Since 1998, Super League has had various formats but they’ve all boiled down to the same thing. An almost random number of league games played and a play-off system that has allowed teams as low as fifth to take home the title. We’ve had 24 years of this and although it seemed like an initial success perhaps now is the time for Super League to head off in a different direction more similar to the competition’s first two instalments in 1996 and 1997.
We’ve seen so many superb teams not rewarded properly for their outstanding seasons. Both Castleford and St Helens amassed over 50 league points in 2017 and 2018 only to walk away with nothing other than the League Leaders’ Shield. Meanwhile, Warrington were one of the best Super League teams we’ve ever seen scoring over a thousand points and still failed to be crowned Champions in 2011.
Imagine if Liverpool hadn’t been crowned champions of the Premier League last season with 99 points. Imagine if Manchester City hadn’t with 100 points. The world would seem like a very bizarre world. Yet we live in that world when it comes to Super League. In many seasons we’ve seen teams almost boycott top spot as a way of timing their run towards the play-offs making plenty of league games pointless as teams rest player looking towards the final four weeks of the season.
It is true that better rugby is played in the play-offs but isn’t that wrong? Why are teams waiting till the end of the season to play to their potential? Shouldn’t fans be awarded with the very best from their teams every week?
Perhaps scrapping the play-offs would ensure that as every game would truly matter. The top teams would look to win league match as they looked to claim the title by securing top spot. Every big game would become a Grand Final as teams looked to get ahead in a title race. And in truth we’ve not seen an exciting race for top spot since 2016 and even then the League Leaders’ failed to be crowned champions.
To me it seems that if Super League were to scrap the play-offs it would no longer be a waiting game for September. Instead, we’d see the best rugby all year round.
But Super League needs those extra games at the end of the season to fill the TV quota set by Sky. So, how do you fix that? Well, we should expand Super League. Right now is the best time to do so with so many class Championship teams. York boast multiple Super League Champions in their squad whilst Bradford are a huge club on the rise again. Toulouse would also be right at home in Super League as would a club the size of Widnes. We could easily have 16 Super League quality teams in a league together playing each other once at home and once away making for a pulsating 30 round Super League season where every game matters.
There’s been a long running problem in Super League that games are getting over-played and losing what made them special. There have been times when St Helens and Wigan have played each other 5 times taking the gloss off their rivalry. If they played each other just twice in a season the games would feel special again. They’d have the buzz of Liverpool v Manchester United. They’d feel unique. The same could be said for the Hull derby or even the Leeds-Bradford derby if that was reborn by this proposal. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you restricted those battles to just twice a season every single one of them would sell-out addressing the attendance problem we at times face.
16 teams is a lot and if the only prize on other is top spot well what does every one else play for? Well the top 8 should be rewarded in some way. They could enter the Challenge Cup later to have a better chance of winning it or we could even bring back the Premiership as an ongoing side plot to the season and a big occasion to replace the Grand Final.
I’d also like the World Club Challenge to become more meaningful and feature more teams. Perhaps the top four could enter a knockout competition with the top four of the NRL to decide the world’s finest in the closest thing we’ll ever see to the Champions League in rugby league. Then the top four would become as coveted as it is in football.
Some might argue that there would be a notable lack of major finals but you could always revive the John Player or the County Cups or even the Premiership as I just mentioned. But even without them it shouldn’t be a problem. If you make every game matter they’ll feel like finals, I assure you.
And if you make every game matter forcing better rugby, the players themselves will become better and with that comes a better international team.
I would miss the Grand Final certainly. It’s a special occasion that feels like the pinnacle of rugby league but the sport succeeded before it and it can succeed after it especially if its removal can truly make every game matter. Would you miss the Grand Final if every game felt like one? I don’t think so.