Has Super League lost its essence?

Jon Wilkin hands off Lee Mossop during the Super League clash between St Helens and Wigan in 2016. Picture: SWpix.com

We are just a couple of months away from the 22nd season of Super League. Way back in 1996 Sheffield Eagles travelled to the Stade Sebastien Charlety, Paris, to open up the first season and a door of opportunities.

Super League started out by dreaming big and the RFL have also ventured with new ideas; the video referee, franchising, salary cap, quotas, Magic Weekend, rule tweaks, various play-off scenarios and the Grand Final.

This article is purely opinion based as I started really watching rugby league back in the early noughties when the sport was fast becoming a real family brand and the English sides started to dominate the World Club Challenge for a number of years. We even had Great Britain, and we beat the Aussies in Sydney in my early years watching the sport, so this piece could be a bit nostalgic rather than rational.

In my eyes Super League is as good as it used to be – when you look at it as a whole package. This pre-season may just be proving that as we have lost the league’s top try scorer to Rugby Union, while we’ve lost another of the league’s consistent top try scoring wingers Josh Charnley also to Union. This is not even mentioning the two Australians who have left their contracts and clubs with little hesitation. Would this have happened in say 2004?

I believe the Super League is being left behind by other sports in this country and within its own sport. A few years ago we allowed the league to be sponsored without taking any money for it, what top level sport would do that?

In the early noughties, I remember Bulls Mania, a trip to Odsal was amazing as a child, it had everything from outside the ground to the game in a setting no other stadia could produce. I remember that no game could be taken lightly and how loud were the crowds!? Can we say that we have a game in the league now where you would go to the ground early because of the entertainment or a game where you had even the smallest of doubts that your team couldn’t win. Hull and Warrington have tried to up the game with their entertainment this year producing light shows and themed match days, should all clubs be doing something like this?

We had more games on BBC in the early noughties, especially in the Challenge Cup rounds and always on prime time viewing, not put in the schedule to fill a gap. Back then I would go with the fact SKY was a massive contributor to the sports rise but now I see it as holding us back. Something I hate, Thursday night rugby – the crowds are always lower than they should be, the atmosphere isn’t ever anywhere near as good as it should be and we get put on live TV alongside one of the countries’ fastest growing sports – Premier League Darts! We used to have Friday night and Saturday evening slots, great for live TV action and yes the premier league has a Saturday night slot, but I think we would be better off going up against that or straight after because the crowd inside the ground would be bigger and more up for the game. This will come across far better on the TV for neutrals than a Thursday night does.

The salary cap holds us back too, I get we have it in place to even up the competition but since Super League started, only four teams have won the comp so is it really working? In a competition on the other side of the world with a cap to make it an even competition we have seen 12 different winners, which means really every side in Super League could have won it if it was really an even comp? Teams have gone bust trying to match the salary cap while their crowds have been falling, Bradford in the early years were front runners in entertainment have entered administration three times trying to keep up with the times. Crusaders, an expansion side from the licensing period also entered administration, forced to form again and start from the bottom. Whilst the Super League has a salary cap Rugby Union doesn’t. They can come in and cherry pick our players, have we ever been at more of a threat from the other code stealing our players?

​The NRL have upped their cap so it will be even harder now for our clubs to entice players over here to play in what they openly see as a second-rate division. Maybe it’s time we abolished the cap or raised it? Yes, this would favour the richer clubs and allow them to dominate, but we have only had four winners with a salary cap and it would allow us to keep our best players in rugby league and pay our players the wages they deserve!

Since the licensing years, which I believe allowed clubs to coast through rather than compete to the highest possible standard, we have only won one World Club Challenge!? However, in the previous 8 years before the franchise system we won 7.

As a sport, and the RFL as our governing body, we need to stand up for our future. Tell Sky we don’t want to be just a Thursday night slot to give them live action every night, we want to fill stadiums which will create a better TV atmosphere. We need to be able to pay our players the money they want so they don’t go to other side. We need to unite to make sure we keep up with the NRL. If Super League can improve then maybe our international side will also start to perform better.

As an avid fan of the game, I struggle for motivation to watch games on Sky these days, not like I used to do 10 years ago, this shouldn’t be the case. Maybe it is a little bit of rose tinted specs or the old back in my day view, but as a full package I think Super League could do a lot more. All that said, I can’t wait for February to get back into the routine of travelling back and to across the M62 to follow the greatest sport of all. I just hope next season can deliver on all fronts.

*Pictures SWpix.com