Page XIII: New league structure provides as many questions as answers

THIS is a bit unusual isn’t it? It’s not often in rugby league that a clear multi-year plan is laid out in front of us, with an equally clear path in place to get there.

But we almost have that now following the announcement in mid-March that the Championship and League One will level out to two leagues of 12 teams rather than the 14-9 split we currently have.

The RFL are still working out the finer details, but essentially the first step in the plan will see the Championship reduced to 13 teams for next year, with League One going up to at least ten, or eleven if a new club emerges.

So as not to move the goal posts too much now that the season is underway, the bottom two Championship teams will still be relegated, with the League One champions promoted, but the 13th and final Championship slot for 2025 will go to the winner of a one-off play-off game between the side finishing 12th in the Championship and the League One play-off winner. The loser of that game will feature in League One in 2025.

Then from the 2025 season a ‘super-eights’-style system, like that used in Super League and the Championship between 2015 and 2018, will be introduced to determined promotion and relegation between the Championship and League One.

But what about the new club? Applications to join League One are being invited by the governing body, but what is being done to make sure they will not only survive, but thrive, after taking the step up?

Over the years many clubs have come and gone in the lowest professional league in the game – Gloucestershire All Golds, Oxford, Hemel Stags, West Wales Raiders and London Skolars have all fallen by the wayside in the last decade. Newcastle Thunder almost went the same way after their relegation from the Championship was confirmed, before new investment was found and they chose to apply for membership in the league once again, even with limited resources.

Add to that Toronto Wolfpack, whose situation was slightly different given the financial problems they faced during the Covid pandemic.

These weren’t the first and, sadly, I don’t think they’ll be the last to come and go in rugby league.

All this proves that without the right finances, backing and support from all sides, including the RFL, any part time clubs – whether an expansion club or one from the heartlands – will find the going tough.

In theory, the plan to get more teams playing our game is great, but it has to be done in the right way, so not to prove detrimental to them or anyone else.

The plan also leaves me questioning one big part of IMG’s future plans for Super League.

IMG have already stated that Grade A rated clubs will play in Super League, and based on the provisional grades that were released at the end of last season, that guarantees seven clubs – Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors, St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Warrington Wolves, Hull KR and Hull FC – spots in Super League, as the sides with top marks already. Based on those provisional marks Salford Red Devils, Huddersfield Giants, Toulouse Olympique, Wakefield Trinity and Leigh Leopards make up the 12 as the highest scoring Grade B clubs, with clubs including Castleford Tigers and Bradford Bulls not too far behind and doing the necessary work to increase there score sufficiently to make the grade.

Does this now mean then that only the first five to increase their mark to Category A level will reach Super League, with the door then firmly shut on everyone else, even if they move to the top grading at a future date? 

The new structure of leagues of 12 might suggest that is the case, or are there even more plans in place to elevate a new team into the league structure for every side that gains a Grade A standing, in order to keep the long term future of Championship and League One at 12 teams each under an expanding Super League?

There are still many questions to be asked about this and answers that fans need to hear. Hopefully they will emerge as the finer details of all this are ironed out, but, and however much this may pain me to say, maybe it’s just the game reverting to type and so often dealing with issues only when, and if, they arise.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

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