The Super League at 10: thrills, spills and bellyaches

The domestic season provided some wonderful highs, writes Dave Hadfield, but persistent problems remain to be solved
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The Independent Online

The 10th season of what seemed, in 1996, such a radical departure has been a resounding success at the turnstiles. Attendances are up again overall. Remarkably, only the eventual winners, Bradford, have shown a decrease and that only a tiny one - a legacy of their struggles in mid-season.

Everyone else has achieved an increase and it is particularly eye-catching that Wigan's gates have gone up by 2,000 in what has been a dreadful season by their standards, in which they have been squeezed as never before on their home turf by the alien code of association football.

The Grand Final was a sell-out for the third year in succession and is now firmly enough established as a major sporting occasion in its own right for it to not to matter two hoots that the Challenge Cup final is now a mere two months earlier.

That change has affected the rhythm of the season - but for the better. The game's oldest trophy now no longer seems like a pre-season competition and it was fitting that its new place on the calendar should have been marked by the most memorable performances of the year.

Hull, under the Cup specialist John Kear, perfected the art of peaking at the right time, especially for their semi-final against St Helens and the final victory over Leeds at Cardiff.

They might have faded out ignominiously with a 70-point play-off débâcle at Bradford, but they still count as the success story of the year.

Their experience showed that it is going to be desperately difficult for any side to do the double. In fact, that achievement could become as rare as it was in the old days of winter rugby, when winning the Cup and the Championship within a couple of weeks of each other proved beyond most clubs.

Leeds found that they had a little too much on their plate, which left the opportunity for Bradford to come through the field and become the other side to defy the odds.

It had become conventional wisdom that to win Super League you had to finish first or second at the end of the regular season. The Bulls have shown that there is another, albeit more arduous way of doing it.

It has been an interesting season for plenty of other clubs. St Helens - Bradford's only rivals as the great successes of the Super League decade - experienced a cataclysm in mid-season when they decided to sack their coach, Ian Millward, after allegations of gross misconduct.

They might have regrouped successfully under their new coach, Daniel Anderson, but they ran out of bodies in key positions during the play-offs.

Millward's new club, Wigan, started to run out of players before the season began. Extensively rebuilt, they will be back in contention in 2006.

Warrington have much to look back on from 2005, including their trail-blazing ploy of bringing over the world's best player, Andrew Johns, on a short-term loan.

There was a brief moment when it looked conceivable that they might make the Grand Final with Johns at the helm. It was not to be, but they are indisputably a club on the rise.

Of the rest, London - now Harlequins RL - Huddersfield and Wakefield all proved capable of beating the best on their day; Trinity's breathtaking victory at Leeds sticks in the mind.

If there is one reservation about Super League, however, it is that it remains too weak at the bottom end. Promoted Leigh had all the problems you would expect of a club with a few weeks to put a team together, but Widnes - who are being relegated, in effect, to make way for the French club, Les Catalans - were not much more competitive.

The other new side will be Castleford, who won their compelling, season-long battle with Whitehaven with surprising ease in their Grand Final. Cas maintained their support extremely well in their one season in National League One, but they are the exceptions. By and large, rugby league outside Super League does not get the support it deserves.

There are some signs of a "trickle down" of good players from Super League which should help, but the sport at this level remains a well-kept secret.

As for Super League, the standard of entertainment goes up. The actual standard of the rugby is a slightly different thing and will be tested again in the Tri-Nations, when the British leg of that tournament begins in less than two weeks.

Many of the players involved at Old Trafford on Saturday will be going straight into that competition. We ask a lot of them and, so far in 2005, they have delivered.

Dave Hadfield's end-of-season awards

* INDIVIDUAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Jamie Lyon - a magician with the ball for St Helens and a worthy Man of Steel.

* TEAM PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Jamie Peacock - an inspiring leader for Bradford in bad times and good.

* WHAT HAS HE GOT AGAINST US?

Lesley Vainikolo - who scored 10 tries in two games against Hull.

* GOLDEN OLDIE

A tie for Paul Anderson (St Helens) and Brad Davis (Castleford).

* THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT

Dave Woods - whose reward for guiding Castleford to promotion will be a return ticket to Australia.

* BLIND OPTIMISM

Terry Newton's appeal against his 10-game suspension for foul play. Predictably, the ban was increased.

* WAS YOUR TRIP REALLY NECESSARY?

Luke Davico's career-ending injury in pre-season set the tone for Wigan.

* DUE SOME LUCK

Jamie Thackray finally had an injury-free season.

* REMEMBER HIM?

Andy Farrell is rumoured to be in rugby union.

* PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Hull's Challenge Cup semi-final win over St Helens.

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