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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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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