Opinion: Centurions are victims of rugby league’s endless tinkering

Leigh topped the Championship for two years in a row but the dream of Super League remains as distant as ever. Paul McCarthy Photography
Leigh topped the Championship for two years in a row but the dream of Super League remains as distant as ever. Paul McCarthy Photography
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AS the country is bombarded with all things rugby union, its faster, more fluid and action-packed progeny is struggling more than usual to be given a fair sporting hearing.

But rugby league doesn’t always do itself the best of favours.

The administrators of this fine game are notorious for their endless tinkering with its competition structures to the point that it helps to suck some of the tradition and momentum out of the enterprise from year to year.

Maintaining fan interest and revenues until the last games of the season are clearly uppermost in the thinking, and it’s difficult to condemn when everyone has to make ends meet that various formulae are tried out.

But now that Leigh Centurions have yet again failed to gain access to the hallowed Super League after beating all before them during the majority of a season, I really have to take issue with this latest idea at protracting a season.

In how many other sports does an individual or team that wins its league then have to earn promotion by not only beating some of the same teams in the same table again but also several in the division into which they are hoping to get promoted?

For me this is a challenge too far. Some folk I have chatted to say rather unkindly that Leigh’s losing so many qualification games just shows that they were never really fit for Super League after all and this saved them the disappointment of being relegated in 12 months’ time.

But in virtually all other sports, teams and individuals would at least be given the chance of breathing rarified air and proving such doom-mongery wrong.

You begin to wonder whether everything is being designed to maintain a status quo of the established teams in the top flight and this is just a new way of sealing the door below it to all upcoming traffic.

Heck, some years teams have won the league below and then been turned away because their ground isn’t fit enough or “we’re not having any promotion or relegaion this season.”

I realise that lower division teams, with semi-professional players and humble facilities, might struggle. But they seem to be OK to play in knock-out tournaments and of course Leigh now has one of the nicest stadia in the rugby league family and all of its stars are full-timers.

Yet, after setting a new club record for wins during an astonishingly dominant season, it has again been denied communion with the elite.

How soul-destroying for the players - who also claimed more than one Super League scalp in the Challenge Cup, so proving their worthiness if any were needed - and the fans who have paid their season tickets partly with a dream of seeing their team take on the established giants of the sport.

And another thing about this wacky cross-division play-off set-up this season: money.

Leigh owner Derek Beaumont has challenged the Rugby Football League to allow Championship teams to be allowed the same salary cap as Super League clubs.

He certainly has a good point to press. At the end of the season Leigh faced four Super League teams that were allowed to spend considerably more on players than the Centurions were.

To me this looks like a valid argument for unfair trading conditions if it ever reached court. And I suspect it will.

Meanwhile perhaps the trick for the beleaguered Leigh next season will be to do just enough to get generally near the top of the Championship and hold their best players and tactics back for the final charge.

Mind you, they will probably have come up with yet another new way of blocking one of these lower division upstarts by then.