The advent of Super League in 1996 was supposed to be the spark that rugby league needed to bring it into the world’s eye.
A new era, bankrolled by Sky Sports and the Rupert Murdoch machine, was supposed to transform the niche, regional sport into a global phenomenon, with the new Super League sides adopting monikers such as Tigers, Rhinos and Bulls to usher in the different age.
But, before the summer game had even got going, mistakes had been made. Attempts to merge Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone into Calder, Hull FC and Hull KR into Humberside, Salford and Oldham into Manchester, Sheffield and Doncaster into South Yorkshire, Warrington and Widnes into Cheshire and Whitehaven, Workington, Barrow and Carlisle into Cumbria fell flat on their face. And, is there any wonder why?
The rivalries between all of these clubs ensured such a move would never transpire. Imagine Manchester United and Manchester City merging? It would never happen.
Plus, the fact that clubs finishing below tenth in the top flight by the end of 1995 were relegated, rankled those clubs that missed out – and has done ever since. Featherstone, Hull, Wakefield and Widnes were excluded as were the Second Division champions, Keighley – a decision which the club has never recovered from.
Instead, London Broncos were given a top-flight spot alongside new franchise Paris Saint-Germain, with no relegation in the first two seasons. Fair enough, the capital experiment enjoyed some degree of success – some of which is still being felt today – but Paris were gone after two seasons. Was this the start of things to come?
London have changed from a capital name to Harlequins and back again, Crusaders Rugby League have been and gone – just like the Toronto Wolfpack – whilst the mergers of Huddersfield and Sheffield, and Gateshead and Hull around the turn of the century floundered to say the least.
What began as a unique and groundbreaking technological innovation – the video referee – has become criticised to a greater degree in recent seasons whilst continuing tinkering with the rules has done little to improve the mood of the rugby league fraternity.
The change from winter to summer was to make the game faster and whilst athletes are now more finely tuned, it has led to a startling increase in long-term injuries. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s did you ever hear of someone tearing an ACL?
Rugby league currently seems stagnant with the standard, arguably, dropping to levels that have rarely been in the summer era. St Helens have been by far and away the best side in the past three seasons – their Grand Final successes underline this – and the fact that just four teams have ever lifted the Grand Final trophy since its inauguration in the late ’90s, suggests that something isn’t working.
The play-off structure has been changed numerous times with the Super 8s and Middle 8s palaver a particular disappointment. Promotion and relegation seems to produce a yo-yo effect as calls for a franchise system reappear after that too failed in the late noughties and early 2010s. It seems as though the sport is at an impasse.
New stadiums have been built to the detriment of a quality atmosphere, the salary cap continues to hold some clubs back whilst allowing other, less lucrative clubs to pay within their means. Owners are divided over the best way forward for the sport and all this whilst the Rugby Football League and Super League operate as separate entities. That dream of a new age, with designs of grandeur filling golden stadia with expectant and excited crowds has whimpered away into the darkness, only to be filled with dread.
Yes, this article is gloomy, but that is how the majority of people currently feel within rugby league. These next few years will define the sport; it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.