COLUMN: Robert Elstone and RL’s biggest challenge? Find a structure, and stick to it

Before the shots were fired and threats of war were issued yesterday, it’s probably important to point out that Robert Elstone made some fairly salient points on his first exposure to the sport’s media.

With Super League having kept its head under the parapet for over six months, it was refreshing – if nothing else – to hear the competition’s powerbrokers lay out their vision for the future: even if it was met with derision by one of their colleagues.

But among the most intriguing things Elstone said across his time with the press – which, by the end, totalled well over three hours – was about the league structure.

No, not on the Super 8s being scrapped. More on how rugby league has to find something and stick with it.

With the 8s on the way out, it means that after just four years, rugby league is ripping up the script and starting all over again. We could end up with a sixth different way of determining our champion in a little over two decades if alterations are made to the play-off format at the top of the division.

That’s without even beginning to mention the battle for promotion and relegation – which absolutely has to stay, and the Super League executives who were present yesterday at least appeared to realise that.

Here is what Elstone said on the matter:

I look at the game I’ve watched for almost 50 years, and the change in the competition format has been too frequent. We look at the format as the panacea for the game and we have to realise the solution is within the clubs and the way in which we grow the game. The format is important – but simplicity and understanding of it is essential.

It’s hard to disagree with the new Super League chief executive on a number of points. His reasoning for making the format as simplistic as possible will split opinion, not least because the game has just got its head around the way the Super 8s works, and now we appear to be consigning it to Room 101.

But to new fans, and those looking to get a grip on rugby league for the first time, there perhaps is a need for a simpler way of doing things. That’s where one-up, one-down ticks some of the boxes. I am an advocate of what the Super 8s has brought to ambitious, successful clubs in the Championship – but I can also understand that the 8s is too drawn-out and convoluted.

No league structure is perfect – and if one-up, one-down with loop fixtures to make up the number of games required by Sky is the way we go, that will no doubt be criticised by some corners of the game. That’s fine: there is no way of doing things which will satisfy absolutely everyone.

But what is crucial to understand now – and Elstone appears to – is that rugby league finds itself at an intriguing crossroads. If we are going to rip up the rulebook and start all over again, now is the time to do it.

And if those changes do take place, Elstone’s biggest challenge is driving through a new league structure which not only ticks all the boxes and satisfies as many people as possible – but lasts for more than three or four years.

Rugby league, now more than ever, craves stability. The league structure is the backbone of that. If it is to be one-up, one-down, it should be that way for ten to fifteen years.. or even more.