THERE’S A danger the final third of the season could be a total waste of time. Again.
Last season, the top four at the end of the regular First Utility Super League rounds were the top four seven games later, after the Super-8s, though the order changed.
None of the Kingstone Press Championship sides who contested the Qualifiers managed to earn promotion to the top flight.
Teams placed fifth to eighth in the Championship table after the weekly rounds went on to contest the Shield semi-finals and the bottom two following the regular season were the ones who were relegated two months later.
In other words, if the competitions had ended after everyone had played each other once – plus the Magic Weekend or Summer Bash – the outcome would have been the same as that achieved by an additional seven matches.
There could well be a repeat this year. Like last season, the finishing order in the top four of the Super-8s is uncertain, but the only real question is whether Catalans Dragons can knock St Helens out of fourth spot.
Castleford Tigers pulled off a superb win at leaders Hull in round one of the Super-8s last week, but remain seven points outside the semi-final places, with just six games remaining.
They still have a chance, but only a faint one. Mathematically, Widnes Vikings and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats could also force their way in, but realistically it isn’t going to happen.
One of the bottom four Super League teams – Leeds Rhinos, Salford Red Devils, Hull KR or Huddersfield Giants – will be in the million pound match at the end of the middle-eights Qualifiers.
Big-spending Leigh Centurions are their most likely opponents and, on their day, they could cause an upset, but at this stage the most likely outcome is no relegation or promotion for the second successive year.
Likewise in the Championship, the bottom pair of Workington Town and Whitehaven are four points adrift of safety and will probably go down.
It is a concern that, despite repeated tinkering, the game can’t come up with an end-of-season format which produces meaningful matches.
There are always going to be teams who have nothing to play for towards the end of a season, but the eights format does seem to prolong the agony.
Before last season, Super League’s top eight played off for the right to contest the Grand Final. It was a convoluted system, but did produce some upsets and unexpected results.
At the end of July, 2014, the teams from ninth to 12th – in a 14-team competition – all still had a realistic chance of featuring in the play-offs. Had the competition not split this year, Leeds, Salford and Hull KR would all still be in the hunt for the top eight, with Wakefield, Widnes Vikings and Castleford looking vulnerable.
If anything, the eights format has created more – not fewer – matches that don’t really matter. Wakefield, pipped in the last minute at Wigan a few weeks ago, were crushed 60-12 there last Friday, after their top-flight status for next season had already been secured.
There have been suggestions the Super-8s should start with a clean slate, points being reset to zero, but that would not reward the top teams and would mean they had little to play for over the second half of the regular campaign.
Perhaps the answer is to award the league leaders’ shield to the team at the top of the table after 23 rounds and then begin again from zero.
The leading four teams would still have the advantage of an extra home match, but places in the semi-finals would certainly be up for grabs.
Unfortunately, on that basis the title would be decided on only nine games – the Super-8s, plus semi-final and Grand Final – rather than 32 as is now the case.
The most obvious solution is a return to a first-past-the-post system, with one or two teams to be relegated.
If that was the case, after 23 rounds this year the top five would all still be in with a chance of being crowned champions and at least the bottom four would all have relegation fears.
That would add meaning to more league matches, but crucially deprive the sport of one of its showpiece events, the Grand Final – which is a price not worth paying.