The way the Super League fixtures fell this weekend, with only a handful of matches left before the inaugural split into eights, every minute was going to matter more than most than had preceded; a litmus test for 2015.
Every fixture had something riding on it, either to keep a side’s hopes of top spot, the four or the eight alive. At the same time, news emerged from SL General Manager Blake Solly’s invitational visit to address the NRL clubs, that 12 of them were already aligned to come over at the start of next season for the second World Club Series, a significant increase on the three who signed up this season.
That might be because the finances and logistics worked well but there is also a growing suggestion from the southern hemisphere that, to reap the next set of rewards from broadcasters of their sporting prominence, they need new properties to entice and excite.
The realisation from the previously insular NRL hierarchy – although, let’s face it, a possible record-breaking, over 90,000 at the MCG on Wednesday for Origin II, in what is an unfamiliar market after only 20 years of top level Victorian development, is some justification for their stance – is that an international dimension is necessary.
But that will only work if we, with the only other full-time, professional league, are truly competitive both in national jerseys and club colours.
The move to 12 teams in Super League should give us that and the added ‘meaning’ attached to matches with jeopardy now reintroduced likewise, but – and here is the link to this weekend’s fare – only if we reduce the number of games for our elite players.
There was some terrific excitement this round, not least with gripping derby contests at Leeds and Saints, a fractious encounter at Huddersfield and the outcome going to the last in Perpignan.
But did entertainment mask a lack of overall quality, a number of sides looking fatigued and/or injury-raddled, making uncharacteristic, basic mistakes as a result, because of the fixture demands placed upon them; a time of re-girding rather than calibre.
All of which makes backs-denuded St Helens’ performance to beat near full strength Wigan to regain top spot all the more praiseworthy, led by immense Alex Walmsley, Mose Masoe with the season’s best chase back and the raw, skilled exuberance of Andre Savelio.
Similarly, strident Grant Millington, unsung Nathan Massey and Michael Shenton were leading lights as Cas stayed in top four contention with a structured dismantling of Leeds, starting quick and finishing strong, in the first Thursday fixture that really hit the mark for colour, atmosphere and vibrancy – which hopefully enticed the unfamiliars watching who follow winter-based sports.
Like at Catalans, where a score separated the sides to keep the action gripping, and Huddersfield, the games this week seemed more about survival and feasting off numerous opposition errors rather than creativity.
Maybe, mounting fatigue and injuries – are there more than ever this year? – together with less ‘gimme’ games to rotate squads, potential relegation, and points being carried over in the Super 8s has led to greater conservativism, certainly more teams seem to be opting to ‘take the two’.
In a nod to, perhaps, to coming reductions in the number of interchanges, both Leeds and Saints – who significantly saw Luke Walsh opt to stay and hopefully be injury-free for 2016 – both chose to play with 16 men.
Presumably, the owners of clubs will be voting no to coming out of the EU when the referendum comes around if the frequency with which they are signing Catalans players is anything to go by.
Mathias Pala has gone to Leigh, Gadwin Springer – perhaps surprisingly given his obvious untapped potential that the Dragons will not now benefit from – to Cas, and youngster to watch out for Levy Nzounghou is starring for the Saints Academy.
Add in Benjamin Jullien at North Wales and Ben Garcia snapped up by Penrith Panthers and the talent coming through across the channel looks more promising than for quite a while and justifies the Catalans experiment, which was also to give the French national side more options and strengthens the debate about the need for a properly player-resourced second side in Super League.
Arguably the most eye-catching performance of the weekend was that of young Catalans winger Fouad Yaha who continues to impress and the Dragons stopped the seeming haemorrhage of talent by agreeing full-time deals with reserve graders Ugo Perez and Thibault Margalet.
Hull, who opposed the marquee signing rule but in Mark Minichiello have arguably the overseas capture of the season, are now heavily linked with Frank Pritchard who certainly comes in to that bracket.
Wigan’s announcement of games and a commercial presence to London, like South Sydney have done in cultivating Perth – where they had a sell-out last week – is evidence again that a home market alone will not support the sport if we want it realise its potential – and find the funds for marquee signings.
We cannot afford to stand still. Scottish football, who’s disparities and support base across the divisions is extremely similar to our own, is examining moving to summer, while golf is looking to develop a short form of the game to make it more time-effective, family-friendly and appealing to a new, young audience with different lifestyle and leisure patterns.
Interesting to note that the crowd at Newcastle on Saturday evening for Thunder’s clash with the All-Golds, after nearly 3,000 for York as part of the Magic Weekend, was around 450 – we need to continually strike while our iron is at least lukewarm.
Full marks to the FC fans who travelled in force to Catalans and lit up the Stade Gilbert Brutus with their unique anthem ‘Old Faithful’, rather than the two or three generic, monotonous chants that seem to be sung by fans of so many clubs at the moment – like the fare on the field, we need more originality.
Ben Pomeroy, of the ‘was he impeded or did he milk’, played on with his eye seemingly hanging out but that paled compared to the ‘Footy Show’ footage of Ben Ross having his arm snapped in an arm-wrestle with Wendell Sailor – gruesome watching that went worldwide viral, what a lurid lot we are.
Strange week for Salford too. Reports of unpaid bills while Dr K says he can afford to fund a game against Catalans where all can come in for free – no matter that that dilutes the brand and the competition. And a hint that, despite winning at Wakey to keep the top eight in view, Tim Sheens is returning.
The broadest smiles are in Tiger Town the morning after.