The eagerly anticipated Super 8s finally came to town, and boy did it deliver.
There remains a sense of intrigue, and perhaps even a tinge of uncertainty about the format, but if ever there was a way to vindicate the concept, it was this weekend’s action, particularly in the Middle 8s.
I personally covered Halifax’s game against Widnes and will happily admit to expecting a relatively comfortable win for the Vikings. That is not me being disrespectful towards Halifax, I’ve seen them several times this season and think they are a fantastic team, but it only took one glance at the team sheet to see the contrast in calibre the two teams had at their disposal.
But how wrong was I? It was an absolutely belting game of Rugby League between two very evenly matched teams. Both sides left everything out on the pitch and gained plenty of plaudits in the process.
It was evident, and not unexpected, that Halifax were fired up for it, but the same could be said for Widnes. Livelihoods were at stake, and you could feel that vibe coming from the pitch, it made for a great occasion.
However, there was a flaw to the weekend – and that was the attendances of the Super League matches. We are too obsessed at times with the number of people attending our games. The extensive coverage provided by television will always be a burden to crowd numbers, that’s just the reality of modern day sport.
But crowds were slashed in all four matches compared to the ‘regular’ league fixtures, with a total decrease of 8,790 across the games, a fall of almost 19%.
Leeds’ game with Warrington was watched by 4,312 people fewer than the same match in April, there was a decrease of almost 2,000 for the match between Castleford and Hull, with nearly 1,500 off the gate for Catalans’ win over St Helens. There was also 1,000 less at Wigan vs Huddersfield than there was at the start of the season.
In the Middle 8s, however, the readings are far more satisfying. Salford’s victory over Wakefield attracted over 700 more than the same fixture did in March, whilst almost 1,200 additional spectators attended the second match between Bradford and Sheffield at the Provident Stadium this season.
Over 3,000 went to The Shay for only the second time this season for Halifax’s clash with Widnes, whilst Leigh raked in their third highest home league attendance of the season for the fixture with Hull Kingston Rovers, despite being played on Saturday in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
There are factors to explain the crowds; the novelty of the concept makes the Middle 8s far more appealing for casual fans than Super League, whilst the way the Super League table reads at the minute makes the play-off race predictable, excluding the battle between Huddersfield and Castleford. There was the summer holidays to contend with, too.
A combination of the reasons above, plus the fact that the clubs only had a short amount of time to promote the games; Wigan only having eight days, for example, will have had an impact.
It would be wrong to criticise the RFL as they have done a terrific job with the concept, and they are learning about the way the structure will work just as we are. However, adding an extra week to schedule would help solve the situation somewhat.
However, it’s concerning to see crowds drop so substantially, and if Leeds, St Helens and Wigan mathematically secure play-off places soon, the crowds will only drop further.
Additionally, whilst there was plenty of tight games in the Middle 8s, there were no shock results, and with the four Super League teams playing the four Championship teams this week, the league could already be split if there are no upsets at the weekend.
Let’s hope that isn’t the case, and we continue to see high quality, unpredictable games across the leagues.
To read about all the Super 8s action, buy League Express, in stores now.