The fears of many rugby league supporters have been realised as the RFL and the Super League clubs voted for the two-leagues-of-two-splitting-into-three-groups-of-eight system. Apart from not yet having a catchy name, the now-accepted restructuring of the leagues is viewed with a great deal of suspicion from the rugby league community. Many are concerned that it will fail to deal with rugby league’s current problems, while actually worsening such issues as club finances, finding competition sponsorship and media coverage.
A meeting of clubs at Langtree Park voted by a majority of 13-0 (Catalans Dragons abstained) to reduce Super League to twelve clubs. The vote to introduce the “split” was much less decisive, being passed by a margin of 7-6 (the Dragons again abstaining). The clubs that voted for it were Bradford, Castleford, Leeds, London, St Helens, Wakefield and Widnes.
Even if your club was in favour, that doesn’t mean you will be. Indeed, Francis Cummins and Denis Betts have defied the official position of their clubs to oppose the restructure. But what are some of the objections to the new league format?
How will this fix … ?
Each of us could make a list of rugby league’s woes going back the last two or three years – or back to the start of licensing, back to the start of Super League, or back to when they made a drop goal worth one point instead of two. We desperately want those responsible to fix those problems, and this isn’t the way to do it. How will the new league structure ease rugby league’s financial problems, or lead to more coverage in the press? To some it will seem a distraction from the real issues.
It’s worth remembering, however, that such a restructuring cannot be a panacea for a whole game. Rugby league’s problems are complex, and they can’t be fixed with one wave of the arm or click of the fingers. Yet people have made specific objections to the new structure.
It’s far too complicated for people to understand
It’s easy to scoff when people say they don’t understand how a league or a tournament is structured, but it’s even easier for those people to decide that trying to follow a league or tournament is too much like hard work. So the top eight from Super League form a group, and the bottom eight? No, sorry – not the bottom eight, the bottom … four. And they play against the top eight from the Championship? The top four. And all the clubs start on zero after the split? Oh, only the middle group do – and the rest keep their points. And there are play-offs as well?
This feeds into concerns about media coverage – few editors will want to work too hard to understand something that they already don’t view as a priority – while casual fans will be put off by not understanding what games mean and what happens at various stages throughout the season. Potential sponsors might be put off by not knowing what they’re sponsoring – if you sponsor Super League do you then sponsor the top two groups or only the top one? If Sky Sports televise Super League and Premier Sports the Championship, who televises which group?
There are too many games in the new structure
Each team will play the other teams in its league twice, then each team in its group once. That’s 29 games – two more than currently, and three more if the Magic Weekend counts as an extra round of fixtures. For years the consensus has been that fewer games will improve the quality of the league, give more space for internationals, and give SL-based England players a better chance of competing against Australia and New Zealand. It seems counterintuitive then to introduce a system that requires even more fixtures. That said, more games may increase revenue for clubs, but only if attendances don’t fall.
We shouldn’t bring back relegation
Before licensing was introduced relegation was seen as the scourge of Super League’s ability to progress and removing it the key to success. Less than a decade later the RFL and clubs have decided to bring it back. This has been the objection of Cummins and Shaun Wane, who have both argued that licensing allows young players to be introduced by clubs into Super League. Pretty much the same set of circumstances exist now as they did then, so why the change of mind?
Perhaps part of the reason was that Championship clubs were stagnating having been cut off, and the new system allows for a great deal more fluidity between divisions. Relegation, arguably, loses its terror when you can potentially get back by finishing in the top four part-way through the following season. The new system has the advantage of being one in which relegation and promotion is a possibility every year, but not a guarantee. Under the old system a club finishes bottom and is relegated; under licensing a club can finish bottom without any real consequences; now a club that finishes bottom has a third of the season left to fight to stay up.
Yet relegation still exists as a possibility, and the consequent financial devastation. The argument is that this will worsen clubs’ debt and financial problems rather than easing them.
There are advantages and disadvantages to the impending new system. Yet despite the tone of some of the debate nothing is conclusive yet – not even one season has been played yet under this new system, and it will take more than one or two seasons to make a conclusive judgement on either how well it has worked or how big a disaster it has been. We’ll return to this at the end of 2017 then, although there will be a World Cup to take our minds off it.
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