The unpredictability of the Championship season to date poses a few questions that we’ll probably never see the answer to.
If Toulouse reach a Grand Final, they will surely jump ahead of their rivals in the queue for Super League owing to the RFL’s expansionist agenda. However, one Super League managing director told me that some clubs are seeking assurance that should a further French (or another expansion) side be admitted in to the top flight, it will be at the expense of another so-called “ring-fenced” club (e.g. Harlequins, Crusaders and Catalans).
Whether they received that assurance, I’m not quite sure, but the cost of supporting a Super League side is definitely on the up – trips to London, Wales, France and Scotland (for the Magic Weekend) have helped contribute to the rise of following your club season on season. Add another trip to France in there, and soon fans may be forced to pick and choose their games, and rugby league can hardly afford to lose fans.
Another question is whether the on-field performance of teams who have already satisfied the on-field criteria for Super League will have a detrimental effect on their licence application. Widnes are seemingly on a bit of a downward spiral after a horrific injury crisis and loss of scrum-half James Webster to Hull which has left them somewhat hanging on to their play-off spot. Should Widnes remain in 6th position for the rest of this season, will it be fair that they are put in to Super League ahead of say Featherstone, or Barrow? Or has the fairness of it all been underwritten by the licence procedure anyway?
Despite its competitiveness, the actual on-field play is virtually irrelevant anyway when it comes to the bigger picture. Featherstone and Leigh are the two stand-out teams this season, but they are the only clubs with anything to lose from not being competitive. Widnes, Barrow and Halifax can focus on other areas of their development without having to worry about meeting the stipulated criteria. But how much does that frustrate fans? Widnes are probably the undoubted favourites to be elevated to the top flight, but is it fair to expect their fans to shell out each week to watch the team in the Championship, when it looks like other, off-field activities are being prioritised by the club?
Half of the season is all but gone now, and it would take a brave man to predict what the outcome of the season is going to be. My opinion has changed somewhat as the weeks have gone on. Halifax are probably the stand out team I’ve seen when at their best – although they do seem to struggle for consistency. When they’re at their best, they are a very quick side, and play at a high intensity, but they don’t appear to be able to apply that intensity all the time, least of all when they’re under pressure.
One side that of course got the better of Fax were Leigh. The Centurions aren’t blessed with the quality on paper of some of their rivals, but are a well coached and very disciplined side that does all the basics right. Once you’re confident doing the basics, that is when your players of real quality can shine. The appointment of Ian Millward was just the thing Leigh needed, and in terms of Super League, they certainly have the momentum that some of their rivals do not have.
If they can dominate the league for the rest of the season, secure the Northern Rail Cup and win the Grand Final – although Featherstone might have something to say about that – they will certainly have plenty of ammunition to go to the RFL and say “look at us”.