Rugby: Now it really is make or break

Dave Hadfield on the challenges facing the new season of Super League
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The Independent Online
The second season of Super League will start tomorrow in an atmosphere very different from that in which the first began a year ago. Then, the game was exhausted from its upheavals and full of trepidation over what the future might hold. This time, there is a feeling of anticipation and excitement among the players and supporters of the 12 Super clubs. There is a confidence that the worst is over and the best is about to begin.

Let us hope that this determined optimism is not mere wishful thinking, because this is the season - which kicks off at Odsal where Bradford play Warrington - in which the new regime must work.

Even Maurice Lindsay, the Rugby League's chief executive, who originally talked cautiously of it taking three years for Super League and summer rugby to prove their worth, now believes that this will be the breakthrough season.

Despite all the drum-beating, that breakthrough did not happen last year. But then, with the game groping for its new direction and the rival attractions of a uniquely crowded summer of sport to contend with, that was not surprising.

For every St Helens or Bradford making a success of the brave new world, there was a club struggling to come to terms with it. The signs are that more will succeed in doing so this time.

For all that, there are only three sides that can win the championship. Apart from last season's two success stories, there is still Wigan, who cannot be completely written off but whose habit of winning is unlikely to be sufficiently indestructible to withstand all their other problems.

So, in all probability, it boils down to the Bulls and the Saints. Right at the moment, the balance tilts slightly towards Bradford, but, over the season as a whole, the extra experience and know-how that Shaun McRae brings to St Helens - and which proved crucial last year - could just tip the scales again.

Saints have overcome all their old temperamental frailties and, while no one is as explosive as the Bulls on their day, the title can stay at Knowsley Road. Both clubs have an unmistakable buzz about them and that should be enough to put a little daylight between them and the rest.

Of those others, there will be several who will still have memorable seasons. That should certainly apply to Salford, whose dealings in the transfer market should assure them of an enjoyable season in Super League, following their promotion as First Division champions.

If you had to select a player as the most significant new signing at any club, it would be Salford's Australian second row, John Cartwright - one of the most gifted forwards of the modern era and, in my humble view, worth the price of admission to The Willows on his own.

The side which should improve most on last season's Super League form is Leeds - and not only because they were so dreadful last year. Again, the right signing from Australia could prove crucial. The former Canberra and St George hooker, Wayne Collins, has already given them the organisation that they lacked and the future looks far brighter.

There is reason, too, to expect an improvement from Warrington. If imports like Nigel Vagana and Tony Tatupu click, they will be a top four side, possibly at the expense of London, who are going to have to grit their teeth and venture into the dreaded British transfer market if they are to match last season's efforts.

Paris Saint-Germain are already a lot more formidable than last year, but not necessarily as much fun as they were on Super League's opening night when they beat the Sheffield Eagles.

They are now almost entirely composed of discarded Australians, some of them very good players, with chips on their shoulders and plenty to prove.

Unlike the cliff-hanger of last summer, they will not be in relegation trouble. That grief seems to be earmarked for Oldham and Castleford, both clubs with proud traditions and good people involved, but without the depth of real talent needed to compete week in, week out.

All these clubs, good, bad and indifferent, will compete on a world stage this summer. That, indeed, is the defining feature of the season - the World Club Championship that will twice interrupt the Super League programme and which will lead to quarter-finals and semi-finals in both hemispheres and a final in Australia in October.

As a competition which can be easily understood and sustained over an extended lifespan, the World Club Championship makes no sense whatsoever. But that doesn't matter; it has been designed as a one-season wonder and contrived to showcase Super League's international dimension.

Its real justification, however, is that it will throw up irresistible occasions. You might be baffled by the labyrinthine complexities of the competition, but would you really want to miss St Helens versus Auckland or London versus Brisbane?

Interest in events of that calibre is already running high and that only serves to sharpen the sense of anticipation that is the prevailing mood this week. There might still be clubs in deep financial strife. There might still be too big a gap in playing standards, even within the elite division. But the action, fine-tuned to make tries a little harder to carve out, will be compelling. And, at the end of it all, there is the enduring magic of a visit from the Australian Super League international side for a three-match series.

It still is not an Ashes series with a capital A, because - barring a rapid reunification with the Australian Rugby League - the tourists will lack players of the calibre of Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies, just as Great Britain could be without ARL-affiliated players like Jason Robinson and Gary Connolly. But it will be closer to the real thing than we have had for a while. The game in Britain is not in the frame of mind to hold it up to the light to examine the water-mark.

It is gung-ho and all systems go. It is, in the phrase Lindsay still dislikes, make or break.

SUPER LEAGUE Opening fixtures: Tomorrow: Bradford v Warrington (7.30). Sunday: Leeds v Oldham (3.0); London Broncos v St Helens (6.35); Salford v Castleford (3.0); Sheffield v Paris St-Germain (3.15); Wigan v Oldham (3.0).

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