After all the uncertainty and indecision, we have a firm date – Sunday, August 2 – for the resumption of Super League.
It’s what clubs, coaches, players and, most importantly, fans have been waiting for.
While supporters can’t watch games in the flesh, they have some entertainment on their TV screens to look forward to, and hopefully it won’t be too long before we see crowds back in grounds.
The sooner we have clarity on the rules – will there be six-again and will there be scrums? – and the situation regarding promotion and relegation, the better.
What we do know is that select neutral venues will be used in the first instance, that all clubs will play 22 matches, including those that have already taken place, and that there will be a four-team play-off with the Grand Final in late November.
It won’t suit everyone, and there’s already plenty of debate about the loss of home advantage. But given the situation the coronavirus crisis has left us in, it’s good to finally have a plan for moving forward and rescuing the season, at least at the top level.
Now we need to take a leaf out of the Aussies’ book in terms of marketing the competition and serving up something worth watching.
Super Sunday, Sunday Special, Sunday Best, whatever it’s called, it has to be all those things, because we are at a critical point in Rugby League’s eventful history.
With the current Sky deal (more on that later) running out at the end of next season, there’s a crucial new agreement to be thrashed out, so the better and more popular the product, the better position those negotiating on behalf of our game are in.
The NRL has shown the way in taking the opportunity to attract extra coverage and new followers. And wouldn’t it be great if we could do something similar over here?
There are three good match-ups coming up on August 2, with Hull KR taking on Toronto Wolfpack, St Helens facing Catalans and Huddersfield and Leeds contesting a West Yorkshire derby.
The following weekend, all twelve clubs will be in action, and before too long, players will be back in training and going through a mini pre-season to try to ensure they are as prepared as possible for a scenario we have never experienced before.
It’s going to be very interesting to see which coaches, which players and which clubs handle it best.
The matches that did take place before the lockdown in mid-March produced some unexpected results, but I still fancy St Helens, Leeds, Wigan and Castleford to claim the top-four places.
The fact that we’re not talking about top five, of course, has an impact, and isn’t good news for any club, but in particular, Warrington, Hull, Huddersfield and Catalans.
They all have realistic ambitions of making the play-offs, and when you do that, anything is then possible.
But now the pressure is on, particularly for Warrington, who have made no secret of their ambition to finally land the title, and Hull, who are pressing forward with Andy Last in interim charge after the sacking of Lee Radford.
Pressure on Elstone
There is pressure of a different kind on Robert Elstone, and not just in terms of getting the big Rugby League relaunch right.
It’s been confirmed that Super League, the RFL and Sky have agreed a revised current deal which reflects the effect the coronavirus crisis has had on the fixture list.
Sky obviously haven’t had any matches to show for the last three and a half months, so weren’t happy with maintaining the same payments into next season.
That will have an effect on all clubs next year.
Beyond that, who knows?
When appointed as Super League leader, Elstone was flagged up as being the man to bring in a bumper fresh TV deal and lucrative new sponsors.
We all know the TV deal is crucial to the future direction of the game, and while Elstone’s job has become more difficult, he really needs to produce.
Graham will help Saints’ title ambition
I’ve already said that I expect St Helens to be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, and I think the recruitment of James Graham reinforces their chances.
As I wrote last week, James would have made a great addition to the Leeds squad, but I suppose given his past history, Saints was always the likeliest destination.
We all know he’s a top-quality forward, and while aged 34, he could still have done an excellent job in the NRL, never mind Super League.
I’ve watched him playing for St George this season, and he’s really impressed me with his fitness, consistency and enthusiasm.
He certainly doesn’t seem the kind who will be happy just to coast through the remainder of his career.
He’ll want to walk back into that Saints dressing room and have an immediate impact, and it goes without saying that the Super League title is his goal.
Over at Huddersfield, Aidan Sezer is back in country after spending much of lockdown in Australia, and that will be a relief to the Giants fans.
He made a great start following his switch from Canberra, and that won’t have gone unnoticed Down Under.
Stories emerged linking him with a return to the NRL, but the word coming out of the John Smith’s Stadium as that Sezer is both frustrated by the speculation and committed to the Giants.
I’ll be watching with interest to see if he can pick up where he left off.
Brough heading to Bradford
ONE talented halfback who won’t be operating in Super League next year is Danny Brough, who is on his way to Bradford at the end of this season.
In a way, he’s back where it all started, since the Bulls are now based at Dewsbury, the first of his so-far six clubs.
It will be the third time he has played under John Kear following spells at Hull and Wakefield.
So it’s not that big a surprise, since Broughy is 37. While his brain remains as quick as ever, time takes its toll on the legs, and he may be more suited to the Championship.
That’s not to say the second tier isn’t an intense competition, as I found out when I left Leeds for Huddersfield.
In addition, you become a target, and dealing with that special attention week in, week out, is a test in itself.
Count me out on cross-code games
I find suggestions of a cross-code match between Australia and the All Blacks a bit laughable.
It’s obviously a gimmick, and while it’s said it would be 14-a-side – and how does that work, by the way, since it suits neither version of rugby – what rules would a match be played under?
If it’s a one-off, all you can see is one half of league, one half of union, because how could you ever combine the two and produce a product that would flow.
It’s difficult enough to make the move at club level, never mind international.
Obviously, the Australian Rugby League Commission need income after the tour of England was shelved, as do New Zealand Rugby.
But I won’t be rushing to watch such a match.