Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ups and downs

It isn't often that a shadow minister gets involved in Rugby League, but Andy Burnham, shadow Health Secretary and MP for Leigh, has called for the scrapping of the franchise system and the return of automatic promotion and relegation between the top two divisions.

There is a lot that Rugby League gets right, just read David Conn here, and after a high quality Monday night contest between Leeds and St Helens and with the prospect of two days at Manchester City's stadium watching seven Super League games this weekend, it seems churlish to suggest that the game is becoming uncompetitive. Yet this sense was compounded by seeing the first game in the State of Origin series from Australia and knowing that there was no chance of any British side matching that level of speed and intensity.

There are problems at both the top and the bottom. I love the play off system for the title, but qualification for the strongest clubs is hardly a struggle with the top eight teams involved. That is more than half the league; only six sides miss out.  Down at the bottom there is nothing to play for at all and there have been some scrappy low quality games between the strugglers.

For teams in the Championship the chance of a license comes round every three years and their playing strength matters a lot less than the organisation of the club off the pitch. Hardly surprising then that the attendances at recent Championship Grand Finals have dropped.

I think some credit has to be given to the Rugby Football League, they are dealing with real problems. There are clubs that would find it very hard to sustain a full-time, top division side. They don't have the stadia, finances or support. But then they are the ones that are less likely to win promotion, whilst the possibility of going up is a great incentive to improve and pull in financial backers and sponsorship. More important is the gulf between the semi-professional and the full-time game. This would be less of a worry if there was greater depth in playing strength in this country. It is slowly improving as the Super League academies begin to produce quality players, but we are not there yet. To go up and stay up doesn't mean the signing of a few new players, it means a wholesale team transplant.

Much too is made of the yo-yo syndrome, of promoted teams going straight down again. This would be more convincing if it actually happened. Only two promoted sides have been relegated the next season and of the current fourteen Super League sides, six are there because they won promotion. This points to promotion being more of a success than it is given credit for. And it isn't as if the new process of objective criteria and full scrutiny before awarding a franchise has been wholly successful. After all, in its first year of operation it gave us Celtic Crusaders who went bust twice, had a bunch of Australian players deported because they did not have the correct visas, relocated 130 miles to the north and then finally voluntarily relegated themselves two divisions amidst a welter of recriminations.

So yes, there have to be criteria for a club to go up, but perhaps we should go back to selecting the candidates for both promotion and relegation on the old fashioned basis of merit, primarily demonstrated by performances on the pitch.

Burnham has launched a petition, you can read and sign it here.

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