The structural conundrum of Rugby League

Upfront: The League Express Opinion – Mon 2nd Aug 2021

With first versus second and third versus fourth, it was quite a Sunday of Championship action.

Both Featherstone versus Toulouse and Halifax versus Bradford created plenty of interest and drew decent crowds to the Millennium Stadium and The Shay respectively.

Of course a couple of games in August don’t decide what happens at the end of the season, but they do provide plenty of excitement for the fans of the clubs concerned and plenty of talking points for all Rugby League followers – during the build-up, on the day, and afterwards.

Would Toulouse or Featherstone lose their 100 per cent record?

Could Halifax make it eight wins running in a derby which was once a feature of the Super League season?

Might any of the four clubs be able to make a go if it in the top flight?

These kind of questions certainly had people talking, and it’s the kind of debate the game needs far more of.

But surely what it needs less of is constant tinkering with the structure of the divisions, the number of teams moving between them or whether there is promotion and relegation at all.

It’s coming up to 60 years since the second abandonment of one division in favour of two (the first was in 1896, as clubs scrambled to join the competition which had started a year earlier).

That lasted just two seasons – interestingly Swinton, currently bottom of the Championship, were title winners in both of them – setting the tone for decades of chopping and changing which would take far more space than this column allows us to detail.

Now the talk is of yet another redrawing of the divisions, with the creation of a 14-team top flight next year (no relegation this season, with two to come up from the Championship), then a Super League 1 and 2, each of ten teams, in 2023, with the remainder in the third tier.

A quick look at social media indicates that opinion is very much divided over the best way forward.

There was at least one suggestion of the creation of Eastern and Western conferences, which was pretty much the case in the seasons of one division, the inaugural 1895/96 campaign, then in the peacetime years between 1905 and 1962 and from 1964 to 1973.

But it’s clear most people think a fairly substantial rebuild is required if Rugby League as a professional sport is to survive, and just as importantly, grow.

The greatest challenge for those running the game is to come up with a plan that is adventurous enough to provide the shot in the arm that is needed, but also affordable at a time when finances were already tight before the pandemic came along – and to stick with it.

It’s a very tough, but also very crucial call, and perhaps one which should be made by a truly independent panel with no vested interests.

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