Saints' success cannot disguise a multitude of sins

Dave Hadfield looks back at the first season of the Super League, which produced plenty to cheer on the field but a lot to worry about off the pitch, where the outlook for many rugby league clubs is bleak
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The Independent Online
The first season of Super League is all over bar the afterthought of the Premiership play-offs. How it has been depends almost entirely on where you look.

Keep the blinkers on and concentrate entirely on what has happened on the field of play and the situation does not look bad.

Despite the misgivings of traditionalists about changes to the rhythm of a game which has, after all, been in a state of flux since 1895, there have been as many compelling games as ever and even more pace and athleticism on show.

That is not, for all the Super League propaganda, because they have moved the game to the summer and given it a new name, but it does have a lot to do with playing once a week. If there is one element of the revolution that must be preserved, whatever the future holds, that is it.

For the Super League scriptwriters, the season has worked out almost too well. Paris have survived, London have made the top four and, best of all, there has been a changing of the guard at the top, with St Helens displacing Wigan and completing the illusion of a fresh start. It could hardly have been stage-managed better.

Saints deserve immense credit. Under Shaun McRae they have added patience and consistency to their traditional flair. But, in their hearts, they know that Wigan have been hauled back to the pack as much by their financial crises as by St Helens. In any other season, Wigan would have reacted to their lack of depth by buying rather than hiving off their players to all and sundry, league and union. This time they were denied that option and their oldest rivals have cashed in.

Part of Wigan's problem is their falling gates, and the level of attendances this season has been the subject of even more debate than the standard of play. This is where a broader focus than on the rectangle of grass presents a more disturbing picture.

When it comes to announced crowds, this season has been a novel experience. After decades of thinking "there seems more here than that," I have spent this year thinking precisely the opposite. Some clubs seem to have given the attendance that comes into their heads, or what they think the market will stand. Some have had people laughing out loud. Figures have not so much been massaged as taken into the back room of the parlour for all the extras.

Even taking the "official" figures as gospel, most clubs still show a decrease from the last full-scale winter season in 1994-5, with only St Helens, Bradford Bulls and the increases from a base of nil or close to nil recorded by Paris and London going significantly against the tide.

It is equally wrong to claim, as some clubs are doing, that a previously healthy situation has been ruined by summer rugby. But if the justification for the switch was, as we were told, that the game was dying in winter, then it is still dying now.

That does not mean it is dead. It was always going to be monumentally difficult to persuade the public to adopt a whole new set of habits. It is one thing to accept the general proposition that watching games in the sun is preferable to doing the same in the sleet; quite another to choose to do so ahead of all the other options available on a summer's day.

Certainly the idea that mum, dad and the kids would go to Blackpool and come back in time for a 6pm kick-off on a Sunday has proved to be unsound.

Evening matches have been a flop, except, of course, for Bradford, where the right combination of a successful, attractive team, an energetic marketing strategy and the space in which to stage a match as an event has produced a winning formula.

Attempts to package the game more attractively elsewhere have varied from the mediocre to the toe-curlingly awful. Super League has been a bonanza for third-rate lookalikes and sky-divers who miss the target.

And then, as ever, there is the bottom line - the financial condition of the game. It is, in a word, dire.

The drip-feed of money from the Murdoch coffers is not rescuing clubs from the curse of balance sheets that do not balance. There are some who will claim that it fails to compensate them for the loss of revenue from season tickets, advertising and match sponsorship that they have suffered this year. And that is without them even making a serious effort to meet the more expensive strictures of the League's "Framing the Future" document, with its standards for facilities and administration to which clubs are supposed to conform.

The bigger clubs' solution to this, which they will probably succeed in voting through at the next meeting of the Rugby League Council on 11 September, is to divide the cake up differently, with Super League clubs getting more of the News Limited money and First and Second Division clubs, assuming those divisions still exist in the same form next season, less.

That will be enough to drive a few Bramleys and Yorks to the wall. If the cull was to be made on the basis of the scale of financial incompetence, however, it is some far bigger names that deserve to die.

The big guns should beware, though. The contract with News Limited that not all of them have bothered to read specifies that any club, however small, failing to make the start line for next season is sufficient reason for Murdoch to pull out of the deal, reclaiming that season's hand-out as he goes. Prescot, for instance, have only to threaten to call in the receiver to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

There are other aspects of that contract, which have leaked out via Australia, that confirm all the worst fears over the extent of News Limited's control of the game. They can, despite all that has been said to the contrary, determine the games that the League can play, and where and when it can play them. The RFL "cannot adopt any changes to its bylaws inconsistent with its News agreement."

Its hands are tied. Until such time as Murdoch pulls out it must do as it is told. It is not a happy wider picture; thank God the rugby has been good.

Dave Hadfield's verdict

MAN OF THE SEASON: Shaun McRae, for turning St Helens into winners.

CLUB OF THE SEASON: Bradford Bulls, for showing that summer rugby can work.

GAME OF THE SEASON: St Helens' victory over London Broncos at The Valley.

MOST UNLOVED INNOVATION: Squad numbers.

PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR: Bradford beating Wigan with 12 men.

BIGGEST FALL FROM GRACE: Leeds' transformation from wealthy runners-up to broke relegation candidates.

MOST IMPROVED TEAM: London Broncos.

MOST DOMINANT PLAYER: Bobbie Goulding (St Helens).

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