Eye On Rugby League by Tony Williams
The biggest rugby league story this week, and let's be honest this year, has been the possibility of seeing Wigan Warriors relegated from the engage Super League. That's understandable – the novelty of seeing a big team struggling always interests the media.
However, what are not understandable are the calls for Wigan to be kept in the league by virtue of an expansion to thirteen clubs. Despite this being a poor idea in itself, why is it that the campaign has only gathered momentum since Wigan have been propping up the rest?
The reason is that many people will tell us a club of Wigan's stature deserve to be in the top flight, and that Super league cannot survive if it allows the Warriors to face the drop to LHF Healthplan National League One.
But they're forgetting that Wigan have been relegated once before. Life for the top flight went on, and life for Wigan went on. The club simply knuckled down and worked their way back into the rugby league elite – in the process becoming one of the greatest sports teams the world has ever seen.
And the argument is completely negated when you have a look at some of the once-great teams that are currently plying their trade in the lower leagues. Hull Kingston Rovers, Widnes, Leigh, Halifax, Featherstone Rovers, Swinton, Barrow and Workington Town among others were all top sides in their day, yet they do not have an automatic right to play in the top flight.
And you only have to look at the Super League clubs who were once near the bottom of the rugby league ladder – Bradford, Huddersfield, Castleford and Wigan themselves – to see that movement between the divisions does the game at large no harm at all.
On Sunday night Dave Whelan assured the Sky Sports viewers that if Wigan finished bottom they would deserve relegation and the team that wins NL1 deserves promotion. However, he also assured Wigan fans that the club would fight tooth and nail on the pitch to stay up, and do the same to get back up if the unthinkable should happen.
Contrast those remarks of a man confident that his side can recover with the remarks of head coach Brian Noble yesterday, who seems to be desperately pleading with the powers that be to spare the Warriors the ignominy of relegation. Noble has shown that he lacks both faith in his own side and respect for the rules which govern our sport.
The idea of expanding the number of teams in the league is a bad one, notwithstanding any of the surrounding issues. The sport in this country does not have the quality to expand its top flight. In my opinion there are only eleven Super League standard teams in this country – not even enough for a full set as it is.
As an interesting side note, only ten of those teams are actually in Super League.
Enough has already made of this most contentious of rugby league issues. The simple point is this: a team that finishes in a relegation place that has been determined before the beginning of that season deserves to be relegated.
While no-one could doubt the quality of St Helens thus far this season, they have slipped slightly over the last two weeks. The losses to Hull and Bradford have shown that it is very hard to consistently perform at the same high level.
The Saints must still be considered the favourites to lift the Super League trophy, but it will not be the walk in the park we were previously envisaging.
But if St Helens don't end the season as champions, who will? Leeds are currently second in the league, but I don't feel that they will be the ones to pull Saints' fingertips from the trophy. Bradford scored the win over St Helens on Friday night, but surely even they can't wangle their way into yet another Grand Final.
In my opinion it is Hull are now best placed to take the silverware if it is not the side from Knowlsey Road. Hull's win over St Helens two weeks ago proved that they are at least the equal of the Saints on their day, and that they can rise to the occasion.
Great British Future
Speaking of Knowlsey Road, next Tuesday sees the XXXX Test between Great Britain and New Zealand at that very venue. And both sides will have their eyes trained on this autumn's Gillette Tri-Nations down under, with the Kiwis hoping to retain their trophy and the Lions hoping to make more of an impression than they did last season.
And for that reason I hope that Brian Noble takes this opportunity to blood some of the younger members of his squad, rather than simply sticking with the tried and not so trusted.
Although this has been titled a ‘Test Match' it is in fact as close to an international friendly as we're ever likely to see, and it's the perfect opportunity to experiment in a game where nothing is at stake.
If Noble refuses to introduce anything different, whether that's in terms of players or the way the side plays, it will show that the Great Britain management has no idea of how to finally win a series.
Incidentally, I hope that this game is a success. If the FIFA World Cup has shown us nothing else – and it hasn't – it's shown us that the public responds to an international sporting event. By itself this game will make little difference, but it is part of a new international programme that in years to come may encourage many new people into the sport of rugby league.
That's if the RFL haven't killed the game by then.
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