Thursday, 30 August 2018

Sunday's Coming: Swinton Lions - and a whole lot of tension.

Ralph and the RFL sock-it to the Championship
We start our look ahead to the weekend with a disbelieving look back to last week’s shock announcement of an RFL proposal to restructure the Championship and League 1. Hastily conceived (it seems) to pacify an increasingly protectionist Super League and secure funding for the lower tiers,  it’s a proposal that could turn this season on its head - with potentially huge ramifications for Swinton and Hornets.

The proposal - yet to be ratified by a vote of RFL member clubs - centres around the expansion of the Championship to 14 clubs. This will entail the automatic promotion of League 1’s top two sides (handy now Bradford have slipped off the pace) - plus the promotion of a third via a playoff system.

But the real bombshell lies in the following paragraph: “Only the side finishing bottom of the Championship will be relegated instead of the bottom two; 11th will now survive.”

Woah… wait a minute… a week ago Sunday’s game at Swinton was being billed as the wooden spoon decider to be fought-out by two teams needing snookers and the bankruptcy of Leigh and Barrow to avoid the drop into League one. But now you’re telling us that this could pretty much be the game that keeps one of these clubs in the Championship? At ten days’ notice?

Whilst this proposal remains unconfirmed, the insider view is that it’s expected to get enough votes to be passed. Which turns Sunday’s game into a very serious proposition that fans are already calling the ’10 Million Pence Game’ - such is the likely financial impact of staying in/exiting the Championship.

After challenging seasons for both Hornets and Swinton, this new ‘development’ feels like a kick in the spuds too far - effectively turning Sunday’s game into a gladiatorial scrap to the death for two clubs already near-exhausted by the travails of a brutally unforgiving season.

The potential magnitude of the game isn’t lost on Swinton coach Stuart Littler. Speaking in Monday’s League Express he said: “It turns it into a massive game doesn’t it? There’s a potential lifeline there if this proposal materialises and we have to fight for the win, whatever’s at stake.”

It's Massive
At last: Rugby League tells it as it is.
Elsewhere in the League Express, Gareth Walker describes the game as (effectively) “… a shoot out for 11th place…”, “… massive for both clubs…” and the first in: “… a list of crucial must-see fixtures…”. Walker also recognises the potential impact, heralding: “… a nervous end to the season for the fans of both clubs.” Too right.

The biggest issue, though, is that Rugby League has - once again - trashed its credibility in the eyes of the sporting world. Changing key structural criteria six weeks before the end of a season - criteria on which clubs are trying to plan for 2019 - is amateurish at best.

However, it would be fair to say that the RFL’s hand has been forced by pressure from Super League Europe Ltd to find a (hurried) compromise position in order to maintain the distribution of funding in the immediate term.  Once put in that position you’re into damage limitation and finding somethng that inconveniences the least number of clubs. It just so happens that the clubs squeezed by the change are Hornets and Swinton.

The cruelty of it is that it turns what would have been a relatively low-key game into one which could significantly impact on the future of both clubs: a whole season and the next few year’s planning boiled down to one 80 minute dogfight that will cost the loser £100,000.

Not So Super For Us
Despite compelling the RFL to turn the Championship season into a straightforward duel, Super League Europe Ltd have denied all responsibilty for forcing the change.

Speaking this week, Super League’s Propagandist Sockpuppet™ Robert Elstone said that - despite his paymasters seeking to jerrimander the league structure to leave as much cash as possible in the hands of loss-making SL clubs - that the hastily concocted new plan had nothing to do with him, honest guv’.

But it seems that someone at SLE Ltd headquarters has a 'selective memory'.

Having unilaterally announced a SL-driven change in structure at his unveling, Elstone said on the 24th August*: “It is totally wrong to infer that we have had sight of, let alone influenced or approved the Championship and League 1 structures. We have always said that’s down to them.”

Continuing to purport that black is white, he continued: “It has never formed part of any of our discussions with the RFL and it has never been a negotiating point.”

Lip Service: Who's working who here?
BUT HANG ON:  in the Guardian on the 14th of August **- just two weeks ago - Elstone said: “We’ve had talks with the RFL, which are drawing to a close. I think they will deliver a solution that will work for Super League, the RFL and the game as a whole. I’m hopeful that those conclusions will be in the public domain in the very near future and they need to be. It can only be within one or two weeks’ time. That’s the intention and the desire from both the RFL and Super League.”

He went on: “We’re hopeful we’ll find something that works for everybody. The view on Super 8s and Qualifiers was made very clear. The format was well-intended but the full consequences weren’t thought through. We can see the weaknesses in it and that’s why Super League is committed to changing it. One of the game’s flaws has been its propensity to chop and change and look for the panacea in a fixture format that isn’t there. We owe it to the fans and all stakeholders in the game to deliver something that’s sustainable in the long term.”

So which is it?

Your guess is as good as ours. But while Elstone struggles to remember what he said a fortnight ago, Hornets and Swinton will endeavour to navigate the fall-out. If ever your team needed your support, it’s now. Let’s see this through together: see you on Sunday.

* “Super League news: Robert Elstone talks structure…” - Paul Clarke, Fri. 24 August 2018
** “Future of Super League Super 8s close to agreement, says Robert Elstone” - Aaron Bower, Tues. 14 Aug 2018