John Davidson breaks down the end of the regular season, the latest news and the start of the international window.
1. International awakening
The Super League season has finished and the international window has kicked off. We’ve seen Newcastle confirmed as the setting for Magic Weekend again next year, a great decision, and the release of those fixtures. It will be good to have a grand final rematch at St James Park, with Leeds meeting Wigan again, and it is great to have some of the fixtures mixed up for a change. Though it would have been nice to have, say Warrington vs Widnes and Castleford vs the Rhinos, Saints and Huddersfield should be a cracker. But before we set our set our eyes to 2016 there has been a host of international footy going on.
Tonga outclassed the Cook Islands in Campbelltown 28-8, with a host of NRL stars on show, while France were too good for Ireland in their 31-14 win in Albi. In the other game, Wales upset Scotland 18-12 in Wrexham it what was a good start for new coach John Kear. England meet France this weekend at Leigh, before the Kiwis series begins. The Tonga–Cook Islands Test in Sydney was live streamed but we need better media coverage of these matches to help grow the international game. The only way we can make the representative scene stronger, and encourage more players to take part, is to build these contests up and invest in them. Make them events, advertise them, promote them. The media build-up to the European games was practically non-existent. Sadly a lot of the good work done by the 2013 World Cup in the UK has been squandered. Getting international games back on our TVs, or at least on our computers and tablets, is vital.
2. Leeds leading
Take a bow Leeds Rhinos. There’s no doubting they are one of the best, well-run and organised clubs in Super League if you take a look at the way they have marketed their upcoming friendly with New Zealand. Former Leeds greats Adrian Morley and Ali Lautiiti have been invited back to take part in the match. It’s a fantastic gesture as it is the final time that they’ll wear a pair of boots. Fellow retirees Kylie Leuluai and Kevin Sinfield, who is jumping codes, will also be farewelled. It’s a great move by Leeds, to allow the fans to say goodbye to a bunch of outstanding servants of the club, and it should be a magnificent occasion at Headingley.
The Rhinos are on track for their biggest crowd of the season for the Kiwi game, with more than 18,000 expected. The club’s heritage committee has also completed the task of giving a unique number to every player who has made an appearance for the club going back 120 years. Recognising their history, respecting their roots an engaging with their supporters, Leeds are hitting the nail on the head with all three. The Rhinos are making the club more than just a team but a community with events and initiatives like these, and they deserve praise.
3. French fun
League 1 will have some Gallic flair next season with the confirmation that Toulouse Olympique XIII will join the competition in 2016. The current French champions will make the third-tier a 15-team league. There is hope that Toulouse, after playing in League 1 from 2009 to 2011, have learned from the experience and will be better prepared this time round. At the end of the day the eventual goal is to have a second French team in Super League. This would help grow the sport in France, give Catalans a derby rival, bring in more TV money and help the international game as well. It’s largely win-win.
But Toulouse need to earn their right to play in Super League through promotion and results on the field. It won’t be easy. There should be no leg-up, no easy ride into the top flight. There will be some that will be unhappy about the re-entry of Toulouse back into English rugby league. But there are wider benefits to the game apart from some club’s self-interests, and it adds something new, something different and exciting to the status quo. Rugby league must expand past the M62 corridor and its provincial mindset and this is one change that, fingers crossed, may help do just that.
4. Player power
League Express newspaper yesterday led with the news that League 13, Super League’s players association, has folded after just four years of operation. It appears that despite the addition of several heavy-hitters, like Jon Wilkin and Eorl Crabtree, League 13 has gone under after a lack of financial support. It’s sad to see the development where an organization, with the players’ interest at its heart, fall over. According to the story, a lack of recognition from the RFL played a part.
Player power is something that seems to spook the powers that be. The players weren’t consulted about the extension of the Super League season and have little say in major decisions that affect the game. This has to change. Players are the stars of our code – the ambassadors, the entertainers, the ones we pay our money to see every week. Without them there is no game. Too often in the past we have seen players chewed up and spat out, owed money and been victims as clubs have faced financial difficulties. Players need support and should be engaged, not ignored, in the running of Super League.
5. Driving development
At the rugby union World Cup we’ve seen the emergence of a real talent on the wing for the All Blacks in Nehe Milner-Skudder. The young outside back has scored try after try as New Zealand has romped to the semi-finals. It has come to the surprise of many but not for ardent Kiwi rugby league fans or diehard Canterbury Bulldogs supporters. For the fleet-footed flyer is a league product, someone who grew up playing rugby league in the Land of the Long White Cloud. He was recruited by the Bulldogs in 2009 and joined a fantastic Canterbury Under-20s side that included current high-profile NRL players such as Marty Taupau, Josh Jackson, Josh Reynolds and Tim Lafai.
Milner-Skudder left Sydney’s bright lights to go back to New Zealand in 2011, and cross codes, because he was homesick. He has been fast-tracked into the All Black set-up after starring in Super Rugby. His beautiful step and lighting speed is reminiscent of Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall, all three Kiwi players with a touch rugby and rugby league background. The loss of a talent like Milner-Skudder reinforces the notion that we have to invest in our young players, to keep producing these kinds of gems. They are the excitement machines that we all love to watch and marvel at. It also reminds us that New Zealand needs a second NRL team, and fast. The talent that the country is spewing out is amazing and there’s little wonder they have beaten Australia in the past three games. The Warriors Under-20s side is a constant top-table team while the first-team remains talent-loaded but underachieving. There is so many good players being produced in the Shakey Isles and not all want to play on the Gold Coast, or in Newcastle or Canberra. A second NRL side, perhaps in Wellington, would help give opportunities to the next generation of Millner-Skudders coming through the ranks.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson