For the last few years the engage Super League has been dominated by two teams: Leeds Rhinos and St Helens. That’s why it’s quite pleasing for the neutral to see those two sides to lose unexpectedly at the very start of the season.
Okay, Leeds have already got one win under their belt, which ruins the symmetry somewhat. Nevertheless that in round one both Rhinos and Saints were defeated is a good sign; it points, perhaps, to a more open competition this time around rather than a continuation of the same duopoly. This is particularly so in the case of Leeds: while many have predicted an unsuccessful season for the Saints their Yorkshire rivals were widely tipped to enjoy another year of dominance.
That’s not to say that these sides haven’t deserved success, or that they haven’t been wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s just that the dominance of one team – such as Wigan in times past – or even two – Rangers and Celtic immediately spring to mind – can become a little tedious. Will the idea of a fourth Leeds-Saints Grand Final really thrill us? Doubtless it would be an exciting spectacle, but it would certainly be better to see a Huddersfield, Hull KR or Warrington take to the Old Trafford field in October.
One of the most satisfying things, however, was that the defeats were not inflicted by any of those sides that had enjoyed success last year. Rather than the top-four sides of Huddersfield and Hull KR or Challenge Cup winners Warrington, Saints and Leeds lost out to teams that had enjoyed little success: respectively, Hull FC and Castleford Tigers. This is good news for those who like to see an evenly-balanced competition.
It’s also, of course, good news for Castleford and Hull. The Tigers haven’t won at Headingley since 2002 – on the last visit just six months ago they were beaten 76-12 – and they couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season than this. Castleford will be particularly pleased having come from behind – 10-6 down at half time – to register the 24-10 victory. That the Tigers kept Leeds scoreless after the break is testament to a dominant second-half display and a hard-working defence.
Hull’s 32-12 win at Saints was big news because it was Sean Long’s debut in the Black and White shirt, and Long was instrumental in much of Hull’s attacking play, scoring one try himself. The East Yorkshire side have had a tough time of late; last season they finished third from bottom and were knocked out of the cup in the fourth round (not to mention how they’ve been overshadowed by neighbours Hull KR). Hull will be hoping that this victory points to a more enjoyable year.
Of course, none of this means that Hull will definitely have a good season this time around, or that Leeds are about to be knocked off their perch. But it can be considered as evidence that mid-table teams are capable of beating the top sides. We’ve seen this before, of course: this trend has been one of the best things about Super League in recent years. Yet it isn’t often when Saints and Leeds have both suffered upsets: there have only been three occasions in the last three years when both have lost in the same round of fixtures.
Super League has become more open, but for the last three years nobody has been able to budge Saints and Leeds from their positions of dominance. Last season it was a joy to see Huddersfield and Warrington contest the Challenge Cup final; it would be similarly enjoyable to see a new team, or even two new teams, contest the Super League Grand Final this time around.
* In last week’s article about the Super League Show I didn’t mention how annoying it is to have the programme scheduled for a violently different time every week: 1.15pm on the opening weekend, 10.25pm last week and 4.30pm this week. Plus, if the SLS is screened on Sunday night, why can’t we see highlights from all the Sunday fixtures?
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