Why rugby league needs to put quality ahead of quantity and stop taking fans for granted – Peter Smith’s 2021 review

BARRING A few international matches, the 2021 season is now done and dusted and not likely to be missed.

Tuesday, 12th October 2021, 4:53 pm
Good-news story: Toulouse Olympique winning promotion to Super League. Picture: Manuel Blondeau/SWpix.com.

What was always set to be a tough year was made harder by some decisions off the field and it’s difficult to argue convincingly for the game being in a better state now than when the campaign kicked off seven months ago.

However, all the teams who left the start line in March seem to have made it to the finish in one piece which, in these testing times, is an achievement in itself.

For the second time in three years, Betfred Super League will welcome a foreign newcomer in 2022 when Toulouse Olympique become the competition’s second French-based team.

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Good-news story: Catalans Dragons winning the League Leaders' Shield and reaching the Super League Grand Final. Pictured are the club's Super League coach of the year and the 2021 Man of Steel, Steve McNamara and Sam Tomkins. Picture: Laurent Selles/SWpix.com.

Toulouse have done it the hard way, moving through the divisions after beginning in League One.

They won all 14 of their league games this term, none of them at home, as well as two play-offs and look capable of breaking the cycle of promoted clubs going back down the following season.

Like Toronto Wolfpack in 2020, they won’t take as many fans to away games as some of their Championship rivals would in the top flight, but a crowd of 9,235 attended their Grand Final win over Featherstone Rovers and, of all the clubs outside Super League, only Bradford Bulls could realistically hope to match that.

France is a good-news story, with Catalans Dragons, finishing top of Super League and reaching Old Trafford, but there have still been only four different champions in 26 seasons and none since Leeds Rhinos first lifted the trophy way back in 2004.

Good-news story: The 2021 Women's Super League Grand Final, won by St Helens. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Having completed a three-peat, Saints are without doubt one of the great sides of the summer era but the overall standard of the competition is declining.

Saints and Catalans were worthy Grand Finalists and produced a classic encounter on the big stage, but there was too much of a gap between them and their rivals.

Though in a different order, the same teams have finished in the top four in successive years and 2017 was the last time two of Saints, Wigan Warriors, Warrington Wolves and Catalans failed to feature in the leading quartet.

Hull KR are making advances on and off the field, but the likes of Leeds and perennial under-achievers Hull need to up their game.

The Grand Final itself highlighted Super League’s strengths and weaknesses.

It was a spectacular showpiece that went right to the wire but only 45,177 turned up to watch it.

With Catalans being in the decider, the gate was always going to be a concern but, even so, the sport needs to get a grip on how it markets showpiece occasions.

Old Trafford is tricky, coming only a week after the semi-finals. That’s something that may need to be addressed. The sport also needs to look at what it is asking its players to go through.

Going forward, for players’ health and the integrity of the competition, Super League needs to put quality ahead of quantity.

Rhinos played 12 games – effectively half the league season – between July 1 and August 30, which is ridiculous.

It is also clear the sport can’t afford to keep taking its supporters for granted. There seemed to be an assumption crowds would flock in once Covid restrictions were lifted. That wasn’t the case and winning back the fans who have drifted away is one of rugby league’s biggest challenges.

The selfish decision by Australia and New Zealand not to participate in the scheduled World Cup, leading to it being postponed for 12 months, was another own goal.

Law changes, such as the abolition of scrums and the six-again rule, have not improved the sport as a spectacle and should be rethought. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The previous Women’s Super League Grand Final, in 2019, attracted a crowd of 1,673. Last Sunday, 4,235 turned up.

Admittedly, one of the finalists had home advantage but, even so, that is remarkable growth and shows what can be achieved.