Summer rugby has finally arrived and it’s taken only 25 years and a world-wide pandemic to make it happen - Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League

WELCOME TO rugby league’s first summer season, a quarter of a century after Super League was launched.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 8:35 pm

Way back in 1996, the competition began on March 29, but that year saw the transition from winter to summer rugby and there was no off- or pre-season.

Super League kicked off in April two years later, but in that - and other seasons early in the competition’s history - competitive rugby began with the opening rounds of the Challenge Cup, from February onwards.

Since its debut year, Super League has been creeping steadily earlier and a February - or even late-January - start is now the norm.

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Paris St Germain and Sheffield Eagles players run through a tunnel of fireworks and enter the pitch for the start of Super League at Stade Charetly in March, 1996. Picture: Matthew Ashton/PA.

But a year ago rugby league came to a sudden halt, because of the coronavirus pandemic, which had the knock-on effect of delaying the 2020 Grand Final until the end of November and this year’s opening round to March 26, in three days’ time.

The season actually began last week, when eight Betfred Challenge Cup ties were played and rugby league returned with mixed feelings.

It is good to have the sport back, of course - particularly in what is such a crucial year, concluding in a home World Cup - but, for the first couple of months at least, it will be a watered down version of the game.

After last year’s behind-closed-doors Grand Final, everyone hoped and probably half-expected at least some fans to be present when Super League resumed. Sadly, that is not the case and the opening two rounds will, like much of last year, be staged at a single venue each, Emerald Headingley this week and then St Helens’ TW Stadium.

Robert Elstone has stood down as executive chairman of Super League Europe. Picture: SimonWilkinson/SWpix.com.

After that, it reverts to a home and away basis, but with - because every game is being either streamed on the internet or televised live Sky - some bizarre kick-off times. So, for example, on Friday, April 23, Leeds Rhinos are at Hull KR for a 6pm kick-off and, on the other side of the same city, Wakefield Trinity meet Hull at 7.45pm.

Under the government’s current roadmap out of lockdown, a limited number of spectators will be allowed into stadiums from May 17, but that was the plan for the end of September last year and new restrictions prevented it at late notice, so nobody will be getting their hopes up.

Crowd sound effects have limited the impact for television viewers, but the sport isn’t the same without fans in stadiums and the players have done remarkably well so far to keep their minds on the job and, since the resumption last August, produce some thrilling, high-quality rugby. It wasn’t easy last year, particularly late on in the campaign when teams were playing three times in a week.

That’s going to be the case again this season and won’t help England’s chances in the World Cup, against NRL-based players who will be much fresher when the time comes.

Chief executive of the Rugby Football League, Ralph Rimmer. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

It would have made more sense to do away with the loop fixtures - including the first two rounds - and have a less-packed season.

Staging a full round of Super League matches on the same weekend as England’s mid-season Test against Combined Nations All Stars is also a mistake and illustrates the problem of having two governing bodies.

The most likely outcome of Robert Elstone’s departure from his role as Super League’s executive chairman is an eventual reunification with the Rugby Football League (RFL), which would make sense. Until then, the politics surrounding the running of the sport will remain in the background, ready to emerge and upset the applecart any time something positive happens.

Both governing bodies deserve credit for keeping rugby league going during what has probably been the most challenging period in the sport’s history, though the loss of Toronto Wolfpack is a wound which will take a long time to heal.

The RFL has many critics and they are often justified but, under chief executive Ralph Rimmer, it has had a ‘good pandemic’.

The latest positive move is the Tackle It initiative against racism and other forms of discrimination.

Any perceived political element has been removed so when players take a stand - or knee - before games, it is clear their message is simply that everyone should be treated equally. Nobody can argue with that, surely.

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