The Championship is threatening to be even more competitive than last season, while London’s remarkable start adds great drama to the Super League relegation scrap.
There was a six-way fight for four spots in the second tier for a place in The Qualifiers, which formed part of the doomed Super 8s format of the game that was scrapped three years following its introduction at the end of last season.
This season, there could be as many as nine teams battling for a place in the top five play-offs, and the chance to win promotion to Super League, with promoted York and Sheffield both making impressive starts, winning five games from six.
With Toronto, as expected, setting the pace and Toulouse starting to find form following a few early blips, it would take a brave man to pick the top five now.
The Wolfpack will be desperate to put last season’s disappointment behind them, but all the other teams know that ultimately, if they can get to the Grand Final, they only need to be able to beat the Canadian powerhouse over 80 minutes, as London Broncos did so spectacularly last autumn.
That may well have been at the back of Derek Beaumont’s mind at Leigh, as the Centurions are quietly building on their relatively impressively assembled squad that was put together in a short space of time.
In recent weeks, they have added the competition’s best hooker in Liam Hood as well as prop Jake Emmitt, and they will fancy going under the radar and maybe causing an upset later on in the campaign.
Featherstone and Halifax will be up there, despite both suffering inconsistent starts, as will Bradford, who were unfortunate to go down against Widnes on Sunday after having a late try chalked off.
The Vikings are only two points from parity having suffered a 12 point deduction for entering administration, but a top five place may not be beyond them.
With points likely to be shared across a wider number of teams, the team that finishes in fifth place may well lose more than 10 games – Widnes technically have lost seven games so far.
It just goes to show, that when the focus is on the pitch and not re-structuring, rugby league can deliver.
London Broncos are certainly dispelling the myth that promoted teams can’t compete, which was one of the very soft reasons given for abolishing it in the first place.
Yeah in the 40-45yr history of P&R, there are only a couple of occasions of a team going up in 1st and then being relegated as the worst team. I think Hunslet 1988 & Leigh 2005 are the only ones. The yo-yo syndrome did exist when it was 4 up & 4 down, as it was for a few years.
— RichdelaRiviere (@RichdelaRiviere) March 16, 2019
They added Leeds to their list of scalps with a stunning 18-16 away victory on Friday night, and they are making a lot of people – myself included – eat humble pie.
The most encouraging thing about London’s progress is the fact that they have been rewarded for sticking with the group of players that got them promoted, and that it is made up of a number of home grown players.
The future of this sport is dependent on teams developing players and bringing them through, thus increasingly the player pool.
Correct. Though Huddersfield (2002), Salford (2003), Castleford (2005), Hull KR (2006) all did enough to stay up having won Grand Finals in Sep/Oct. (Cas were relegated due to Catalans being exempt). It's largely a myth that promoted teams can't be competitive. https://t.co/2BpcxxQKzR
— James Gordon (@jdgsport) March 16, 2019
It’s the first time since 2014 that Super League teams have been vulnerable to the drop, without the safety net of The Qualifiers, and that adds intrigue given the current fate of champions Wigan and Leeds.
In previous years, while it has been a surprise to see the likes of Leeds and Warrington finish in the bottom four, you never really thought they were at risk of relegation due to the format of The Qualifiers.
However, it’s different now, and while you would expect Leeds and Wigan to turnaround their current form relatively quickly, it will be interesting to see how long they can hold their nerve, with some people already questioning the positions of Adrian Lam and Dave Furner (who presumably won’t be reading this column anyway).
One still expects the relegation battle to come down to Huddersfield and London, though Hull KR’s injury problems will be starting to worry them.
Either way, there’s a lot of twists and turns ahead, just don’t mention the loop fixtures.