WHEN the Super League fixtures are published later next week all eyes will be on the opening rounds, where Good Friday is being played, when Magic falls and whether passports are up to date for a first trip to Toulouse.

Once those titbits have been pulled out and salivated over, it will then be left to the players and staff to survey the task ahead.

If Saints do as they did this year and reach both the Super League Grand Final and the Challenge Cup Final then they will have to play 33 matches, provided of course Covid postponements do not rear their ugly heads.

The representative players will play one more game, with an international weekend slotted in for mid -June.

All these matches will be played from 10 February to 24 September, giving the Grand Finalists three weeks respite before the World Cup begins on 15 October.

In contrast, the NRL players, who England will be competing against at the World Cup, will have played 24 regular rounds with the Grand Finalists playing a further three or four play-off games.

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Thankfully, the 27 games planned for the regular Super League season is two fewer than in 2019, and three less than they played in the era of the ill-fated Super 8s.

Progress, but is this test of endurance necessary to determine the champions?

The burning question always asked is why do we play those extra loop games?

Who demands them and why are they needed?

And what would we have to do to go back to a simple home and away and no loop formula?

They are questions that must be raised, not least because the number of fixtures – especially the short turnaround games – is an issue we have to take seriously from a player welfare point of view.

Player fatigue – the constant backing up week after week – plays a part in causing injuries. It is a tough old sport and these gladiators are only too game to take on the strapping or the necessary jabs to get their busted bodies back out there. And so that is how it always been.

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No doubt some readers, maybe even past players, will be shouting out that Kel Coslett played a remarkable 54 first grade Saints matches – across all comps - in 1971-72 and had a full-time job to boot.

It was a different era – and a tough, often dirtier, game back – but the access to full time training, weights and conditioning is a double-edged sword.

We have created a game where 16/18 stone powerhouses throw their muscle and bone into collisions that some doctors suggest resemble car crashes for impact.

So player welfare is reason one why we should not be having such a packed fixture card.

Moving on to the issue of loop fixtures where teams play an additional five games, two home, two away and one at Magic and the issue it creates.

Fans don’t like them – particularly if teams end up play each other too many times in the knockouts too.

Are they there to give extra rounds in the year to prolong the season? Well, not if they are being played midweek.

There are smarter ways around scheduling to ensure TV has matches to pick from without the loops.

Or is it that clubs cannot function on the income generated – through tickets, refreshments and merchandise, by a mere 11 guaranteed home games?

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Clubs with a poorer home support are no doubt even more reliant on the extra income that comes with an additional visit of a well-supported club like Saints.

These are not insignificant problems – but we need to find creative ideas to overcome them.

We should seek those solutions, rather than piling that burden all back on to the players and cerrtainly not by raising ticket prices, especially for away fans.

The most glaring problem with the add-on loop fixtures is that they distort the league table with final placings potentially determined by which team has had an easier or tougher draw.

When relegation is at stake or top place, we should have a level playing field. That cannot happen if, no matter how they balance it, the fixtures are different for the rival teams.

Of course, maybe there was method to the madness here – and from 1998 when the Grand Final was hatched, Super League was almost embarrassed by the table, rendering it a mere starting grid for the real comp.

It seemed like in the need to drum home the fact that unlike football, or rugby league from 1974-1996, finishing top no longer mattered and it was all about what is done on one big night at Old Trafford.

Maybe Super League and its backers wanted to have its big occasion to match or even trump Wembley, but the league table and consequently the bread-and-butter weekly rounds emerge somewhat diminished as a result.

It doesn’t matter how many times the sloganeers have coined ‘Every minute matters!’ it patently doesn’t until you get to the knock-out stages.

In recent years some they have sought to repair some of the damage done and retrieve the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater with the switch from first past the post to the Grand Final.

St Helens Star: Paul Wellens shows off the League Leaders Shield

Now on top of the derided hubcap the team finishing top now reaps a significant financial reward, but still the feat is not considered anywhere near as important as winning either of the finals.

Scant reward for being the league’s most consistent side, and if you lose your one knockout game like Saints in 2018 you don't even get to the final.

This year will be the 25th Super League grand final – levelling the same number of first-past-the-post titles that were handed out in the years preceding 1998.

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Now we have had some cracking nights under the lights at Old Trafford - and five miserable ones - but is it time to reflect that game made a huge mistake here?

If you look back at the first Super League title race, every weekend was compelling as Saints and Wigan went toe-to-toe for the inaugural title.

Every minute did matter, so much so that Saints fans of that generation still talk about Terry Matterson’s touchline goal for London against Wigan that took a vital point that would be vital at the end of the year.

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Go back three years earlier, when 29,839 fans crammed into Central Park, with a few dozen watching from the bridge, in that compelling Good Friday game.

The game ended tied at 8-8, a year in which Wigan sneaked the League Championship ahead of Saints on points difference.

They are two years in which the table was tight, and I don’t doubt Leigh fans from 1982 will tell a tale of their excitement going up to Whitehaven to clinch the title. That is how it should be.

Rather than throwing on add-on games, breaking the players, frustrating the fans and distorting the table, we should go back to the principle of that first Super League season.

Play 22 games, build each one as an event, crown the table toppers as champions.

The second mistake, allied to that, was discarding the Premiership Trophy, which was building nicely as an event with a finale at Old Trafford, should have continued to have been pushed as major event to match Wembley without the need to render the league table a starting grid.

As a tournament it kept all teams with something to play for until the end.

St Helens Star: Harry Pinner with the 1985 Premiership Trophy

Fans who cheered a Mal Meninga inspired Saints to victory in 1985 certainly viewed the Premiership as a pot worth winning, as they did when they made up for the year of Wigan torment in 1993.

It is worth noting that the gate of 36,598 for that last Saints Premiership Final win was only 8,500 lower than this year’s Grand Final attendance.

Followers of our game look at Eddie Hearn and what he has done with the sports he has influenced in recent decades. The key in all his working is building events and excitement, and offering variety.

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It is harder to make a certain fixture a massive event if that opposition is played up to five times that year.

The starting point for all clubs should be to build and market each Super League fixture as special, rather than going down this primitive route of squeezing more and more out of the senior players with loops.

And by each game, that means building the profile and attendances at not only the first team but the Women’s Super League, Reserves and Under 19s too.

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It may be wide of the mark, but would all Super League clubs benefit more by the addition of one more member of the marketing team ahead of another squad player?

Gaps created in the calendar would be better filled by a couple more international or representative games that would enthuse fans and capture more significant media coverage that another few extra loop rounds.

We have a habit of yearning after an Origin series, that brings in significant revenue in Australia, but like most rep fixtures when tried here we have rammed them into an already congested calendar and wonder why they flop.

Club-wise a sevens or nines would offer something different and allow clubs to experiment with their whole squads without burdening the same players. Events that could broaden the game's appeal like cricket and rugby union do.

Let’s be innovative – every other sport that is moving on is – but retain the staples that have sustained our game.

It has got to be worth a thought as we cannot carry on doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.