It was great to finally see Super League get underway at the weekend, but yet again, off-field talk dominated the weekend.
Widnes made their return to the big time with a 32-14 defeat at the hands of Wakefield on their pristine, new artificial iPitch, in front of an encouraging crowd of more than 8,000.
Despite the defeat, the Vikings showed they should be competitive this season, while for Wakefield, the performances of Tim Smith and Paul Aiton proved that they may well go better than many had predicted for them.
For those watching on SKY, the farcical margin meter dominated discussion. What an absolute waste of time, and the sooner it is binned, the better. It is an embarrassment to rugby league, and an embarrassment to Phil Clarke for having to justify it.
The after-match talk centered around the iPitch, with Richie Mathers in particular, criticising the pitch, tweeting photos of the grazes on his arms and legs, immediately writing off the presence of artificial turf in Super League.
This dismissal seemed premature even on Friday night – it was absolutely freezing in Widnes on Friday, and I very much doubt the game would have gone ahead had it been “real” grass – but it was pretty much negated by the pictures of Matty Ashurst’s knees, tweeted on Saturday night, having played in the snow for Salford against Castleford.
That opening match at the Salford City Stadium probably wouldn’t have gone ahead had the game not been on SKY, but credit for the groundsmen for getting it on.
It proved that players are just as susceptible to cuts and grazes on hard – be it frozen or dry – real grass pitches, just as much as they are on artificial turf.
Mathers was particularly out of line when he seemingly implied that an injury to Thomas Coyle in Saturday’s academy game was as a result of the iPitch – it wasn’t.
England captain Jamie Peacock chucked his two penneth in to the iPitch debate, while also bringing up the Stobart sponsorship deal yet again.
“Why didn’t we? Take the 750k from Betfair. Spend 400k on advertising on 200 black cabs. Leaving 350k for knee/elbow pads for the i/pitch…”
Of course, his comments were made tongue-in-cheek, but too much is being made of the supposed Betfair money being rejected.
For one, it was the clubs that voted for Stobart. For two, what would the clubs have done, wasted it on yet another overseas player?
Let’s be honest. If clubs are receiving any additional money from the central pot, it goes on players. Rarely does it go on marketing, promotion, media or otherwise.
Leeds and St Helens have dominated Super League for the past five or so years, reaching every Grand Final between them since 2003, and basically their success has been built around a team of home-grown youngsters.
This concept still seems lost on some of the lower Super League clubs, who continued to field seven or more overseas players in their line-ups, despite the supposed security of no relegation, which was meant to encourage more youngsters to come through.
At the moment, only Castleford and Huddersfield seem to be following the ideal model. It’s no coincidence either, that those two clubs have been able to transform themselves from perennial strugglers to comfortable mid-table or play-off teams, and in the Giants case, even beyond that.
In the long term, investing time and money now in the correct infrastructure off the pitch will pay dividends. A short term fix is not what clubs need.
The Giants deserve another mention, for their superb 20-16 win over Wigan on Sunday, despite several injuries. Nathan Brown has done a fantastic job at the Galpharm Stadium in recent years, and he will be a big loss to Super League. The Australian has brought on some great young players at the club, and their focus is virtually solely on English players now, with just Jason Chan from overseas turning out on Sunday.
It has been a breath of fresh air to see an Australian coach investing in the future of Super League, and it needs to happen more often. On that note, Hull KR coach Craig Sandercock fielded no fewer than eight overseas players in his first game in charge.
The iPitch won’t be in action this weekend, with Widnes playing away at Huddersfield, so here’s hoping that this time next week, we’ll be talking a bit more about the rugby!