LEEDS RHINOS’ chief executive Gary Hetherington remains a fan of the sport’s new format saying it has “revitalised” the Championship – even if the fallen Super League champions are now perilously exposed to the threat of improving second-tier teams.
He was speaking at the Super 8s launch at Old Trafford yesterday, the scene of Leeds’ seventh Grand Final victory last October.
Granted, the outlook is much different now given the 2015 treble-winners – whose England star Brett Ferres has signed a new three-year deal – are instead consigned to the Qualifiers and battling for Super League survival.
Their first game will be at Championship part-timers Featherstone Rovers on Saturday week, a fixture that will be televised live by Sky Sports, as the second year of the new system gets underway.
Featherstone, who have a dual-registration agreement with Leeds, secured their place in the Championship top-four with Sunday’s fine 20-0 win over Bradford Bulls at Post Office Road.
Hetherington attended that game and witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of Jon Sharp’s side who will now count down the days to hosting their illustrious West Yorkshire rivals.
Leeds could have been heading to Odsal and a first competitive fixture with Bradford – their fierce rivals for the first decade of Super League – since 2014 if Bulls had avoided defeat.
However, they did not and so Bradford – who might have attracted a 15,000 crowd against their neighbours – are left loitering in the Championship Shield with the likes of Workington and Whitehaven.
“I think all the Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls fans would have relished the prospect of locking horns again and renewing hostilities,” Hetherington told The Yorkshire Post, when asked which prospect he preferred.
“It would have been a big rugby league occasion and one to savour. But so, too, is Featherstone Rovers and Leeds; historically that was always a terrific clash.
“It’s 16 years since we’ve been to Post Office Road and that was in the 2000 Challenge Cup.
“This (Super 8s) format was meant to be a game-wide solution to add interest to both Super League and Championship and provide a bridge for both promotion and relegation. I think it has achieved those aims.
“But above all that, what it has also done is revitalise the Championship. I attend a lot of Championship games and I see it; it’s created some real meaning for the fans, the players and the coaches for all the games both at the top end and bottom end.
“The standard has improved and, for us (Rhinos), as an environment for developing young players it couldn’t be better.”
Leeds saw Ash Golding, Luke Briscoe and Jordan Baldwinson all play for Rovers at the weekend – the latter two are expected to do so again against their parent club when they meet next – in a relationship that Hetherington calls “priceless” for progressing young players into Super League.
Furthermore, the prospect of entertaining fellow West Yorkshire neighbours Batley Bulldogs, who surged into third place in the Championship against all odds, is another reason why he has such belief in the concept.
That meeting comes on Friday September 9 and Hetherington said: “It’s been more than 30 years since Leeds and Batley played each other. It was in 1979 in the Yorkshire Cup and I actually played for Leeds in that game. I remember it.
“But that was at Batley; the last time they played us at Headingley is more than 40 years ago.
“So, what this system does – over and above the importance of the result – is mean we’re looking forward to these occasions.
“We’re looking forward to playing again at Post Office Road, as our fans are in terms of going there, and we’re looking forward to facing Batley once more.
“There was a time when we played each other every year but not anymore.
“This, in a small way, recaptures that and we want to make the most of it. Our players’ association are going to be inviting all the former Batley players to Headingley that night and making a nostalgic evening of it all.”
For all such nostalgia, however, Hetherington accepts the harsh reality is that at least one Super League club will find itself in the Million Pound Game – just 80 minutes from relegation – and that remains a sobering thought.
“The Middle Eights is not where we wanted to be,” he said.
“It’s not a celebration for us; we wanted to be defending our title back here at Old Trafford.
“But we’re not and there’s no point worrying about what might have been. We are where we are.
“For the first two-thirds of the season we were amongst the third worst performers but now (five wins from six) we’re one of the best.
“It’s no coincidence we’ve got some players back and we are now at our strongest as we come towards the end of the season.
“But nevertheless we go into the Qualifiers knowing every team wants to beat us and look to perform particularly well.
“The four Super League sides are all good teams and one of them will be in the sudden-death tie so that is a daunting prospect.
“But that adds a touch of drama, intrigue, excitement and uncertainty and aren’t all those the essence of sport? Absolutely.
“Do you want the comfort of knowing you’ll be in two cup finals every year? We’ve had a remarkable ride but this year we’ve been presented with a challenge of a different type.
“It’s one we’ll tackle head on and we’re looking forward to finish the season with a flourish.
“But we’re not blasé enough to ignore what the prospects could be; there’ll be no complacency at all from Leeds Rhinos.”
The Super 8s start with Warrington Wolves v St Helens next Thursday, before leaders Hull FC host Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity head to Wigan Warriors on Friday August 5.
Super League Huddersfield Giants begin their Qualifiers at Salford on Sunday August 7, the same day as Hull KR host Batley.