A cautious welcome for the new era

The RFL this week published most of the detail about how rugby league will function from 2015 onwards. A statement on the RFL website titled “2015 – A New Era” confirmed some of the things we already knew – two leagues of 12 to split into three groups of eight – as well as filling in some of the gaps for us.

One or two details, such as whether the new leagues will have a bonus-point system, have yet to be decided, but the bulk of what will happen was included.

It’s difficult to have a straightforward, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ opinion of the restructure, as there are so many changes and innovations in the new structure of the game. Individuals will find elements they agree with, as well as elements that cause concern.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the risk involved in the re-introduction of promotion and relegation, fewer than ten years after it was decided that the practice was unsustainable. 

The RFL’s view is that they will be: “restoring promotion and relegation in a sustainable manner.” Yet movement between the different levels doesn’t become sustainable just because the RFL says so. What have they actually put in place to make it so?

Part of it is the fluidity of the structure. Given that the two leagues break into three groups, a team relegated from Super League into the Championship might only have two-thirds of a season before it’s back playing alongside Super League clubs in the Qualifiers middle group of eight. 

In addition, given that relegation is decided by where clubs finish in the middle eight, while relegation is a possibility it is not a certainty. It may be that the bottom-four Super League sides all retain their Super League place for the following season.

More than that though is the promise of an increase of central funding to the clubs relegated from Super League in 2014 – as we now know, London and Bradford – as well as the top Championship sides of 2014. The RFL’s hope is that this will, “allow for more full-time professional clubs in the championship competition in 2015.”

In theory this will mean that relegated clubs will still be playing in a full-time professional environment – and that makes relegation a lot less scary – and promoted clubs don’t have to become full-time operations pretty much overnight, as Leigh had to do in 2004/05. This is allied to an increase in the Championship salary cap to £1 million.

However, that extra funding is only to be awarded at the end of this season, meaning that it will have limited impact in turning semi-professional clubs into fully-professional clubs. The question of how promotion and relegation will be sustainable remains, to an extent, unanswered.

People have also pointed to the complicated structure of the season, with its three stages and unbalanced fixture lists. There’s the increased number of fixtures, when for years the argument has been for fewer fixtures. There’s the fact that – including a Challenge Cup meeting – sides could play each other six times over the course of a season. There’s the harsh difference between an eight-place Super League finish, meaning a crack at the title, and a ninth-place finish, meaning a desperate battle against relegation.

Despite its faults though there are some good points. There will be more meaningful games throughout the season. There is the opportunity for the Leighs and Featherstones to test themselves against the current lower-mid-table Super League clubs in the final third of the season. The return of promotion and relegation is potentially a good thing, establishing a pathway from the re-branded League 1 all the way into Super League.

The definite inclusion of League 1 in the structure, as well as a League 1 cup competition that will include two amateur sides, is a very welcome addition. It’s also great that the Challenge Cup is being retained in pretty much the same form as at present.

While fans are right to raise genuine queries – and it has been good to see most fans voicing concerns and asking questions rather than just being hashtag warriors: #joke, #dyinggame, #RIPrugbyleague, #justsaying – I’d be cautious about dismissing the new structure out of hand.

It might prove less than successful, with clubs overspending to earn promotion or avoid relegation, and potential supporters put off by a lack of clarity in fixture lists and the structure of the season. However, it might end up being a welcome boost to rugby league, with fewer meaningless games and a return to promotion and relegation creating more interest in all levels of the professional game. Let’s give it a cautious welcome and hope for the latter.

Keep Your Eye on Rugby League

@Tony_Williams88

 

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