is often talk in the corridors of the Rugby Football League of how victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England catapulted rugby union to new heights; the same outcome for Shaun Wane’s side this autumn would likely have a similar impact.
But before all of that comes the hustle and bustle of Super League. It is a fascinating season on paper: five or six sides, including the usual suspects such as St Helens and Wigan, will realistically fancy their chances of lifting the title. Newly promoted Leigh are favourites, but not odds-on, to go back down.
With fans hopefully returning to stadiums in the near future, league can look forward with cautious optimism after all the trials and tribulations of 2020, when the sport’s very existence hung by a thread. It has been another winter in which boardroom travails have dominated the agenda – but on Friday, there will finally be a welcome distraction to enjoy.