Converted starting to lose their faith

Since taking Murdoch's millions, the Super League has run into problems. Dave Hadfield looks for a cure to the game's ills
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The Independent Online
Last Wednesday was, even for the true believers in the flawed concept, the saddest day so far for Super League.

In almost eight tortuous hours at Wigan, the game's ruling council did everything it could to demonstrate that the vision of a vibrant, expanding game held out when rugby league took Rupert Murdoch's pounds 87m last April was a mirage.

Their main task sounded straightforward enough: to decide whether South Wales should be "fast-tracked" into Super League.

If the declared aim of a truly national competition, reaching out to new areas and new audiences, meant anything, then the answer had to be yes.

But then the clubs discovered something that stopped them in their tracks. Admitting South Wales to their top table would cost each of them five per cent of their Murdoch money - around pounds 45,000 per season for existing Super League clubs.

"We can't commit ourselves to that," said those clubs' representatives. So away they went, postponing a verdict on the Welsh initiative until next Friday.

That gives South Wales a very good chance of dying of neglect, something which would be worse than merely missing another opportunity.

Without a Super League club, there will be, within a couple of years, no viable Welsh national side and no European Championship. Given that the one tangible result of Super League worldwide has been to wreck the international calendar, that would be a further self-inflicted wound that the code cannot afford.

It suits the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, to be able to shake his head in exasperation at the council's incompetence. The more incompetent it appears, the greater the likelihood of even more power being concentrated with Lindsay and his board of directors.

But the game's central administration cannot wash its hands of responsibility for the shambles last week. It is another example of the lack of foresight in the mad panic to grab the money last April.

The result of that panic is that the structure is not right. The season is not long enough to be financially viable, especially with gates at their current, bitterly disappointing levels. Clubs such as Wigan and Leeds, to quote the two biggest, are playing fewer games in front of fewer spectators.

Even Lindsay now admits that there was a miscalculation; a belief that the deal had to be done at break-neck speed before Super League and the Australian Rugby League came to terms and Britain's value as a pawn in the battle went through the floor.

Fifteen months later, that settlement is no closer, but in the frenzy of the time the money was all dished out as sweeteners to ensure that clubs voted for the revolution, leaving nothing in the pot actually to finance any progress towards the situation that Lindsay predicted so grandiloquently - with clubs in major cities in Britain and beyond.

Already, the League has had to cream some cash off the Super League clubs' allocation to keep their smaller brethren in line and then some more to finance the game centrally.

Now, it is clear to even the doziest members of the council that the addition of any other club to Super League will involve hacking away at each club's slice of the cake still further. So, far from it being easier to expand the code, it is considerably more difficult.

One consequence of the hours spent on the South Wales question was that all the other gripes and worries that have been gathering momentum this season were ignored.

A sign of just how deep the doubts run, though, came when Alex Murphy said publicly what others are saying in private - that the game should switch back to winter.

The idea that a move back to winter will cure all the game's ills is as specious as the mirror-image illusion of summer rugby as the universal palliative 18 months ago, but Warrington's football executive would attract a good deal of instinctive support. His club is certainly one of a majority to have derived no appreciable benefit from summer rugby so far.

"I've seen that people are blaming the fact that we're playing in summer," says Chris Caisley, the chairman of the one club really to have thrived on the change, the Bradford Bulls.

"I find that pathetic. Some clubs need to have a look at themselves and ask whether they should be in Super League at all.

"My vision would be for them to go and make way for South Wales, a team in Newcastle and one in the Midlands. Clubs that have done nothing to make Super League work should ask themselves whether they deserve to be in it.''

When you compare Caisley's blueprint with the current reality, it is clear that the game has missed its big chance to restructure itself. A Super League planned on the basis of geographic spread and catchment areas would have deserved the name Super; instead, the League messed it up with a hopeless attempt at forced mergers followed by a retreat to the status quo. Small wonder that Caisley came out of the meeting looking grim, but he believes the game could yet adopt the radical changes that are needed, with relocations and amalgamations back on the agenda.

"I think my own club should merge, with Halifax or Leeds the obvious candidates. What a power that would create!" And this is the club with more reason than any to be pleased with its progress.

"We have worked really hard, but we look over our shoulders and see nothing happening.''

Those who waited for the Rugby League Council to make something happen last Wednesday know what he means.