IT’S A strange thing about rugby league, the most important games tend to attract the smallest crowds.
Leeds Rhinos’ elimination play-off against Catalan Dragons last Saturday arguably had more riding on it than any other fixture at Headingley Carnegie this season, but the attendance of 7,112 was the lowest for a Rhinos home game this year and was 6,776 down on the gate for the Super League meeting between the teams in June.
It was a similar story elsewhere last weekend: 8,652 at Wigan for the visit of Huddersfield Giants, 7,548 for St Helens versus Castleford Tigers and 7,229 at HJ Stadium where Warrington Wolves played Widnes Vikings. All those attendances were well below what would be expected for a fixture between the same sides in the regular Super League rounds.
The issue may be that – as gate receipts are pooled for play-off ties – season tickets are not valid, so matches are all-pay. Having forked out once, supporters are clearly reluctant to do so again for post-season games, all of which are televised. However, in other sports, football for example, play-offs at the end of the campaign are well supported, so the reasons must go deeper.
A key factor may be the top-eight format, which does not work. Under the current system too many teams qualify for the play-offs, there is little reward for finishing top of the tree and half the games in week one are meaningless. Cas (thrashed 41-0) and Huddersfield (beaten 57-4) both travelled to higher-ranked teams knowing if they lost they would be guaranteed a second chance in a home tie.
Huddersfield, who have a dismal play-off record, topped the table last year and were beaten at home by Wigan in the first round. They had a second opportunity in a sudden-death home tie the week after, but were then forced to travel to second-placed Warrington Wolves at the penultimate stage, which wasn’t much reward for being the most consistent team over the 27 rounds of the regular campaign.
Having said that, Huddersfield and Tigers are still in this year’s comp’ because of where they finished on the league ladder, while week one winners Warrington and Catalan’s lesser efforts mean they have to travel away for the preliminary semi-finals, despite producing much better performances last weekend.
When Leeds won the title from fifth in 2011 and 2012 it was expected that would revitalise the play-offs, highlighting that sides from outside the top two or three on the league ladder could go on to claim the title. In fact, those incredible achievements rendered the regular season irrelevant, providing teams were good enough to qualify for the top-eight. It is four years since a team won – or even reached – the Grand Final after lifting the league leaders’ shield. Warrington failed to make it from top spot in 2011 and were beaten at Old Trafford in the following two years, after finishing second.
This year they were fifth and probably quite happy about that. With momentum behind them, they travel tonight to Castleford – a team on the back of a morale-sapping defeat six days earlier – and if they get through that they’ll fancy themselves in two more one-off games, the first against a team rusty from a weekend off. Rugby league chops and changes too much, but next year’s format recognises where the top-eight system has failed and should result in more meaningful matches in both the regular season and the play-offs. It also means this year will see the final club-call, which has to be a good thing.
THE RFL needs to grow a thicker skin.
Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington, inset, will face an “independent Operational Rules tribunal” next month after being accused of “engaging in conduct which is prejudicial to the interests of the game” and allegedly “questioning the motivation and integrity” of an investigation into comments Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker was accused of making in a match against St Helens next month. Hetherington voiced what many Leeds fans were thinking and it’s difficult to see how his remarks damaged the sport. They may, however, have gone against the interests of the governing body, which is what he is actually accused of. The RFL is very sensitive to criticism, but charging anyone who voices an adverse opinion just makes the organisation look silly.
It would be interesting to know if anyone at the RFL has been disciplined for the dual-registration fiasco, an embarrassment which really has damaged the code’s credibility. Similarly, Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell was fined this week after criticising referee James Child. Coaches are expected to speak to the media after matches and should not be punished for voicing an honest opinion.