Super League’s chief commercial officer, Rhodri Jones, spoke with the media on Wednesday in regards to planned changes to the upcoming season, which is now set to start on March 25th. Here is what Jones said about the key issues.
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How many games will be played?
Super League 2021 is almost certainly going to be shortened, with a 25-game season – featuring 12 home games, 12 away games and Magic Weekend for each team – the leading candidate. Following a meeting with the competition’s Fixtures Working Group, the prospect of fitting 27 games into a shortened season is increasingly difficult.
“27 games is unrealistic in terms of the load on the players, and 23 feels a little light in terms of season ticket returns for fans, so that naturally leaves us with one left,” Jones said. “We’ll continue to work on that.”
“We presented three calendars to the Fixtures Working Group: 27 rounds – the original plan – a 25-round, and also a 23-round schedule. The 23-round would naturally be 11 home games, 11 away games, plus Magic.. very simple with no loop fixtures. The 25 recognises we’re starting two weeks later, but the Fixtures Working Group felt comfortable for the clubs to lose one home game each.
“The dialogue we had with the board was that we’re not going to make any decisions right now, we’re going to see how it pans out, but there’s a fine balance between playing too many games in terms of burdening the players, but also providing a material return for a season ticket holder, both those who have rolled over from last year and new season ticket holders.”
Is Magic Weekend going to go ahead?
The short answer right now: it’s unclear.
The competition has held talks with hosts Newcastle United, and asked them to consider pushing it back into the summer, to allow as many fans to attend as possible.
However, as Jones explains: “We’re trying to understand the best deal we can put together on Magic, all the while putting that against public health concerns and the reality of how many people we’re going to be able to get in there in Newcastle. We’re in dialogue with Newcastle United, and have asked them to consider moving it back in the calendar, at which point we’ll have to make a more informed judgement on Magic.
“We’re mindful the Premier League season begins at the start of August and the football club will have pitch considerations to factor into June and July. At the moment, 25 rounds this season is the most likely outcome, but depending on the decision on Magic, it might be 24 or 26. Magic is the first thing we need to box off and make a call on.
“There’s a lot of things to consider with Magic. It offers six games to the broadcaster and we have an element of commercial money that comes in from it, and our partnership with Dacia.”
Will Super League start on time?
Already pushed back further into late-March, could Super League be delayed even further if Covid-19 continues to cause problems for the country and keep the nation in lockdown longer than expected? No, says Jones.
“In all reality we could keep kicking the can down the road, and all we’re doing is squashing ourselves,” Jones said. “At some point we’ll have to take the decision to say we’re starting. Sky have asked us to start on March 25th; it’s a non-Premier League weekend, it’s the week after the Six Nations and it gives us a platform on their channels for some good scheduling.
“Changing it is not something we’re thinking about now. The 25th March date in Sky’s position was that they’re giving us seven weeks grace from the normal start date and that’s the latest they wanted us to start. At the moment we’re in that place.”
Will players be expected to play midweek fixtures once again?
Super League players took themselves to the limit in 2020 to complete the season, with multiple midweek fixtures all in quick succession. Jones concedes midweek fixtures will have to happen again due to the World Cup giving the competition less room to adjust, but they have learned lessons from last year.
“Looking at the 27 and 25-round schedules, the 27-round calendar is hard on players,” he said. “It’s really tough. And that’s why the Fixtures Working Group are concentrating on the 25-round season and how it looks. You then have two weeks where you’re not playing midweek fixtures.
“There is an element of it in the 25-round calendar but we’ve tried to spread it out better than we did in 2020. The learning we had from 2020 was if you play too many games too quickly, not only do you run the risk of ruining your next round of fixtures, but you’re looking at the round after too, due to the 10-day quarantines and things like that.
“We’ve tried to space them out later in the summer. There are no games planned around Challenge Cup rounds, and what we saw last year was the Leeds team who performed so well at Warrington, and some other teams who put out lesser-experienced players stood up to the plate. There’s clearly some good talent coming through and while I understand the load on senior players, hopefully, we’ll get to see some of those younger players coming through again.”
And the derby fixtures?
They will not happen at Easter, Jones confirmed. Instead, the “Rival Round” will be taking place later in the summer.
“The Rival Round, which we’ll call it, which includes the traditional Easter fixtures, will be put back later into the calendar to maximise the possibility of many people being able to attend as possible. It was 1989 the last time Wigan versus Saints wasn’t at Easter, and that’s definitely going to be the case this year. With the loop fixtures potentially being round one and two, the Hull derby and Wigan-Saints will get pushed down the calendar.”
Finally, how do Catalans factor into current conversations?
With a travel ban currently in place in France, which has wreaked havoc on European rugby union’s elite competitions, there is understandable concern that could impact Catalans.
However, Jones is hopeful the Dragons will be able to sidestep those regulations – or even potentially relocate to England, something they considered in 2020 at one stage.
“The elite sport exemption is still in place,” Jones said. “That gives Catalans the ability to travel in and out of the UK which is good and positive. We had a good conversation with them in January and at the moment, they’re in a place where they’re looking to see what kind of model they’re going to run with for the start of the season.
“Their plan currently is to fly in and out on matchdays, which was an extraordinary commitment from them last season. When you think how many times they did that journey, fair play to them. Unfortunately, they ran out of steam in the end, but it was an incredible effort and they’re signed up to do the same again if they have to. The other model is basing themselves in the UK, which was something they looked at last year.”