Peter Smith: Shorter season would be way to improve top flight’s standards

POSITIVE STEPS are being taken to add more interest and excitement to the rugby league season which begins today, but a trick has been missed.

Thursday, 31st January 2019, 5:00 am
Wakefield's Tom Johnstone scores against Hull FC.

Since last year’s bloodless coup Super League clubs, headed by chief executive Robert Elstone, are effectively running their own show.

The marketeers have come up with the slogan New Beginnings for Super League 2019, which is a little ironic as the competition format has reverted, more or less, to the one used around the turn of the century.

However, there will be innovations in place tonight: the shot clock to speed up scrums and drop-outs, a new (actually old, replacing the little-loved free play) advantage rule, reduction in the number of substitutions from 10 to eight and, for games which are level after 80 minutes, golden point extra-time.

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Leeds Rhinos' Konrad Hurrell.

The ball will be in play longer, according to research based on what happens in Australia’s NRL and the element of fatigue has been brought back into the game.

With only eight changes allowed, coaches will have to be more astute and the days of big men coming on, driving the ball in for 10 minutes and then going off for a lie down are over.

Smaller players running at exhausted giants could open up more space and great attacking opportunities, the shot clock will cut-out the worst examples of time-wasting and without the free play, games will be completed more quickly.

Those changes are welcome, but golden point seems to have been introduced only because it is used in Australia.

Yorkshire captains at this year's Super League launch: Kallum Watkins (Leeds Rhinos), Michael Shenton (Castleford Tigers), Joel Tomkins (Hull KR), Danny Houghton (Hull FC), Jermaine McGillvary (Huddertrfsfield Giants) and Jacob Miller (Wakefield) .

While it makes sense for the game to be played to the same laws across the globe, that won’t even be the case in this country, the lower division clubs having, sensibly, rejected the idea of playing on if the scores are level at the end of normal time.

So far Super League’s game plan seems to be to make the competition a clone of the Australian version.

Even the new method for deciding Man of Steel, a panel awarding marks from every game, has been borrowed from what’s done Down Under.

There is one leaf that could be taken from the NRL book which would raise standards over here, but it isn’t going to happen in a competition where quantity has priority over quality.

Super League clubs have been in training since November and the competition is kicking off this year in January.

The NRL does not begin until March 13, includes only 24 weekly rounds, five fewer than in Europe and the Australian Grand Final will be played on October 5, a week before the European title is decided at Old Trafford.

A sure way to improve standards over here would be by not starting in the depths of winter – in grim conditions on boggy pitches – and cutting down on the number of matches played.

The European game flogs its players week-in and week-out for more than eight months and fewer interchanges, remember, will mean longer minutes on the field.

March would be a more sensible start date. The so-called loop fixtures – sides meeting for a third time – and Magic Weekend add six unnecessary games to the season. Unnecessary in terms of the competition, certainly, but important for club finances and that is why a reduced fixture list won’t be among the changes adopted from Australia – though there is an argument fewer matches of a higher standard would increase gates.

So much so grumpy, but that said the clubs do deserve credit for some eye-catching signings since the end of the 2018 season.

Warrington’s Blake Austin was the NRL’s best stand-0ff four years ago and at 27 has come to England at what could be his peak.

Konrad Hurrell, the new Leeds Rhinos centre, is a ticket-seller and team-mate Trent Merrin, at 29, is another player who could have had more years in the NRL and will only add to the game over here.

There is British talent to get excited about also. Jake Trueman, at Castleford Tigers, is a phenomenal talent and there aren’t many better or more thrilling finishers than Wakefield Trinity wing Tom Johnstone.

They are two among many who offer genuine hope for the future of Super League and the England side – if they don’t get burned out.