Relegation and play-off drama gets rugby league back on the right track

Friday evening promises to be one of the most dramatic and memorable nights in Super League history.

Following years of wasted time chasing the apparent perfection demanded by licensing and the ridiculous and convoluted Super 8s system, a return to a simple league format has brought with it arguably the most competitive season ever.

Yes, St Helens are run away league leaders – hardly their fault – but the rest of the league still had something to play for last weekend, and while Leeds and Catalans are mere passengers in this final round, both will have an impact on what happens in the play-off and relegation picture.

For too long, the sport has been obsessed by its perception – playing games in perfect stadiums in perfect cities in front of perfect fans.

None exist.

What does exist is a wonderful game that we all love, but that is plagued by a number of issues that have been criminally dismissed and allowed to harm the game over the past decade of off-field nonsense.

Rewind a decade, and there were criticisms that there were too many one-sided games in Super League. Yet now we have a competitive league, people complain about the quality.

Quality is something that can only be grown by the collective, and there was always going to have to be a drop and a compromise, before the clubs can all drag themselves up to the standards set by St Helens in recent seasons.

A game doesn’t have to be of the highest quality to be entertaining, and that is what rugby league should focus on.

With four teams at threat of relegation, there will be twists and turns on Friday.

It’s sad, yet again, to see the narrative afforded to “livelihoods at stake”. Yes, there will be people who may or may not lose their jobs, and though some players will move on to other clubs, there will naturally be some losses.

But that shouldn’t be the focus of these big games. It should be about what happens on the pitch, and the drama.

We can only dream of the halycon days of the 80s and early 90s – when it didn’t matter so much where teams were from or where they played, but more about what they were doing on the pitch.

That said, Super League is still held back by the clubs’ money grab and refusal to expand due to not wanting to dilute their share of the cash.

The league should be made up of 14 clubs, and this season would have provided the perfect opportunity to satisfy the thirst for expansion by allowing two of Toronto, Toulouse or York promotion to the top flight.

It would also remove the loop fixtures which devalue the competition and are a source of frustration to fans, as well as removing two weekends from the calendar to either shorten the season or accommodate internationals.

Given the competitiveness of the league, moving to a two up, two down system – where perhaps the second bottom team participates in the Championship play-offs – may also be attractive, especially when you consider the increased competitiveness at the top of the Championship in recent years, and the promise of further North American, and maybe French, additions.

No club should be valued more than any other. Sport is made to be determined on the pitch.

Just look at London Broncos. Their terrific efforts against the odds didn’t only get them in to Super League, but has put them within 80 minutes of one of the most unlikely survivals in history.

Stop chasing perfection and play to your strengths – that’s the lesson to be learned for rugby league this year.

Focus the energy on trying to improve what is holding the game back – a lack of investment in officiating, for example – and embrace anyone who wants to join the party for the right reasons, like Toronto, in the mean time.

Predictions

Encouraged to put my neck on the line, my head says that the expected will end up happening – London go down, and Toronto go up.

My opinion is that the best perceived result for Super League would be for Toulouse to come up, just because it feels like the situation of rugby league in France could use that boost.

One wonders whether Leigh have manufactured a position whereby they won’t have to go to Toronto twice, though they will have to beat either York or Toulouse away, if they get past Featherstone on Sunday, to reach the Grand Final.

The nonsense of this year’s Championship play-off format makes week two an interesting one – the winner of Toulouse and York need to travel to Toronto, knowing that even if they win, the likelihood is they’d have to return to Canada a fortnight later for the Grand Final.

Placed in that situation, some might feel that sending a weakened side to Canada and preparing for an additional semi-final with the view to focusing on giving the Grand Final a good tilt might be a better route to promotion rather than beating the Wolfpack in successive games, especially given Toronto’s incredible winning run.

Whatever happens, it’s the business end of the season – and that’s what sport is all about.