In 1996 Super League was founded, replacing the old Championship, First Division and Second Division with the game of Rugby League switching from the winter to the summer. With the advent of Super League, it was hoped that the sport would progress on and off the field, especially with the news that Sky Sports - founded in March 1990 - would hold the broadcasting rights for the new structure. The first Grand Final was played in late October 1998 with Wigan beating Leeds 10-4 and, since then, 20 more showpiece events have been held at Old Trafford to find the Super League champions. The creation of Super League has seen the sport drastically change on and off the field, but has it been for the better?

Grand Final emphasis

Ever since the first event in 1998, the focus in Rugby League has been on the Grand Final.

The Regal Trophy enjoyed its last year in 1996 whilst the Challenge Cup has fallen dramatically in the pecking order amongst some supporters and the hierarchy. In 1988, Wigan played Halifax at the old Wembley in front of over 94,000 spectators. In 2017, at the new Wembley, Hull and Wigan did battle in front of just 68,525.

The emphasis has changed away from competitions such as the Challenge Cup - despite its fantastic history - and instead the Grand Final is now the be all and end all. Now, that's all well and good if you support a side that has the chance of winning the title, but, in 22 years, only four teams have lifted the Super League trophy: Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan. In contrast, the past decade has seen five sides win the Challenge Cup: Hull FC, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington and Wigan.

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Despite its greater competitiveness, the Challenge Cup has been sidelined.

There used to be something about the Challenge Cup that was special; lower-ranked sides could give their all for 80 minutes against those at the top and sometimes pull off a huge shock that had Rugby League supporters on the edge of their seats. Sheffield Eagles' Challenge Cup success in 1998 will forever be remembered as one of the greatest moments in the sport's history. Oldham's 22-36 victory over Hull KR in the fifth round in 2016 and Swinton's 20-24 success over Huddersfield in 2017 were results that would live in Oldham's and Swinton's fans' memories forever.

The Grand Final - no matter how hard the powers that be and Sky Sports try - will never be able to replicate the magic of the Challenge Cup. Yet, the magic is being increasingly squeezed out of the cup for a play-off system that rarely throws up a shock and which has left supporters fairly underwhelmed in recent seasons.

Skill and physicality on the field

Proponents of Super League will argue that the skill level has increased hugely with the move to the summer; this is true.

Though the weather has often undermined teams' ability to throw the ball around at the start of the season, the dry, fast tracks in the months of June, July, August and September have allowed sides to express themselves with much more open and expansive play than the players that took to the heavy, churned up fields in the months of December and January in the old Championship days.

Even in the old mud baths however, the likes of Lewis Jones, Malcolm Reilly and Alex Murphy were able to play with flair and orchestrate proceedings in a manner which many players of today would be envious of. The same could be said of the physical side of things; Rugby League stars nowadays are regarded as tough, but the clamping down on former aspects of the game that thrilled audiences such as the shoulder charges and big hits has dampened the game. Of course there is now a duty of care towards players that those who used the so-called "magic sponge" back in the day would sneer at, but the increasing scrutiny of everything that happens on the field is making a lot of fans lose patience.

Stale aspects

The role of the hooker and loose-forward has been lost in the midst of the transition to the summer game. The idea of uncontested scrums is a stain on the sport; the hooker used to have a pivotal role in "hooking" the ball back out of the scrum and, on many an occasion, scrums were won against the head. Now though, the ball does not even have to travel into the centre of the scrum, instead, it is put in at an angle to ensure that the ball cannot be won by the opposing side.

Essentially a Rugby League scrum is supposed to lock up the forwards and enable the backs to run more freely without as much of a defensive line opposing them. These days however, the scrums break so quickly that backs really have about five seconds before the defensive line is back to normal. Plus, any player can form a scrum if they so wish, making a mockery of the situation. Contested scrums used to give another exciting dimension to the game, now, they are just there to give teams and the referee a break.

The loose-forward role is also one which is on its way out; Sean O'Loughlin at Wigan is the last of a dying breed of ball-handling, skilful locks that give a side another attacking outlet. The position is instead being filled with another forward in a bid to outmuscle the rival team - a sign of the increasing physicality of the game since its move to the summer. Both Paul Sculthorpe and Andy Farrell are superb examples of the old loose-forward in the modern era - the kind that every side had before the late '90s. With the duo retiring 2008 and 2004 respectively, that 'old breed' of loose-forward has simply being lost to the game.

Refereeing

Rugby League was one of the very first sports to introduce a video referee in a bid to help the on-field referee make a decision - whether over a try or an issue in the game. Since then, other sports have progressed into the technological age with the likes of a third umpire (cricket), a video review (tennis) and a television match official (rugby union). Even football has made the transition into the 21st century with the VAR technology.

But, with other sports seemingly making headway and improving with all the new-age evolution, Rugby League supporters still have mixed feelings, and the use of the video referee continues to draw severe criticism. With on-field referees subject to ever increasing demands and a need to keep an eye on almost every corner of the pitch, the video review can alleviate some of this pressure. The use of the video referee used to be exciting and innovative, initially creating drama for spectators when the Super League came into fruition, whether in the stadium or at home. People literally held their breath as they waited to see the verdict on the big screen. Now though, referees rely far too much on the 'man upstairs', hampering the free-flowing game that spectators want to watch.

Gone are the days of John Holdsworth pointing to the spot within in a second of the ball being carried over the line. Gone are the days of split-second decisions by on-field referees. Instead, Rugby League is being plagued by over-analysis and over-thinking that the video referee - which Rugby League could once boast about - brings. The game used to be simple - black and white - now there are far too many grey areas. These grey areas may well have come into being with the development of the game in terms of its fast pace and skill level since '96, but the increasingly stop-start nature of games is frustrating the majority of supporters.

Rugby League exploded with the creation of Super League in 1996, but once the initial honeymoon period was over, the reality kicked in. The fact that the brainchild of the summer game - Sky Sports - is seemingly pushing the game into the shadows with every passing season suggests that something needs to be done to recapture that spirit and passion that set the sport apart from any other before 1996. #RugbyLeague #RL #SuperLeague