Era we go again

 This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine, issue 406 (Feb 2015)

The introduction, part-way through the coming season, of the fabled Three Eights has been flagged up as Rugby League’s biggest structural change in a generation.

That may be the case, but the game has had its major upheavals in the past and it is often worth looking at what happened after the revolution.

The game’s compulsion with fiddling with its structure goes back almost to Year Zero. As soon as the inaugural 1895-6 season was over, the original 22 team single division was on the scrapheap. No real surprise there; it was only ever a temporary measure, something to be played for by the breakaway clubs who founded the Northern Union.

For the next five seasons, Rugby League was at its most parochial, splitting into Lancashire and Yorkshire Senior Competitions. In 1902, there was a split of a different sort, with 14 leading clubs setting up their own division – in effect the game’s first Super League.

It lasted just one season, with Broughton Rangers finishing well ahead of Salford. The good news for the Red Devils, though, is that whenever there is a major restructuring there is a good chance that a team from the Manchester-Salford conurbation comes through the pack to dominate. I

n 1902, Broughton, playing at Wheater’s Field, long before moving to what was to become the Manchester United training ground at The Cliff, became the first club to achieve the League and Cup double.

For the next three seasons, the game had its first stab at two divisions, with Halifax winning the first League title and emulating Broughton by doing the double. So far, so good for the more powerful and financially secure clubs, but there were other clubs with different priorities.

For smaller outfits, regular derbies against their more illustrious neighbours were seen as essential, so the single division that was reintroduced in 1905 lasted until 1962-3, when the League voted for a three-season experiment with two divisions.

In a couple of senses, the game was unlucky in its timing. The first winter under the two division system was the worst since the notorious Big Freeze of 1948. The winter of 1962/3 did its best to match it, with weeks of frozen pitches, mass postponements and an extension of the playing season until the start of June.

Attendances, which, it had been theorised should go up, actually went down, although you could argue that, as well as the savage winter, the game was not helped by the collapse of one of its most famous clubs, Bradford Northern.

Definitive split

The club that truly thrived on the new regime was Swinton, who had not troubled the silver engravers since the 1930s. With an exhilarating brand of rugby and a backline of Fleet, Speed, Buckley and Stopford that was as quick as it sounds, the Lions won the Championship in both of the seasons that it was competed for under two divisions.

The more eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the word ‘both’. The trial never ran its appointed course; when it failed to deliver an immediately more saleable product, it was abandoned after only two seasons.

The faults of the one division structure were obvious. It was horribly unwieldy and, once it reached 30 clubs, there was no real prospect of expanding further. By its very nature, it also produced a heavy crop of hopelessly one-sided games. It did, however, prop up and thus command the votes of the smaller clubs.

With domestic gates still declining, though – despite Ashes and World Cup victories – the feeling that something had to be done became stronger in the 1970s.

By the time the Rugby League Council considered the divisional structure again in 1973, the game was already very different, played under the limited tackle rule – six rather than the original four – and, increasingly, on Sundays. This time the clubs voted in two divisions and, uncharacteristically, stuck with it.

On this occasion, the ones to pick up the ball and run with it were Salford. Already marked out as innovators by their pioneering of Friday night rugby, they immediately felt comfortable with a two-division set-up, winning the Championship in 1973-4 and 1975-6 with their star-studded side heavily laden with rugby union signings, of whom David Watkins was the biggest.

That was the end of one-division football and, realistically, it was never coming back. That did not stop some smaller clubs calling for its return periodically and blaming its abolition for all their troubles.

The final nail in its coffin was the expansion of the game that started with Fulham and Carlisle in the early-80s. There would have been no way of accommodating them in one division. In 1991, in fact, the Rugby League ran to three divisions for the first time.

No Bull(s)

The next revolution was to be very different in its plan and purpose. The switch to Super League and summer rugby necessitated a final, transitional winter season, before the 12-team competition kicked off in 1996.

Those 12 were nominated, rather than playing their way into Super League, but it was soon clear who would be the big hitters in the early years of the new competition.

St Helens and Bradford were the first winners of Super League, in the only two seasons that it was decided on a first-past-the-post basis.

Wigan won the first Grand Final in 1998, but you could argue that they had already made a play-off system an inevitability ten years earlier. The one thing the League’s partners at Sky TV feared was a competition that was over weeks before the end of the season, the way it often was during Wigan’s period of dominance.

Even more so than Saints, the Bradford Bulls’ success was entirely in tune with the brave, new world of Super League; so much of its distinctive flavour came from taking on board what they were already doing at Odsal.

It is ironic, therefore, that the elite competition should be embarking on its latest reinvention without them. With the end of licensing, Super League has already lost two clubs which, all other things being equal, would still have been very much part of the blueprint, the other being the London Broncos.

Instead, we have the two divisions of 12, morphing in mid-season into Three Eights.

Despite all the ultra-confident voices you will hear, nobody has a clue whether or not it will work. But it was ever thus; you could say that the whole history of Rugby League is one of leaps in the dark.

So here we go again. It will be different, but then it always has been.