Super League needs more than a salary cap to even the playing field

St Helens are favourites to clinch a fourth straight title in 2022. What can be done to make the league more competitive?

St Helens are the bookies’ favourites to win the Super League Grand Final again next year and become the first club to clinch four straight titles. That would be an historic achievement given that only one club has been champions for more than three successive seasons in the sport’s 125-year history – Wigan, who won seven on the bounce before Super League was launched in 1996. Saints’ domination raises the questions about whether Super League is doing enough to become more competitive.

Super League has only had three winners since Bradford’s last hurrah in 2005, although six other clubs have now been runners-up. The names at the top are definitely becoming more varied: Catalans were the seventh different club to feature in the last five Grand Finals, compared with just eight in the previous 16 finals, Hull KR the 11th to be one win from Old Trafford. That is progress – and proof the salary cap is working, a bit.

Lachlan Coote leaving St Helens for Hull KR this winter is a perfect example. Needing to give pay rises to a raft of young players who have won them three titles in a row, Saints had to let talismanic Coote go, the Scotland full-back joining last season’s surprise package. Wigan and Leeds are still recovering after doing similar in recent years, an unpleasant knock-on effect for every successful academy programme: the more first-team players you produce, the more headline acts you have to relinquish down the line.

Even without losing the mercurial Coote, and classy centre Kevin Naiqama back to Australia, Saints will do well to reach a fourth successive final. Most teams need a breather, a fallow year in which those with win-fatigue move on or recharge their batteries of desire. But Super League has to do far more than put a limit on player wages if it is to get more title contenders, let alone parity throughout.

The RFL’s “core objectives” for the salary cap are threefold: to ensure competitiveness by preventing the richer clubs dominating and by ensuring a balanced spread of players; to prevent clubs trading beyond their means; and to protect the welfare and interests of players.

It has, arguably, failed to reliably achieve any of those. A salary cap alone can bring variety. The NRL has had 15 different Grand Finalists and 12 winners since 1998, despite dynasty-building Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters making 18 Grand Final appearances between them. Only expansion club Gold Coast have not been to that party. Extraordinary.

As well as a $9.5m (£5.1m) salary cap – two and a half times Super League’s caps – the NRL also has a 95% salary floor: in other words, every club has to spend almost the same on players. Super League has no such floor, so some clubs spend around £2.5m while others scramble to get by on almost half of that and would struggle to pay a salary floor of, say, 75% – i.e. £1.5m.

A competition that pits clubs with vastly different status and wealth against each other needs more than one mechanism to encourage parity. In the US, major sports have a range of measures in place – and they work astonishingly well. With a draft system and revenue sharing, the NFL has nailed it. During Super League’s lifespan, 22 of the 32 teams in the NFL have reached the Super Bowl, with 14 different winners. Other than expansion teams, only Detroit Lions have never reached a Super Bowl.

But it’s not just about who reaches the last game of the season. In nearly 800 NFL games since 1970, only Pittsburgh Steelers have a winning record above 60%, Tampa Bay Buccaneers the only club below 40%. The other 30 teams have won between 40% and 60% of their games. Eighteen clubs have all-time average winning records between 45% and 55%. In the other major sports in the US, only basketball’s San Antonio Spurs and LA Lakers, plus hockey’s Boston Bruins, have winning records above 60%.

Other than the draft system, one of the few concessions the NFL gives struggling teams is an easier fixture list. Each NFL team’s 17 games includes three extra matches against opponents who finished in the same position last season. So if you were bottom of your four-team division this year, your extra games in 2022 are against similarly hapless opponents. Super League could do the same. Instead, it does the opposite: last season’s weakest teams have harder fixture lists than the champions. Go figure.

For years, on top of the 22 home-and-away rounds there has been the Magic Weekend and extra “loop fixtures”. In 2022 that’s five extra games. The teams were divided into odds and evens based on the 2021 finishing positions. Each odd team has additional meetings with the other five odds: two home, two away and one in Newcastle in July. It’s a fair system – but does nothing to drag new names towards the top.

Champions St Helens and newcomers Toulouse play the same four extra opponents – Wigan, Hull KR, Hull and Wakefield – plus each other, meaning Toulouse have three games against both Wigan (fourth last year) and Saints. Likewise, this year’s league leaders, Catalans, play additional games against the same four teams as Salford, who only finished above relegated Leigh, so the Red Devils must raise themselves for an extra meeting with the Dragons.

Surely Super League would benefit if each club played the four teams who finished closest to them last season, plus an extra derby. Of course, when the time comes to play, teams could be easier opponents than they appear now, but the current schedule lends no helping hand to the strugglers.

In the first 100 years, on average six different clubs were crowned champions each decade. That variety vanished in the 1990s, when the difference in wage bills between top and bottom became vast. Since then it’s been just three or four per decade. Until all 12 clubs have equal wage bills, similar facilities and staff structures, Super League will never achieve what former NBA commissioner David Stern called “player sharing” – spreading the talent evenly across all the teams – let alone parity on the field. And, strangely, Super League seems happy with that.

Clubcall: Wigan Warriors

Spare a thought for Wigan fans who may go two months without a home game this summer. The new fixture lists show that, as usual, those who share with football clubs will vacate their homes to enable the pitch to grow unimpeded. Wigan have just one home game in 11 weeks from late April to late July; Hull have one in nine; and Huddersfield will spend seven summer weeks on the road. The repercussions mean Toulouse will fly to England five times in their last six games. It’s similar in the Championship, where Leigh aren’t at home for two months due to the Women’s Euros, and London Broncos fans will do well to remember how to get to Plough Lane when they return on 3 July, nearly two months after the previous league game at their new home.

Unsurprisingly, James Maloney made an immediate impact in Elite 1, clinching a dramatic 19-18 victory for his new club Lezignan last weekend in the derby against Limoux with a golden-point drop goal. Defending champions Lezignan have a 100% record after six rounds, with last season’s runners-up Carcassonne lying second.
New South Wales hooker Nathan Peats joining Albi after spells with Leigh and Huddersfield was the shock signing among a flurry of recent imports, with Wales brothers Curtis and Connor Davies making their Villeneuve debuts, and utility back Brock Pelligra becoming the latest Italy international in the Elite when he joined Carcassonne.

Goal-line drop-out

Last time rugby league was on Channel 4, Michael Parkinson presented it. Expect some more familiar faces to front the Saturday lunchtime Super League games on Channel 4 when they kick off with Leeds v Warrington on 12 February. Channel 4 have promised a lively presentation – potentially featuring league fan Adam Hills of the Last Leg or Richie Myler’s wife Helen Skelton – in a bid to draw in hundreds of thousands of new fans. Channel 4, now based in Leeds, have a two-year deal to show 10 Super League games a season.

Fifth and last

At least Channel 4’s coverage will be screened nationwide. That was not the case the last time regular top division league fixtures were live on terrestrial television. Thirty years ago, Clive Tyldesley was commentating when Granada covered the Stones Bitter Championship title climaxing with Wigan beating Bradford but only viewers in the north-west, Border and Tyne-Tees saw RL Live. Bizarrely protective of their own highlights show, Yorkshire TV refused to take it, despite it often featuring teams from Yorkshire, instead showing Carry On films or The A-Team and forcing locals to wiggle their aerials until they got a fuzzy picture from across the Pennines.