Super League will definitely revert to a 12-team competition from 2015 onwards. The news means that just two of the RFL’s restructuring proposals are still on the table – two leagues of 12 with the return of orthodox promotion and relegation, or the “split” option in which two teams of 12 become three leagues of eight two-thirds of the way through the season.
If nothing else, it’s surprising that less than a decade after the last re-structuring rugby league is set to undergo another upheaval, involving in some form the return of promotion and relegation.
The first objection that has been voiced is over the reduction in the number of clubs, with some arguing that this indicates that the game is “taking a step backwards”. Yet it’s not necessarily clear how a reduction in the number of top-flight clubs is a sign that a sport has somehow failed. It’s arguable that the increase in the number of clubs has diluted the quality of the competition, and that a 12-team competition will produce more games like Warrington v Wigan and fewer like Wakefield v Widnes.
Sheffield coach Mark Aston makes the same argument, extending it to the Championship. The lower league “will see the two teams out of Super League, but how many teams have we got in the Championship that are viable? There’s probably Featherstone, Halifax, Leigh and Sheffield. With Toulouse that is seven. Where are the other five teams?” Perhaps on this point there is an argument for operating two leagues of ten.
The other advantage of reducing the number of teams in Super League is the reduction in the number of fixtures, something that has been suggested for a long time. Super League teams would play four fewer games, allowing for more internationals and for players to be fresher and better prepared to face Australia at the end of the season.
However, this advantage is completely negated by the “split” option in which clubs would play – if I’ve worked it out correctly – 30 regular season games. This seems counterintuitive when there has been a consensus over the necessity of playing fewer games.
The return of promotion and relegation in whatever form has also proved to be controversial. When licensing was first being introducing I spent so much time complaining about it that I’d feel silly not supporting the return of promotion and relegation. People have questioned the sustainability of promotion and relegation, but licensing doesn’t seem to have done any better in that regard – in the last five years clubs like Wakefield, Bradford and Salford have all suffered. There certainly isn’t a large enough difference in playing standards to rule out promotion and relegation – we’ll se that tonight when Halifax play Featherstone, or tomorrow when Sheffield host London in the Challenge Cup.
But the argument over the difficulty of promotion and relegation between a full-time professional league and a semi-professional league is a valid one. Ideally promotion and relegation would be between two full-time leagues. Here we return to the “two leagues of ten” argument – there are already 14 full-time teams, and with the presumed entry of Toulouse that requires only five current Championship teams to go full-time to make it work. Yet there is a question mark over whether clubs like Sheffield and Batley – or Toulouse, come to that – can afford to run a full-time squad.
It’s a moot point however, as the RFL has already announced a Super League and Championship of 12 clubs each with no plans for Championship teams to go full time. The only two options before us are two leagues of 12 with either normal promotion and relegation or a split into three groups of eight for the final third of each season.
Despite what some have suggested, some have complained about and some have hoped for, there is no completely ideal system that will allow sustainability, competitiveness, expansion, excitement, more income and more coverage in the press and on television. Perhaps we’re all hoping for too much from this re-structuring – it won’t deliver everything we desire – and perhaps we’re all fearing too much – it won’t destroy our game. Whichever one is chosen will be a mixture of good and bad.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League