Monday, 2 February 2015

League of their own

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine. Please buy a copy when you see a seller. 
The rugby league season kicks off this week. Leeds Rhinos star Kevin Sinfield tells Mark Metcalf why he believes a new structure will improve the game for fans and help it compete with other sports. Plus a team by team rundown of their chances this year
A reformatted Rugby Super League begins this week with all 12 teams in action. That’stwo less than previously as rugby league seeks to compete for spectators against wealthier sports
by ensuring every game is competitive while also rewarding those teams that finish highest in the table and reintroducing the threat of relegation.
The play-offs to decide the eventual Super League champions have been revised, with the top eight teams now retaining the points they have earned from 23 league games and then playing each other again once. The four ending up with the highest points then enter the play-off series in which topplays fourth and second plays third at home, the winners meeting in the Grand Final. It’s complicated, but no more so than previous systems.
With Bradford Bulls and London Broncos dropping down this season, the top four in the championship will be given the opportunity to win promotion by playing against the bottom four in the Super League at the end of the season. After a period in which a Super League place has not just been based on a club’s on-the-field performances, the changes have been welcomed by traditionalists.
Last season, St Helens beat favourites Wigan Warriors in the Super League final at Old Trafford. They were helped by an early moment of madness from Wigan’s Ben Flower who walloped an already prostrate Lance Hohaia and was rightly dismissed.
Flower’s 12 team mates battled on bravely but were eventually beaten 14-6 with Saints skipper Paul Wellens, the longest serving player in Super League, collecting the trophy before 70,102 fans. This was a sell-out crowd but rugby league is finding it hard to compete against other sports. The money Sky Sports pays to transmit games live is essential but it means the sport rarely features on terrestrial television and thus needs to work extra hard in promoting itself, both in its M62 corridor heartlands – roughly corresponding to The Big Issue in the North’s patch – and outside.
Premiership rugby union crowds tend to be higher and the numbers that watch international rugby union games dwarf those of league.
Rugby union’s top clubs can thus pay players considerably more. Rugby league salary caps are much lower than rugby union or Australian rugby league, limiting the amount the top players can earn.
Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield, whose many achievements for club and country since 1997 were recently recognised with an MBE, believes the new format has “the potential to make it the finest Super League yet”.
He says: “It should make every game important whilst also increasing the number of sides that can win it. Combined with the return of promotion and relegation there is the potential for some great games.
“As champions, St Helens, who played very well in the Grand Final, are the side to beat, but Wigan are also very strong.
“Warrington nearly made the 2014 final and Huddersfield frequently go close.
“Salford have again recruited very well, Castleford will be a hard side to crack and Catalans are becoming difficult to beat.
“For Rhinos, I am optimistic that just as in the late 1990s, when young players like me progressed to form a core group in a successful team, the same will happen again as the older pros like myself retire.”
The number of younger players being nurtured through their local clubs generally heartens Sinfield. “Home-grown players are getting a chance as money is being spent on their training before they are integrated into professional rugby. That’s great for our sport, especially compared to football where very few top class juniors are emerging.”
Sinfield is though worried about competition from Australasia and rugby union and hopes the current salary cap can be increased. That may be difficult as the money coming in from the TV deal with Sky Sports has already been agreed until the end of 2021.
“I do think that for Super League to continue progressing we need to increase salaries in order to keep our best talents.”

Castleford Tigers
Surprise side of 2014, making the play-offs and finishing runners-up in the Challenge Cup. This earned Daryl Powell the coach of the year award after he refashioned the side following the departure of star man Rangi Chase to Salford Red Devils. Cas have not won a major trophy since 1986 and the loss of 21-year-old hooker Daryl Clark, who collected the Man of Steel award for being the outstanding Super League performer last season, is a major blow for their chances of ending the long drought. Off the pitch, Castleford continue to inch towards a new stadium with plans to lay the first brick near Glasshoughton shortly.

Catalans Dragons
The only French side in Super League, Catalan, based in Perpignan, came within one game last season of getting to the Grand Final. They have chosen to largely retain the same squad with just three top quality additions in Remi Casty from World Club Champions Sydney Roosters, Willie Tonga from Parramatta Eels and talented half-back Todd Carney, who was sacked last season by Cronulla Sharks for off-field misdemeanours. If he can stay out of trouble then Catalan could win a trophy.

Huddersfield Giants
The Giants ground-share with the local football club. In recent years they have regularly reached the play-
offs but have not won a major trophy since 1962. The side contains Scots international’s Danny Brough, Man of Steel in 2013, and Joe Wardle, voted player of the season in 2014 for his club. The Giants will largely line up as they finished last season and are likely, once again, to make the play-offs. Don’t bet on them making the final though.

Hull FC 
One of the founding members in 1895 of the Northern Rugby Football Union and another to ground-share
with the local football club. Finished last season in eleventh place and have signed experienced Leon Pryce to partner Marc Sneyd at half-back. Hull won the Challenge Cup in 2005 but you have to go back to 1990-91 when they last won the Championship. Difficult to see Hull, who made the 2006 Grand Final, winning the Super League.

Hull Kingston Rovers
Rugby league’s finest side in the mid-1980s but then dropped alarmingly. It was not until 2006 that the Robins won a Super League place and since then have struggled to make an impact, finishing ninth last season. The close season has brought a bewildering switch in personnel, with head coach Chris Chester bringing in 13 new players with a similar number leaving or retiring. Six newcomers are from the Australian NRL, plus experienced former Leeds Rhinos prop Ryan Bailey.
Leeds Rhinos
This is likely to be a transitional season for the 2014 Challenge Cup winners and five times winners of the Super League in the last eight seasons. The side will again include winger Ryan Hall, the only British player playing at home to feature in the 2014 World XIII team selected by Rugby League World magazine. Kevin Sinfield has retired from international rugby in order to prolong his club career but the Rhinos squad is an ageing one, with the only addition being experienced prop Adam Cuthbertson from Newcastle Knights. Leeds will need their academy players to step up quickly if they are to have any success.
Salford Red Devils
Widely tipped last season to make the play-offs, Salford, founded in 1873, finished tenth, only just
survived a winding-up petition the year before being taken over by horserace owner Marwan Koukash. He oversaw a major recruitment drive and following last season’s disappointing finish another one has taken place this winter with the pick of the bunch likely to be scrum-half Michael Dobson from Newcastle Knights. They still have Rangi Chase and New Zealand international full-back Kevin Locke but will do well to equal their highest Super League fifth place in 2006.
St Helens
Six times winners of the Super League, Saints have kept faith with the players who won it last season
with just two new signings – stand-off Travis Burns from Hull KR and Atelea Vea from London Broncos. New head coach Keiron Cunningham has lost to Canberra Raiders’ Samoan Iosia Soliola, whose Grand Final try put his side back into the game against Wigan. James Roby, a Saint since 2004, can again expect to feature prominently in a side that many pundits predict will retain the Super League trophy.
Wakefield Wildcats
Wildcats have signed a host of players with Super League experience, including Tim Smith and Matty
Ashurst from Salford Red Devils. Prop Ian Kirke has also arrived from Leeds Rhinos. Wakefield only just survived in the top flight three years ago but the expected withdrawal of their Rugby League license was forgotten after Welsh side Crusaders unexpectedly dropped out and disbanded. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats again face another battle to survive the drop at the end of this season.
Warrington Wolves
The only side to have played every season in rugby league’s top flight, Warrington will miss Australian Michael Monaghan, who has retired. The arrival of Daryl Clark as his replacement seems a shrewd investment, even at a cost of £185,000 – a big sum for rugby league. Warrington made the Grand Final of Super League in 2013 and are one of the favourites to do so again.
Widnes Vikings
Eighth last season and would probably be pleased to manage that again in 2015. They were left out of the inaugural Super League in the mid-1990s but since getting a Super League license in 2012 the club has made steady, unspectacular progress by signing experienced professionals. This season that includes 31-year-old Aaron Heremaia from Hull FC, Manase Manuokafoa from Bradford Bulls and Chris Clarkson on loan from Leeds Rhinos.
Wigan Warriors 

May well have been the reigning Super League Champions if Ben Flower, now set to serve a lengthy
ban, had held his temper in the Grand Final against St Helens. Warriors won both the Super League and Challenge Cup in 2013 under the direction of head coach Shaun Wane. He will be looking to full-back Matty Bowen to reproduce the impressive form he showed in his first season in England – after a very shaky start. After a season away, accomplished prop Lee Mossop is back from Parramatta but the loss of stand-off Blake Green to Melbourne Giants is a blow to Wigan’s chances of returning to top spot.

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