Inside RL: Game has lots to look forward to this season

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So, has anything of interest happened since the last time this column appeared?

Staggeringly, the words “success” and “rugby league” have appeared in the same sentence, which isn’t something that occurs very often.

The World Cup, which was probably anticipated and dreaded in equal measure little more than four months ago, was a triumph.

Competitive matches – for the most part – plus huge crowds, impressive viewing figures on the gogglebox and decent media coverage gave rugby league a tremendous boost and it will be interesting to see if the feel-good factor continues into the 2014 domestic season.

New supporters were attracted to the game last autumn and what is important now is keeping them interested.

There is certainly plenty to look forward to, not least the return of relegation and – at the end of next season – promotion. Super League can’t sustain 14 teams. That was proved over the last five seasons, when there were too many mis-matches and games in which the outcome was more or less certain before kick-off.

A reduction of four would have made the top division more competitive, but this year everybody should have something to play for during the majority of the year and next season; when the new structure is introduced, there will be more meaningful matches throughout.

London Broncos already look doomed, but the other 13 this year will either be battling for a play-off spot or scrapping to avoid the drop.

Speaking of the new “two-12s into three-eights” structure, yes it is complicated – on first glance at least – but not as ridiculous as it initially sounds.

The perception is that Super League and the Kingstone Press Championship are being split into three mini-divisions mid-way through the season. In fact, the revised structure is actually a new format for the play-offs and if explained that way, it makes much more sense.

Matches during the regular Super League season will mean more as they will determine how many home games each side has in the top of the three eight-team play-offs. Also, points earned during the weekly rounds will be carried over in the first and third tiers.

Arguably the most interesting will be the second tier, which will see eight teams battling it out for four places in the following year’s Super League. Given the difference in finances, it will be tough for even one Championship club to go up, but Featherstone Rovers proved over the last few months they are getting to the stage where they can compete with top-flight outfits.

One consequence of the new structure which has gone almost unnoticed is the demise of the widely-despised club call gimmick, which allowed the highest-placed team to select their play-off semi-final opponents.

The new format does not now allow for that: the semi-finals for a place at Old Trafford will see the top side in the eight-team mini-division at home to the fourth-placed and second versus third. Cleverly, the RFL have managed to ditch a bad idea, without having to admit it did not work.

There will also be more matches for teams in Super League next year, up from a minimum of 27 to at least 30.

With two teams going down this year, the pressure will be on in Super League, but life is set to be even tougher for the 14 Championship teams. Eight of them will go through to the play-offs, with the bottom five relegated. Going into the final round it’s likely both outcomes will be possible for several sides, so that will be exciting.

Zak Hardaker.

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