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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Gonzo Sports Digest; the Best of 2015

As we approach the new year I thought I’d have a round-up of the best and worst bits of 2015.  Initially I was going to just write one article but I’ve got a lot of gripes so I’ve split it in two, we’ll start with the best bits of the year before delving into misery, confusion, despair and disappointment.

Tyson Fury and the end of the Klitschko era

Whatever you think of Tyson Fury, nothing can devalue his achievement in ending Wladimir Klitschko’s dominance of the heavyweight division (what has been devalued incidentally is the petition, it used to be something you could use to make those in power take note of important issues that had previously been ignored, now any fool can start one to try and get a boxer removed from an awards show – nonsense).  There will be a rematch so essentially it is only a job half done for the ‘Gypsy King’ but either way it was some victory.  It wasn’t a fight for the purists but Fury executed his game plan brilliantly as he demonstrated a tactical nous few realised he had beforehand.

The emergence of Anthony Joshua is also worth a mention after he proved he’s more than just a puncher with his win over Dillian Whyte, who could also become a big player in the heavyweight division, and with David Haye returning 2016 could be a great year for British fight fans.

Great Escapes

Leicester City looked dead and buried in April but seven wins in their final nine games saw them finish mid table in what I understand is the best ever Premier League relegation escape, mathematically at least.  What they have done since is also impressive but as they’ve not actually achieved anything yet we’ll leave that alone for the time being, that’s a conversation we may be able to have at the end of the current season.

Hartlepool United produced a similarly dramatic escape from relegation out of the Football League altogether following Ronnie Moore’s arrival as manager.  Pools were 10 points adrift of safety at one stage and had managed a meagre 14 points from their opening 24 games, in the final 22 games they picked up 31 points to finish four points clear of the bottom two – incredible stuff.

England Rugby League

2015 may well go down as a vintage year for Rugby League in England as Leeds Rhinos won the treble in Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock’s final season with the club. The international game usually takes a back seat to club action in the sport, probably due to the fact only three teams – Australia, New Zealand and England – can be considered ‘competitive’ for want of a better word.  I’d always considered England the weakest of the three and I had little hope of a series win over the visiting Kiwis after the end of the Super League season but England came away with a 2-1 series win.

They did it without Sam Burgess as well to make the achievement even more impressive, and he should be back in the fold for next year’s Four Nations after a brief and disappointing stint in Rugby Union, but more on that in part 2 of this piece.

Barcelona

I had planned to leave it at three but we’ll finish with a note on Barca.  The Camp Nou club lost their way, to a degree at least, when Pep Guardiola went but under Luis Enrique they’re back at the summit.  2015 was the year we really got to see Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez form one of the most incredible attacking partnerships world football has ever seen – nice, and long may it continue.

Obviously there are loads of things I could have mentioned, the inception of the Gonzo Sports Desk for one, but I’ll call it a day here, until tomorrow (or maybe the day after) when we’ll take a look at the low points.

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Gonzo Sports Digest; Managerial Madness and More

We’ve had a busy day for a Wednesday, that’s what happens when there’s no Champions League football people get antsy, so I’ve decided to smash out a daily round up.

Chelsea hold discussions

Yep, Chelsea having a chat about whether or not to stick or twist when it comes to Jose Mourinho is big news today.  To be honest I don’t see why the Leicester result has taken such significance; the Foxes are top of the league on merit and their 2-1 win over Mourinho’s men on Monday  – who are at the wrong end of the table on merit – was no real surprise.

No one seems to have any clue as to whether or not the ‘not so special anymore one’ will be in the hot seat for the visit of fellow strugglers Sunderland at the weekend.  My hunch is he will be but I could be wrong, if he is then that’s the must win – if you can’t beat Sunderland at home you deserve to be sacked.  The Times have claimed Juande Ramos could replace him until the end of the season if he does go, but that is surely bullshit.

Guardiola will make a decision and when he does he’ll tell us about it

More potential managerial merry-go-round murmurings and Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he will make another announcement next week has sent the speculation peddlers into a frenzy.  Essentially we know nothing new, he’s still out of contract at the end of the season and he’s still saying “I’ll tell you before the end of 2015” but there you go, the former Barcelona boss speaks and everyone else listens.

Sky ‘football expert’ (when did expert start to mean gobshite? Has anyone alerted the Oxford Dictionary people yet?) Guillem Balague obviously jumped on this like a ravenous polar bear on an already wounded, blind and abandoned baby seal. He thinks Guardiola is Premier League bound, or at least wants to be, and Man City are the likely candidates. If that’s the case we won’t know that until the summer – if he is leaving Bayern but plans to stay until the end of the campaign then whoever he’s replacing, be it Manuel Pellegrini or Louis van Gaal at Man United, probably won’t be informed by their own club, although Jupp Heynckes was…  It’s all ifs and buts – and if he does say he’s leaving this could rumble on for a while, when he left Barca he took a year off and perhaps he’ll do that again, maybe he’ll agree new terms in Munich who knows?

Andy Murray could quit the Australian Open

Andy Murray’s first child is due in February but if his wife Kim drops the sprog early he’ll quit the Australian Open to be there.  That’s a big statement from the world number two, I’d imagine a title in Melbourne is top of his agenda aside from another Wimbledon win.

It has been a case of always the bridesmaid never the bride Down Under for the Scot, who has lost the final on four separate occasions.  That’s got to hurt, imagine if he has to walk away if he’s already in the semis or the final…

Chances are it won’t come to that, but it would be interesting if his noble words were put to the test.  Will he get straight back on a plane to Blighty?  Or will he be screaming “keep yer legs crossed ye radge bastard!” down the phone in Australia?

Brett Ferres’ dirty deeds earn NRL move

Huddersfield Giants have transfer listed England international Brett Ferres after suspending him for “conduct away from the field”, they haven’t reported what but The Sun ran a story about him nailing his team-mate’s Mrs on the sly so there you go.

Like most people who stayed in school beyond the age of 13, I’m usually sceptical when it comes to that nonsense rag but in the absence of anything else to go on I’m going to assume they’re correct.  Anyway, apparently his wandering schlong hasn’t put off interested parties as two NRL clubs – Gold Coast Titans and Wests Tigers – are reportedly keen.

Ferres must be in dreamland if that’s true, he gets to shag around and leave dreary Huddersfield for sunny Australia – that’s got to be a result in anyone’s eyes.  The other options are Salford and Hull FC, both notable shit holes (cheap shot I know, but it helps my point here so I’ve gone with it), so if you believe in karma he’ll be staying in the Super League and kept well away from any already taken womenfolk.

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Gonzo Sports Digest; The Week’s Weirdest

A Yorkshireman in the NFL, a world leader weighing in on team selection and a comedy legend’s musings on the future for one of the world’s top golfers. Gonzo’s got the big shit covered.

French PM weighs in on Benzema

I’ve offered my thoughts on the Karim Benzema alleged blackmail story before and my views on the matter haven’t massively changed but there has been an update.

The Real Madrid man seems set to miss Euro 2016, and potentially see his France career ended regardless of the final legal outcome, as a result of whatever this thing with Mathieu Valbuena actually is.

Either way it can’t be too good when the Prime Minister chirps up with his thoughts. Manuel Valls says he has “no place in the France team” if he is not “exemplary”, seemingly regardless of whether he is actually guilty or not.  Besides, based on unproven previous Benzema indiscretions, I’d say exemplary was long gone for the Los Blancos frontman.

Keep in mind the leader of France made these comments less than three weeks after their capital was attacked by a bunch of brainwashed, psychotic terrorists, and days before a huge UN climate change conference that could (but admittedly, almost certainly won’t) alter the path to our future and that of our planet’s for the infinite good began in the city.  When someone has got that on their plate and they find the time to comment on whether or not you should be kicking a ball – that’s a big deal, maybe too big for the average or even exceptional man to handle.

Sport hopping to the NFL

Sam Burgess made huge headlines when he swapped rugby league for union, that was then eclipsed by his move back in the wake of England’s disastrous World Cup campaign.  What did they expect? He was used as a bit of a scapegoat and where would you want to be, getting looked down on in Bath or worshiped in Sydney? Probably anyway, that’s hit a snag, but either way I know where I’d be aiming for.

Younger brother Tom, of NRL outfit South Sydney Rabbitohs, having a crack at the NFL has gone under the radar a bit, at least in good old Blighty.  He’s been training with the New York Giants, according to some guy called Adam Schefter of ESPN’s NFL Insider.

I don’t really follow American Football, the only sport I take an interest in from across the pond is the NBA, so I can’t comment on whether I think he’d be any good at it. I get how the game works and have watched a bit, but I don’t really understand the finer nuances, what attributes make a good player in each position, and so on.

It seems like a very tentative thing from what I can gather but good luck to the guy, I always feel a little disappointed when a decent player leaves league, and an England international to boot, but if he gets the chance to live in New York he should go for it. Burgess is a kid from Dewsbury and I’ve been to both the Yorkshire town and NYC; the best comparison I can make is to suggest it would be like dating Caitlyn Jenner and moving on to Kendall Jenner, or whichever one of those interchangeable sisters is the more respectable age.

That said I don’t mind a bit of cross-sport contamination, Curtis Woodhouse went from million pound footballer to boxer with some success, then chased down some kid who let his fingers run away with him on Twitter in an incident of pure comedy gold.

He’ll also make better money too I’d imagine, but hopefully he won’t end up at the Washington Redskins – I’ve no idea how they get away with that; It’d be like calling a team the ‘Peterborough Pikeys’ or ‘Garforth Golliwogs’ in the UK, or worse I don’t know, but either way it’s definitely not cool.

*In the time between writing and publishing it has emerged that Burgess has also had a trial with the Buffalo Bills so maybe it isn’t a ‘tentative thing’ after all.  

Larry David on Jordan Spieth

I’ve cheated massively here as this story came out way before I even thought about starting this project but it is an absolute diamond.

Larry David of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘Seinfeld’ fame is a proud bald man and he supported the world’s best golfer in the only way he knows how, by dashing any of his lingering hairy hopes.

“He’s going to be a bald man,” David told the Golf Digest, via Rolling Stone. “He’s going to be wildly bald. This makes him way more appealing to me. It’s one thing to handle the pressure of the back nine at Augusta; let’s see how he does when he sees all that hair in the tub. That’s pressure. I’ll be watching him very carefully. He’s 22. He’s got three years, maybe four. He’s done.”

To put that in context if needed, here are a few of David’s other bald quotes and some kind of essay I found when looking for the first link.  My favourite is “anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man – there’s your diamond in the rough”, pure unadulterated genius.

Spieth seemed to take it well and why wouldn’t he?  Win a couple of majors and no one will give a shit what you look like anyway – fortunately for him he already has. He’s got the cap option as a golfer but the fact he’s famous negates that, then again if Tiger Woods can live a secret life for so long perhaps golfers are a sneakier breed than most and maybe Spieth can con a few into thinking he’s got a full head of hair… Andre Agassi* had us fooled for years but his hair loss story is like going from New York to Dewsbury, unlike LD he did not take it well.

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*I aplogise profusely for linking to the Daily Mail, but their version of this story has his quotes closer to the top so it works best here.