Peter Smith: Defence-dominated Super League games divide opinion

Eye-catcher, Ashton Golding.
Eye-catcher, Ashton Golding.
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WHAT MAKES a good game?

Leeds Rhinos’ Betfred Super League opener at St Helens split opinion down the middle with some fans and pundits describing it as a thriller and others an absolute dud.

Tackle-of-the-season contender, Tommy Makinson on Leeds' Liam Sutcliffe.

Tackle-of-the-season contender, Tommy Makinson on Leeds' Liam Sutcliffe.

During the summer era rugby league viewers have been conditioned to believe that lots of points equals good matches. That can be the case, but not always.

Rhinos’ previous visit to St Helens could not have been more different to last week. In April last year they were beaten 38-34 in an end-to-end game which produced 13 tries.

That was great entertainment, but one of the poorest Super League matches Leeds have been involved in yielded even more. Way back in 2001 they beat Huddersfield Giants 52-46 at Headingley.

There were 17 tries that evening and it was 80 minutes of boredom. There are two parts to rugby league, defence as well as attack and – rather like the best cricket being a genuine contest between bat and ball – both factors have to be on show for it to be an entertaining contest.

No fun in the mud for Wakefield captain Danny Kirmond.

No fun in the mud for Wakefield captain Danny Kirmond.

Defences were very much on top last Thursday. Leeds led 4-0 at half-time, through an unconverted try, but Saints hit back to win 6-4.

There were only two tries, but that did not make it dull viewing.

Both teams gave their all on defence and there were some memorable moments.

Young Leeds full-back Ashton Golding caught the eye with three try-saving tackles, but one piece of play in the second half may not be bettered all year.

Rhinos centre Kallum Watkins weaved into space and passed to Liam Sutcliffe, who was in support, but Saints winger Tommy Makinson got across to slide him into touch with a world-class tackle.

There were too many penalties – 16 was twice as many as the same referee, Phil Bentham, awarded in last year’s meeting at Saints – and lots of errors.

Saints, in particularly, regularly turned the ball over to Leeds when trying to get away from their own line and Rhinos’ attack lacked the smartness to take advantage of that, but the game was compelling from first to last with the result in doubt until the final moments.

It may not have been a classic, but it was far from a disappointment.

That said, the RFL missed a trick. Super League should begin with a blockbuster, but – despite the history between the two sides – the opening game this year was fourth from 2016 versus ninth, which doesn’t necessarily set pulses racing.

As defending champions, Wigan Warriors deserved the honour of kicking off the new campaign.

The opening match every year should be a repeat of the previous season’s Grand Final or, perhaps a showdown between Super League winners and Challenge Cup holders.

One of the problems rugby league has is that, to squeeze in 30 league matches, the competition begins far too early. Saints and Leeds – and to an extent Castleford Tigers and Leigh Centurions who met the following night – had it relatively easy.

Conditions last Sunday were appalling, with matches being played in driving, freezing rain on muddy pitches. It is no surprise there were some low scores and, certainly at Belle Vue where Wakefield lost 12-8 to Hull, entertainment and action was lacking.

Defence-dominated matches, as outlined earlier, can be exciting, but it takes more than two teams barging into each other in the mud. Rugby league players – especially at Super League level – are elite athletes and deserve a better stage to show off their skills.

Also, days like last Sunday do little to encourage paying fans, though Super League round-one attendances were encouraging.

One thing Hull’s win over Wakefield did illustrate was the value of penalty goals. Hull sensibly recognised it was going to be a slog and took the two on three occasions in the first half, before Trinity responded in similar fashion.

Contrast that with Leeds’ tactics against Saints, when they turned down kickable penalties at 4-0 ahead just before the break and 6-4 behind. Being attack-minded is admirable, but there’s a time and a place. If your offence is lacking creativity or the opposition’s defence shows no sign of giving way, a penalty goal can be a decisive weapon.