BARELY a week after the 2014 Super League campaign’s dramatic denouement and next season’s fixtures were already announced last night.
It seems there is barely a chance to take breath when it comes to domestic rugby league – this year’s Four Nations internationals do not start until Saturday – but, of course, the sport’s powerbrokers have added reason to start sowing the seeds early this autumn.
This is because 2015 is, essentially, such a pivotal year for the game. Indeed, it has been tagged as the most exciting era in its history since the sport switched to summer in 1996 and, for once, there is some credence to that.
The sport’s flagship competition is pinning its faith on a bold new structure that has caused plenty of debate and certainly divided opinion.
But finally, after all the conjecture, the clock is ticking down to the point where that structure – more of which later – can fight its own battle and demonstrate if it is worthy or not.
Reduced from 14 clubs to 12, the forthcoming season allows for the return of promotion and relegation for the first time since 2007, admittedly, though, not in the traditional manner.
The campaign will kick off on the weekend of February 5-8 with the promise that “every minute of every match in every competition matters” from Super League, into the Championship and newly-named League 1.
Super League general manager Blake Solly is adamant it will be a success and said: “2015 is going to be a momentous year, not just for the First Utility Super League but every rugby league supporter.
“There’s already a huge sense of anticipation ahead of the new season. The league structure allows for changes that will bring unprecedented levels of excitement, drama and jeopardy to a game that has unrivalled ability to deliver world class sporting action.
“Our very own ‘Ryder Cup of Rugby League’, the World Club Series, a fantastic trip to Newcastle for Magic Weekend, the Super 8s, Million Pound Game and, of course, the Grand Final all make for what I am sure will be a compelling year.”
St Helens will begin their defence of the title they famously clinched at Old Trafford nine days ago with a home fixture against Catalans Dragons on Friday, February 6 in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Wigan Warriors, the 2014 runners-up, start the previous evening with another televised fixture at Widnes Vikings, the governing body having also sensibly marked down Thursday broadcast games for the entire campaign rather than their earlier ad hoc approach.
It was a barren year in Super League for Yorkshire’s sides with none even reaching the last-four stage, the first time that had happened.
They all begin their quest to remedy that ill on Sunday, February 8 when Challenge Cup holders Leeds Rhinos head to Hull Kingston Rovers, Castleford Tigers – the story of 2014 despite their lack of silverware – entertain derby rivals Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, and Huddersfield Giants host visitors from down the M62 in Hull FC.
Leeds may have finished sixth this term, but Super League’s most successful team have not lost any of their allure with the broadcasters since – after opening games against Rovers and Widnes at home – they have six successive fixtures televised live by Sky Sports.
Castleford, meanwhile, have a taxing opening schedule following that Wakefield derby.
They head to Catalans on February 14 looking to atone for the recent defeat there that cost them the League Leaders’ Shield and then champions St Helens on February 27, their last memory of that venue being a sobering 41-0 play-off defeat.
Next, Daryl Powell’s side will host beaten Grand Finalists Wigan before journeying to 2013 League Leaders Huddersfield.
Interestingly, though, and a clear nod to the vast progress they have made this year when they reached Wembley and the top four, Castleford will play Leeds on Good Friday.
Rhinos’ traditional opening Easter opponents Bradford Bulls have, of course, been relegated and so Castleford host Leeds on Good Friday instead of their usual opponents at that time of year – Wakefield.
One Easter schedule remains, however, with the fierce Hull FC v Hull KR derby again taking place on Good Friday.
Onto the structure and, in a nutshell, after all 23 rounds of the regular season, Super League and the 12-team Kingstone Press Championship will split into three separate leagues; the Super 8s called Super League, the Qualifiers and Championship Shield.
The top eight of Super League will compete for a place in the Grand Final while the bottom four will join the top four from the Championship to make up the Qualifiers.
After playing seven matches the top three Qualifiers will gain Super League status in 2016 with the final promotion spot decided by the Million Pound Game between teams four and five.
At the end of February, meanwhile, Super League’s three top clubs of 2014 – St Helens, Wigan and Warrington Wolves go head to head with NRL sides South Sydney Rabbitohs, Brisbane Broncos and St George-Illawarra in the World Club Series.
Magic Weekend takes place at St James’ Park, Newcastle for the first time where six Round 16 fixtures will be played on Saturday, May 30 and Sunday, May 31 with full details of those matches being announced on November 17.
The top eight Super League clubs from 2014 will enter the Challenge Cup at the sixth round stage over the weekend of May 17-18, one round later than in previous years, while the final will be played at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, August 29.
Castleford Tigers winger Richard Owen, 24, has agreed a three-year deal with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats having enjoyed a loan spell at Belle Vue last season.
Hull KR have signed Gold Coast Titans half-backs Albert Kelly, 23, and Maurice Blair, 30, on two-year contracts.