Leeds are champions after a good month

Kevin Sinfield hailed a great month for champions Leeds as he collected the Super League trophy following their Grand Final win over Warrington.

That’s right, a month. Not a season. A month.

For the second successive year, fifth placed Leeds turned it on in September to win three play-off games on the spin before taking glory at Old Trafford.

Fair play to them, they’ve played the system, and they’ve played it well. They’ve won five of the past six Super League titles and should go down as one of the great teams.

But what about February-August? All the hard-earned money that goes in to supporting clubs throughout the season for 27 regular season games which appear to have been rendered virtually pointless by the current play-off system.

The top six or so clubs pretty much chooses itself. Even before the fixtures are announced or the recruitment for next season has been completed, you could have a pretty good go at which teams would make the play-offs in 2013.

We’ve seen Wigan and Warrington rest players for games as and when they need, with the Wolves most notably suffering a 60 point thrashing at the hands of lowly London Broncos a week before their Challenge Cup win over Leeds.

Leeds had purple patches throughout the season that meant they were never in danger of missing out on the play-offs, but there was almost a knowledge in their camp throughout the year that their final league placing mattered little, considering if they could string three wins together in September, they’d be making the trip to the Theatre of Dreams once again.

Should the champions be a team that are simply capable of turning it on in big games for one month of the year?

This isn’t a cup competition we’re talking about, this is the bread and butter of the sport. This is why fans pay for season tickets and match tickets to watch their team week in, week out. There are people out there now who are thinking “why bother?”

The Grand Final is a great event, and the attention it brings the sport is great. But at what cost? One of the most notable things at Old Trafford was the lack of sponsor branding. Where Manchester United logos have been replaced by engage branding in previous years, there was nothing of the sort this year, courtesy of the freebie sponsorship deal that was handed to Stobart for 2012.

A lucrative Grand Final is not enough to sustain the sport, if fans are being turned off by the regular season.

The league needs to carry more weight. Warrington coach Tony Smith admitted throughout the year that he had learned lessons from them finishing top of the table in 2011, and how they wanted to make sure they were ready for the play-offs, whether that meant doing their best in the regular season or not.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the team that finishes top of the table should be champions.

The three games in the past fortnight have highlighted why the play-offs should remain, but they should be limited to, at most, the top four clubs.

Reducing the play-off number presents its own problems, namely how do you maintain interest in the lower regions of the league. Could that spell a decrease in the number of teams, or perhaps the return of promotion and relegation? Maybe both.

Some might suggest the alternative is to crown the table-topping team the champions, but then run a separate top eight play-off competition for another trophy. You would have the first placed team in Super League then being crowned champions, and Leeds would still be able to take home a trophy of their own.

But it’s worth noting, that only between 1973 and 1998, with a few exceptions, has the title not been decided by play-offs.

It’s something rugby league should be proud of – and it’s even been copied by rugby union, interestingly using a top four format.

Another thing to consider is the teams in the lower reaches of the table that have to go the best part of five months without a game, if they don’t reach the play-offs. Is running a full-time operation really sustainable if you’re only playing games for little more than half of the year?

Consider that in football, they play virtually twice as many games, and there are only two and a bit months of the year when league matches aren’t played. A Championship or League One football team will play 23 home games minimum per season, regardless of their league position. Consider the revenues and value for sponsorship that they provide. Even an extra five games in a season for a Castleford or a Widnes might prove much needed added income.

That, along with a lack of communication and marketing within certain clubs, is a debate for another day.

There has of course been a review of the game by the RFL’s interim chairman Maurice Watkins, and hopefully, that will present some answers to the many questions that rugby league has to ask itself, despite the glorious on-field product we saw on Saturday night.

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