Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

As they sit in the Super League bunker in Salford, the architects of the grand plan to rejuvenate the competition must be affording themselves a wry smile of satisfaction a quarter of the way into the pre-split season.

They have won the initial battle to spruce up the flagship, only two points separating a current semi-final spot to bottom place, Widnes the latest to prove the value of even the narrowest of wins, their nervy 20-16 triumph over Hull KRcatapulting them from bottom to fifth.

Wakefield, the breezy front-runners have lost four on the bounce, commensurate with a mounting injury crisis that saw them loan two players – debutant George Griffin and Jordan Hand – to even enable them to name a squad of 19, which also included out-of-favour Jarrod Sammut; not that too much notice can be taken of some of the names declared and those who pitch up these days, although the principle still holds good.

Conversely, three consecutive wins for the Giants, without still hitting their straps, despite a record-breaking nine-minute hat trick from back in favour Scott Grix, have taken them to more rarefied air and, whisper it in Wigan where the press-ups have yet to work, they are a point off the bottom.

If only St Helens and Leeds would play ball. The pre-Easter scenario could not look much healthier, although the further testing of squad depth over that period may well re-paint the picture.

It seems as though the marquee player allowance might be on its way to maintain this growing parity if some of the names being linked to a move over here are to be believed. 

Paul Gallen, David Shillington, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Sam Rapira are all in the frame as the quality threshold appears to be on the increase. Add in eye-catching Adam Cuthbertson, especially after his rip-roaring display against the Warriors, being England-eligible through his father and there is at least some reversal in the one-way flow of our best talent to the Antipodes.

There is still an issue about the production spread of junior talent, 11 of the 24 young man England U16 squad coming from only two highly established clubs – Wigan and Leeds – announced for the two-match Easter Test series against the French.  

They will be keen to follow in the footsteps of Joe Greenwood, the young, rangy St Helens backrower and arguably the star of the opening six weeks, aided by the ultra-impressive form of Alex Walmsley and Atelea Vea and the return to it by Jon Wilkin on the back of signing a new one-year deal, and proving to the doubters he can play at scrum half.

His excellent display as a converted playmaker against the Wolves again highlighted that there is a real paucity of young, quality dictators coming through and too many top back divisions being starved of decent, disruptive possession.

In Saints’ game against Warrington, there seemed to be excellent banter between referee Ben Thaler and both packs – if only the watching television audience could have heard it clearly. The ref’s mike is, presumably, there to enable greater understanding to decisions and game-management rather than hear the continually breathless number counts and what is expected at a tackle, ‘Moooooooooooove.’

Surely it would be better to turn the mic’s down during general play and bring them up when the man in the middle calls a protagonist over and allow them freedom of the broadcast waves. Ben Westwood telling the whistle-blower that Mose Masoe was too big and the Samoan’s subsequent bewilderment was comedy gold, missed by some of the inane chattering over it.

A sole magpie must have flown over Red Hall towards the end of last week with news that they were no longer in charge of a significant tranche of Sport England funding, although it is staying in the game to be administered predominantly by club foundations, together with figures from ‘Running Rugby’ revealing that Aviva Premiership clubs can, on average, command double the sponsorship rights for shirts, stadium and secondary deals than their Super League counterparts.

The RFL issued an ineffectual statement saying, effectively, ‘our figures are better than yours’ when it comes to participation levels when, perhaps – like Leeds and the on-going Hardaker affair – it would have been more prudent keep their powder dry.

The Challenge Cup meandered on, blighted by the dual registration issue; Doncaster, London, Workington and Whitehaven out being unable to use their partner signings for fear of making them cup-tied and Hunslet struggling past (University of) Gloucestershire All Golds for similar reasons. It is a window into the eights-split and a worrying one, as is effectively seeding the competition to the extent that the magic has now all-but gone.

Much was, rightly, made of Leigh Miners triumph over Oxford but what does that say about the rushed plans to put development sides into League 1, further undermining that division before it has even kicked off. 

The chasm with the established names is ridiculously wide – as is the concern with the unsustainable crowds at the southern clubs – but the bigger worry is that if we, again (see rugby league history going back to 1895) botch such attempts to give a national profile then we set the sport back a generation.

And, finally this weekend, in the words of ‘Frozen’, we need to let it go; the pretence about rugby union and its product inferiority at international level. Whether we like it or not, the final day of the Six Nations was an absolute triumph for that sport. Points galore, building excitement throughout the day, headlines commanded; the perfect build up to their, no doubt, all-embracing World Cup later in the year.

A cross-section of the reaction of leagueites on social media was either grudging, patronising or arrogant – ‘well if you like seeing tries, come and watch us’. We compare ourselves to them far more than they bother about us and from weathermen to local radio broadcasts in our strongest areas to pub quiz’s all the talk was of ‘the rugby’. 

If we are absolutely serious about capitalising on the so-far limited success of Super League XX, we have to re-brand, we cannot live in the shadow of such an eclipse. We need our own light to grow.

The league highlight of the weekend, Fui’s try celebration for Leigh against the Broncos when he ran to the top of the stand and back through his adoring crowd. Wonderful and full credit to the bemused steward who let him back on the field.

The broadest smiles are in North Wales the morning after.

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