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Rugby League on the Verge of Civil War

Updated on June 21, 2018
St Helens Chairman Eamonn McManus has been one of the most vocal supporters of change.
St Helens Chairman Eamonn McManus has been one of the most vocal supporters of change. | Source

The appointment of Robert Elstone as chief executive of Super League on June 7 was not controversial in the slightest. The former Everton CEO Elstone was at the forefront of a number of key changes at the Merseyside football club, introducing several major organisational and structural developments that have led to improved financial performance and greater stability at Everton. His business acumen has also driven substantial commercial progress in retail and sponsorship – Everton's record deal with SportPesa in May 2017 for example - which can only benefit Super League.

But, just when things seemed to be heading in right direction, those at the heart of the sport delivered a crushing blow in almost the same breath.

The attitude of some Super League clubs in the wake of Elstone's appointment has seemingly ripped the sport apart.

"Power grab"

On the same day as Elstone's appointment as Super League CEO, Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan, St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus and Warrington owner Simon Moran announced plans for another major restructuring of the game with the scrapping of the divisive Super 8s. The decision was made - according to the three owners and Elstone - because the Super 8s did not produce the financial injection it was supposed to. The dismay at the Super 8s structure has also been fuelled by the fact that four clubs are thrown into relegation jeopardy, rather than just one or two, creating unnecessary uncertainty.

Whilst on the face of it the scrapping of the Super 8s does not appear unpopular - the system has received much criticism since its inauguration in 2015 - it is the manner in which Lenagan, McManus and Moran definitively announced the system's scrapping despite the fact that any changes are subject to the Rugby Football League's (RFL) approval.

The decision was not exactly unpopular amongst Super League clubs either; 11 were in support of the idea, with only Leeds' Gary Hetherington voting against.

In turn, Hetherington launched his own verbal tirade against rival Super League clubs, lambasting the decision as a "power grab" by a "small group of men that think they own the game". McManus retaliated, stating that the new board of Super League - appointed after the ousting of Nigel Wood back in November 2017 - has acted "democratically and professionally" in ending the Super 8s system in favour of a more orthodox one-up, one-down form of relegation that fans are much more accustomed to. And, to be fair, McManus has a point; 11 Super League clubs chose to back this change, with only Hetherington voting against.

Everyone wants their say

But the comments of Lenagan, McManus, Moran and Hetherington have also prompted owners of Championship clubs to throw in their own judgement on the situation. Featherstone's Mark Campbell has been at the forefront of the opposition - calling Elstone "a puppet for Lenagan" - but all Championship and League 1 clubs have now hit back at their Super League counterparts, with some claiming that the revelation of the new league structure is an attempt to bully the lower tiers into giving into their needs.

In the latest development in the almost schoolchildren-like arguing between Super League and the lower divisions, the Championship and League 1’s advisory group have offered their stance on the matter. The advisory group are claiming that they have yet to receive revised proposals that were promised from Super League - after their initial proposal for the structure - which featured £1 million of funding being cut to the lower leagues, was rejected and claim that the sport as a whole is being downtrodden by the interests of a few wealthy clubs.

The group categorically states that the decision concerning the league structures must come from the governing body, the RFL, and that the actions of the Super League clubs are risking broadcast contracts and valuable assets across the board. They and Championship and League 1 clubs do have a point too; the RFL is the overarching body that should have the final say on any such proposals.

The determination of some Super League clubs to undermine this authority therefore makes a mockery of the game as a whole. The idea to scrap the controversial Super 8s is perhaps popular amongst most Rugby League fans - particularly those that support Super League teams - but the way Lenagan and co. have gone about it absolutely stinks.

Good or bad proposal?

The Super 8s was brought into being to give Championship clubs a greater opportunity of getting to the 'promised land' of Super League. So far, two teams have managed it: Leigh and Hull KR, but on the whole, Championship clubs have been pretty ineffective against the top sides in the Middle 8s Qualifiers. London and Featherstone finished with three points in the 2017 Qualifiers - five behind Catalans in fifth place, and Halifax zero.

Whilst the Super 8s is perhaps more exciting for Championship clubs, the prospect for those top-flight teams finishing in ninth and tenth is daunting. The team in ninth is far too good to get relegated after a normal 23-round season - finishing three places in front of 12th - yet can quite easily go down after seven or eight games. McManus, Lenagan and Moran are correct when they say that the structure is too uncertain. A third of Super League teams are unable to plan for the season after until they have completed the Qualifiers whilst part-time Championship clubs such as Halifax are unlikely to produce the heroics needed to go up.

Easily solved

One-up, one-down does what it says on the tin. The weakest Super League side gets relegated and the strongest Championship team gets promoted. Whilst some critics may argue this would create a yoyo effect where the same two teams continuously swap places with each other, that has happened for the past two seasons anyway with Hull KR and Leigh. What the sport doesn't need however, is the in-fighting between rival clubs that makes Rugby League look small-minded and petty to the outside world.

Wouldn't it be great if somewhere down the line, people would be able to concentrate on the game itself instead of the politics of it? Unfortunately, the in-fighting does not seem to be resolved in any way just yet.

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