Get ready for most exciting season 
since switch to summer campaign

FINALLY: Paul Wellens celebrates as St Helens defeat Wigan to win Super League's Grand Final for the first time in six attempts at Old Trafford last season.
FINALLY: Paul Wellens celebrates as St Helens defeat Wigan to win Super League's Grand Final for the first time in six attempts at Old Trafford last season.
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Rugby Football League chairman Nigel Wood says the governing body will not “apologise” for making clubs earn their way into Super League.

The season gets underway this evening when Widnes Vikings kick off the “new era” with a televised home game against beaten Grand Finalists Wigan Warriors.

For many, after all the understandable hyperbole surrounding the competition’s new structure, it will be good to actually see sides in action again.

Championship clubs have another week’s grace before they embark on a journey which many will hope results in an elevation to the elite.

Promotion, of course, is back on the agenda under the new format which has the Super League and Championship splitting into three groups of eight at the end of the regular season in July.

The bold new initiative sees Super League’s bottom four and the second-tier’s top four playing seven games in a middle tier with the top three going up in 2016 and fourth facing fifth for the final spot.

Critics argue such a system will only be a success if a Championship team does, indeed, gain promotion with many fearing it will be too arduous a task even for the likes of relegated London Broncos and Bradford Bulls, who have retained full-time status.

But Wood argues otherwise and said: “I don’t think that’s the case. This sport is at its best when it’s played by well-matched sides, essentially, so what we wanted to achieve with the season structure was great contests and I think there will be at every stage and every level.

“When we come to the Super 8s and that promotion/relegation mini-competition starts, I don’t think it necessarily follows that a team that sets off in the Championship has to make it over the line.

“I think what’s really important is that all seven weeks of those games are very compelling, entertaining spectacles.

“One of the issues of promotion and relegation is the boom and bust of it all; you go up, you go down and the whole point of this system is that you actually have to phase and plan and grow your club over a period of time.

“It might be that a club times its run so it gets in the middle eight one year and makes a charge the following year as it becomes more familiar with the standard expected.

“But I don’t think it’s make-or-break if a club goes up or down. Promotion has to be earned and we shouldn’t apologise for that.”

Championship clubs’ salary cap is significantly less than their elite rivals, standing at £1m compared to £1.8m, leaving it open to suggestions that the playing field is not level.

But Wood, who has been at the helm since 2007, countered: “It’s significantly more level than it would have been under the old system when clubs in Super League were receiving 10 times more than those in the Championship.

“That was one of the issues of restoring promotion and relegation; you can’t just pretend promotion and relegation would work between a full-time and part-time league. It just doesn’t work.

“So, there has to be a significant amount of new resource put in at the top end of the Championship to make sense of it and there has been.

“That’s to the game’s credit and the Super League clubs’ credit that they recognise that’s for the better good.

“I think Championship clubs are in a good position to make a good fist of that middle eight.”

Wood is right when he describes the season as “the most exciting since 1996” when it switched from winter to summer.

Largely financed by a £200m broadcast deal with Sky, it is undoubtedly a pivotal moment in the game’s development as it looks to position itself more visually in the public eye.

“I think the sport just needs to have a bit of confidence in itself,” urged Wood.

“I gauge that the sense of anticipation is really palpable.

“It is like what it was in 1995 with the expectation of what was going to happen in ’96.

“Now, some of that is the uncertainty about the unknown, but also some of it is an acknowledgement we actually have a system here where we know what we have to do to move from one to the other – whether upwards or downwards.

“I think the sport’s in terrific shape. I’m looking forward to it immensely. There is real consequence for winning or not winning.”

Meanwhile, Wood maintains there will be no U-turns on the structure, regardless of how it is received initially.

Rugby league has a history of changing course too quickly, but he said: “Before we made such a radical decision there was an expectation for it to have time to bed in.

“The most important measures are really how many people come to watch and how many people watch on television.

“We’re in the entertainment industry and we have to make it as entertaining as possible.

“This isn’t an experiment, don’t make the mistake of thinking that. This is a sincere attempt to deliver the most compelling domestic offer we can do for the sport. We think it will work terrifically well.

“I certainly find it intriguing and it will be intriguing to see how the clubs respond to it.”