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.
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 that most of the Super League season is played in the spring, summer and autumn months, the chance for free-flowing rugby has increased tenfold. However, over the years, Super League fans have commented on the declining quality of the competition with less of the fast and physical game seen in previous years. Why is that?
Only a few teams in recent years have been able to throw the ball around in an entertaining fashion that has got spectators off their feet. Castleford rejuvenated Rugby League in 2017, finishing a record ten points above second-placed Leeds Rhinos with a +935 points difference. St Helens have done it for the past two seasons with Warrington closely behind them in 2019. The quality on the whole however, has just not been there in recent years.
There seems to be an emphasis on physicality rather than class at present. Super League tends to be all about “winning the ruck” instead of finding space on the edges. St Helens and Warrington have been the exception in 2019 with over 100 more points scored than third-placed Hull with the likes of Lachlan Coote and Blake Austin wowing audiences with scintillating play.
The new rules that have come into place in recent weeks concerning the ruck have already enhanced the speed at the play-the-ball with players no longer searching for cheap penalties or spending time flopping on the floor trying to get the referee’s attention.
Once the warm weather begins to return, hopefully, the expansive play that Super League used to pride itself on will return to the fore too. Too many teams at present seem content to use the old “five drives and a kick” routine, boring spectators and largely getting nowhere in games. Of course, there’s a time to be conservative – i.e. in your own 20-metre area – but sometimes teams play better when the shackles have been let loose.
It would be much more pleasing to see teams follow the example of Saints and Warrington. Perhaps teams don’t have the quality that these two sides have, but each and every player in Super League is talented, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the top flight. There’s no reason for head coaches to stifle attack-minded stars when in the opposition’s half.
Gone are the days of the likes of Martin Offiah and Robbie Paul dancing round defenders and Super League is worse off for it. Rugby League is having a hard time attracting new fans and bringing back alienated old ones. And, the only way to do that is to improve the quality on the field.