FINALLY, THE players will get an opportunity to put a smile on rugby league’s face.
The sport may have had a more depressing off-season, but it’s hard to remember when.
The Four Nations, which closed last year, was a disappointment on and off the field.
England did what they always do, by living down to expectations and the conduct of coach Wayne Bennett, supposedly appointed to bring pride back to the Lions, let down himself and the game here in front of a wide audience.
Then Bennett was due to take his top players to Dubai for a training camp last month, though –ridiculously – he didn’t plan to be there throughout.
That caused much unrest among clubs, who naturally didn’t want their preparations disrupting less than a month before the start of the season and was eventually cancelled at great cost, both financially and in terms of credibility.
Three high-profile players, including last year’s leading Super League try scorer, have walked out on contracts since the last game of 2016.
The Rugby Football Union and Sale both stirred the ill-feeling which still exists – if at times below the surface – between the two codes with their behaviour over Denny Solomona’s defection.
Legal action is being taken by Castleford Tigers and the result will be hugely significant, not just for rugby league. Whatever the legal rights and wrongs, morally Solomona’s walk-out left a bad taste.
He wasn’t exactly pulling up trees during his time with London Broncos, who won just one game in his season there and the big money he is on at Sale – a club who have had their own recent issue with player loyalty – is largely due to the work Tigers put into him.
James Segeyaro and Chris Sandow were two other players who turned back on Super League.
Unfortunately, the competition has became an escape route for big names who fall out of favour in Australia’s NRL.
Clubs in Europe often reap instant rewards, but it rarely works out in the long-term, though there have been exceptions.
Maybe it’s time for a rethink.
Then there was the Bradford Bulls saga, which has dominated headlines for the past couple of months.
Nobody has come out of that smelling of roses. The RFL took the soft option – ‘least-worst’ by the governing body’s own admission – by admitting the new Bulls (retaining the same ground, name, colours and some players and staff from the defunct outfit) to the Kingstone Press Championship, with a 12-point deduction.
They should have been made to start again in League One.
Whether a dangerous precedent has been set, only time will tell.
As is becoming evident, it is not what’s actually true that matters, it’s what people believe to be true.
The RFL has an image problem and an increasing number of the sport’s stakeholders – clubs and fans – are growing dissatisfied with the way the game is being run.
That is something the governing body needs to address this year.
Listening to the dissenting voices and accepting that not everything in the garden is rosy would be a positive step.
The gloom can be lifted. After the Championship began last week, Super League kicks off tonight and an opportunity to focus on matters on the pitch, rather than away from it, is hugely welcome.
As a competition Super League needs a new name on the trophy, or at least in the final. This could be the year. Wigan, Warrington and Saints won’t be far away and it will be interesting to see if Hull build on last term, or fall away, but a new force could be emerging.
Castleford Tigers have built a formidable squad and are the most entertaining team to watch in Super League.
If they can sort their defence out – and a 22-6 win in their final pre-season game, at Saints, was a positive sign – they could go all the way this season.