The Super League Grand Final overshadows the real prize

Long before the regular season’s final weekend, Castleford Tigers knew they would finish top in a Super League season for the first time ever.

With a 10-point gap separating them and their bitter rivals, the Leeds Rhinos, the Tigers will, also, almost certainly be awarded the League Leaders’ Shield in the first few round of the “Super 8 Play-Offs”.

The scale of such an achievement for a club which, five years ago was on the brink of financial collapse, is unprecedented in the world of sport. Yet outside the tight-knit Castleford community, little praise has been given to such a significant milestone for the West Yorkshire club.

Other sports must look towards rugby league in disbelief at the fact that a team, whom for 23 rounds have demolished other teams left, right, and centre and have finished with an unbelievable points difference of +391, still has no silverware in its locker. Outscoring all their rivals by approximately 200 points, losing only three matches, and with an average score of 33-16 over the course of the 23 rounds, Tigers fans are being constantly reminded that they ‘have won nothing yet’.

Despite finishing top in the regular season, Castleford will only be awarded the League Leaders’ Shield if they notch up two more wins in what is, bizarrely, a new competition. The so-called “Super 8s” will commence in a fortnight’s time, after the Challenge Cup semi-finals. Even to rugby league fans, the “Super 8s” concept is a difficult one to get your head around; the RFL must have been on an all-night bender to approve such a farcical system.

This format needs explaining. The 12-team Super League at the end of the 23-round regular season splits into a top eight and a bottom four. The top eight play off over the course of seven weeks with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals and a chance to play at Old Trafford in the so-called ‘Grand Final’. The bottom four in Super League find themselves in a mini league with the top four from the Championship, called the “Middle 8s”, which follows more-or-less the same concept as the “Super 8s”. The top three at the end of the “Middle 8s” automatically qualify for the Super League the following season whilst fourth and fifth play-off in what has been deemed as the “million-pound game” for the final Super League spot.

If you haven’t lost track already you are doing well. Now, amongst all this ludicrous confusion, the League Leaders’ Shield will finally be given out. But, with the hype of the Grand Final and the Million-Pound Game it is largely a forgotten entity. In turn, what is the prize for the most consistent team over a whole season is considered to be a mere “hubcap” by the rugby league fraternity.

Imagine Leicester City, the club responsible for the most brilliant sporting moment in history, being rewarded for finishing top – as they did so in the 2015/2016 season – with a home-tie against Manchester City, whom finished fourth, to decide who will get to a final for the right to be crowned the “champions”.

This is the reality of what Castleford Tigers will receive at the end of the “Super 8s” for finishing top. It is utterly baffling that the team who finishes the regular rugby league campaign top of the table are not actually crowned “champions”. The “champions” are those who go on to win the Grand Final – a grandiose but overhyped event that has undermined both the League Leaders’ Shield and the Challenge Cup.

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Wigan Warriors – finished second last season behind Warrington Wolves, but progressed through the “Super 8s” and then beat the Wolves in the Grand Final. The Warriors were called “champions” despite the Wolves being the most consistent performers throughout the year

Since Super League’s inception in 1996, the RFL and Sky have done their utmost to advertise the Grand Final as the “real prize”. But, in demoting the Shield to the least-valued trophy available, the whole Super League season has, effectively, become a mere bypass for what has become known as the more ‘important’ business-end of the season.

“The League Leaders Shield has been devalued so much since the Grand Final became a thing, that most people in rugby league would not really rank it as one of the majors.”

Dave Woods, BBC Rugby League Correspondent

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League Leaders Shield – pictured here after Huddersfield Giants won it for the first time in the 2012/2013 season

Even the League Leaders Shield looks pathetic in comparison to the Super League Grand Final trophy. The former resembles more of an ashtray than a celebration of a team’s wonderful season.

And, even the name ‘Shield’ hides in the shadow of the ‘Grand Final’, the showpiece event on the rugby league calendar.

Fans of all clubs also seem to lack any sort of appreciation for the Shield either. When, in 2015, a helicopter was hired by Super League officials to take the Shield from Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium to Wigan, in case both Huddersfield and Wigan beat Leeds and Castleford respectively, it was met by a chorus of mocking and embarrassment.

When, in 2009, a helicopter was on standby to take the Scottish Premier League trophy to either Celtic Park, or Tannadice, the homes of Celtic and Dundee United FC respectively, it was met with anticipation and excitement. All of Scotland were watching intently as the title-race went down to the wire. The contrast between this and the humiliating response to the Shield’s would-be journey reveals just how much finishing first has been underplayed in rugby league.

The League Leaders Shield should be given more respect. This is especially true when one witnesses just how Castleford have gone about winning it this season. Pundits have often waxed lyrical about the skill and talent running through the Tigers’ ranks, with the flying finishes of Greg Eden and the bulldozing runs of Junior Moors setting Super League alight. The so-called ‘Classy Cas’ style of play of the 1960s has been well and truly reinvented.

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Greg Eden – a standout performer for the Tigers this season with his acrobatic finishes

“With their exciting brand of rugby, Castleford have thrilled crowds in 2017”

Dave Craven, Yorkshire Evening Post

But, if the Tigers fail to reach the Grand Final or if they do, fail to win it, the rugby league fraternity will dismiss their table-topping season – won in emphatic style – as not good enough to achieve the ‘real’ prize. This mindset needs to change.