This article, written by Phil Caplan, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
After Bradford’s inglorious Easter Monday showing at Wigan, and before they had redeemed themselves in the Challenge Cup at home to Catalan, recently installed and highly experienced managing director Steve Ferres said that the club – under new ownership – would have to carry out a ‘root and branch’ review of the Bulls on-field operation.
The result against the Dragons probably negated the need to do so publically but, apart from being an unwarranted if unintentional slur on Francis Cummins and his tight band, that unnecessary report should have consisted of just ten words; Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman, Garreth Carvell, Jarrod Sammut and Nick Scruton.
There are other names such as Keith Leulia and Heath L’Estrange to add, along with Frank Winterstein who – like Carvell – never even got to don the shirt.
Take the calibre of those players out of any squad around the mid-table region and drilling down for answers needs go no deeper.
What it does raise is the much wider question of the paucity of full-time players of Super League standard on the market who are ready, willing and able to replace such personnel, financial restrictions notwithstanding.
The need and desire to reduce the number of clubs in the top flight acknowledges precisely that, as does the current league table, which post-Easter revealed the same three tier Super League.
Some of the names may change, Castleford and Widnes to their absolute credit replacing Warrington and Huddersfield in this current early season benchmark assessment – but the overall principle does not.
We cannot solve the dilemma of the haves, the might haves and the have nots if there aren’t more quality players available.
Yes, some currently excelling in the Championship may be worth a punt on but, first and foremost, they need to come to terms with the physical and psychological demands of rugby becoming their occupation, they are unlikely to walk straight in, needing to be nurtured and carefully monitored.
Moreover, a number of the Championship sides are now being filled with players who have been dispensed with by Super League clubs when their Academy tenure, at the ridiculously early age of 19, is over.
At a time when we are needing to increase the talent pool, releasing them so prematurely, hoping they will stay in the game and might be re-signed at a later date – like, say, Salford’s Jason Walton – is a huge and expensive risk that the sport as a whole cannot afford.
An additional worry, not least shown at Bradford with the re-callings of loanees Anthony Mullalley and Danny Bridge, later replaced by Hull duo Jay Pitts and Joe Arundel, is that lower clubs in the same division are reliant on fringe players from others within it.
The three Leeds players having a season in London, Alex Foster, hamstring-victim James Duckworth and Thomas Minns, are no doubt gaining some valuable experience. But even their parent club would admit that they are not physically ready and a stage of their development where they can be considered for what should be the truly rarefied atmosphere of Super League on a regular basis.
But in the absence of any real alternative, there is little other option, even though it does distil a supposedly top-ranked product.
As the good doctor has found and vented about at Salford, even if you have the money and a blank sheet of paper, there is no guarantee that the collection of individuals available will be of sufficient quality to take a team from last to challengers without some period of gestation.
And the introduction of relegation, initially, also leads to the elimination of as much risk as possible with Wakefield, for one, in their desperate need to escape the drop loaning out a number of home grown products such as Matty Wildie and Lucas Walshaw who have effectively been replaced by overseas signings that were predominantly on the outer fringes of the NRL.
The most precious commodity in sport, but which mitigates against a straight return to promotion and relegation without creating traditional boom and bust among yo-yo clubs, is time.
That means a re-adjusting of expectations to bring them in line with realism and then aiming to raise the mean.
Practically, that involves learning through losses as the current golden generation Leeds team did between 2000-03, Saints have experienced and Wigan been through – the three sides that have built the strongest roots and subsequent branches.
Glades, copses, woodlands and ultimately forests don’t happen overnight but they tend to last a significant while – unless chopped down by impatient man.