1996: The shape of things to come

Rugby League: Wisdom of new look on the line
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If 1995 was the year of revolution in rugby league, 1996 is the year in which we will see whether the new regime works.

This time last year, the idea of summer rugby was something that was discussed casually over a few pints. Super League was a term bandied about in Australia to denote kicking out a few of the weaklings. Now we have both; not at some time in the distant future or on the other side of the world, but here, starting at the end of March.

Like anything in a state of flux, the game currently generates more questions than answers. What we know is that after the expiry of this lame duck of a transitional season at the end of January, most of the Challenge Cup will be squeezed into the gap before the start of Super League. At the end of the first summer season, there will be play-offs involving the top European and Australasian clubs, concluding with a final in Sydney, leading into a British tour of Australia and New Zealand.

That is the bare bones of it, but there is so much that remains uncertain. Will Paris make the starting line? Will the Australian end of Super League be able, legally, to kick off? How will we fit the Challenge Cup - or the Regal Trophy, for that matter - into the calendar in future years? Will the world play-offs seize the public imagination? Will a tour confined to Super League players playing against each other ring true?

On a domestic level, there is an optimistic assumption that simply playing in better weather will bring in bigger crowds. Clubs who believe that are in for a rude awakening; they will have to work as never before to attract people at a time of year when there are far more counter-attractions.

The game is already a fast-moving, top-of-the-ground affair and it will move further in that direction. It is highly accessible, even to the unindoctrinated; in fact, they often warm to it more readily in the form into which it is evolving than its old devotees. Whether that message of broadening appeal will get through very clearly when it is battling for space against the Olympics, football's European Championship, Test cricket and all the rest is a moot point.

The other key point, however vigorous the attempt to sweep it under the carpet, is that rugby league will now be directed by an outside commercial interest. They go red in the face at Red Hall House - the RFL's headquarters - over reminders of this, like the Independent's recent revelation of the transfer clause in Super League contracts, but it is self-evidently true.

The world does not abound in media moguls who give you pounds 87m and then let you carry on as you see fit. News Corporation will call the shots, either directly or through its placemen, over when to play, how to play and - when it suits them - who plays for whom. It is an insult to the intelligence to pretend otherwise.

It could work out reasonably happily - and, God knows, the money was desperately needed. But anyone who cares about the integrity of the game, as well as its surface glitter, will need an endless supply of vigilance.

PREDICTION: Wigan to dominate even the much-changed domestic scene, but to find the world title just beyond them.