Super League Structure; the finished article?

Big changes were made to the way the Super League is structured prior to last season and initially they seemed like good ideas.  Relegation being brought back was the big draw, but somehow the end of 2015 felt a little flat at times – and that’s despite Leeds Rhinos’ treble heroics. After the first year, here are my thoughts on the changes.

The Super 8s

Previously, the top eight teams contested a play-off system that was not without its faults and the sides that missed out saw their campaigns come to an end at the close of the regular season. Last year, the top eight split into a separate league known as the Super 8s, with the bottom four joining the Championship’s top four to battle against relegation/for promotion in The Qualifiers.

It came with the tag-line ‘Every Minute Matters’ but that was some distance from the truth.  Sure, for those at the top it counted right until the end but for the likes of Warrington, Hull FC and Catalans Dragons it was all a bit of a damp squib.  The trio were out of top four contention pretty early on and as such were faced with a few dead-rubber ties to run down the campaign, in minutes that really didn’t matter at all.

Personally I preferred the previous system; granted if you got knocked out in the first round of the play-offs that was that – but that’s better than ending a season with a few nothing fixtures in my mind.  It may also put certain teams still in top four contention at a disadvantage, if one team ends up against a side with something still to play for in the final round, while a rival is playing a team with one eye on the break and no prospect of a semi-final spot it leads to an imbalance.

With this system technically all the teams have a chance to challenge for a Grand Final place if they finish in the top eight but in reality it would be unlikely that those coming in seventh and eighth will have any shot at a trip to Old Trafford.  At least we still get semi-finals and the Grand Final but this is a far from perfect set-up and I’d be surprised if this format is the one we’re left with in the long-term if I’m being brutally honest.

The Qualifiers

The return of the relegation battle was a welcome one but The Qualifiers showed the gulf in class between the Super League and the Championship, if any further proof was needed.  The top flight’s bottom four finished as The Qualifiers top four but we were treated to the new ‘Million Pound Game’ – a clash between fourth and fifth at the end of this stage.  In a one-off game anything can happen and Bradford Bulls did give Wakefield Wildcats a scare in the inaugural relegation showdown at Belle Vue before going down 24-16. Most of the time the Super League sides will survive but the element of uncertainty is there and that has to be a good thing for the competition as a whole, even if it isn’t a one-up one-down system.

The League Leaders’ Shield

A seemingly minor detail, but the more I think about it the more it pisses me off.  In the old system the side that finished at the top of the pile claimed the League Leaders’ Shield before the play-offs began, but for some reason the RFL decided the prize will now be awarded after the Super 8s stage.  This seems incredibly unfair given it stops becoming home and away at that point, and you might as well discount all the results against the teams who drop into The Qualifiers.  The regular season is basically just jostling for position in the Super League’s current guise.

Leeds finished at the top in 2015 and were two points clear of Wigan, who came third, but by the end of the next seven post-season games they were level on points with the Warriors and won by virtue of points difference alone.  If I could be bothered I’d look through the results and find out if the Rhinos were at a perceived disadvantage due to the schedule but my argument is that’s irrelevant anyway – the League Leaders’ Shield should be at the end of the regular season as it was before.

The sad thing is the only reason people, me included, took any notice in 2015 was because of the fact Leeds were on for a treble.  The regular season winner eventually gets forgotten by most besides the fans of that particular club and the anal. The Grand Final winner is what counts; there can only be one Super League champion – that’s what history will remember after all.   Perhaps that’s why the governing body have devalued this aspect of the competition further by making the Shield confirmation closer to the Grand Final itself, either by choice or unintentionally, who knows?

It would be better to get the Leaders’ Shield out of the way before the Super 8s starts, that way the only focus is the Grand Final and the Shield won’t be written off as some kind of distraction. There is no denying it has been marginalised and devalued by including it in the post-season, you can’t even bet on the League Leaders’ Shield now – just who will finish at the top after 23 games.  It would have been incredibly cruel had Leeds missed out on a treble in Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock’s final year but fortunately the Rhinos managed to cling on, just.  It would also have been unjust had St Helens, who were second after 23 games, finished at the top only for Leeds to claim the Shield after the Super 8s.

Maybe I’m being too picky, but the RFL do tend to muck about with this beautiful game a bit too much for my liking.  I also fear the overly complicated structure of the Super League may put off people who have been tempted towards Rugby League in the first place; it isn’t the easiest system to explain to the uninitiated.  Fortunately the game itself is entertaining enough to attract new fans – and that’s all that really matters.

Super League XXI (Wikipedia page)

Super League (official website)

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