There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about what the future holds for Super League especially with regards to the future structure of the competition.
A radical 10-team league has been proposed whilst various other formats have been tabled. The look of Super League in 2022 has been confirmed with the competition remaining the same for another year but beyond that no one knows.
But I feel that one of the better ideas has been neglected by most and that’s the return of licensing. This idea was first introduced ahead of the 2009 season and was in place until the end of 2014 when relegation made its return.
I’ve seen a lot of different formats in Super League but this one was by far my favourite. In those six seasons four different teams finished top of the league whilst unfamiliar faces forced their way into the play-offs.
For instance, look at the teams rewarded promotion via the licensing system. In 2010, in only their second season in Super League, the Crusaders secured play-off rugby and a few years later the side that replaced them – Widnes – emulated that with their own play-off appearances.
In fact, the first two seasons of this system are brilliant case studies that show the effectiveness of this format. Over the two campaigns, 11 different teams made the play-offs meaning only three sides failed to do so over the two years. Thus, it’s clear that the system gave sides the platform to be successful but I suppose the next question we have to ask is how did this set-up do so?
The simple answer is that it gives room for error. In 2009, Crusaders went into the campaign knowing that finishing bottom would not see them get relegated. Thus, they were able to build carefully and calmly for the future and that led them to the play-offs the following year.
Nowadays, a new side in the league are haunted by the prospect of relegation causing panic to set in culminating in expensive decisions which cost money and damage the club in the long term.
The removal of such pressure enabled sides to slowly build for the future, to trust younger players and build a sustainable squad for the future. Another case study that demonstrates the positives of such a system is that of the Catalans Dragons.
In 2010, the French side finished bottom and in today’s world they would’ve been relegated stripping the league of one of its major selling points and an expansion club. But back then, the Dragons had the chance to start again and build a new project and within two years they were finishing inside the top four.
The lack of pressure and the breathing space enabled by this system generated success and culminated in a constant changing of the guard in the play-off spots which is the kind of league we strive for today. Moreover, the use of licensing promotes the improvement of other elements other than on field performance such as crowd size, finances, community involvement and the development of youngsters which again benefits the game in the long run.
Now I know some would say that the removal of relegation would itself be damaging. After all it would hurt teams in the Championship whilst removing the drama at the bottom of the league. To that I would say, no side wants to finish bottom anyway meaning there’s still something to play for at the bottom of the table. Meanwhile, the Championship could actually benefit from the return of licensing. For starters, it would give clubs like York, Featherstone and Toulouse the opportunity to build Super League level franchises but also, I would advocate the return of dual registration allowing the lower leagues to become the home of young British talent adopting the system they use in Australia where youngsters are concerned. This would fill the lower leagues with exciting stars of the future attracting greater focus whilst helping the game in this country moving forward. After all, many youngsters currently find themselves on loan in the Championship anyway so it wouldn’t be much of a change.
Ultimately, I think the return of licensing would enable clubs to grow on and off the field without the threat of relegation, provide youngsters with the opportunity to develop and lead to a more competitive league. A similar system works in Australia so why not introduce it here?