Structure headache outside Super League rages on ahead of Championship season opener as clubs push for solution

James Gordon
IMG logo, RFL Championship match ball

Clubs in the Championship & League 1 are still uncertain what exactly it is they're playing for in 2024 as we enter the IMG era - Alamy

Clubs currently outside Super League are pressing for a solution to the Championship and League 1 structure to be agreed before the new second tier season kicks off on March 15.

In recent years, tentative discussions have been held about merging the Championship and League 1 in reaction to the withdrawal of clubs, notably West Wales Raiders and Newcastle Thunder, although the subsequent rescue of Newcastle’s future solved a possible headache for 2024.

However, those discussions have almost always come during or after a season, when it is difficult to enforce changes.

It is thought there is likely to be a reduction in teams in the Championship to solve the problem created by the withdrawal of clubs in recent years, with London Skolars another to have withdrawn from the professional game.

There are currently 14 teams in the Championship but just nine in League 1, so finding an appropriate balance between the two is sought.

The biggest stumbling block is the method to which the number of teams in each league will be used.

The likely end result is to make the Championship and League 1 of equal size with 12 teams in each, which would require an additional team to join the professional game.

Although there had been apparent interest from French outfit Carcassonne, RFL chiefs confirmed recently there had been no formal discussions or follow-up to that brief indication back in the summer.

But should the Championship decrease to 12 teams, the method by which it reduces is still to be ironed out. And clubs want to know exactly what they are playing for before the season gets underway next month.

Proposal to introduce Super 8s concept to Championship and League 1

In recent years, the bottom two of the 14-team league have been relegated to be replaced by the League 1 champions and play-off winners.

Newcastle Thunder, Kingston Park
Newcastle Thunder in action at Kingston Park against York. Photo: Chris Lishman | MI News.

At the end of last season, Newcastle and Keighley Cougars were relegated from the Championship and replaced by Dewsbury Rams and Doncaster, League 1 champions & play-off winners respectively with the latter returning to the second tier for the first time since 2015.

To get to 12 teams for 2025, the Championship would have to lose four clubs at the end of this season – or not promote any clubs from League 1, which isn’t thought to be an option.

Clubs in the Championship are understandably anxious about the possible increase to four relegation places.

There has been a proposal that a Middle 8s concept, that was employed between Super League and the Championship from 2015 to 2018, could be implemented between Championship and League 1 once the two leagues revert to 12 teams each.

That would see the bottom four Championship teams take on the top four League 1 teams to earn their places in the second tier.

Although clubs will be graded via the IMG system, it will have no bearing on league placings below Super League.

The Middle 8s would help to address the dearth of fixtures particularly faced by League 1 clubs. The recent change to the 1895 Cup format was brought about to give League 1 clubs additional games and revenue, as they will play just 16 league games each in 2024.

A Super 8s concept would give clubs in both leagues a guaranteed 11 home fixtures in the league, and then a further three or four games in the extra phase of the season.

It would also address some of the concerns that Championship sides have had against merging to one big league. The top Championship clubs were worried at one-sided, unattractive games against the lower League 1 clubs, as evidenced in York’s 114-10 drubbing of Newcastle in last weekend’s 1895 Cup openers.

Reverting to the Super 8s concept would mean the top eight Championship clubs would get to play additional games against each other.

Salford, Halifax
Salford Red Devils and Halifax squared off in The Qualifiers in 2018 – Alamy

The other proposal is to simply retain the two-up, two-down method that has been in place in recent years, though would require additional work to maintain the current number of games.

Championship clubs are guaranteed 13 home games in the league currently, and a reduction to 12 teams would take two home games off – unless loop fixtures were added. The more likely solution would be the continued expansion of the 1895 Cup group stage, which this season sees seven groups of three play two games each.

Until its abrupt and ill-thought out scrapping in 2014, the Northern Rail Cup used to kick off the season with a group stage that, at one point, guaranteed six group games prior to the start of the league season.

Super League not considering expanding teams

Super League is against expanding from 12 teams, owing to the decline in central funding that is putting extra strain on clubs in the top flight. Some clubs have seen a decrease upwards of £1 million in their central funding in recent years, as the value of the Sky Sports broadcast deal has plummeted.

Other clubs who were previously pushing for relaxation of the salary cap have since resorted to tightening their belts.

Adding additional clubs to the top flight would of course mean further declines in central funding as it would need to be shared between more clubs.

An expansion of Super League will only likely happen in future if more than 12 teams achieve the Grade A criteria set out by IMG’s re-imagining of rugby league.

There were a total of seven clubs awarded Grade A – Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors, St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Warrington Wolves, Hull KR and Hull FC – when the first draft assessments were released back in October.

Wigan Warriors, Catalans Dragons, 2023 Super League Grand Final
The 2023 Super League Grand Finalists Wigan Warriors & Catalans Dragons made up two of IMG’s first seven ‘Grade A’ clubs – Alamy

Grade A clubs are guaranteed a place in Super League, with the remaining places made up of the top ranked Grade B clubs.

Based on October’s scores, that would see Castleford Tigers and London Broncos lose their Super League status at the end of 2024 and be replaced by Toulouse Olympique and Wakefield Trinity.

However, it still remains to be seen how changes in division will be handled, and just what impact finishing bottom – or indeed winning the Championship Grand Final – will have, beyond their impacts on scores.

London Broncos owner David Hughes recently stated that they should be protected from relegation if they were to finish 11th in Super League.

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