Lindsay faces up to a summer of discontent

Dave Hadfield reports on the growing calls for an about-turn on Super League
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The Independent Online
If the stance of professional rugby league clubs tomorrow matches their pre-match rhetoric, they will tell Maurice Lindsay they have seen the future promised by Super League - and that it does not work.

The League's chief executive will face an increasingly querulous membership of the decision-making Rugby League Council at Wigan tomorrow afternoon. More than half-way through the first summer season, most of them are asking what on earth can be done to put things right.

The problem is not the quality of the game. There have been as many memorable matches as ever, but Super League and summer rugby is not working. Clubs who believed that simply switching to warmer weather would bring extra supporters through the turnstiles have been swiftly disabused.

There are bright spots. Bradford Bulls have built on the enthusiasm stirred by their trip to Wembley, and there is a genuine buzz on summer matchdays at Odsal, and London and Paris have had their moments.

But attendances elsewhere, even using figures which often look inflated to seasoned observers, are alarming. The two blue-chip operations, Wigan and Leeds, are struggling along on gates averaging less than the last, lame-duck winter season; others would kill even for those modest crowds.

If a game can be worse off for the injection, albeit drip-fed, of pounds 87m, then rugby league is. Even with virtually nothing happening to improve the dreadful state of many grounds, clubs' extra overheads are outrunning their hand-outs.

Among the solutions which will be mooted will be reverting to two divisions of 16 teams each. Others favour two 15s, with the last four clubs in the Second Division cast out.

Although the agenda for the meeting is a deceptively brief document, it also includes applications for fast-tracking into the Super League from South Wales and Huddersfield.

South Wales make geographic sense but will have trouble meeting the required financial guarantees; Huddersfield have the perfect stadium, but other Super League clubs are already battling for attention within a short bus ride.

What the existing Super League clubs want is basically contradictory. In their headlong rush to grab the Murdoch money, they disregarded the obvious fact that a 12-team competition means 11 home games - no more, no less. Now they want more games, because that is always their instinctive answer, but they do not want to share their money with other clubs.

Others, if they have the nerve to go through with what they talk of privately, will press for something more radical. They will urge a return to a winter season for the First and Second Divisions, if not the whole of the league.

That is how quickly disillusionment with summer rugby has set in. Sunday night matches have proved a miserable flop, but there is no guarantee that switching to Sunday afternoons or Friday nights will be any better. Perhaps the public, despite all the hype, really does not want rugby league in the summer.

Lindsay's argument is that this is a uniquely difficult summer with Euro 96 et al. But looking at the sporting timetable for the next few summers makes them all look rather difficult.

That is not to say that it is impossible to make a go of the change of seasons; merely that the league and its members will have to go about it far better than they have, in general, so far.

They can make a move in that direction by admitting South Wales and pledging to spend far more of their windfall on improving stadiums than on creating one very well-paid generation of players. That would be a start - and Super League cannot truly be said to have got off to one yet.

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