After Eights: will Rugby League's big shake-up work?


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The Independent Online

The chief executive of the Rugby Football League, Nigel Wood, is spending much of the week before the game is turned on its head again walking across the country to commemorate the RFL’s 120th anniversary and raise money for its charities.

There are cynics who suggest that it will be less strenuous for Wood than sitting at his desk trying to explain for the umpteenth time just what is happening after this weekend.

That, in a nutshell, is a redesign of the RFL’s three professional divisions so that, in the words of the League’s pre-season publicity “every minute counts”. Instead of a season in which clubs either reach their play-offs or are left to prepare for next year, they will all have something to play for going into the autumn.

In Super League, that means that the top eight will form one mini-league, the Eights, while the bottom four in Super League and the top four in the Championship make up a middle eight, the Qualifiers. In both cases, the eight sides will play one another once.

The top four in the elite eight go into the play-off semi-finals, with the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford still their goal.

Much of the drama and intrigue, however, is likely to be in the middle strata, where in theory the four, usually semi-professional, Championship clubs could defeat their Super League opposition and take their places. That won’t happen, but struggling teams like Wakefield and Salford could be vulnerable to a Bradford or, especially, a Leigh.

Wood admitted that the success of his innovation hinges on that middle eight showdown being competitive. “If we go for three years and no Championship side has managed to win promotion and they’ve all lost by big scores, we will have to ask the question about whether we’ve got it right,” he said.

There are signs that one aspect, at least, is already working, because the interest at the top of the Championship has undeniably been intensified. Bradford and Leigh drew 36-36 on Sunday, for instance, in a match that was as compelling as anything Super League could offer, in front of a crowd of 9,181.

In Super League, some issues remain to be resolved this weekend, although, barring miracles, the top eight is settled. Either Leeds, at home to the Catalan Dragons on Sunday, or St Helens, at home to Hull KR tomorrow, could finish in first place. Wigan, at Hull tonight, could sneak into second if Saints slip up.

Huddersfield, who entertain the hopelessly adrift Wakefield on Sunday, should confirm fourth spot, with the advantages that brings.

But even this, highly simplified run-down of the changes, raises a question. How many spectators, or potential spectators, will understand it all?

“They said that when we moved to a play-off system 16 years ago,” said Wood. “They said it was an alien concept and no one would ever understand it, but now it’s recognised as one of our real strengths. People have been very accepting of what we are now trying to do.”