The Betfred Super League returns this weekend after a break of more than four months due to the coronavirus pandemic, yet the competition will have a different look and feel.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at the changes and other talking points ahead of the resumption.
The biggest and most headline-grabbing casualty of the Covid-19 stoppage has been the Toronto Wolfpack. The Super League newcomers, the bold and ambitious great hope for the game’s expansion, have been forced to abandon the 2020 season after hitting major financial difficulties. They hope to return next year but uncertainty abounds and the competition – with relegation from it and promotion to it scrapped – is forced to continue with 11 teams. Toronto’s results have been expunged from the league table but points and statistics still count on player and club records.
Health of other clubs
Other clubs may have made it through the hiatus but the general picture is not rosy. Most of them needed to take advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme to survive and further problems could lie ahead. An additional £16million to the sport from the Government may not stretch far and could become a burden, while clubs have also had to accept a reduction in future TV income. To compound matters, and in a further blow to revenue streams, games are going to be played behind closed doors for at least the next two months.
The lack of supporters at games will probably be the most striking difference, although TV viewers who have watched games in the NRL or Premier League football will have an idea how it will look. It will certainly make for different atmospheres. Grounds have also been adapted to ensure that players, coaches and officials – who are all being tested for Covid-19 regularly – can operate in a biosecure environment with social distancing in place. To ease the burden, whole rounds of fixtures are being played at single venues in the coming weeks.
Who’s playing and where?
The action will restart on Sunday with champions St Helens facing Catalans Dragons and Leeds taking on Huddersfield in a double-header at the Emerald Headingley Stadium. Both matches are catch-up fixtures from games in hand. Headingley then stages a full round of fixtures the following weekend before St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium plays host on the weekend of August 15-16.
Removal of scrums and other Covid protocols
The nature of the game will be different, chiefly with scrums having been removed on health grounds. Research showed the “microclimate” of at least six players in such close proximity numerous times a game significantly increased potential virus transmission. With scrums having been largely uncontested for years, some may feel this change should become permanent but the plan is for them to return when safe. With huddles behind the posts while awaiting conversions forbidden and tryscoring celebrations curtailed, only the tackle remains of the game’s high-risk contact areas.
Other rule changes
The Rugby Football League has also taken advantage of the halt in proceedings to make further changes to the rules. The most significant one is bringing in the ‘six-again’ rule, which will see sides awarded fresh sets instead of penalties for certain offences around the ruck area. It is designed to speed up the game and its introduction brings the European game into line with the NRL, which brought it in earlier this year.
Ordinarily the return of one of the game’s big stars might command the headlines, but the return of James Graham to Super League has become a footnote. Nevertheless, the start of the England prop’s second spell at St Helens, after a hugely successful eight-year stint in Australia, is a big positive for the competition.