Comment - let's cut out the middle men and get straight to the Super League play-offs

Is it time to call a halt to the regular Betfred Super League season and go straight into the play-offs?

Tuesday, 27th October 2020, 5:08 pm
Leeds Rhinos' Mikolaj Oledzki, playing his second game in four days, is tackled by Castleford Tigers' Paul McShane, who also backed up from last week. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Speaking in his media conference after last Thursday’s game at St Helens, Rhinos coach Richard Agar raised the possibility of scrapping the remaining league rounds and beginning an expanded play-offs competition a few weeks early.

But detractors will claim he would say that, wouldn’t he?

At the moment, Rhinos are two games into a run of six matches in 17 or 18 days and sit fifth in the table, one place outside the play-offs.

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Though Rhinos have two more competition points than fourth-placed Catalans Dragons, the French side have a better win percentage, which is how the table will be decided this year.

Increasing the play-offs to six teams would more or less guarantee Rhinos qualify, but just because his team would be one of those to benefit doesn’t mean Agar is wrong.

At the start of the season, the plan was for a five-team play-offs series following a 29-game regular campaign.

After the coronavirus shutdown from mid-March until the start of August, that became knockout semi-finals, involving four teams.

The league season was also reduced to 22 rounds and then 20 after Toronto Wolfpack withdrew.

So the goalposts have moved a couple of times format-wise and while that’s rarely a good thing, in this most chaotic of campaigns another change wouldn’t be out of the question.

Rhinos are having it tougher than most of their rivals, as a legacy of reaching the Coral Challenge Cup final, despite entering the competition a round later – at the quarter-final stage – than originally scheduled.

The current fixture congestion is a throwback to the old part-time era and the game has changed since then.

Full-time training may have made players fitter, but they are also bigger and stronger, so the impacts are more punishing and the game is faster, with fewer stoppages.

Most – probably all – coaches would admit it is not possible for anyone to play six times in less than three weeks.

Agar effectively gave up three league wins by fielding an inexperienced side in games immediately before the Cup semi-final and final and after Wembley.

Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves both did the same ahead of their Cup last-four ties and St Helens, who are relatively well rested, fielded their youngsters in Monday’s narrow loss to Salford Red Devils.

Saints and Warrington – also against Salford – apart, that has led to some one-sided encounters, most of them televised on Sky Sports.

It has been interesting to see some future stars get an opportunity, but inevitably, a fixture backlog means the quality of games drops.

That is seen every year after Easter, usually when teams play their third game in a week or so.

Ironically, at Easter this year – if Covid-19 had not intervened – one round would have been spread across the entire holiday weekend so players didn’t have to back up.

The top-six is unlikely to change now so the other five teams have little – or nothing – to play for, which also doesn’t make for great entertainment.

The revised season was backloaded to create more matches, particularly derbies, from October onwards when it was expected at least some spectators would be allowed into stadiums.

That, of course, didn’t happen so what is the point of some clubs having to meet the cost of staging games – including Covid-19 testing – if there is nothing to gain, financially or in terms of the table?

If the regular season was ended early it would ease the pressure on players and make for more meaningful matches.

A top-six format, giving the leading teams byes and a second chance if needed, would also reward the most consistent clubs.

Since the resumption, this season has been all about fulfilling Super League’s contract with Sky.

With 63 games having been televised so far this year, it is understood that is close to being achieved and once it is, there seems little point continuing with dead-rubber matches.

It’s better for everyone – the sport and broadcaster – to have fewer games, but of higher quality.

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