Championship Focus: Set up to fail?

Gareth Walker hears Robert Elstone’s point of view on the proposed 12th Super League club.

Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone fronted the sport’s media on Friday morning for over 45 minutes – and part of that time was dedicated to the competition’s decision to find a 12th club for 2021.

Last week also saw the release of the criteria for hopeful applicants, which has already caused a level of controversy. More on that shortly.

But first, to funding. Elstone was also asked how and why the top-fight clubs determined that £1 million of central distribution will be sufficient for the successful club – as opposed to an expected level of around £1.5million for the other eleven next year.

This was his answer in full: “We debated that for quite some time.

“There were a range of views as to what we should be awarding and we came to a consensus that £1 million was a number that would allow a club to compete and build a squad that had a chance.

“But most fundamentally, it was in an environment where financially Super League clubs have had a pretty horrendous time in 2020.

“Those challenges will roll forward into 2021, and there was a feeling that the whole economics of Super League are suppressed and the consequence would be that spending on player wages will be reduced.

“Therefore with that level of support from the centre, a club could be competitive.

“It was a combination of current economic climate, the player wage market and general affordability across Super League.

“The blend of all that mean that clubs were comfortable £1 million was a good figure.”

Elstone then had it put to him that this could be construed as the new club having the cards stacked against them from the start next year.

He responded: “It will be a challenge.

“I think clubs felt that with a good coach and good existing squad, and with that level of funding, a club could come into Super League and be competitive.

“Clearly it will be a challenge and they’ll need to have a good coach and recruit, prepare and start well.

“But clubs felt that on balance that was the right amount of money.”

The primary challenge will be to avoid immediate relegation, with Elstone all but confirming that it will remain in place next year.

He said: “It’s safe to assume that there will be relegation, not withstanding how Covid plays out in 2021.

“On the basis we’re all vaccinated and safe, then in a 12-team Super League, we’re committed to a promotion and relegation.”

So onto the criteria and process being set for the 12th club for next year, an issue Elstone understandably wouldn’t be drawn on, as he is not on the seven-person panel that will judge the applicants.

It’s fair to say that there have been some eyebrows raised by club officials around certain criteria, in particular the finishing places and insolvency records of recent years, which appear to land perfectly to allow Bradford to apply.

Given former RFL chief executive Nigel Wood’s position as a Bulls shareholder, that will only add fuel to the conspiracy theorists’ fire on social media and beyond.

And what this process needs more than anything is full transparency and a thorough explanation of how and why some of the criteria have been set.

The other line that has created some unease was the following: “The Panel will have absolute discretion in the weighting of the assessment criteria. For the avoidance of doubt, the assessment criteria do not carry equal weight.”

Elstone was also pushed on whether this could be made clearer, which he also said is a matter for the panel to answer.

The whole process would benefit from a clarification both on that point and why the criteria were set in terms of the time markers that were laid out.

After the wholly unedifying saga of Toronto’s demise – whichever side of the fence you sit on that matter – Rugby League needs this decision to be as fair and clear as possible.

Anything else will test people’s loyalties to the sport even further.

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