RUGBY league faces challenges at the end of every season, this year more so than most.
Sadly, the sport has failed to build on the success of last year’s World Cup, which introduced thousands of new fans to the game.
England have not played a game since their agonising semi-final defeat to New Zealand at Wembley last November, in what was widely described as one of the best Test matches of all time.
More than 7,000 spectators turned up at Bristol to see USA face Cook Islands 12 months ago, but nothing has been done to keep those people interested in rugby league.
There are some European Championship fixtures coming up this month, but they will be poorly-promoted and draw only small crowds, certainly compared with last year’s festival.
That is disappointing and a missed opportunity, but the code also faces issues on a domestic level – not least the threat from rugby union and a general feeling of discontent with the governing body.
The salary cap here means Super League can no longer tempt top-quality players from the Australaian NRL – unless they are not wanted over there because of poor off-field behaviour – and there is an increasing drift the other way.
Perhaps it is time to bite the bullet and allow an exemption for marquee signings. It would be better to have Sam Burgess playing rugby league for Salford than union for Bath and if that means Marwan Koukash’s club have an advantage over poorer teams, so be it.
The biggest challenge facing clubs and the RFL over the winter – and at any time – is to get more money coming into the game. The salary cap has levelled the playing field, but it has evened down rather than up.
Whoever lifts the trophy at Old Trafford in two days’ time, Super League will have had only four different winners since it began in 1996 and just six clubs have Grand Final experience.
The competition this year was closer than ever, but it would be hard to argue the standard has improved.
The top-eight play-offs system has not worked and the RFL are addressing that through the new format being introduced next year.
But it is ironic licensing is being abandoned at a time when it is beginning to show results – highlighted by the improvements Castleford Tigers and Widnes Vikings have made this year.
The task facing the RFL is to convince the paying public the new format – which sees the various leagues combined into new divisions mid-way through the year – is a step forward.
Phil Bentham will referee this weekend’s Grand Final and that highlights another issue. It is five years since someone other than Bentham or Richard Silverwood took charge of a major domestic final and the lack of competition among referees is doing nothing to raise standards.
Match officials – both video referees and the men in the middle – are exerting too much influence on the outcome of games and that is deterring potential fans, who also seem increasingly unhappy with the way the game is being run.
As an example, Keighley Cougars have confirmed their intention to take legal action following relegation from the Championship.
That stems from the decision to deduct points from Doncaster and Batley Bulldogs for each fielding an ineligible player, only for that to be overturned on appeal.
It was a totally avoidable farce, which has caused the RFL a major headache and thrown into question the controversial dual-registration system , something introduced for financial reasons rather than to benefit the sport.