Rugby League: Showcases fail to hide cracks in the face-lift

Super League's spectacular finals disguise a game still struggling to find security. By Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
THE DOMESTIC season ended on an invigorating high at Old Trafford on Saturday night. A record-breaking crowd, a contest of great intensity between Wigan and Leeds - it was very much what Super League had in mind when it adopted a new method of deciding the leading side this year.

It was also the third in a series of successful set-pieces this season. There might have been more empty seats than usual at Wembley, but those who were there saw one of the most unforgettable of Challenge Cup finals, with Sheffield Eagles upsetting all the odds to beat Wigan.

On a more modest scale, the First Division Grand Final - the first of its kind - also produced a compelling contest between Wakefield and Featherstone.

If you had only watched those three matches, the unavoidable conclusion would be that the game in Britain is in vibrant good health. Well, yes, but only up to a point. The showpieces might have been good, but any examination of what is going on beneath the surfaceshows that rugby league would be foolish to conclude that everything is in good order.

Take the Super League season, for instance. The leading teams produced some mighty contests and the overall standard of rugby was an improvement on last year, but there are as many clubs going backwards as forwards.

Last season's runners-up, the London Broncos, have lost their way and their coach; Bradford have merely lost their way. Sheffield, despite their cup success, have failed to attract the support they deserve. The future of Hull is in the melting pot again, as is that of Warrington. Teams such as Salford and Huddersfield have simply failed to be competitive.

There are too many lame ducks in the pond for the term "Super" to be applied to the competition without a measure of irony. Any scrutiny of the clubs' attempts to become successful reveals that they are still addicted to spending money they do not have; the salary cap has been watered down and compromised - the numbers do not add up.

Super League's proposed response to this is simplistic and misguided. They are falling for the old fallacy that more games equals more income. Ask any player or coach, however, and they will say that any improvement in the quality of Super League matches this year has been overwhelmingly due to one factor: playing once a week. Throw that away and the game risks ruining its current progress.

That is where Wakefield Trinity come in. Those in charge of Super League have previously been dismissive about the First Division champions' ability to compete at the higher level, but now they might need them.

As with so much else in rugby league, it comes down to arithmetic. With the addition of Gateshead, Super League is lumbered with an odd number; put Wakefield into the equation and clubs get two extra games on weekends which would otherwise have been blank, thus cutting down on the midweek matches required to take them to the desired total of 30 games.

It smacks of the Great British compromise and opens up the possibility of Trinity getting the nod this week; not because anyone thinks they are really up to scratch, but because they have become an administrative convenience.

Even in a successful season, Wakefield have attracted meagre crowds to Belle Vue. That is a problem common to all clubs outside Super League, as well as some within it.

The contest for the First Division, in particular, was extremely well- balanced and produced any number of exciting games. But the profile of the competition is subterranean, although that could be helped by a terrestrial television deal next year.

Apart from putting an optimistic gloss on everything that went before, that pulsating night at Old Trafford on Saturday leads nicely into the revival of international rugby league. International competition has been the main casualty of Super League's intervention in the game, so much so that a series between full strength Great Britain and New Zealand sides over the next three weekends will be a novelty to many.

The evidence that it has been a stimulating domestic season at the top end is there in the Great Britain squad, with a wealth of young players - such as Iestyn Harris and Adrian Morley at Leeds, Lee Gilmour and Simon Haughton at Wigan, and Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe at St Helens - who have ability, youth and ambition on their side.

No game that produces a Harris or, more recently, a Gilmour, is anywhere near bankruptcy when it comes to talent.

It says a good deal about the current state of affairs, however, that the squad is dominated by three clubs. The gap between the best and the rest is as wide as ever and that is something the game must address - and address more effectively than a half-hearted salary cap and a lot of good intentions are doing at the moment.

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