The Super 8s – Here’s a radical thought.

Here’s a radical thought. Next year, keep the Super 8s but wipe out the points from the first 23 games of the season. Before the abuse starts, let me expand.

Maybe it is just me, but is most of the excitement and anticipation in the Super 8s currently centred on the Qualifiers? Obviously, the inclusion of the mighty Bulls will have something to do with it but there is more to it than that. There is something about wiping the slate clean and starting again at this stage. everything is possible. For very good reasons, the top teams got to carry the points over and continue with their league. But is it feasible that Hull and Catalans can pull back the six or eight point deficit on the 4th placed Huddersfield and reach the play-offs? They certainly started like they believed, with a stunning win over high flying Saints. Hull pushed Castleford very close; maybe every minute does count – but could we make it better?

Watching a game at the weekend, my wife asked why the top teams didn’t have the points wiped clean like the Qualifiers. I started to trot out the “rewarding teams for their performance over 23 weeks “ but, as she pointed out, that reward in the Qualifiers is a supposedly an advantage in the fixture list, more home games etc. Why not adopt the same for the top section? If the next seven games are simply a race to qualify for the top 4 do Leeds really need a seven point start over Castleford? Are we in danger of being like Formula 1 where the fastest cars start at the front. Surely more exciting if the fastest started at the back and used their skill and power to overtake?  While I am not talking about handicapping the likes of Leeds and Wigan, wiping the points clean could introduce that element of jeopardy that was talked about at the start of the season.

Is there a middle ground? What would the league table look like if the fixtures against the bottom four were removed? After all, this would give more weight to the teams that do well against the big boys, rather than racking up big wins against the lesser teams. I admit, I had a theory that Catalans would benefit from this move. They beat St Helens convincingly last week, and had big wins over Wigan and Warrington earlier in the season.

Super League - Perpignan, France - Home of the Catalans Dragons
Super League – Perpignan, France – Home of the Catalans Dragons

However, if I got my sums right, they would move up just one place, going above Hull if the table was based on matches against the other top 8 teams. Significantly, Wigan would leapfrog Leeds at the top of the table under this system. Saints and Huddersfiled would still make the top 4. But, hang on a minute, by stripping out matches against Hull KR, Salford, Widnes and Wakefield, two teams Hull and Castleford end up with only 14 fixtures as opposed to the others having 15. So, the magic weekend fixtures should be stripped out as well. As Wigan fans remember well, they walloped Leeds in Newcastle. Stripping this result would put the Rhinos back on top. In fact, the only positional change would be the Dragons moving above Hull on points difference. The gap between 4th and 5th would be bigger so, if its excitement we want this is not the way forward.

The table:

Played Won Drawn Lost Points Diff Points
Leeds

14

9

1

4

120

19

Wigan

14

9

0

5

32

18

St Helens

14

8

0

6

-10

16

Huddersfield

14

7

1

6

51

15

Castleford

14

6

0

8

-23

12

Warrington

14

5

0

9

-2

10

Catalans

14

5

0

9

-52

10

Hull

14

5

0

9

-78

10

In the space of a couple of days thinking about this I have basically turned 180 degrees. For next year, let’s keep the Super 8 concept but take it a stage further. Wipe the points at the end of the 23 games and have a straight race to the playoffs. Teams would still have the incentive to finish as high as possible to get the advantageous fixtures in the Super 8s. The better teams should still come through but the excitement would then match the Qualifiers. Every second would really count then. 

I told you it was radical. Do you agree?

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Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible – how do you avoid the score before watching a recorded game?

For many years, in the interests of marital harmony, I have recorded the televised Rugby League matches rather than watch them live. That way, we enjoy a meal, have a drink, watch a film etc. I watch the game, oblivious to the score, the morning after. Result – everybody happy.

In the modern age, this is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, to tie in with the new film it is almost Mission Impossible. (I bet the music is now going through your head!)

Back in the halcyon days before smart phones, iPads and 24×7 media the biggest danger was walking into the local pub. No matter how many people you told that you were avoiding the score there was always somebody who thought it was funny to tell you. As times changed we were more likely to find ourselves in restaurants but with the same outcome.

Football too

It’s not just a rugby league problem, football is just the same. In 1997, my employer at the time held a big IT conference in Stratford. A dinner was arranged on the Wednesday evening – nicely coinciding with England’s vital World Cup qualifier against Italy. No problem, we would skip the dinner and watch the game in the bar. The management got whiff of this and made the dinner mandatory. A compromise deal was struck with the hotel. They would video the game and show it in the bar from 10.30. A full radio blackout was agreed and policed by everybody. By 10.20 we were gathering in the makeshift stadium, drinks sorted and a nice atmosphere building. The first attempt at starting the video ended with a blank, grey screen. The room fell silent. Would the IT department be defeated by technology (again)? A second later, Alan Shearer appeared to a huge roar then blank again. In the silence that followed, an American voice from the corner, not one of our hundred strong group, said quite clearly “I don’t know why you’re bothering, England lose one to nothing.” The ensuing silence was so threatening that even Jack Bauer would have had a slight wee. Needless to say, the perpetrator left very quickly. The atmosphere fell flat and by the end of the inevitable defeat there were only half a dozen hardy souls left.

Technology

Of course, technology has moved on in the intervening years and made things far more tricky. Facebook, eMail and Twitter have to be avoided at all cost in the lag between the match kicking off and watching the final tackle. Other technology traps exist. The Sky+ box itself has a nasty habit of surprising me. Just as you press stop at the end of a film, the channel has inevitably changed to the match, just as Eddie Hemmings mentions the score. I am very quick when it comes to hitting the mute button but sometimes not quick enough.

The main BBC news mentions rugby league about as often as I drink Pimms- except when I am avoiding the score – so no news.

The episode that triggered this piece happened at 10.02pm on Friday, a few minutes after the hooter had gone at the semi final. A text message on my phone – could be important. Like an idiot I looked and it was those nice people at the RFL telling me that Leeds were in the cup final. As a Bulls fan that was a double whammy – our old enemy reaching the final and me knowing the result of one of the most eagerly awaited games of the season. I did watch the game after I had calmed down and it was worth it for the gem from Dave Woods in his commentary. “There is a rumour in Leeds that Superman wears Kallum Watkins pyjamas” – priceless.

Of course, the Super 8s start on Thursday. Once again I will be watching it delayed. I will be unplugged and not near the phone. Short of somebody hiring a plane to buzz Burgess Towers, dragging an 80ft banner behind it surely I am safe.

Burgess – Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

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The middle 8s and the salary cap

Ahead of the Middle 8s, is it fair that some clubs have almost double the salary cap to play with? Secondly – does it matter?

If we dismiss the possibility of Hull KR pulling off a stunning turnaround this weekend, the dust is now settled on the composition of the Middle 8. Rovers will be joined in a fight for survival by Widnes, Salford and Wakefield. Leigh, Bradford, Sheffield and Halifax join them in a bid for glory and promotion.

Whilst I applaud the concept I have to question whether there is a level playing field for this stage of the season. The obvious disparity is the salary cap. The Super League clubs theoretically have £1.825m to play with whilst the Championship cap is £1m. I say theoretically because income plays a part in the final calculation and many teams spend nowhere near the limit. However, having almost twice as much to play with must be a big advantage to those clubs – or is it?

All of the clubs involved have strengthened (or at least added to) their squads over recent weeks. None more so than Super League bottom club Wakefield. The Wildcats have made nine signings (assuming I can count that far). This would be a significant turnover in a squad over the winter. To do it mid-season is a huge gamble. As a Bulls fan, and I am sure the Centurions have been the same, the Wildcats have had a mental tick against them all season as the weak member of the herd, ready to be picked off in the battle for promotion. My heart sank a little when Brian Smith was announced as their new coach. We still have fond memories at Odsal of how Smith arrived and transformed the club ready for the Super League era. If anybody can rescue Wakefield it will be Smith but, is such a massive overhaul possible in the space of a few weeks? Rather than gamble everything on short term signings (something that licensing was brought in to eradicate from the game) would a couple of new faces and a solid plan for next season been a better approach?Changing the playing roster rapidly rarely works; ask Salford fans if you are in doubt. The more restrained approach of making a key signing may be a better strategy. Certainly Omari Caro has added some much needed pace to the Bulls back line and, if Warrington pull it off, Chris Sandow would be a huge boost to the Wolves.

Of course, signing players on short term deals at the end of a season is nothing new. The Bulls did it very successfully ten years ago, signing Adrian Morley once his Australian commitments were finished for the year, allowing him to add a Super League Grand Final win to his NRL success. I was uncomfortable at the time that the signing was somehow not fair but got over that when we beat Leeds at Old Trafford!

It is that question of fairness that nags away at me now. For the first time, the game is looking to crash together teams from different competitions, with different salary caps into a playoff system. I think it will be a tremendous spectacle for the sport but a more level playing field should be introduced. It is rare that football’s Premier League considers financial fairness but the transfer window is something that the RFL could adopt. My proposal would be that transfers and new player registrations are allowed up until the Magic Weekend. After that – you play with what you have, avoiding the temptation to gamble everything on end of season signings for the playoffs. If the first team squad isn’t producing the goods, try some younger faces from within the club. This would stop the instant fix of signing Aussies that are surplus to requirements at their clubs or the same old faces that regularly move at this time of year.

In summary, it is probably slightly unfair with two salary caps but the caps are there to protect the clubs from over reaching. Does it matter? My bet is that the teams moulded over a season by Leigh, Bradford and Sheffield will prove too good for a scratch team that have just met in the last couple of weeks.

There is one caveat to all of the above. I am writing this on Wednesday afternoon. I have just seen on Facebook that the Bulls are announcing two new signings this evening. If it turns out to be the Burgess twins or Semi Randrada and Shaun Johnson then all bets are off and fairness can take a hike! One thing is for sure, the Middle 8s will be a fascinating battle. Strap yourselves in – this is going to be exciting.

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Referee – well done sir!

Referees in rugby league, on the whole, do a great job. There, I have said it. I’ve maybe lost one or two brain cells to alcohol over the last few weeks but I believe it is true. A couple of things brought this home to me this weekend.

Firstly, I attended the Huddersfield v Hull game as a neutral. The only let down of the whole afternoon was the constant moaning of a number of fans about the referee’s decisions. I couldn’t see too much to moan about (other than the home side was taking a beating). The ref never dropped the ball or missed a tackle. He seemed to show enthusiasm for the task – more than some of the Giants could manage.

Referee in action
Referee in action

Secondly, the resumption of @RFLreferees #asktheref discussions on Twitter. As far as I know, this is a first for any major sport. The concept is blindingly simple but very powerful. If there was a decision at the weekend that incensed you, simply ask what the thought process was. The referees in question provide the answers. A clear explanation of why a decision was given is often enough to stop the rant about the quality of his eyesight or the validity of his family tree. Sometimes you may still disagree but at least the ref has explained his thinking. Refreshingly, there is the occasional “hands up – I got it wrong moment”. Just this admission gains the referees so much respect in my book. How many of us can honestly say that we never make mistakes in a working day? (You should have seen the number of spelling mistakes in the first draft of this for a start – no need to point out any that remain!) I remember the ex-boss of ICI, Sir John Harvey-Jones doing a series on British business years ago called Troubleshooter. The quote that stuck with me through the years since was on the lines that the only people who don’t make mistakes are those that do nothing.  Our referees are making hundreds of decisions without much help (what do touch judges actually do?) and may just get a few wrong. With most of them, they don’t have the luxury of a dozen camera angles and endless replays. An interesting contrast to this open approach is the FA where referees are censured if they attempt to comment on decisions. Again, Rugby League points the way and other sports will eventually follow (with Rugby Union taking the credit).

While I am at it, well done to the powers that be for following the NRL model and getting the referees to make the try / no try call before going to the video referee. This worked so well in the NRL it was very frustrating  to see so many referees abdicating the decision on virtually every try.

My wish-list

So, is everything in the refereeing garden rosy? No, things could still improve. It would be nice to think there won’t be a mid-season change in emphasis or interpretation on some rule or other, leading to dozens of penalties and total confusion. This usually peters out after a few weeks but is very frustrating. Rules being applied consistently, regardless of who is the referee and what stage of the season we are at will surely go a long way to changing the image of the merry whistle blower. I would like to see a return to referees being seen but not heard, particularly on televised games. Explain decisions by all means but I don’t need a running commentary of “hold, move, surrender” etc. Certain referees almost wander into coaching teams to keep them onside – OK in a school match but surely not needed with professionals?

Maybe I am now being too idealistic but for a sport that prides itself on players being able to knock seven shades out of each other for eighty minutes then shake hands, wouldn’t it be good to applaud referees off the field? OK, probably a step too far but one thing is for sure, without a referee there would be no sport. I for one would not want to do the job but, starting now, I will be more understanding of those that do.

Now, if somebody could just explain where the knock on was when Michael Withers put Leon through against Saints I could start to sleep again!

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Super League Neutrality

At this time every year the anticipation starts to build. Re-runs of past Grand Finals on Sky, half hearted pre-seasons friendlies and scanning the sports pages for last minute signings. Super League is back, or will be very soon. This year, there is one big difference. My beloved Bulls are no longer invited to the party.

Don’t get me wrong, I think relegation was deserved. Fans and players alike spent more time worrying if there would be a club at all to worry too much about results. With the odd exception, the results were pretty bleak. There were encouraging signs at the weekend that Jimmy Lowes’ clearout of the squad and rebuilding has gone well. Jake Mullaney looks like a real star in the making.

However, it all feels like I have been dumped; my ex is simply carrying on with life as normal, having a whale of a time and planning a weekend away in Newcastle. In fact, it is worse than that. An ex lover could be unfriended on Facebook and forgotten. But the game I love will be televised several times a week and I am compelled to watch. What’s more, I can’t resist wondering about future performance and who will end up on top! Of course the ultimate goal is to go off with new friends, batter them and get invited back by the ex for next year.

So, can I enjoy Super League as a neutral? As a lover of the greatest game, the obvious answer is yes. I am proud that I have attended every day of every magic weekend so far. I still have the frostbite scars from Edinburgh to prove it. The problem this year is – who do I want to win? I could say I don’t care but that is too much like school sports day where it is the taking part that counts. No, you have to pick a team, but how?

Having moved from Bradford a few years ago to the centre of Leeds, the Rhinos may be an obvious choice for most people. I can see the ground from my apartment window after all. But, come on, I am a proud Bulls fan. It couldn’t possibly happen. St. Helens are out for similar reasons – all those Super League Grand Finals and it wasn’t a knock on by Withers in 1999.

I have nothing against Wakefield, Hull, Hull KR or Salford but, let’s face it, we are likely to be playing them in the second half of the season so they are out as well. Actually, Hull KR – charging an extra two pounds for away fans to sit in an uncovered stand – not forgiven. I have a long if slightly selective memory.

I have always had a soft spot for Paul Anderson since his days as a Bull. He does the right things as a coach and builds success on the back of a good pack. My only reservation is that one or two of the Huddersfield fans still have a chip on their shoulders from all those years struggling. Please – enjoy the good times and start watching your entertaining team with a smile on your faces. Widnes are building in the right way but I am still scarred from working in Runcorn for a while – too close. Nobody said picking a team was based on logic.

Super League - Wigan at Old Trafford
Wigan at Old Trafford

Wigan were always a bit like the Man United of Rugby League so they are out, sorry Paul Deacon. I always enjoy a trip to Castleford and, with Luke Gale organising them they could go a long way this year. Obviously, there is a but coming. If Inter and Milan can share a stadium, surely Cas and Wakey could, making both of their fantasy stadiums a reality. Somebody should bang their heads together. I am not talking about a merger, thankfully that sort of talk is in the distant past, but sharing a ground should be easy.

Super League - Perpignan, France - Home of the Catalans Dragons
Super League – Perpignan, France – Home of the Catalans Dragons

The best place to watch Super League has to be Perpignan, despite the torrential storm that soaked us to the skin a few years ago. The trouble is, each game would involve a couple of weeks away (too nice not to) and it is a long way on the bus – Catalan rejected. That leaves Warrington. Undoubtedly, the best fans in the game at the moment. They turn out in numbers and make a huge noise. They also take the prize for the best fancy dress turnout year in year out. Tony Smith has them playing attractive rugby.

So, is the answer Warrington? Well, no actually. They seem to have developed a nasty case of losing the play-off games that matter and I just can’t face going back to that. My only option appears to be to enjoy every game in Super League, picking a favourite for each based on any one of a thousand daft reasons and make sure that the ex takes me back next year. Roll on 2016.

FFF

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