Super League kicks off its 20th season this week with an extra question hanging over it: how can it hold on to its Burgesses? Not content with the four Burgess brothers – Luke, Sam (now playing rugby union), Tom and George – Australia’s National Rugby League has now lured the unrelated Joe.
After just one, highly productive season at Wigan, the 20-year-old winger has confirmed that he will join the Sydney Roosters from 2016, which, if it was inevitable, has come much earlier than his home-town club would have preferred. “I’d have been annoyed with myself if I looked back and didn’t take an opportunity like this,” he explained.
It is a reminder that Super League cannot really compete at the top end of the international market; its success needs to be built on different foundations. It needs a flow of talent and the right competitive structure – two ways in which it can attempt to keep Australian raiders at bay. There were further encouraging signs of the former when the England Academy side – the lads a year or two younger than Joe Burgess – beat the crack Australian Schoolboys a few weeks ago.
And now the Rugby League have made the most radical changes since the advent of Super League and summer rugby in 1995. Out goes the system of fixed-term licences after six years. Instead, we have a Super League – with London and Bradford relegated – and below that the Championship, both of 12 clubs.
At the end of their home-and-away fixtures, those clubs will form three leagues of eight for one season. Thereafter they will revert to two lots of 12, with the top eight retaining their Super League places – and the top four playing off for the right to contest the Grand Final –while the bottom four in Super League will compete with the top four in the Championship for the remaining places in the elite division.
The aim, the RFL say, is a season where every game means something. However, there are already fears that the cutthroat nature of the restructure will induce short-term thinking, with clubs breaking their backs and their bank accounts to try to avoid relegation or gain promotion.
It is possible to read the recruitment by some as a mark of panic. Hull KR have shown the equivalent of an entire team the door and signed a new one. At the other end of the spectrum, Leeds have signed just one new face, while Wigan have made a policy of not signing an overseas stand-off to replace the departing Blake Green.
Leeds’s hopes of breaking into the potential Lancashire hegemony could hinge on the readiness of some of their younger players to step up. That is a policy which has always served them well, but they have never put more faith in their youth development than they are doing this year.
Another theme is faith in British coaches. There are only two Australians holding down jobs in Super League now – an all-time low.
There is understandable scepticism about how feasible it is going to be for a Championship side to play their way into Super League, but if anyone can it is the Leigh team, so very well coached by Paul Rowley.