Opinion: Is relegation really a disaster?

As we’ve known for a while now, Bradford Bulls and London Broncos will play their rugby in the Championship next season.

Both clubs are making the right noises about playing their way back into the elite, but what long-term effect will relegation from Super League have upon them?

The evidence from others who have taken the drop is mixed to say the least. For some, it has been a much needed fresh start; for others, an unmitigated disaster and a one-way ticket to obscurity, if not oblivion.

Workington Town undeniably fall into the latter category. Bottom of the table at the end of the first Super League season in 1996 with only five points, they were in such a poor state that they continued their downward spiral.

Within two years, they were playing in Division Two in front of average crowds of 800. They have never been seriously proposed as a stand-alone Super League entity, although a Cumbrian presence also involving Whitehaven could be a different matter.

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

The 1997 season claimed two victims; Oldham relegated and Paris St Germain put ‘on ice’ after finishing 11th out of 12 in both their campaigns.

Paris ran into horrendous logistical problems and were never resuscitated, whilst Oldham, who had finished a respectable eighth in ’96, reformed in the lower divisions, with the defunct Bears having hit significant financial difficulties while in Super League.

It remains a strong rugby town and produces more than its share of good players, but at the level they are playing now a local Super League franchise looks like a pipe-dream.

Huddersfield Giants finished last in 1998, 1999, 2000 (as Huddersfield-Sheffield) and 2001, when the re-introduction of relegation finally sent them down.

The current Huddersfield coach, Paul Anderson, came over all reflective on the day defeat by the Giants sent Bradford – the team where he spent the bulk of his playing career – down into the Championship.


“I was talking to our chairman, Ken Davy, and he said it was the best thing that ever happened to the club,” he said. “They were able to re-group and look at the structures within the club.”

Thanks to Davy’s financial input, Huddersfield were able to retain a full-time squad and Tony Smith as coach. You could argue that some, like Eorl Crabtree, benefited from a season in a lower division at the right stage of their careers.

There are even precedents in other sports; Manchester United in football and both Lancashire and Yorkshire in county cricket.

The Giants returned in 2003 and the rest is history, culminating in them finishing as League Leaders last season.

They replaced Salford, who finished last in 2002. That proved not to be the end of the world either, because the City Reds, as they were then, came back up the following season, finished ninth twice and then a remarkable fifth under Karl Harrison.

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

It was an achievement that Dr Koukash, with all his millions, would envy, but it couldn’t last. They were last again in 2007 and were replaced by Castleford, who had been relegated themselves in 2006, although only because of the exemption that applied to the Catalan Dragons.

That was the year of the “million pound match”, when Cas and local rivals Wakefield met at Belle Vue to determine which of them would go down. The answer was Castleford, beaten 27-12 in front of an 11,000 crowd that said much about the general interest in relegation issues.

Once more, the Tigers came back at the first attempt, but we need to back-track a few years to 2005 and Leigh’s one year in Super League.

“Are you ready for Super League?” they asked on the opening night at Hilton Park, to which the only honest answer would have been ‘No’.

The Centurions went straight back down again with only five points and barely survived a couple of their periodic crises before putting together this season’s winning team. Now their eyes are firmly fixed on Super League again.

Widnes were also relegated in 2005, to make room for the Catalan Dragons. It took until 2012 for the Vikings to return, earning their place not through their performances on the pitch, but courtesy of the licensing system.


We also had that to thank for the fast-tracking of Crusaders into Super League in 2009. They made the play-offs the following year, but fell on their swords during the licensing process in 2011, deciding that they would not be able to compete at Super League level.

They survive as a Championship side, playing in front of modest crowds at Wrexham, but filling an important strategic role as a foothold in Wales.

There are comparisons to be made with Gateshead Thunder, who were absorbed by Hull after their one Super League season in 1999; they had finished sixth.

The name continues with the Gateshead side in Championship One, but the aspirations are quite different and Super League is a million miles away.

Widnes would have been relegated in 2012, had it not been for licensing; their steady progress since then goes some way to justifying the beneficial effect stability can have on a club.

Likewise, Salford would have taken the fall the following year, despite the arrival of Dr Koukash.
As for the clubs who have not escaped, who have dropped into the Championship, with its generally part-time economics, the message is mixed.

Relegation can be ruinous. It can be the end of a club at that level for the foreseeable future. All the best players sometimes have to be sacrificed. Support, probably already haemorrhaging because of their losing form in Super League, can drain away almost completely.

It can, however, be a liberation from the firing line, a chance to get rid of the dead wood and start again. Or, like Castleford, you can yo-yo up and down, before getting it right, as they have done this season.

We will see in a year or so just what it has meant for the Bulls and the Broncos, but, like so much else in life, it is fundamentally what you make it.

By Dave Hadfield