COLUMN: The league structure that ticks all the boxes

Last week, TotalRL writer Aaron Bower wrote about how the new league structure is in danger of losing its integrity ahead of only the second ever Super 8s later this year. The replies from our readers threw up a whole host of different structures and ideas you’d like to see replace it – so we asked Aaron to put together what he thinks could be a structure that suits everyone. Here’s what he came up with..

The Fundamentals
– A 23-game regular season for Super League and the Championship (11 home, 11 away and a Magic/Summer Bash game)
– Following 23 games, bottom of Super League is relegated, top of the Championship is promoted.
– Fewer league games means a later start to the season (by around two weeks), and a break for an international programme mid-season
– Super League Grand Finalists are determined by the old top-five play-off system: the system that seemed to work best.
– There is still a Million Pound Game; contested by second-bottom in Super League and the winners of a Championship play-off series
– That sees 2nd play 5th, 3rd v 4th and the winners meet to decide who plays second-bottom in Super League on a NEUTRAL venue.

Key Point I: Promotion and relegation in its purest form
When you try to devise a league structure that has complete fairness across the board and gives everyone a chance of acheiving something significant, there is only one place to start: simple promotion and relegation. No confusing or complicated way of giving the poorest side a second chance to stay up. Football has thrived off a system for over a century where the worst team in a high division is replaced by the best team in the division immediately below. That needs to return in any new structure.

Key Point II: Fewer games, more scope for innovation
Fewer games would benefit everyone – apart from maybe the club owners who would want more revenue streams to replace the loss of income from three or four home games that are taken away from them. A later start to the season gives players more chance to recover after a gruelling campaign, as well as a higher likelihood of being fresh for the end-of-season international schedule. With a later start to the season and a few more weeks left over in the middle of the year, England can play a Test series mid-season. Or you could bring back the Exiles games. Or even a War of the Roses. There is potential for innovation.

Key Point III: The drama of the Super 8s retained: to an extent
There’s no doubting that this new system needs to have simple promotion and relegation to give teams a realistic goal. But the Million Pound Game can still have its place in the sport; if you finish second-bottom in Super League you haven’t quite been bad enough to go straight down, so you play a MPG against the winners of a play-off series from the Championship worked exactly the same way as football’s play-offs. The winners of that meet Super League’s second-bottom side in the MPG – but crucially, it should be at a neutral venue. That’s the late-season drama which can sit neatly alongside what happens at the top of Super League.

Key Point IV: Revert to the play-off system which worked
From 1998 to 2001, Super League operated under a five-team play-off system which seemed to have plenty of merits. Here, it still means you have to finish in the top half to make the play-offs (a failure of the eight-team play-offs before), and it works like this:

  • Week One: Qualification Final: 2nd vs 3rd, Elimination Final: 4th vs 5th, Bye: 1st
  • Week Two: Major Semi Final: 1st vs Winners of Qualification Final, Minor Semi Final: Losers of Qualification Final vs Winners of Elimination Final
  • Week Three: Preliminary Final: Losers of Major Semi Final vs Winners of Minor Semi Final, Bye: Winners of Major Semi Final
  • Week Four: Grand Final

There’s no guarantee it would work to perfection – like with any structure. But fewer games, more international periods and more innovation mid-season, and crucially, promotion and relegation in its simplest form. It’s a structure which, if given a go, could work really well.