Rugby League Expert & Columnist
Phil Clarke asks what is the best structure for rugby league after collapse of football's European Super League
"Talk about football's proposed European Super League made me wonder: What would work best in rugby league?" writes Sky Sports rugby league pundit Phil Clarke
Last Updated: 26/04/21 8:15pm
In the wake of football's proposed European Super League collapsing in acrimony, Phil Clarke ponders what is the most sustainable structure for rugby league's domestic competitions...
Football's aborted European Super League has been the talk of sport this week. I read with interest about the proposed plans, and the subsequent barrage of abuse faced by the clubs' hierarchies.
This led me to thinking, what do fans want and what do their clubs' owners want? Uncertainty and certainty, respectively, seems to be the answer.
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Super League Europe was rugby league's equivalent 25 years ago, with clubs given guaranteed membership of the new competition. The debate about relegation and promotion in our sport has been raging for a long time - and a similar dilemma is facing rugby union right now.
It appears to me that football is the only sport in the UK which currently achieves annual promotion and relegation, but in the modern day - with the exception in the last 25 years of Leicester City and perhaps rugby union's Exeter Chiefs, the current Premiership and European champions having come from the Championship - I can't find many examples of teams in football, rugby league or rugby union who have successfully risen up the pyramid.
When I was younger, non-league Wimbledon worked their way up to the top division - and even managed to shock mighty Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Closer to home, Wigan Athletic made it to the Premier League having been a part-time outfit, and also walked up the Wembley steps as FA Cup winners.
Football clubs in rugby league heartlands like Huddersfield Town and Hull City may recently have rubbed shoulders with the Premier League elite, but have fallen away since - at some cost.
As an outsider, this doesn't look sustainable. By contrast, Leeds United spent the best part of two decades languishing below the top division, before reaching the promised land last season.
From what I've seen in the 13-a-side code, annual promotion and relegation hasn't been successful either. Super League has only crowned four champions in a quarter of a century, and that's not good for any sport.
Talk about football's proposed European Super League made me wonder: what would work best in rugby league? We've tried almost every system, but the usual suspects stay at the top.
Annual promotion and relegation, licensing, Middle Eights - did we panic and make change too quickly? For example, we decided that scoring teams should then kick-off, only to scrap the rule 12 months later.
Rugby league needs to ask itself: What is the biggest challenge the sport faces?
The concept of a guaranteed league spot for several seasons is another example: Did we really give it long enough? Having a licence for three or four years, on which clubs are assessed, is in my opinion the best system for any sport in the UK.
Each can define its own licence criteria - but for me, youth development, stadium quality, fanbase and finance should be equally as important as performance on the field.
Rugby league needs to ask itself: What is the biggest challenge the sport faces? Is it the grounds the games are played at? The complexity of the rules? Or simply more players playing? For me, the priority is to engage with more young players.
As each year passes in sport, the gap between divisions widens. We often see players from relegated teams reappear in the top division with promoted clubs and this recycling of lower-level talent does little to enhance the long-term viability of a sport.
I appreciate that a draft system similar to America's NFL is unlikely to be embraced by rugby league, but we need to find a way to see different teams contesting the big finals.
Ideas on a postcard, please.