Rugby: A grand platform to build upon

Dave Hadfield believes Super League finally came of age in its third season
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THERE WAS something in the swagger of Super League's assorted suits after the success of the Grand Final last Saturday that said: "Follow that."

The tendency towards triumphalism would be understandable. Thanks to Wigan and Leeds, the organisation had emerged smelling of roses from an event that many had expected to go off at half-cock.

But the more appropriate emotion would have been relief. As with the World Cup three years ago and Super League's matches "on the road" this year, the players and fans had pulled the game out of the mire once more.

The Leeds and Wigan players produced a close, compelling contest. The game's supporters - so reticent at times this year - responded by being prepared to turn out, 43,000 of them, at a lousy time on a lousy night to see it. In better conditions, Old Trafford would have been astonishingly close to full. The presentation was right, the atmosphere vibrant and, by far the most important, the game lived up to its billing.

Its success bodes well for subsequent years and it shows how quickly a good idea can catch on, but it only worked because the right teams were there. That's the trouble. Imagine Old Trafford with a different combination of clubs in the Grand Final and it immediately becomes a much less saleable product.

Even the Leeds' chief executive, Gary Hetherington, as much a part of the warm after-glow as anyone, admits that until you can put on something equally spectacular involving any two of eight or 10 teams, Super League will not truly have lived up to its promise. The game is as far away from being able to claim that as ever. In fact, the salary cap has widened the gap between the best clubs and the rest by putting a greater premium on good housekeeping.

Leeds are able to claim, since the expensive - but well justified - signing of Iestyn Harris, that all their improvements have come from picking up players free and getting the best out of them with good coaching. It is also a fair bet that Wigan's Grand Final-winning squad is cheaper to run than last year's, which won nothing. The contrast between them and clubs which have spent more on getting worse is startling.

And yet the overall standard has undoubtedly risen. A year ago, British clubs were cringing in embarrassment at their performances in the World Club Championship. Graham Murray went from taking the Hunter Mariners to the world final to taking Leeds into the Super League Grand Final and he has no doubts about the progress made during the intervening 12 months. "This sort of game can only benefit British players. Teams like us and Wigan could give the likes of Brisbane a good rattle-up," he said.

The New Zealand tourists arrived just too late to see the match, but they watched it on television later. "It had all the intensity of an Australian Grand Final," said their senior forward, Tony Iro, who first played with Wigan 10 years ago. "It's improved out of sight."

For all that its propagandists might claim, the improvement did not happen as soon as Super League came to birth - quite the reverse. Shaun Edwards was right when he said in a recent interview: "The first Super League season was crap. It was like touch rugby. People were running up and down all over the place, you had to jump off the tackles, run back 15 yards and scores were like 38-34. I don't believe people want to watch that crap. They want see some crash, bang, wallop."

Or, as one Australian said after seeing a Super League match that season: "I have seen the future of rugby league - and it's basketball." Fortunately, it was not. Last year was better, but its limitations were shown by the way that a team as one-dimensional - although as awesomely effective - as Bradford could win 20 matches in a row.

This year has come pretty close to getting it right. The balance between attack and defence has been good and there have been more competitive matches than not. When it comes right down to it, that, rather than even the most glittering showpiece, is how it should be judged.