At the Rugby Football League’s headquarters, they are calling this season the start of a new era. That might be pitching it a little too high, but there will undeniably be more structural change this year than in any season since the inception of Super League and summer rugby almost 20 years ago.
The mechanics of the new format are rather convoluted. The key to it is that after the 12 Super League teams – reduced to that number by the relegation of Bradford and London Broncos – have played each other home and away, they and the 12 Championship clubs will be split into three mini-leagues of eight.
At the end of the season, they revert to two lots of 12. The top four in Super League will have a straightforward pair of semi-finals to decide who goes through to the Grand Final at to Old Trafford.
The bottom four clubs at the split will play the top four in the Championship and the top three from this process will be in Super League next year, along with the winners of the “million pound game” between those who finish fourth and fifth.
Small wonder that some critics, like Warrington’s Tony Smith – the longest-serving coach in Super League – fear that it could all be a recipe for confusion. On the other hand the proponents of the change, led by the RFL’s chief executive, Nigel Wood, are extremely bullish about the new formula and adamant that it will make the game more intense and dramatic.
Did it need that? There has been a slight fall in gates – which is to be expected if you insist on playing matches on a Thursday night – and there was a general mood that the eight-team play-off at the top of Super League tended to produce too many one-sided games involving sides not good enough to be there.
The difference now is that the teams around seventh, eighth and ninth in the table, who were playing for little better than a hammering if they scraped into the play-offs, will now be fighting for their Super League lives against the likes of Leigh and Bradford from the Championship.
Some believe this will result in more short-term thinking on both sides of the divide, but the system of fixed-term licences has done little to protect clubs from themselves. Witness the financial problems that afflicted Bradford who – like London, if for different reasons – will be missed from Super League, but at least under this structure have an immediate chance to return.
Even those strongly for or against admit that we will not really know whether it is going to work until we see it in operation.
Other differences this year include an expanded World Club Championship, pitting the top three British clubs against three from Australia later this month.
The Magic Weekend, a popular fixture at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium in recent years, moves north to Newcastle, where the city-centre location should work well for fans to come and go during the six-game programme. Clubs in the Championship have their own equivalent in Blackpool.
On the field, the changes in custom and practice are supposed to include a lighter hand in the application of the obstruction rule, which was over-used last season. Referees are also being encouraged to opt for the sin-bin for a wider range of offences.
What Super League, in particular, needs is more unpredictability of outcome, as provided for most of last season by the unexpected success of Castleford. If any team is to come through the pack this year it could be the Catalans Dragons, but only if their big signing, Todd Carney, behaves himself.
After him, the most striking name among this year’s new imports is Terry Campese at Hull KR, but that is a different sort of gamble – one based on the fervent hope that Campese, nephew of the Australia union legend David, will remain fit.
The most influential newcomer could be the Fijian forward Ashton Sims, who is capable of putting the little bit of extra devil into the Warrington pack that was sometimes missing last year. Throw in the signing of the reigning Man of Steel, Daryl Clark, and the Wolves might have enough to earn themselves the title.
It is a remarkable fact that this year’s highest-profile overseas signing has been made not by a Super League club, but by Leigh of the Championship. Fuifui Moimoi, the charismatic and destructive Tongan veteran, has been welcomed to the club like the great imports of the mid-80s – Lewis, Kenny, Sterling and Co – were welcomed to Britain.
The arresting thing about Super League this year is how self-sufficient it has become. Only Warrington and Hull KR have overseas coaches, while expensive antipodean imports are becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Quietly, during the autumn, there was reassurance that this trend does not leave the cupboard bare. The England academy side, which looked on paper to be well below full strength, beat the crack Australia schoolboys. What is more, they did it not by trying to play like them but with what used to be called the “British-style rugby”.
There were signs of that at full Test level as well, when England produced some exhilarating stuff in the Four Nations in Australia and New Zealand, but still managed to find a way to lose to both host nations.
Like the World Cup a year earlier, the sheer quality of the entertainment was a great advert for rugby league. What the game has failed to do again, though, is to build a real international infrastructure on the back of that success.
England will not play again until the New Zealand tour in the autumn and close contests are virtually guaranteed when the Kiwis come to town. That is what rugby league, at all its levels, is striving for in 2015.Reuse content