Super League seeks bit of magic to start vital year
RFL needs the bumper bill of games in Cardiff this weekend to kick off the season with a bang ahead of some big challenges in 2011
Leaving aside for a moment whether the 16th season of Super League that begins today will be – as we will be assured repeatedly – "the best ever," it is certainly one with some novel features.
For starters, literally, the season kicks off for the first time with a full programme of fixtures at the same venue, the Magic Weekend being transplanted from Edinburgh in May to Cardiff in February – the original city, Cardiff hosted the first event in 2007, but not the original time of the year.
Barring a late cataclysm, the game has got away with its gamble on the weather. The question of whether the public will warm to the concept in the middle of winter is another one entirely. But at least it produces a start to the season which is neat and has impact, unlike the farcical stop-start business of recent years. It also marks a return to the principle of local derbies and, in Super League, they rarely fail to produce something watchable.
In March, a Championship club will be told that they will be in Super League next season. In July, an existing Super League club will be told that they are not. Just about everyone expects those clubs to be a) Widnes and b) Wakefield, but that does not mean that either part of the process will be problem-free.
In between, in June, England's search for meaningful mid-season competition will usher into being an All Stars side composed of the best overseas players in Super League.
You could pick half a dozen perfectly serviceable sides of imports, but that is another story. The salient point here is that our Test team will get a proper hit-out. If it is anything like a success, the RFL will try to expand it to three matches in years to come, because that is probably as close to Australia's regional State of Origin series as we can get.
It all depends on the co-operation of clubs and they might feel that the main business of Super League is to decide the best team in the country in the most compelling way possible.
The resurgence of Wigan saw to it that that was the case last season and it is the safest of safe bets that they will be there or thereabouts again this time. Not everyone was impressed by the way they did it last year and their emphasis on winning the wrestle at the play-the-ball means that they are frustrating opponents rather than poetry in motion.
Leeds and St Helens, the two dominant clubs before Wigan came galloping up on the rails, have both called for a different philosophy. Are either of them equipped to dictate terms this time? Both clubs have a new coach – Brian McDermott at Leeds and Royce Simmons at Saints – and both men are capable of putting their stamp on their squad.
The main challenge, however, could come from Warrington. They won the Challenge Cup and then ran out of steam last time, but could have the legs to go the distance this season.
The Wolves have signed fewer new players than anyone in Super League – a mere two – but both the newcomers are high quality. After two victories at Wembley, the appetite for a Grand Final is strong.
Others capable of making a push for the top four are the two Hull clubs and Huddersfield. Both Hull and Hull KR are having trouble, however, in getting their optimum squad together and Huddersfield must adapt to life without arguably the best player in Super League over the past two years, Brett Hodgson.
If you look for clubs capable of a marked improvement on last year, the likeliest candidates are Bradford and Salford. For the Bulls, it could be a long climb back to the role of brand leaders in Super League that they once played with such aplomb, but they can start by getting back into the play-offs.
At Salford, there has been a conscious decision to make their last year at The Willows an event. They have spent big on experience and should reap some reward.
Like them, Castleford's key result of the season will be retaining their Super League status. Fortunately, there are others far worse off than they are. We hear plenty of claims that bottom can beat top – and, once in a while, they can – but, deep below the gleaming spires, Super League undeniably has a gloomy basement.
The Catalan Dragons, last in 2010, should emerge blinking into the sunlight. That leaves Wakefield, whose future looks gloomy despite the announcement of new owners yesterday; Crusaders, already with more ups and downs than Snowdonia in their short existence; and Harlequins, who, for all their grass-roots work, cannot attract a crowd or put together a winning side.
These potential cellar-dwellers bristle with defiance and will no doubt have days where they prove everyone wrong, but there is still a big gap between the haves and the have-nots of Super League – and that is despite the salary cap.
There are other issues, like the career path for young British players and the lurking threat of cherry-picking by rugby union. Negotiations over new TV contracts have already begun. Super League needs to be good. As the weekend in Cardiff is likely to underline, an awful lot of the time, it is.
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