New era delivers added pressures from start as every second counts

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THE new Super League season begins this week with the emphasis – more now than ever since the competition’s launch in 1996 – very much on the word “new”.

In this modern world where social media is so prevalent it has been difficult to ignore the hashtag #RLNewEra or the slogan “Every minute matters” since details of the league’s new structure were announced last July.

Super League Launch, Wigan's' Matty Smith

Super League Launch, Wigan's' Matty Smith

Initiated in order to make the sport more exciting and to eliminate pointless matches towards the end of the season – while also restoring promotion and relegation in a sustainable manner – the Rugby Football League has opted for a bold format which is seen as one of the biggest and bravest decisions in the game’s long history.

After initial concerns over the complexity of the structure, the majority of observers are now excited by the thought of it finally coming to fruition as a 12-club Super League, streamlined from 14, gets underway.

Widnes Vikings host 2014’s beaten Grand Finalists Wigan Warriors in Thursday night’s opening game before champions St Helens begin the defence of their title the following evening with a visit from a Catalan Dragons side augmented by the signing of NRL superstar Todd Carney for their 10th year in the elite.

However, it is in July – not February or October – that people are avidly anticipating what will happen in the competition which was launched in spectacular style last night at the inaugural Rugby League Rocks event at Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse.

It is at that point, after 23 weekly rounds, that the Super League and 12-team Championship split into three tiers of eight, with, intriguingly, the top-flight’s bottom four facing the top four of the second.

Seven rounds later, the top three of that division – will an ambitious Championship side like Leigh Centurions have the ability to prosper? – have their 2016 Super League place secured while fourth must play fifth in the ‘£1m game’ for the final spot.

Undoubtedly that will bring heightened drama to the season while opening up the chance once more of a second-tier team reaching the elite.

Meanwhile, Super League’s top eight, who carry their points over from the first phase, face each other once in their extra seven fixtures for a place in the four-team play-offs.

From then it is straight semi-finals at the home of the first and second side before the Old Trafford Grand Final on October 10.

It is an adventurous idea but one, in theory, that should keep the competitive juices flowing throughout the campaign as there is always something to strive for.

There are other new additions to the calendar in 2015, too, not least the inaugural World Club Series which finally sees a long-coveted expansion of the World Club Challenge.

St Helens will face NRL premiers South Sydney for that title at a sold-out Langtree Park on Sunday, February 20 but as the culmination of a full weekend of elite action here between the competition’s leading sides.

Warrington Wolves face St George-Illawarra on the Friday before Wigan welcome Brisbane Broncos the following evening, rekindling memories of the last time they won the competition by beating the same club in Sydney in an epic 1994 contest.

Furthermore, Magic Weekend moves to its fourth home so far, Newcastle following in the footsteps of Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester’s Etihad Stadium by hosting a full round of Super League fixtures over May 30-31.

Also, for the first time, the Championship has its own version of that event when the Summer Bash takes place in Blackpool the weekend before that, including highlights such as the renewed West Yorkshire derby between relegated Bradford Bulls and Halifax.

When it comes to the region’s sides, who is likely to compete for Grand Final glory in 2015?

Can Leeds Rhinos, strangely absent from Old Trafford for the last two years, re-discover their best despite making only one major signing – Newcastle Knights’ prop Adam Cuthbertson – while so many of their regulars have moved on elsewhere?

Will Castleford Tigers be able to repeat their heroics of 2014 when Daryl Powell’s underdog side not only reached Wembley but surged from the depths of Super League to almost finish top for the only time in their history?

The West Yorkshire club has lost many of its key players – Man of Steel Daryl Clark, prolific stand-off Marc Sneyd and talisman prop Craig Huby – but, at the same time, have recruited well to leave supporters hopeful those feats will not be a one-off.

Huddersfield Giants, so often a top-four side but serial failures in the play-offs, have added Huby as their marquee signing in a bid to try and finally reach Old Trafford. Could 2015 be the year Paul Anderson’s side secure a maiden Grand Final?

But what of the Hull clubs who both failed to even make the top eight play-offs last term?

The pressure will be on Hull FC head coach Lee Radford before a ball is even kicked given their abject 12th placing in 2014 and he has placed so much faith in a new half-back pairing of Sneyd and veteran Leon Pryce to finally bring some consistency to their game. There has been an overhaul at Hull KR, too, with Radford’s former Hull team-mate Chris Chester beginning his first full season in charge and desperate not to be dragged into that bottom four which opens up the risk of relegation.

Wakefield Trinity, too, are expected to be in a similar position, fighting for survival and, after their near-miss in the original £1m match of 2006, all too familiar with what intolerable pressures that situation can bring.

They visit Castleford for their derby on Sunday, an afternoon which sees all six of Yorkshire’s side in action against each other.

Leeds head to Hull KR while Huddersfield host Hull FC, the obvious name missing from that list being the once-mighty Bulls.

Yes, for the first time in almost 40 years, there will be no Bradford presence in the top flight.

Given they had won four Super League titles, three World Club Challenges and two Challenge Cups during the summer era alone, it is a spectacular fall from grace.

But at least that “New Era”, as part of the abandonment of the licence process, means rather than being forced to wait three years for a chance to return they now have an immediate opportunity.

However, as we have been told, there are plenty of minutes to be played before anything is decided in 2015. And they all matter.