Or: how a bit of radical thinking could stop Rugby League from eating itself.
Let's face it, while Rugby League is the greatest game in the world, the structure of the semi-pro game outside SL sucks. Indeed, there may be those who might suggest - given the ongoing debacle at the Bankrupt Bulls (or 'Bradford Bust', depending on your preference) - that Super League sucks as well.
But wherever your loyalties lie, pro- and semi-pro Rugby League in the UK needs reviewing with a critical eye, rather than us all adopting the fingers-in-ears la-la-la not-listening everything's-rosy approach favoured by Sky and those fans of SL teams now critically dependent on suckling at TV's teat.
Championship teams with genuine ambitions of playing at a higher level are compelled to take part in a three-yearly scramble for promotion with no guarantee of success, and Championship 1 teams look set to play in the 'League of (slow) Death' (©TLCRF80mins 2012) where they'll compel lads who have work on Monday morning to travel for 16 hours to some of the RFL's far-flung development backwaters to play in front of tiny crowds. On a human level alone, this is frankly ridiculous.
Maximising costs and minimising potential audiences (by effectively killing away support), seems the wrong way round to us - so we've put on our thinking caps to try and find a structure that would increase intensity of competition, boost crowds, manage costs and stimulate sustainable development, progress and growth.
A league model designed to accommodate 4 divisions of 10 determined by league positions at the end of the season. Based on recent placings, the divisions would be:
Division One: Wigan, Huddersfield, Warrington, Catalan, Hull, St Helens, Leeds, Bradford, Hull KR, Salford.
Division Two: Castleford, Wakefield, London B, Widnes, Halifax, Batley, Dewsbury, Leigh, Keighley, Featherstone.
P&R similar to RFU/PremierRugby model - which we've adapted and added to below.
At Division 3, in order to cap travel time to around 3 hours one-way, reduce the associated cost/travel burden on clubs (Gateshead to Neath is 6 hours 2 minutes according to AA RoutePlanner - ridiculous for part-time players playing in front of 300 people), and maximise potential away support, we'd consider splitting into two conferences as follows:
Division 3 North: Swinton, Hunslet, York, Workington, Barrow, Oldham, Whitehaven, Hornets, North Wales Crusaders, Gateshead,
Division 3 Midlands & South: Sheffield, Doncaster, London Sk, SW Scorpions, Northampton, Hemel, Gloucester, Coventry, Bristol, AN Other
In all divisions, teams play each other three times to give them 27 games. The first 18 games are played as regular home & away rounds with gate receipts kept by the home club (as currently). The venue for last phase of 9 games to be determined by the aggregate score of the first two games between clubs, with winner getting home advantage and gate receipts split (as in the Challenge Cup).
The 'Back 9' could be promoted as 'The business end of the season' and they'd have significantly more purpose and interest than four meaningless NRC games.
Top two in each conference to play off to be Division 3 champions. Champions go up to Division 2.
Minimum standards for promotion to Super League.
Automatic promotion and relegation between the club that finishes bottom of Super League and the club that wins the Championship. Promotion and relegation would, however, be subject to the Minimum Standards criteria which require certain standards to be met across all areas of a professional club's business.
Clubs wishing to play in Super League would have to fulfil a list of criteria to be determined by the RFL and agreed by Championship clubs. This 'minimum standards plan' might cover areas including stadium specification & ground tenure, club administration and key roles, financial status & business/budget plan for playing at a higher level, community development programmes, medical & safety, marketing, plans to increase attendances, plans for adherence to the salary cap and playing/contractual commitments. The purpose of the minimum criteria would be an attempt to ensure a base level of on- and off-field standards for all clubs to operate by.
Clubs wishing to play in Super League would be asked to submit their minimum standards plan to the RFL by a predetermined deadline. If their plan meets the standards, the club would be granted a 'promotion licence' that would remain valid for three years. Their submission would then be reviewed when/if a club finishes top of the Championship, to validate that the standards remain in place.
Clubs could review/up-grade/amend their plans at any time during that licence period, but the revised plan would replace its predecessor only for the remainder of the licence period. Clubs which did not submit a minimum standards plan at the outset would not be permitted to submit one during an existing licence period, but could do when submissions were invited for the next period.
Yes, yes - we know that this isn't 100% perfect, but what we're pretty sure of is that our proposed structure contains more concerted thinking on the state of the (semi)pro game in the UK than has been done by the RFL in the last ten years.
And it doesn't take much - a bit of lateral thinking, a little consideration for the players & the fans and a love of the greatest game in the world. Things clearly in short supply at Red Hall.