RUGBY LEAGUE isn’t short of talking points at the moment.
Brian Smith’s resignation as Wakefield Trinity Wildcats coach caught everyone, including the club, by surprise. Just five weeks into the season he is the second coach to depart, which highlights some of the pressure on individuals and clubs in what is a hugely competitive Super League.
Where Wildcats go from here is the big question. With relegation a possibility it is not a job for a novice, but under the circumstances experienced coaches may be reluctant to take the risk.
There are some good candidates out there, but losing a coach this early effectively means a lot of the work done in pre-season – plus recruitment – has been wasted.
How tough this year could be is illustrated by the fact the Super League table after four rounds looks as though it has been published upside down, with Widnes Vikings at the top and Huddersfield Giants bottom of the pile.
It’s unlikely it will stay that way and Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and St Helens are second, third and fourth and Hull KR and Wakefield feature in the bottom three, so it is certainly not all change.
But Widnes, who will go two points clear if they win at home to Hull tonight, deserve their time in the spotlight. They play a good style of rugby, have some unheralded players in outstanding form and, creditably, stuck with coach Denis Betts through some lean times.
How they cope if and when injuries strike remains to be seen, but Widnes’ impressive early results has brought new interest to the competition.
It’s a shame for them the poor form of Huddersfield and Leeds Rhinos means the focus is as much on the bottom of the table as the top. Both teams will improve when they get players back, but next weekend will mark the quarter-way point in the regular season and unless the wheels come off at Widnes, at least one of last year’s top-eight will be in the Qualifiers.
And they might be up against Batley Bulldogs, who are proving John Kear – the master of the shock result – has lost none of his old magic.
There are some well-resourced teams in the Kingstone Press Championship, but Batley aren’t among them. In fact, their entire playing budget would probably pay for one of Leigh Centurions’ star players, but Batley beat the defending champions in round one and have also upset Sheffield Eagles and Halifax from last year’s top four.
They could complete the set if they win at home to Bradford Bulls on Sunday. For any neutral, that is probably this weekend’s most appetising fixture.
Leigh should be comfortably the strongest team in the Championship, but, so far this year, have lost coach Paul Rowley and fallen out with star player Ryan Brierley and, at the moment, they look like a model of how not to do things.
The road from Salford to Leigh has become a well-trodden path and Leigh are in danger of being enveloped by the sort of off-field shenanigans which have affected the AJ Bell Stadium club in recent years.
Salford, with ex-Australia coach Tim Sheens as director of rugby, are playing a good brand and have definitely improved now they seem to have dropped their policy of ill-suited big-name signings.
Unfortunately for them, that good work could be undermined by charges relating to alleged breaches of the salary cap. The RFL will be under pressure to hand out strong punishment if any club is found guilty of deliberately over-spending.
A deduction of up to 20 points is possible, but would that be a deterrent if imposed in the regular season? All it would achieve is condemning the guilty club to the middle-eights – when teams start again on zero.
Wakefield finished 11 points adrift last year at the end of the weekly rounds, but successfully avoided relegation. One leading figure in the game suggested a possible solution to this column: splitting any points deduction between the regular season and the eights.
If, for example, a team found guilty of serious salary cap breaches were to lose 10 points from their tally at the end of 23 rounds and another four going into the eights, that would surely act as a deterrent against future offending, without necessarily guaranteeing relegation.