If Rugby League has become at least mildly popular amongst the mainstream media for one thing in recent years, it is the game’s bravery when it comes to innovation. Granted, some of the things the game has trialled over the years haven’t exactly been a resounding success – think the World Club Challenge of 1997, for example – but some fresh, innovative ideas have always managed to keep the game exciting and interesting.
However, for as long as Rugby League continues to exist as an elite sport, there may never be another concept that splits opinion quite as much as the ‘Club Call’ has. Since it was brought in ahead of the 2009 Super League play-offs, the event has tended to act as a bit of a damp squib. This year, though – the final time we will see the concept due the restructuring of the game next year – things may well be different.
Without trying to throw out too many cliches, this is the tightest race for Old Trafford in the history of the modern game. With two rounds to go, top spot is still up for grabs, and six teams are fighting it out for four spots on the league ladder. That all makes for a fascinating end to the season – and hopefully an even more incredible play-off series.
The big question is, when it comes to the ‘Club Call’, just who are the chosen team going to select? This simply has to be the most fascinating selection in the history of the concept – because out of the two teams they will be able to select, it is likely there could be a case for picking each and every one.
Take, for example, the top four as it is at the time of writing – St Helens, Warrington, Castleford and Wigan. If you picked a particular team out of those four as the one who got the ‘Club Call’, you could find positives and negatives in picking each team. For instance, there’s a real argument to pick Castleford, given how they have a severe lack of play-off experience (despite a run to Wembley earlier this year). But Cas have been the proverbial underdog this year, and it would take a brave man to pick them in a game that will be played out as a semi-final.
Then there’s St Helens – who may well finish top of the league – thus making them the hot favourite for Old Trafford in many people’s minds. However, their performance on Thursday night against Warrington Wolves will make some clubs wonder whether the Saints could be slightly vulnerable heading into the play-offs – so could they get picked if they were available to be chosen?
And that’s not including throwing the likes of Huddersfield and Leeds into the equation, as well as (probably) Catalan and Widnes, should they make the top eight. Going back over the last five editions of ‘Club Call’, all the decisions have felt relatively straightforward. It’s hardly been a tough call to predict who the team with the pick will choose to play – even if it has backfired on the odd occasion.
The concept has split opinion down the years, that much is absolutely certain. But when it comes to the final edition of ‘Club Call’ in 2014, the interest should be very, very high indeed. Those with the responsibility attached to it should ensure it is delivered in some style – because for once, it will mean we get two incredible semi-finals no matter who is selected. And coincidentally, that will be a fantastic precursor for the play-offs in 2015, when it is a straight semi-final shootout for Old Trafford.