Written by Callum Walker
The creation of Super League in 1996 ended the 101-year long Rugby League Championship – a competition that had come about due to the breakaway of the Northern Rugby Football Union from the Rugby Football Union in 1895 – and with it the winter game.
Rugby League was now a summer sport, starting in February and ending in September/October as opposed to beginning in August and ending in May as the previous competition had done.
At the heart of this decision was Rupert Murdoch and his Sky machine, ready to take over the world. A “super league” competition was first mooted during the Australian Super League war as a way for Murdoch to gain the upper hand during the battle for broadcasting supremacy with the Australian Rugby League.
Murdoch also approached the British clubs to form a European Super League and, having received the idea with great positivity, 11 English clubs and one French side – Paris St Germain – formed Super League Europe in 1996.
Since then, Rugby League fans have been treated to 24 full seasons of Super League with Leeds Rhinos winning eight titles, St Helens winning seven, Wigan Warriors five and Bradford Bulls four. Castleford Tigers, Huddersfield Giants and Warrington Wolves have all finished top besides the title-winning teams – securing the League Leaders’ Shield in the process – whilst Castleford, Warrington, Hull FC and Salford have also been beaten in Grand Finals.
A switch to the summer game was intended to enhance the quality on the field. Rugby League has always prided itself on the talent that it produces, but, the winter game often meant fixtures descended into mud-baths where even teams’ shirts were unrecognisable.
Now, with the exception of a few snow-filled ties at the beginning of the year, Super League is able to operate in the warmer months, though the end-of-year Grand Final is held at an often rain-soaked Old Trafford.
GET YOUR EASTER 🏉 FIX
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) April 8, 2020
One observation is clear in the 24 years of Super League: players are obviously bigger, faster and stronger. But, the game is also a lot more structured; whether that’s the influence of the NRL or not, stars no longer “play what they see” as they did in the old days.
Whereas the ‘wrestle’ of the ruck is now considered the be-all-and-end-all to control a game, improvisation and spontaneous moves had much more of a place in the pre-Super League era. And, some would say that made the game more exciting.
With claims that the Super League has descended downhill in quality, there has become an almost nostalgic yearning for the days when the sport thrilled each week in front of packed-out audiences rather than a boring slug-fest in front of soulless, empty new stadia.
The game has changed completely, but that doesn’t mean the entertainment has to. Glimpses of incredible attacking play have been on show in recent years – the Leeds Rhinos of 2015, the Castleford Tigers of 2017 and the St Helens of 2018 and 2019 all impressed with their flamboyance – but sometimes that has been too few and far between.
Of course, the purists of the game will hail the physicality and controlled aspect of Super League, and that should definitely be celebrated. But, every so often, it would be refreshing to see more sides let loose and play the game as it happens rather than continuing along the same structure until things get desperate at the back end of games.