This weekend’s Super League matches will be no less entertaining, exciting or unpredictable than those in rounds one and two.
The competition did not die last weekend. The whitewash in the Dacia World Club Series was disappointing, but revealed nothing we didn’t already know.
The NRL, Australia’s top competition, is stronger than Super League and likely to remain that way. Most of the world’s best players are now based in the NRL, whether they are Australian or not and that competition has far greater depth.
Australian clubs have dominated the World Club competition in recent years. The last Super League team to win it were Leeds Rhinos, in 2011, and since it was expanded to three matches last year, the tally is Super League no wins, NRL six.
Rhinos competed magnificently for 40 minutes against Aussie champions North Queensland Cowboys, but were blown away in the second half when they conceded 34 unanswered points. St Helens – beaten 38-12 by Sydney Roosters – and Wigan Warriors, who lost 42-12 to Brisbane Broncos, were never in the game.
There is talk of the concept being expanded again, but that would be foolish until Super League finds a way of closing the gap. Crowds were good last weekend, but fans won’t continue paying good money to watch mis-matches. The domestic competition here has improved in standard since it began 20 years ago, but the Aussies – and New Zealand Warriors – have also got better. As a result, there is still a huge gulf in class.
In 1997, the two competitions squared off in the World Club Championship and Super League clubs were embarrassed.
Only Wigan (2), Leeds, Paris, Salford, Oldham, London and Sheffield managed wins. If the experiment was repeated, based on last weekend, the outcome would be similar.
Whether it is due to conditions, or coaching or whatever, Aussie teams do the basics far better, as was illustrated last weekend.
What is to be done about it?
Abolishing or greatly increasing the salary cap would be one solution. At the moment the best players don’t come to or do not stay in Super League because there are better wages on offer in the NRL, and rugby union.
If that happens, teams with rich backers – such as Warrington and Salford – may well be able to attract and retain top talent, but Super League will become a much more uneven competition.
Wigan spent big in the 1980s and 90s, when they were a full-time side playing in a semi-professional competition.
They won away to Brisbane Broncos in the 1994 World Club Challenge – probably the best victory ever by a British team – and were the world’s top side, but the spending caught up with them in the end.
Obviously more needs to be done to bring cash into the European game and to expand the player base, but that has been an issue since the sport began in 1895.
There have been numerous inquests into why the Aussies are superior, but, while there are occasional false dawns, they remain a long way ahead.
Maybe over here we will have to accept that Australian rugby league is superior. It is a bigger game Down Under, with far greater resources.
Were Western Sydney Wanderers, Brisbane Roar or Adelaide United to go up against Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal, they would get a hammering.
All that doesn’t mean Super League is a poor competition as such. There have been some good, close and exciting games already this year and the drama of matches like last year’s league leaders’ shield decider at Huddersfield or the Grand Final would be hard to match anywhere.
England still has good players and, with Wayne Bennett as coach, maybe the long wait for a series win against Australia could be coming to an end.
Sadly, many of those players now ply their trade in the NRL. That is a trend which is improving the standard of the national team, but at the same time weakening the domestic competition.