Who will be the 2016 Super League Champions?

Of course, I've got no more idea than anyone else. But the question of how, rather than who, the rugby league champions will be decided has not always been as obvious as it appears. In fact the Grand Final at the end of the season is only the latest of half a dozen different ways of deciding the champion team. 

 Manningham - the first-ever champions in the first-ever league campaign in the 1895-96 Northern Union season.

Manningham - the first-ever champions in the first-ever league campaign in the 1895-96 Northern Union season.

Over the 121 years of its existence, rugby league has continually honed and fine-tuned the structure of its competitions in a search for the optimum relationship between competitive balance, spectator interest and financial well-being. And that has led to significant changes in how the champion club has been decided.

One of the Northern Union’s fundamental aims when it was founded in 1895 was to establish a league system similar to that of the Football League, which had been formed seven years earlier. The huge popularity and commercial success of the Football League was the model the NU wanted for rugby.

So in the first season, the Northern Rugby Football League was created, comprising all 22 teams that had formed the NU, playing each other home and away. It produced an exhausting 42 league matches for each club and by the end of that first season many sides were complaining about the costs of travel and the length of the season.

The situation was also made worse at the end of the first season by large numbers of clubs leaving rugby union and wanting to join the NU. So it was decided to replace the Northern League with separate Lancashire and Yorkshire Leagues. 

Yet bizarrely there was no final between the winners of the two leagues, so effectively there was no champion club from 1897 to 1901.

The first Super League

This anomaly had not escaped the attention of the game’s leading clubs and in April 1901 Halifax proposed starting an elite Northern Rugby League of the top 14 teams. 

The new ‘super league’ makes strange reading today. Only, Hull, Huddersfield, Salford and Warrington of today’s Super League were present, with many more familiar names, such as Leeds, Wigan and St Helens playing in the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, seen as the second tier of professional sides.

The following year the system was changed yet again, this time to two divisions with 18 teams. The new set-up led indirectly to the formation of Leeds United soccer club. At the end of the season St Helens and Holbeck tied for the second promotion place in the second division. 

A play-off match was arranged which Saints won and Holbeck - who played at Elland Road - resigned from the NU in a fit of pique. Weeks later the club reformed as Leeds City AFC, the forerunner of Leeds United.

One division to rule them all

The early 1900s were a time of economic depression and most clubs experienced financial problems. In a bid to generate more interest in the game, in 1905 a one division league was introduced consisting of all 31 professional NU clubs. But there was no central organisation of fixtures and clubs played different numbers of matches. League positions were decided on winning percentage.

This system inevitably threw up anomalies. In 1906 Leigh were declared champions because their winning percentage was highest, despite the fact that Leeds, Hunslet and Oldham all had won more matches.

This was so ridiculous that the 1907 season saw the introduction of a top four play-off system to decide the champions, culminating in a Championship Final, the forerunner of the modern Grand Final, that was won by Halifax.

This system lasted, with minor adjustments, over fifty years. Championship finals provided many of the most dramatic moments in the history of the game and attracted monster crowds, culminating in the record 83,190 who crammed into Odsal to watch the Wigan dismantle Wakefield in 1960.

One goes into two... or not

But as early as the 1920s a number of people were arguing for two divisions because of the huge number of meaningless games in the latter half of the season. For most clubs, there was nothing to play for by the time the season reached half-way.

It was until 1962 that the RFL, faced with rapidly declining attendances, bit the bullet and introduced a two division system. But crowds continued to plummet and after just two seasons, the one division system was back.

This time the top four play-offs were replaced by a top sixteen play-off to give more clubs something to fight for towards the end of the season. 

But the problem with such a large play-off system was highlighted in the first season when seventh-placed Halifax were crowned champions after defeating league leaders St Helens in the championship final. 

The system produced its most sensational result in the 1973 play-offs, when a Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson-marshalled Dewsbury side that finished eighth in the league defeated league leaders Warrington and then outplayed third-placed Leeds in the final to be crowned champions for their first and only time. 

Champions or Premiers?

This was to be the last season of one division football. Two divisions were introduced in the 1973-74 season and the team that finished top of Division One was crowned champions, as in soccer. But a new end-of-season tournament was also introduced in 1975, confusingly called the Premiership. 

This baffled many Australians, for whom the words premiership and and championship are synonymous, yet the tournament was completely separate from the championship. Yet in Britain, a team could be champions and not premiers, and vice versa.

The principle that the First Division leaders were  champions lasted over twenty years. Even after the turmoil of the introduction of Super League, the principle remained in place for the first two seasons of summer rugby. 

Super League: back to basics

It wasn’t until 1998 that the Grand Final was introduced, based on the Australian model where the grand final had been part of the game since its earliest days.

But although the Grand Final was portrayed by its critics as an alien import, in reality it was a return to that older tradition of the Championship Final. It’s this link that has made the Grand Final so popular in British rugby league. 

The concept was introduced to English rugby union and is still not widely understood and embraced even less. There is no chance that soccer would abandon its first-past-the-post system. Yet the final showdown for the championship, where the season’s struggle is decided by death or glory, has become central to the culture of rugby league.

That’s because the Grand Final is the ultimate test of stamina, nerve and daring. And that’s precisely what rugby league is all about.