Peter Smith: A difficult season but one with positive outcomes

Catalans Dragons lift the Challenge Cup.
Catalans Dragons lift the Challenge Cup.
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SATURDAY’S GRAND Final will bring the curtain down on what has been a long, difficult domestic season, but one with some positive outcomes.

Headlines for much of the year have been dominated by in-fighting over the running of the sport, the apparent power-grab by Super League clubs and yet more moving of the goal posts late in the season.

Championship coach of the year Danny Ward.

Championship coach of the year Danny Ward.

Financial issues have dogged certain clubs and it has been a season when, outside the top flight, seeing 34 names on a teamsheet has been a cause for celebration.

Yet, 2018 should also be remembered as the year Catalans Dragons took the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup out of England for the first time and 9,000 people in Canada watched London Broncos beat Toronto Wolfpack to secure their return to Betfred Super League.

The fact Catalans have been invited to play at the iconic Nou Camp stadium next year and Barcelona FC have pledged to help them sell it out illustrates how significant success outside the heartlands can be.

Not that the south of France is a development area as such. The game has been part of the culture there since before the second world war, but Catalans’ Wembley triumph has the potential to take it to a new and wider audience.

uper League again has a club based in the capital and looking at the big picture that is a huge positive for the sport.

Peter Smith

For much of the year it seemed English-based Super League clubs would be facing two trips abroad next season. Toronto cruised to their second successive leaders’ shield, romping home in the Betfred Championship and in any other season five wins in the Qualifiers would have secured them top-flight status.

But the final middle-eights were the most competitive in the format’s four-season history and defeat in the Million Pound Game put the Canadian dream on hold. That came as a relief to some European Super League clubs and fans who will not face a trans-Atlantic trip – some of them possibly twice due to the dreaded ‘loop’ fixtures – in 2019.

Much has been made of the fact English clubs will supposedly lose out if Toronto are promoted, because of a lack of travelling support, but it is not the away club’s responsibility to fill a ground.

A couple of years ago League One sides increased their gate for home games against Toronto through innovative marketing and that is what will have to happen in Super League if and when Wolfpack eventually join the party.

Toronto Wolfpack owner David Argyle.

Toronto Wolfpack owner David Argyle.

As for the cliché of ‘focusing on the heartlands’, rugby league has been entrenched in three north of England counties for more than 120 years without being able to attract the level of attention Toronto have in just two seasons. If moneybags owner David Argyle opted to pull his money out the whole thing could collapse overnight, but Toronto are not alone in that and those who know him believe he is in for the long haul.

Whether that will be with Paul Rowley as coach remains to be seen. If he leaves that could open a route back into coaching for former Leeds Rhinos boss Brian McDermott.

Toronto have no grass roots and it will take decades before Canada starts producing homegrown players, but London’s success this year has shown what can be achieved. Southern-born and raised players are now making an impact at all levels of rugby league in this country and they underpinned this year’s promotion push.

When Leeds Rhinos won their first Super League title in 2004 it seemed obvious some of the players in that team would go on to become successful coaches. Danny Ward wouldn’t mind admitting he would be bottom of the list, but in his debut year as a head coach he has worked wonders with a squad nobody fancied to be among the second tier’s best.

They beat two Super League sides in the Qualifiers and have earned promotion. Now the real hard work starts. One of the problems of this season’s, now defunct, format is London are lagging well behind their top-flight rivals when it comes to recruitment.

Most deals have already been done. London may be able to snap up some of the players who were set to join Toronto, but they don’t have the spending power.

They also need to increase their fanbase and Ealing Trailfinders isn’t a Super League-standard venue, but Super League again has a club based in the capital and looking at the big picture that is a huge positive for the sport.