To promote or not to promote, to relegate or not to relegate?
It’s the burning question of the moment, and there’s been no shortage of debate about going up and the dreaded drop, and whether one, both or neither should happen this season, whatever this season ends up looking like.
Plenty of people have had a say in recent weeks, whether it be Neil Hudgell, who has threatened to pull the plug on his investment in Hull KR, of which there has been plenty, should the threat of relegation remain, or Bradford coach John Kear, who has argued the case for an expanded Super League.
Meanwhile, amid discussion of whether or not the game should revert to one ruling body – more of that later – Super League chief executive Robert Elstone (pictured) has said relegation “would not be fair and equitable”.
He added: “Against that same backdrop, it would feel unreasonable and unfair to promote a team into Super League.”
But Robert would say that, wouldn’t he?
After all, he is employed by the twelve Super League clubs to look after their interests, as well as promote the competition as a whole.
The problem when it comes to clubs having their input is that in almost all areas under discussion, almost all of them will act through self-interest, rather than that of the game as whole.
As the coach of Bradford, John Kear is aiming to get the club back into Super League, while as the owner of Hull KR, Neil Hudgell wants to avoid another spell in the Championship.
It’s not rocket science.
I can see the argument against having relegation this year, given only a handful of games took place pre-lockdown, and that, when matches do return, they are likely to be behind closed doors to start with. And Catalans and Toronto cannot play at home, although the Wolfpack’s inability to play in Canada for a portion of a ‘normal’ season, which skews things in any case, has been accepted by all parties.
But I fear having no promotion and relegation as we know it could end up becoming the norm.
Tony Smith, a man I have a huge amount of time for, has already suggested we should return to franchising, arguing: “Promotion and relegation is not a very good business model, not based solely on where you come in the table. That’s why licensing was still by far and away the best system.”
Of course, Tony comes from Australia, where the general attitude towards franchising is very different to here, because our sport is built on a system of promotion and relegation – just look at the current furore over what should happen with football’s Premier League.
For me, what happens on the pitch is the priority, it’s the whole point of playing.
One of the great things about sport in this country is that things go in cycles.
Look at Liverpool and Leeds United, both on the cusp of long-awaited footballing success.
And in our game, look back 40 years, for instance, and Wigan were in the Second Division and Barrow in the First.
It’s so much more interesting with those variations in fortune.
And without the chance of promotion, what is the point of the lower divisions?
For every Neil Hudgell, there is a man such as Derek Beaumont, who has invested plenty in Leigh in a so far unsuccessful bid to establish his beloved club as a regular feature in Super League.
Look also at Mark Campbell, who has kept Featherstone alive and competitive as well as developing their ground, and Jon Flatman’s achievements at York, who have risen from League One to the Championship on the back of growing crowds and who are bound for a brand new stadium.
David Hughes has put both time and money into London Broncos, who gave so much to Super League last season. Toulouse topped the Championship table with five wins from five before everything shut down, and then you have the likes of fallen giants Widnes, Halifax and Bradford, each of whom have a proud history, past top-flight experience and the potential to return there.
Yes, perhaps mistakes have been made over the years, but why should we deny those clubs, and their loyal supporters, the opportunity of another shot at the big time?
The Championship is an entertaining, competitive division, but it’s the prospect of promotion that makes it that way, and if you take that away, where’s the incentive for the likes of Messrs Beaumont, Campbell, Hughes and Flatman, whose investment is so important for our game?
The other problem with having no promotion this year is that we’re at a pivotal time in relation to the thrashing out of a new TV deal to run from 2022 onwards, which makes Super League membership even more important. Hence the efforts, including significant investment, being made by the Championship clubs, which, with no promotion, would be wasted.
I’m with John Kear in thinking the best option is to expand Super League to 14 clubs, do away with the so-called ‘loop’ fixtures, which make no sense, and have a 27-match regular-season fixture list, with home and away games plus Magic Weekend.
Keep promotion and relegation, and bring everything back under the control of the Rugby Football League, because the game can’t afford a separate body running Super League, particularly given the coronavirus crisis.
I’ve already talked about self-interest in this column, and that was a major factor in the original breakaway from the RFL, because the top-flight clubs wanted more control.
I thought that was at the expense of the game as a whole, and what must Leeds’ Gary Hetherington, who opposed the creation of a separate Super League body, be thinking to himself now?
Other than a few tweaks, like golden-point extra time, which seems to have upset as many people as it has pleased, and the shot clock, has the new set-up really brought anything to our game, and has the hefty cost proved value for money?