Super League’s big three have hailed the success of the revolutionary new structure as clubs prepare for the start of the Super 8s but Leigh coach believes the signing frenzy by those threatened with relegation has uncovered a flaw in the system.
The 23-match regular season came to an end last weekend and the top eight will now carry their points forward into the next phase, with the top four then playing off for the right to contest the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
The bottom four, meanwhile, start afresh in the Qualifiers alongside leading Championship clubs Leigh, Bradford, Sheffield and Halifax to determine the make-up of Super League for 2016.
The top three are guaranteed top-flight rugby while the fourth and fifth-placed clubs will meet in what has been dubbed the “Million-pound Match” to determine the 12th spot in Super League for next season.
Gary Hetherington, chief executive of table-toppers Leeds, believes the radical structure can already be labelled a success.
“It’s a terrific concept and something that is unique, not only for rugby league,” said Hetherington at the official launch of the Super 8s at UK MediaCity in Salford. “I think the eyes of the sporting world will be watching with great interest.
“I think we have to give the RFL and the Super League executive credit for keeping their nerve in the face of a barrage of negativity and opposition from people within the game.”
Eamonn McManus, chairman of reigning champions St Helens, said: “When this was first mooted two years ago I had no doubt it would be a huge improvement over what we had before.
“I think up to date it’s been very successful and you look at the next 10 weeks and I don’t think in the history of the sport fans have had so much to look forward to. Every game is going to be do or die.”
Wigan coach Shaun Wane has given the concept his backing, saying: “I’m a big fan, I think it’s exciting.
“I think if you look at the outstanding fixtures and the ways it’s panned out this year, every one of those is going to be a big game.”
Wigan will host the opening fixture on Thursday, August 6 when Huddersfield visit the DW Stadium.
The following day, current leaders Leeds host Warrington and Hull go to Castleford while on Saturday, August 8 St Helens will take on Catalans Dragons in Perpignan.
Wigan have confirmed that their home game against the Catalans on Saturday, September 5, will be held at The Den, home of football club Millwall, as part of the Warriors’ bid to strengthen their brand in London.
The danger of relegation has prompted Wakefield and Salford, the two clubs thought to be in most danger of the drop, into a flurry of late-season transfer activity which Leigh coach Paul Rowley believes demonstrates a loophole in the system.
“I think it’s highlighted the first flaw,” Rowley said. “You can effectively be poor all year in Super League and then go on a bargain-bucket spending spree right at the end to retain your Super League status.
“That deadline needs to come in a lot earlier, maybe a month or two, to make them actually take a gamble if they’re going to bring people in.
“We said we weren’t going to do that. That’s their prerogative, they’re the rules, nobody has broken any rules, so we’ll see what happens.”
A battle with relegation is a new experience for Salford’s new director of rugby Tim Sheens, the current Australia coach, who is confident of being able to keep the Red Devils in the top flight.
“We’re not thinking about relegation,” Sheens said. “I understand it’s there but, at the end of the day, it’s a new competition for us, a competition we want to win.
“I think the new structure is a great concept. You know that the next couple of months is going to be really intense whereas normally you’d be looking towards your Christmas.”
Meanwhile, it has been announced that the winners of next month’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final will earn a place in the 2016 World Club Series, which will again be held in England next February.
The inaugural series earlier this year comprised the top three finishers in Super League but will take on a new look, with the Wembley winners joining the Grand Final champions and winners of the League Leaders’ Shield in the three-match contest with a trio of leading Australian clubs.
If one club wins two of the domestic trophies, the vacancy will go to the Grand Final runners-up and, if a club completes the treble, the governing body will determine the third participant.