Rugby League: Level playing field promises tight contest

The Northern Ford Premiership begins a strange new rugby league season on Boxing Day.
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The Independent Online
IF THERE is one bigger risk a sport can take than switching its playing season, it would perhaps be to switch it back.

That is what the Northern Ford Premiership is doing, at least partially, by starting its new campaign on Boxing Day, in the obvious hope that winter rugby will lure back the supporters that summer has failed to reach.

On the one hand, the move to a half-winter, half-summer timetable reveals a worrying confusion about just what it is that they think will draw in those missing fans. On the other, we should be grateful to the NFP. By starting early, they at least bring an end to a close season that has been little better than a disaster for the game. The Association of Premiership Clubs has played its full part in the chaos, but it has been a victim of it as well, not being able to say until 10 days ago how many teams it would have and who they would be.

That issue was resolved when a new Sheffield Eagles club was, unlike Huddersfield and Hull earlier, admitted to the competition. The fact that they will be the only club not to receive their full share of funding from the remainder of the News Limited kitty gives them a clear handicap, but the Premiership still promises to be a more even contest than last year, when the gap between top and bottom was too great.

"For the first time, the clubs outside Super League are all on the same footing, apart from Sheffield, who will still, according to their business plan, be one of the better funded clubs in the division," says the APC's chairman, Bob McDermott.

"It's a level playing field and, for the first time, it's impossible to predict who will make the play-offs."

The 18 clubs in the NFP will this season be competing for eight play- off places, with the ultimate Grand Final winner gaining the right to apply for Super League membership, as Wakefield did successfully in 1998 and Hunslet did unsuccessfully this year.

The most ambitious NFP clubs earlier this year were Widnes, with their sparkling ground and expensively assembled team, but they could not quite match their ambition with their performances on the field.

They were, along with Leigh, one of only two clubs to go against the general trend by recording an increase in gates. Both have recruited widely again this time, with Leigh bringing home two of the town's exiled sons, Paul Anderson and Simon Baldwin.

They also have the NFP's coach of the year in Ian Millward and, as such impressive performers before they simply ran out of players last season, their extra depth this time makes them logical favourites to win it, or go very close to doing so.

Hunslet have to pick themselves up after the disappointment of having the door slammed in their faces and have lost several members of their Grand Final-winning side. The same applies to the team they beat, Dewsbury, although Neil Kelly, brother of Wakefield's upwardly mobile Andy, has shown a rare ability to get the best out of players.

One-time powers in the land like Hull KR and Featherstone are regrouping, but several of last season's under-achievers could be the big improvers.

Barrow were always an attractive, attacking side and need only to tighten up their defence to make the play-offs; Swinton should start to respond to the coaching of Mike Gregory and Oldham, back in their home town and with a favourite son in charge in Mike Ford, should rise up the table.

While most Premiership clubs have, with varying degrees of reluctance, been cutting their costs - and there should be no such thing on average gates of 1,291 as full-time players - last season's backmarkers, Doncaster, have been moving in the opposite direction, hurling contracts around with abandon.

And then there is Sheffield. Assembled at cut price at short notice they might be, but that does not stop them being an appropriate symbol of regeneration for the Premiership.

Under Mark Aston, they could even rediscover a little of their old pioneering spirit. You do not have to be a plc, capable of turning a profit for shareholders, in order to survive and even thrive at a level where the game might be parochial but is at least rooted in reality.