For whatever reason, the structure of Super League constantly seems to be in flux.
Since the start of the 2018 season, we’ve seen the use of the Super 8s, a top five play-off system as well as a top six variant which is now here to stay. At the bottom of the table regular relegation returned for the first time since 2014 on a one up one down basis. However, this was threatened last year by discussions around Toronto with the Wolfpack eventually slipping out of the British game completely with Leigh being awarded the final spot in Super League XXVI despite failing to make the Championship Grand Final in 2019.
As per usual, there are murmurings around the game over potential structure changes that could take a hold in 2021 or at least in 2022. Once again, a change to relegation is among them with some advocating its end and some desperate for it to remain.
The first question to ask is this: is it fair to relegate a team when the competition is affected by a pandemic? I would argue that if it’s fair to crown a side Champions, which we have already decided that it is, then it’s fair to relegate a side as well. After all, you’d expect every side to be impacted by the pandemic to equal measure especially as we seem to be coming out of what’s been a difficult time for so many of us.
However, relegation in rugby league, more so than in any other sport, is about livelihoods. Such is the difference between playing in the Super League compared with the Championship, relegation can change a player’s entire future. These are already uncertain times financially and throwing this at a player is simply cruel.
But what about those currently plying their trade in the Championship? They have livelihoods too. What’s more, what becomes the point of this year’s Championship if every side at the start of the season set out to gain promotion only for that to be snatched away from them?
I’ve seen some advocate for the end of relegation – or at least for it to be put on hold – but for promotion to remain. They might have a point. There are a number of strong teams in the Championship such as York, Toulouse and Featherstone all of whom could cut it in Super League especially when helped by the extra funding promotion would provide. We could perhaps expand the top tier at the end of this season allowing the game to reward the successful whilst not punishing those who have struggled during the pandemic.
Moreover, such a system could begin to resolve the problem that no promoted team ever seems to stay afloat in Super League. Give Leigh the stability of knowing that they can finish bottom this year and they could grow as Widnes and Salford did when given the time and space to do so in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Moreover, if two Championship sides were promoted this year with only one set for relegation the following season a legitimate relegation battle would exist. The team who survives could also grow from there having spent more than one year in the top flight.
You might say allowing two Championship teams into Super League would hurt the second tier. I’m not so sure given the quality of team currently plying their trade there. Toulouse, Featherstone, York, Bradford, London and Widnes are all clubs capable of hacking it in Super League. Perhaps we should give them the chance to do so.