Rugby League: Saints and Dragons victorious so far, though questions over League’s future structure

The low down of the Rugby League season so far, and what's in store for the Super 8s.

Toronto Wolfpack's Liam Kay, the club's first signing when they began their first season in 2017.

Super League Leaders St. Helens were 10 points clear of their local rivals Wigan Warriors at the top of the table, as the 23 regular-season fixtures drew to a close at the end of July.

This didn’t stop Huddersfield Giants snatching a win over them two weeks ago though in the first round of the Super 8s matches, in which the three tiers of rugby league are further divided into groups of eight after the regular season of home and away matches are completed.

Although they took home the League Leaders’ Shield, the Super League Champion will then have to battle through the semi-final play-offs before winning the Grand Final at Old Trafford on the 13th October. With so much at stake in the last five matches of the season, there will certainly be a fight for the top spots, and while a twenty point win over Wakefield Trinity last week would have given them some confidence, the Saints are far from being crowned champions yet.

It was the Catalan Dragons that had the last laugh in the Challenge Cup though, with the chants of ‘Les Marseillaise” being heard across Wembley into the early hours of Sunday morning, as they sealed victory over Warrington 20-14.

In the Championship, new arrivals Toronto Wolfpack have stormed to eight points clear at the top of the table, though are lagging in third behind the Salford Red Devils and Leeds Rhinos in the Super 8 qualifiers, which began on the 9th August.

In this lower tier, the four top teams from the Championship met the four bottom teams from the Super League, with the Toronto Wolfpack, London Broncos and Toulouse automatically earning a place in next season’s Super League. and the clubs finishing fourth and fifth playing in the infamous ‘Million Pound Game’ to compete for the remaining last spot in the top flight.

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However, although this structure for the end of the season was only introduced in 2015, the clubs have voted for it to be scrapped ahead of 2019, meaning the rugby league will return to a one up, one down structure. This could make it harder for lower tier teams to have a chance to make it to the top flight, despite the possibility that they are of a higher standard than some of the clubs in the bottom half of the Super League. Despite this, St. Helens’ owner Eamonn McManus has suggested that the Super 8s structure did not deliver the right commercial returns and Ian Lenagan, the owner of Wigan Warriors, has insisted the Super League’s continued commitment to Championship and League One representation.

With the success of Toronto so far this season, more questions have been raised about the expansion of Rugby League. Toronto Wolfpack are the third non-English side to join the RFL, following Catalan Dragons in 2006 and Toulouse Olympique in 2016. The club has gone from strength to strength, winning League One in 2017 and the Championship in 2018, and their quick success may pave the way for more clubs from around the world to seek permission to join the league. The owner of Hull F.C, Adam Pearson, clearly sees the advantages of such an expansion and, speaking to The Guardian, suggested that if Toronto are “serious about coming into Super League and adding new broadcast rights and franchises, then we truly have a global game once the Americans get involved”.

Despite this, there is also criticism of having transatlantic clubs competing in the RFL, with concerns being raised over the fact that allowing Toronto to play their matches in blocks gives them an unfair advantage. By playing all their away matches in the first half of the season, and all their home games in the second half, this means that the Toronto players are well adjusted to the time zone throughout the season, whereas visiting teams are potentially jet-lagged when they play Toronto at their home ground, the Lamport Stadium. This system also allows the potential for considerable momentum for Toronto in the latter half of the season due to their back-to-back home games. However, with talks of a New York team set to join the RFL in 2019, it seems that the expansion of the game across the globe is only just beginning.

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The Women’s Challenge Cup Final was held on the 4th of August, with Leeds Rhinos coming from behind to claim their 20-14 victory over Castleford Tigers. The attendance of 1,022 at Warrington’s HJ stadium appears to be a step in the right direction for the women’s game, and there are high hopes that the women’s league will be able to reach a new fan base in the coming years.