Saturday night fever - how to freshen up Super League, and save the Challenge Cup
Richard Lewis departs. Stobart remain pretty much invisible Super League sponsors. Eamonn McManus and Neil Hudgell thunder about the state of the game. Tony Smith and several other coaches seem no more impressed. Adam Pearson just seems angry. Featherstone shock Castleford and scare Wigan in the Challenge Cup. Widnes flounder in the league.
A staccato intro consisting of lots of apparently unrelated points, and yet the juxtaposition of the whole lot, and lots more besides, suggests to me that we're at a potentially significant moment of transition for British rugby league.
Squelching out of the car park at Featherstone on Friday night, I felt pretty much the same way I had leaving Barrow a couple of summers ago, shortly after the loss of Garry Purdham in the Cumbrian shootings. There must be a better way than licensing. That moving night at Craven Park, when Des Johnston (remember him?) spoke with typical bluntness about the situation, prompted me to write a piece in League Weekly advocating a two-tier Super League, with 10 in each. There was a corollary to that, which I don't think I included for some reason - possibly cowardice, and a reluctance to tamper with the game's oldest competition. But having attended such an underwhelming occasion at Warrington this afternoon, the second non-event that's been shown on national terrestrial television in this year's competition, I fear that Featherstone's heroics notwithstanding, the Challenge Cup is, to coin a phrase, dying on its arse - at least until the latter stages.
Might it be time for radical surgery, to the cup and the whole structure of the season?
This is only slightly more advanced than back of a fag packet, but it seems to hang together ok. Those two divisions of 10 would currently work out as follows.
Super Duper League - Huddersfield, Wigan, Warrington, Catalans, Hull, Leeds, St Helens, Bradford, Hull KR, Salford.
Quite Super League - Wakefield, Castleford, London, Widnes, Halifax, Featherstone, Keighley, Dewsbury, Batley, Leigh.
Two up, two down between the two, and also between the QSL and the Not Super At All League But Still Better Than Championship One (NSAALBSBTC1). Crucially, and I think I did stress this point in the original League Weekly piece, the teams in the QSL to be given a decent chunk of television money. At the time, I'd suggested £1m per year for SDL clubs, and £400k for QSL - but I think there's a bit more dosh knocking around now, thanks to the latest Sky deal. Anyway, there's no point getting bogged down in the details of a plan that'll probably never come off.
Here's the bit about the Cup. Play the early stages - ie everything up to the quarter finals - in pre-season. In fact, start on Boxing Day. Originally I'd thought four groups of five, giving each of the 20 Super League clubs another eight fixtures, four of them at home, which would still mean 13 games on the season ticket. (The league itself would be an 18-round competition, or possibly 19 if an On the Road round remained feasible - with a top five play-off, the best and fairest system ever created) Now, I quite fancy the idea of six groups of five, therefore including all 10 teams from tier three. (Current NSAALBSBTC1 would be Sheffield, Swinton, Hunslet, York, Workington, Barrow, Doncaster, Oldham, Rochdale and Whitehaven).
Six groups work very well in rugby union's Heineken Cup. It means the group winners are guaranteed a quarter final place, and then the two fastest losers. I reckon that would create plenty of interest in those group stages.
Obviously, starting on Boxing Day would run the risk of postponements, but you could build in a buffer zone between the end of the Challenge Cup group stages and the start of the league programme (which could be put back to late March or early April - warning: danger of real summer rugby).
To be honest, I don't think there's any chance of this happening. The five-year deal signed with Sky last year for a Super League consisting of at least 12 clubs would probably stymie it, for starters. Perhaps the general consensus would be that it's a load of cobblers anyway. But surely we've got to come up with something better for the cup than we had at Warrington this afternoon.