RUGBY league fans may have noticed consultation has begun over a new shake-up to the league structure. (There have been a few years since the last so one was overdue, he says sarcastically).
Much has already been written about what could happen to Super League, but little so far has been said about what comes of the clubs left below the proposed new top tiers – which, if the worst comes to the worst, might include the Knights.
To find out what’s in the pipeline for them, jump to the section below. Firstly, here’s the predicament.
The RFL have effectively admitted the licensing system in Super League hasn’t worked as hoped, and that bringing promotion and relegation back is the way to go. Hurray for that. (Even if Warrington boss Tony Smith has since spoken out against changes.)
The problem remains, however: just what is the best way forward for a professional sport which is part full-time professional (Super League), part part-time professional (Championship) and part almost amateur (Championship One)?
The everyday sports fan would look at football’s system as the benchmark. Football is hideously popular, so if it works in football, it works. Therefore let’s have straight automatic promotion and relegation between all divisions.
However, for rugby league, things have been very different since the onset of full-time professionalism in the top tier.
Basically, if you win the second tier, you must go from being a part-time set-up with a squad of 30 part-time players and an off-field staff of three or four, to a full-time operation with 40 higher-paid players, all on contract money, and a staff of 25 – and all within the space of a few days to get sorted for pre-season.
Promotion is very much needed in rugby league, but in football terms it’s like being promoted from Conference North straight up to the Premier League.
Or as one official put it, while salmon can leap, you’re asking one to leap out of the water onto a mountaintop.
And if that isn’t worrying enough, relegation sees clubs go the other way. As soon as you’ve lost central funding from TV money, what have you got left? Administration, say the pessimists.
The first of the three proposals on the table is for a Super League of 12 and a Championship of ten or 12 with one promotion/relegation place (a bit like when the National League One grand final winners went up to Super League).
From the outside looking in, this seems the most obvious way forward – though it must come with provisos whereby clubs wanting to make the leap are told before a season starts that they meet criteria for promotion, while clubs in danger of the drop must have RFL-backed contingency plans in place.
The second proposal is for a new two-division Super League comprising ten teams in each, with TV money spread more thinly between the 20 teams.
The third and most revolutionary and complex – not dissimilar to the scheme talked about for Scottish football – is for the season to start with two leagues of 12 and be split into three leagues of eight midway through.
Bonkers, perhaps, and surely a turn-off for potential new fans – just think how football supporters smirked at the Scottish proposals – but advocates say it’s a way for clubs to bridge the gap from part-time Championship rugby to full-time top-tier rugby more steadily and realistically, while including the excitement that comes with promotion and relegation.
An inherent issue which will have to be overcome is the disparity in central funding between Super League clubs (who currently get at least £1.1million per year) and Championship clubs (who get a handout of £90,000).
Any new structure would have to prevent a situation where clubs compete in the same division on wildly different financial levels, but it must still leave the big boys with enough cash to afford the best players, otherwise there’s a player drain to rugby union or the NRL. (There’s not enough money in the game to share cash evenly between all professional clubs and still keep the high end of the sport viable.)
This two-to-three-tier proposal does do that better than the others, with funding gradated up the three tiers. It means clubs on comparatively low income won’t have to compete with the game’s big boys until they’re more able. It also means the toppermost clubs can still pay handsome wages.
There are other ideas that have been put forward as potential solutions.
One, which was suggested prior to the introduction of licensing and is rearing its head again, it to stagger the Championship and Super League seasons – allowing the former to finish two or three months before the latter, to allow the promoted club time to adjust. This, however, doesn’t solve the problem of how the relegated club copes.
A vote of clubs will be held in July when the Rugby League Council meet, with change likely to be introduced for the 2015 season.
The third proposal on the table appears to be the one heading the running, despite its complexity.
Many of the people in power seemingly see it as the best way, as the RFL put it, to “create a pathway into Super League” while tackling the “challenges that a straight reintroduction of promotion and relegation between part-time and full-time leagues would create”.
Unfortunately, however, and herein lies the next big problem, while the structure might make sense to those sitting around a table in RFL Towers, it won’t make sense to the average fan or, more importantly, the potential “new fan”, that rare creature of which much is hoped.
If it does come in, therefore, the RFL will have to be ready with a PR blitz to not only explain it to the public but also sell it to the masses.
NOW onto what happens to the Championship clubs who end up outside the leading tiers come the new structure.
There are 28 clubs in Super League and the Championship, but potentially only 20 or, more likely, 24 are included in the above proposals.
The Press understands the plan is for the remaining Championship and Championship One teams to form two “Conference” leagues, probably divided geographically (north and south), with the winners of each of these leagues meeting in a play-off final to decide the champions. The winners of that – and here’s the good news – would get promoted.
Here’s the deal, though, for clubs like York.
With all the changes likely to be brought in for 2015, it means at least four Championship clubs will be demoted to the new Conference (perhaps five if a Championship One team is promoted, or even more if fewer teams end up being in the top tiers).
The likes of the Knights, Hunslet, Whitehaven, Dewsbury et al will therefore be clamouring to keep themselves in the leading bunch in the Championship in 2014.
And, given that is only next year, it means steering clear of relegation this term is even more paramount than it already was, and that recruitment for next season increases significantly in importance as of now.
WHILE we’re discussing a rugby league shake-up, here’s a plea.
Please, RFL, get rid of ClubCall, that silly idea to offer someone the choice of opponents in the play-offs.
And while you’re doing that, reduce the number of clubs in the play-offs, and make the play-off system simple.
Oh, and here’s another. Please play the same rules for each division, for heaven’s sake. For example, we were told the bonus point rule in the Championships was a trial when it was introduced. Well, is it good or not? If it’s good, put it in Super League and into the amateur game. If it isn’t, get shot.
How on earth are “new fans” going to get interested if they can’t work out what’s where, how and why.
It would pay to have a look at football sometimes. It does do some things right.
RIGHT, other stuff. The Knights’ Independent Supporters’ Society (KISS) are holding an event on Saturday, July 6, at the Huntington Sports Club.
All being well, it will start with a question and answer session with coaches Gary Thornton and Mick Ramsden, plus others, followed by a hog roast supper and a disco.
Tickets are limited to 70 people, and those who are attending KISS’s party night on May 25 get first dabs. Tickets that remain will go on general sale from KISS committee members. They cost £7 for adults and £4 for under-16s.
A few tickets for the party night remain and will be up for grabs at tomorrow’s game only, again from KISS members.