FOR all things went well in the 2015 ‘New Era’, no one involved with First Utility Super League is resting on their laurels.
General manager Blake Solly can certainly look back proudly on the achievements during a pivotal year when the competition, with the Championship, underwent a major restructure, its biggest in nearly two decades.
The system, with its convoluted manner of sorting promotion and relegation, initially caused much consternation but the Super 8s certainly brought plenty of drama and the season as a whole has been one of the most intriguing for some time.
Leeds Rhinos winning the League Leaders’ Shield at Huddersfield with Ryan Hall’s famous try in the last seconds of the last game of the Super 8s is a case in point while their Old Trafford success over Wigan Warriors was one of the finest Grand Finals yet.
Solly told The Yorkshire Post: “I think 12 months ago we’d have all very much settled for what’s happened this year. We’ve had a great sell-out Grand Final, we saw England win a series against New Zealand, action and drama aplenty right from the first kick-off in February to what happened at Old Trafford. But there is still lots to build on. I don’t think we should think 2015 was so good that we won’t see its like again.”
Solly, who was under significant pressure given he had helped push through the controversial restructure, which promised “every minute matters”, achieved many of the aims he originally set out.
Granted, he did not see them all fulfilled, Sky’s Thursday live fixture particularly coming in for criticism amid concerns about viewing figures and crowds.
He added: “We wanted 10 sell out games but we only managed five, including England v New Zealand at Wigan.
“That was probably the only disappointment for us this year but if we can learn from that – and I think we will – there’s no reason why we can’t get to 10 in 2016.
“Our BBC audience was significantly up over the year with five million people watching the three games against New Zealand. The TV side is really strong and we have two great, world-class partners in broadcasting.
“In 2016 we will be looking to concentrate on social and digital media and growing that area as there are so many opportunities to take advantage of. Everything we send out is lapped up and people want more so we need to really grow our Twitter and Facebook coverage which is great for the sport. People want to consume rugby league in different ways and it’s our job to make sure they can so we’re looking at increasing our content.”
Solly feels England defeating the Kiwis this autumn, a first series win since Great Britain beat the same opponents in 2007, will drive playing standards up even higher in the club competition.
“I think it will be a really exciting Super League competition partly because the competition for places in the England squad is going to be huge,” he added, with the Four Nations being staged here next year.
“They’ve already had that great win against the Kiwis but there is loads more English talent to come through in Super League and in the NRL as well this coming year.
“It’s great we’ll have Super League, Challenge Cup, Super 8s and a Four Nations at the end of next year that has New Zealand, the world’s No 1, a winning England side, the Australians who remain so esteemed and Scotland for the first time, too.”
Solly admits Rhinos’ treble-winning feat this season was “phenomenal” and they have clearly set the bar high for others.
But he also contends the switch of captain Kevin Sinfield to Yorkshire Carnegie and loss of retired props Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai will leave opponents believing they can topple them in the new campaign.
“Leeds winning the treble was a great story but they are rebuilding now having lost three club greats,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of other clubs will look at their situation and think they can kick them off their perch in 2016.
“Leeds will think otherwise but it should be fascinating to see how that pans out.
“The Rhinos have been great for the sport’s profile this year.The fact Kevin Sinfield has become the first RL player to be nominated for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year is not only huge for the sport but shows just how good this season has been.
“In terms of improving its national profile that is excellent and it’s great, too, Brian McDermott won Coach of the Year at the 2015 UK Coaching Awards; Leeds have been phenomenal in 2015 – teams winning the treble are rare.”