Dave Craven: ‘Year of the Tiger’ can only be classed as an opportunity lost

Castleford Tigers head coach Daryl Powell.
Castleford Tigers head coach Daryl Powell.
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THIS Super League season certainly had a dramatic ending but, in my eyes, 2014 was almost the campaign that time forgot.

Through no fault of its own, it has been a year that got caught in the middle of two major events and, therefore, seemed to be, at times, marginalised.

Take, for instance, Saturday’s Grand Final when supporters in the main stand at Old Trafford were given cards to hold aloft that, in unison, created the bold and eye-catching image of #RLNewEra.

This is the RFL’s slogan for 2015 which “promises to be the most exciting in living memory” as the competition enters its brave new dawn and an innovative if initially complicated structure which will “ensure that every minute, of every match, in every competition matters”.

Now, that is all well and good, but it is next year and it seems people have forgotten about the most crucial event of all – the here and now of the current campaign.

There has undoubtedly been an opportunity lost with 2014.

This time 12 months ago the sport was just a fortnight away from the start of a Rugby League World Cup on these shores which, in all honesty, brought trepidation to many.

There was a nagging feeling that would not go away that the tournament could be a calamity and simply would not work, both in terms of the fare on the field and the financial performance off it.

Yet organisers proved us all so wrong and delivered a competition that enraptured not only the traditional masses but new fans in places such as Bristol where more than 7,000 people watched on fascinated as USA produced a stunning win over Cook Islands to embark on a memorable journey which would eventually see the States earn column inches in the New York Times and, unthinkably, a place in the quarter-finals.

Sell-out crowds descended on Halifax , Warrington, Avignon and Hull as well as stadium bests at the likes of Rochdale and Workington while people could not help but embrace the colour, passion and bonhomie brought by the likes of Samoa and Tonga and so many others.

The football was brilliant, unrelenting, the BBC attracting terrific figures as England fought for a place in immortality, too, and, for once, rugby league felt good about itself as records tumbled and the game could rightly enjoy its moment.

Everyone, with good reason, thought it could be the kick-start the sport needed in this country, a catalyst for greater feats still.

Yet, unfortunately, the momentum does not seem to have been continued.

England, for instance, have not even played another game since their epic last-minute semi-final defeat to New Zealand at Wembley, a thrilling Test match that was as good a sporting drama as you are ever likely to see.

There has been little for new supporters attracted back then to make them return.

While there has been great emphasis on what will come next year and the ‘Super 8s’ when the Super League and Championship splits into three groups after 23 rounds, 2014 seems to have been neglected somewhat and proved an awkward distraction between the two totems of 2013 and 2015.

Perhaps there had to be a certain level of concentration on next year to ensure the switch is as smooth as possible, but it does feel like the powers-that-be have almost just wanted to get this campaign over and done with.

On the field, for all the competition has been a lot tighter, the quality of football has not necessarily improved.

Yes, there were only three points separating the top five sides but eventual League Leaders – and champions – 
St Helens lost fully eight games.

Not since the same club in 2007 has a team that finished top suffered so many defeats and it is the highest total in the competition’s history.

There is a feeling the salary cap has dumbed down standards rather than raised them and you only have to look at Huddersfield Giants to prove that point.

To a man, their side will say they never truly produced an 80-minute display since beating Wigan on the opening night in the first week of February yet they somehow finished just one point behind the leaders.

The RFL looked in a real position of power after securing a lucrative television deal in January that safeguarded the future of the sport, but its stock has fallen again following some embarrassing episodes of late.

The dual-registration farce, not least, has been shambolic and now sees both Keighley Cougars and Sheffield Eagles enlisting legal representatives to push through their grievances about that rigmarole.

The handling of the whole Zak Hardaker affair was poor, too, while it seems that a week does not go by without a different club attacking the inadequacies of the disciplinary process.

The old saying goes that there is no smoke without fire and, in this case, it is likely to be an inferno.

Thankfully, Castleford Tigers, in many ways, rescued a season which could otherwise have been decreed as ordinary.

For all Saints rightfully lifted the Super League title on Saturday, it has undoubtedly been the ‘Year of the Tiger’.

Daryl Powell’s squad showed everyone else what can be done with judicious recruitment, sound management, that always requisite trait of belief and no little skill and courage, too.

They have been a delight to watch, some of their football being brilliant, and in Daryl Clark, Michael Shenton, Luke Dorn and company, provided some of the true stars of 2014.

However, it was great to see the always colourful Nathan Brown enjoy some tangible success, too, at the weekend.

Ever since arriving here as Huddersfield coach in 2009, the Australian has been noted for his sartorial elegance especially when the attire is not quite suited to dipping British temperatures.

But he cut a fine figure after steering his Saints side to that dramatic victory over Wigan at Old Trafford.

To guide a side to such a victory having played for so much of the season without any regular half-backs, is testimony to not only his coaching skills, tailoring a game plan to suit the players at his disposal, but man-management quality, too, instilling a belief it can be done.

The stories unfolding there were countless – Paul Wellens proving his usual redoubtable self, Tommy Makinson suggesting maybe he should be on the flight to Australia tomorrow, and Jordan Turner proving again he is such a talented all-round footballer.

Likewise, what a way for the thunderous Sia Soliola to head home to Australia and Willie Manu – relegated when first arriving in Super League nine years ago with Castleford – too.

Without doubt they, at least, will remember 2014 forever.