The season finale was the perfect end to the Super League campaign – its best team by some considerable distance defeating an underdog that had generated unrivalled attention to the big day, at least in recent years.
It would have been a travesty had Justin Holbrook walked away from St Helens with nothing to show for two exceptional years where they have blown away everything before them, only to fall at critical hurdles three times before the weekend.
Saturday was fourth time lucky, and Holbrook can return home to take on the unenviable task of revitalising Gold Coast Titans sage in the knowledge that he is a Super League champion.
From where they were when he inherited an under performing squad from Kieron Cunningham, Saints have progressed with some tremendous moves in the transfer market, but also the eye-catching development of their own, not least in the form of prop Luke Thompson, who Holbrook himself labelled the best in the world, and recently crowned young player of the year Matty Lees.
Even the drama surrounding the lynchpin of last year, Ben Barba, did little to derail that progress over two years, and it’s a measure of how dominant Saints have been that they may well be disappointed only to have secured three trophies from six, if you include the wrongly much-maligned League Leaders’ Shield, the true barometer of the best team.
Salford created the story of the year with their run to a maiden Grand Final and in the meantime proved that money isn’t everything – as London did in the Million Pound Game a year previously.
A team of discards, sprinkled with some hidden gems, coached by a passionate, pragmatic and knowledgable hometown ex-player, they achieved beyond their wildest dreams in reaching Old Trafford.
What happens next remains uncertain, with Red Devils’ chiefs no doubt praying that the run proves a catalyst to improving the attendances at the AJ Bell Stadium, which remain woefully below the numbers deserved for Ian Watson and co.
Like Castleford two years ago, Salford have given hope to the many who find themselves at risk of being deemed unfashionable, amidst a backdrop of big city dreams championed by Brian McDermott, amongst others.
It’s McDermott’s Toronto that will add suitable intrigue to suggest that Super League can be even better in 2020, the Wolfpack’s presence and progress will attract attention from the media and broadcast quarters that rugby league craves, while there will be some fans of the game with bottomless pockets watching with interest at how David Argyle’s admirable and significant investment is rewarded in the top flight.
They replace London, who threatened until the very end to produce one of the greatest survival stories of all time. Not given a hope pre-season, the Broncos would win 10 games to take a four-way relegation battle to the final day, before bowing out with pride in tact.
A measure of London’s success is the way they generated secondary support, having previously been the target of ire from rival fans for apparent, and untrue, favouritism.
For London to come up, not break the bank, retain a core of their Championship squad and most importantly expose some of their talented young players to Super League, was a great story in 2019.
While some will argue Super League still needs licensing, or some other convoluted league format, the drama provided by the relegation battle cannot be ignored, and was an instant justification of Robert Elstone and the clubs decision to abolish the ridiculous Super 8s format.
Focus must go on truly expanding the game, and that means developing clubs in the Championship, as Toronto and Toulouse have shown, with the vision to increase the number of teams in the top flight and even increase the number of promotion and relegation places on offer.
While keeping names like London and Toronto are a must, it’s anti-sport if they’re protected, and a strong second tier would ensure it’s not the disaster some like to make it out to be.
On the Championship, with big-spending Toronto out of the picture, it promises to be a fantastic 2020, with no fewer than seven teams with realistic hopes of pushing for promotion, no doubt inspired by the unlikely run of Featherstone to the Grand Final and to within 80 minutes of Super League. These are dreams that were taken away from most of the second tier during the licensing and Super 8s eras.
Though Magic Weekend at Anfield was drab, it is a positive that fans’ concerns have been listened to, with a return to St James’ Park in Newcastle next year proving a test to the theory that you should never go back. Having pushed for its return to the north east, it’s now up to the fans to back it in numbers.
The record for a single, regular season game was broken by Catalans, as they hosted a historic game against Wigan at the Nou Camp, which will always be significant, even if the magnitude of its logistics put it beyond the Dragons making it a regular occurrence.
Warrington’s bold marketing has attracted attention, saw their attendance numbers increase, and also highlighted to other clubs the way forward. Their willingness to share practical, player analysis data should also be acknowledged and championed. Such transparency from rugby league clubs can help to grow the sport and the awareness of the science and athletes that make the on-field product as it is.
Of course, it would be naive to pretend that everything is rosy. The video referee splits opinion, as does officiating on the whole, and there is a worrying ongoing trend of fans, and even club chairmen, abusing referees to such an extent that it raises huge doubts over whether the pool of officials can ever be increased.
The late movement of fixtures for TV, and the issues around Thursday night games, will be targeted for criticism, especially as the introduction of Toronto is likely to put them on a par with Catalans in terms of a consistent home game day and time – something the 10 other clubs aren’t afforded the convenience.
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes with regards to the next TV deal – so Super League must kick forward again in 2020.