RUGBY LEAGUE has a reputation for whackiness unrivalled by any other sport.
It is often deserved. Probably the leading recent example was the deal which gave away naming rights to the Super League competition in return for advertising on the side of lorries.
Then there was the idea of allowing a team to choose their opponents for one of the most important games of the season, in a play-off competition which nobody understood and which offered a team finishing in the bottom half of the table an opportunity to be crowned champions.
That was an initiative which the governing body claimed other sports world-wide were considering. None took it up, for good reason and it has now been very quietly dropped.
That’s the good news surrounding the new format which has been introduced this year. The bad is it has been replaced by a system which promises to be every bit as controversial.
Explain the sport’s new three-eights format to a non-supporter and inevitably he or she will roll their eyes, tut and mutter something about “typical rugby league”.
Part of the problem is, it sounds overly complicated. After 23 rounds, Super League and the Championship – now each made up of 12 clubs – will split into three new leagues of eight. The leading octet will form the Super-8s, leading to first versus fourth and second v third semi-finals for a place in the Grand Final.
Super League’s bottom four and the leading quartet from the Championship will play seven more matches and at the end of that mini-tournament – known as the Qualifiers – the first three will retain or gain a place in Super League, with the fourth and fifth-placed teams playing off for the final spot in the top-flight, in the so-called Million Pound Match.
The rest will go into the Championship Shield, run on similar lines to the Super-8s, but with the bottom-two at the finish being relegated.
The idea is to make every game meaningful, both in the weekly rounds and after that. Teams will no longer be able to cruise through the season and then hit the accelerator in the play-offs, as Leeds Rhinos have been accused of doing in the past.
Even scraping into the top-eight won’t be enough. In the Super-8s points earned in the first 23 rounds are carried over and the top-four have an extra home game. Finishing below fourth will give a team a major disadvantage in the race for Old Trafford, which wasn’t the case under the previous system.
All that’s good in theory, but there are issues. Fans understandably may be unwilling to commit to a season ticket when they don’t know who their team will be playing in the final few games of the campaign, or how many of those matches will be at home. With promotion at stake, the Qualifiers will be tense and hard-fought, but the odds are stacked against the current Championship sides, who have fewer resources and will be playing against lesser opposition for most of the year.
Consider how rare it is for a Super League club to lose to lower-league opposition in the Challenge Cup. And the new format has been introduced at a time when licensing finally seemed to be bearing fruit, as proved by Castleford Tigers’ and Widnes Vikings’ presence in the play-offs last year.
That said though, many of rugby league’s innovations do work and are taken up by other sports, for example: video referees, blood-bins, championship play-offs and sin-bins, all of which were doubted when initially introduced.
The new format is here for three years at least, so the sport needs to get behind it and give it a chance. There is potential for real excitement at both ends of the table this year and, if they suffer a run of injuries or some poor form early on, it’s not impossible that one of the supposed big clubs could be dragged into a battle against relegation, or at least avoiding the bottom-four.
The mindset of players and coaches has to change, but they are often creatures of habit and that is easier said than done.
It’s all fascinatingly poised and if nothing else, there are going to be some real talking points this year.
Bring it on.