Super league is 21 years old this season. With Sky Sports money, a salary cap and all clubs employing full time players, one would expect the title to have been in the hands of plenty of clubs. Instead, the roll call has a rather repetitive look to it- Leeds (7 titles) St Helens (5), Wigan (4) and Bradford (4) are the only clubs who have been able to call themselves champions. Not only that, only Warrington (3 times) and Hull F.C (1) of the rest of the bunch have even featured in the season ending grand final.
The reasons why are myriad and really need to be discussed separately, but it’s an alarming trend. For comparison, the modern NRL, formed two years after Super League, has had twelve winners.
It’s for that reason that the season so far has got the impartial rugby league viewer in the Northern Hemisphere excited. Castleford stand proudly atop the table, seven points clear of Hull F.C, and Salford are hanging in there in third place.
Hull F.C, a very well supported club with a modern stadium aren’t too much of a shock- they have undoubtedly underachieved during the Super league era. Yet Salford and Castleford are two intriguing case studies for how clubs can gate-crash the end of season honours list.
‘Cas’ have been a revelation- coached by ex Great Britain stand off Daryl Powell, they have assembled a squad of players whose faces didn’t fit elsewhere. Luke Gale, a Leeds youth product, has been superb as the creative lynch pin of a team unafraid to play off the cuff rugby. Greg Eden, formerly of Brisbane, has been the main beneficiary, looking odds on to smash any previous try scoring total in Super League, with 33 already from 19 games. Other stand out players, such as Paul McShane and Mike McKeenan, has had similarly eclectic journeys before finding career best form.
Whilst Castleford have been shrewd operators, Salford have been on the receiving end of the largesse of Palestinian billionaire Marwan Koukash. Since purchasing the club in 2013, Koukash has proved willing and able to spend money. Yet, this season has finally seen the project began to achieve some success. Previous seasons ill-balanced squads and big names managers have given way to a much more sensible recruitment process and, in Ian Watson, they have a coach who has blended them into a cohesive whole.
Can both sustain their title pursuit? It’s unlikely that we’ll see both at Old Trafford come autumn. But it would take a catastrophic collapse, from Castleford in particular, to not see one of the pair in the showpiece final. Castleford have never won a league title in their history, and Salford have not won is since 1976.
For a league, and indeed a sport, which has seemed to be on the back foot for some time, it could prove a catalyst, a shot in the arm, for a new era of super league. We wait with bated breath. **