COMMENT: The Super 8 Debate

The 2017 Super League season is the third since the inception of the Super 8’s, Million Pound Game etc . The current format has its critics and many would like the structure to be changed yet again, we take a look back at the past two years and what we could expect from the RFL and Super League in regards to future changes.

Many people would argue that the new structure has produced what it was potentially set up to do, which was to allow a passage for teams to get promoted and relegated. The Leigh example is one that many people will point to as the prime evidence that the system is a success. However, say that to a Hull KR fan – relegated by a team that kicked a golden point, ensuring they would spend the 2017 in the Championship.

From a club’s point of view, the 3 x 8’s structure must be a nightmare, not knowing what fixtures will fall on which dates post mid-July. Last season, the fixtures were announced to fans on a Sunday, with a game on the following Thursday. The attendances have been affected, not necessarily from the new structure, but attendances across the board have been poorer and season ticket sales slower – perhaps due to the uncertainty of when games will be etc. Why should a fan buy a season ticket at the start of the season when there is no guarantee that in August they may have St Helens at home for example or Batley Bulldogs. No disrespect to Batley, but there is a different pull on a Wigan v St Helens Super League game rather than, say a Middle 8 – Wigan v Batley game.

The Middle 8’s has produced some very one-sided games, expecting teams that are part time, to play against a team just temporarily relegated from Super League and compete, is never going to work. Likewise, the Super 8’s have a feeling of inevitability after a few games, the top four is the ultimate aim for those teams in the Super 8’s but normally, only five have a decent chance of finishing in the top 4 when the league splits. You then find teams in places 6, 7 and 8 coasting towards the end of the season, with nothing to play for and their Super League status secured for another 12 months– which naturally affects attendances.

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The clubs are set to meet later this year to discuss the future of the current concept and decide on an approach for the next three seasons. I believe that there will be opposition to the continuation of the current structure from clubs, Ian Lenagan mentioned recently on Wigan TV that he would be strongly supporting an alternative approach rather than the current system. However, I don’t expect the RFL and the Super League to abandon their new structure after just three seasons – the Leigh example would be the biggest argument that the league needs time for more teams like Leigh to progress.

One key thing over the next few years will be the emergence of Toulouse, Toronto and the potential regrowth of Bradford. If those three can develop and be knocking on the door of the Super League, we could have a nucleus of strong teams fighting it out for Super League places in the qualifiers.

It is not beyond possible for the Middle 8’s in 2018 to consist of teams like Hull KR, Toronto, Toulouse, Leigh, Wakefield, Bradford, Widnes, and Salford. That would throw up some very interesting games and should ensure closer games that what we have perhaps seen in some of the Middle 8 games over the past two seasons.

Although I am not a big fan of the 3 x 8 structure, I am prepared to suggest that we should allow another three-year cycle of the current system to see whether the emergence of Toulouse and Toronto, in particular, can shake the system up a little and create a better competition for all involved. The criticism of this and the reason why Super League was cut from 14 teams to 12 was partially due to the size of the talent pool that rugby league in the UK has access to. The development of Toulouse and Toronto should ensure that the talent pool is expanded to new areas of France and North America – hopefully allowing a further competitiveness in the league structure.

Time will tell and we look forward to clarity and a league structure that can produce competitive games every week.

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