Thursday, 28 September 2017

What is the best system for Super League?

Widnes' defeat of Catalans leaves them favourites for relegation
So after a season of ups and downs it looks like the unthinkable might happen: Super League's flagship expansion club Catalans Dragons could be relegated on Saturday afternoon. They will start the Million Pound Game as comfortable underdogs against a fresher Leigh side who beat them easily in Perpignan just a few weeks ago. This would undoubtedly be terrible news for RL in France and the UK.

This has prompted fury from many quarters within Rugby League and it is the implementation of the Super 8s system by the RFL that has come in for most of the criticism. It is often presented in direct comparison to licensing where clubs like Catalans would be protected from relegation. This is then too often treated as a black and white issue with little genuine discussion about the challenges faced in trying to create a workable system for British RL. For instance there is little acknowledgement of the problems that the systems were trying to address in the first place. The truth is that there is no perfect system for Rugby League and all systems have their benefits and drawbacks. All we can realistically hope for is the least best compromise but if we are ever to accurately decide which one this is we need to assess each of them openly and be honest about the potential downsides to each.

What is the best system for Super league?

Over the course of the last 20 years of Super League there have been three different systems and all have attempted to address what are the three main difficulties in creating a league system:

1) There is a huge gulf between Super League and the Championship in finance, support, playing standard and profile. This is so severe that a relegated club spending a prolongued period in the lower leagues can find themselves sufficiently weakened to the point they might never be in a place to return.

2) There are currently approximately 20 clubs in the British leagues with the potential to sustain a Super League club the size of Salford/Wakefield or bigger. Even a league of 14 clubs leaves around 6 in the lower leagues facing a slow death if they don't have access to Super League. In addition to this there are around another 20 clubs who have either been top level clubs at some point in the past, are very small clubs or are new grassroots expansion clubs. The RFL are reluctant to lose these clubs and want to keep them as strong as possible which usually involves them offering a route to the top division.

3) Expansion is of such strategic importance that the game needs to protect expansion clubs from potential disintegration in the lower leagues. They are seen as more vulnerable than heartland clubs.

Straight Promotion and Relegation
Of all the systems, this is on paper the least controversial. After all, it is what was in place for the previous 20 years and is the system practised by Football amongst other sports in Britain. It is usually the system favoured by those who favour promotion and relegation (P&R) as it is a fairer system and less convoluted than the Super 8s.

It had many positive features. Crucially, it allowed an achievable pathway for clubs not in Super League to make it to Super League. This was important because especially at that time, the 12 strongest clubs weren't necessarily in Super League. Under this system once famous clubs such as Widnes, Hull FC and Hull KR were able to find their way back to the top division despite periods where they were much weaker than the clubs around them. The nature of needing to win the Championship on the pitch created significant momentum for the promoted clubs.

However, it is easy to forget the downsides. For a number of years the system was pretty farcical and Championship Grand Final winners were refused entry for not meeting the required standards. Those that were promoted were all too often clubs staying full time after being relegated the season before and easing to promotion. It also wasn't a good system for expansion clubs. They either had to be protected from relegation which created the uncomfortable situation where a team was relegated despite not finishing above an expansion side, or we ran the risk of losing a club crucial to the game's development if they had a bad season. Any return to this system would still have to address these significant problems.

The introduction of licensing was a bold and highly controversial move by the RFL. It sought to solve many of the problems of the previous system by offering protection to the expansion clubs whilst giving clubs the opportunity to plan ahead without the fear of relegation and the short-termism that it produced.

Again it had many upsides. We were able to select the 14 strongest clubs at any one time whilst giving expansion clubs a chance they might not have got under P&R. The removal of the threat of relegation allowed clubs to prioritise youth development more than they would have done. Super League crowds peaked under this system averaging over 10,000 for a time. I stated on this blog in 2012 that I was pro-licensing for many of these reasons.

However, the system was far from perfect and in my opinion it started to unravel somewhat towards the end. Its main problem was that 14 clubs was too many for a fully professional league whilst not being enough to allow SL to become a true closed shop like the NRL. The RFL was in essence cutting the vast majority of the lower division clubs adrift as the removal of automatic P&R was only ever going to weaken those divisions significantly. This is why they stayed at 14 clubs because 12 would have meant the probable loss of another two decent sized clubs. 

The removal of the relegation threat combined with a 14 team league led them to the poorly thought out top-8 playoff to try and sustain interest for the lower placed clubs. Instead of motivating them it ended up devaluing the league campaign significantly which was magnified by Leeds winning from 5th place two years in a row. By 2014 the system felt sterile and it had become pretty joyless especially for lower placed clubs who stood no chance of winning the title and who had discovered that finishing 7th or 8th was little to get excited about. The system in the NRL and elsewhere works because there is significant movement of clubs; there simply isn't in British RL (4 league winners in 28 years) and nor is there likely to be any time soon. It is often forgotten by those who view licensing as forward thinking, that crowds fell significantly during the last two years of this system. Although this cannot be completely attributed to licensing it cannot be completely discounted either.

The Super 8s
Calls from many for the return of some form of promotion and relegation led to the somewhat bizarre introduction of the Super 8s concept which could be described as an extreme version of P&R. It was initially received with some bemusement and there were few fans of the new system when it was announced.

It hasn't proved quite as bad as many feared it would be and for the lower placed clubs it has certainly provided more excitement than under licensing. On a personal note, Widnes' win at Catalans was the most nervous and relieved I have been watching a game in years. Unless you are genuinely challenging for the title, then licensing doesn't create enough moments of drama in this way and I do think that is an issue: stability isn't sexy. The Qualifiers in particular have been very interesting and more competitive than was initially feared.

Despite this it is fraught with problems. The season feels much too long especially the Super 8s section which feels like an unnecessary add-on for the top clubs. The RFL's baseless claims that jeopardy would increase crowds predictably hasn't happened and crowds for the Super 8s portion of the season are lower than during the regular season. Even the jeopardy of the Qualifiers feels like it has too much on the line when you see players literally playing knockout matches for their livelihoods and their club's future. This happened under normal P&R but far less often.

Then there is Catalans. Jeopardy is all very exciting but we are playing Russian Roulette with our top clubs, hoping that they don't suffer from poor form and end up relegated. We've managed to dodge it with Warrington and Leeds getting it right in the end but it now looks likely that Catalans will fall prey. Whether they lose or not, it is this that will lead to the demise of the Super 8s in my opinion. We simply cannot afford to risk big clubs, especially not expansion ones, to a temporary loss of form.

Are there any alternatives?
As I've laid out, it appears there is only really a 'least worst' option for Super League. However, there have been alternatives suggested by fans and pundits. One such idea usually involves two leagues of 10 teams which would be called Super League 1 and Super League 2; these 20 clubs would be awarded licenses much like under licensing. Crucial to the success of this idea would be more equal funding between the leagues and television coverage. If not handled successfully, we would run the risk or having all the same negative effects of P&R but with fewer clubs at the top table thus reducing the pool of strong clubs. I'm not sure it would be possible to prevent Super League 2 from becoming the Championship again over time.

Another more recent example gaining traction on the forums is a conference structure where we have a conference for heartland clubs and one for other expansion teams. There would be some relegation still for the heartland conference and maybe even amongst expansion clubs as well but it would allow the strategically important clubs to be protected. This is not a terrible idea but there would be some logistical issues (for instance what do you call the conferences, M62 and Rest of the World?) and credibility might be an issue. Recent Super Rugby Union seasons and the World Club Challenge in 1997 both had the ridiculous situation where much weaker clubs made the finals purely because one of the conferences was much weaker than another.

The Conclusion
If I was was given the power to make a decision on the best system, I would go for a return to straight promotion and relegation but with some significant changes. Rather than shy away from our problems and try to pretend they don't exist we should accept them and make expansion clubs exempt from relegation; their place could be reassessed every 3 years or so. I would also make P&R automatic for the lowest place heartland club with no more judging based on off-field standards. We could in effect have a licensing of the top two divisions to only include clubs willing and able to take a Super League place if they won the division. These clubs could be assessed every 2 or 3 years.

However, I think we are heading for a return to licensing; I don't think this would be an entirely bad thing. This wouldn't be easy especially after 'every minute matters' and the subsequent implication that it didn't under licensing. We will also be ridiculed for chopping and changing our system again but this is not a reason to persist with a poor system. Also, it could be reasonably argued that with no ideal solution for all clubs, the best one is the one that prioritises the health of the bigger clubs. Despite this, I wouldn't like to see a return to licensing exactly as it was. I'd hope they would address the top 8 playoff problem and allow for more flexible movement between the leagues rather than every 3 years set in stone.

The length of this blog post is a small indication of the complicated nature of choosing the best system for Super League and Rugby League in general. The only certainty is that whichever system is picked, there will be significant opposition from some quarters but it wouldn't be Rugby League if there wasn't!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Max. Wow, a lot to take in. A well thought out piece. If I may make a suggestion, you could have done it in two parts or more. I run a blog on RL and do that at times.
    As for the subject, I was all for licencing and it did bring stability and was sorry to see it go. However I have enjoyed the season as it is. Maybe bring in stints of licensing when deemed necessary but return to p & r once it has achieved whatever was needed.
    Anyway I hope more articles will be forthcoming. Regards.