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Super League. The promised land where the thousands of rugby league fans across the country hope their team will reach one day.
Summer rugby. Trips to magnificent, modern day stadiums such as the KC, JJB and Halliwell Jones Stadium. Coverage of their team?s games on TV. National exposure. Watching internationals fight it out week in, week out.
Of course, for many of these fans, their dreams will remain just that. With relegated teams tending to go full time in the part time National Leagues, the battle to win promotion is a tough one for the minnows and sleeping giants of British Rugby League.
Leigh Centurions won this battle last season. But their first year back in the big time has been one of immense struggle. Lower than expected home crowds (partly due to the restrictions imposed on them by GMR Police and a new kick off time for them), the departure of 2 directors, new signing Jason Ferris walking out due to homesickness, losing their first 7 games, and facing stern criticism from Super League fans, have all conspired to root Leigh to the bottom of the table.
A dramatic 24-22 win over London has offered a glimmer of hope and could prove to kick start their season. But is it too much nowadays to expect promoted teams to compete in the ESL when they have so many factors working against them?
First of all, the jump from part time to full time is a massive ask. From the coaching staff to the playing staff, who will have had to give up their jobs in order to get fit enough to compete against world class athletes such as Paul Sculthorpe, Danny Maguire, Stuart Fielden et all.
And of course, major recruiting is essential to make the jump from NL 1 to ESL. To replace those who do not want to go full time, to add experience to the squad, and most importantly to add enough talent to the squad to make them competitive.
This is perhaps the toughest task of all. With the NL 1 Grand Final being played on the same weekend as the ESL Grand Final, promoted teams can only start making firm plans for Super League in October. As Leigh have unfortunately found out, all the best players have been snapped up by other ESL clubs by then and the remaining player market is made up of unwanted players and journeymen.
Many have called for the abolition of promotion and relegation and to adopt the system that the NRL has in place. But would this really work in England?
It is a part of our sporting culture to reward clubs with promotion. There was outrage when Huddersfield stayed up after finishing bottom of the table in consecutive years. Even from many of the Huddersfield fans! This extends to other sports such as Rugby Union and Soccer when a team is denied promotion.
Soccer is like a religion over here. Only in South America and similar outposts is the game as huge. And soccer, the number 1 sport in England, has a promotion and relegation system in place at every level.
Maybe in the future, the somewhat ?alien? concept of scrapping promotion and relegation will be needed as the gap between Super League and the National Leagues increases. But my fear is that, followers of the lower clubs will no longer have their dreams to hold on to and could be lost to the game. Especially in some of the forgotten rugby league hotbed areas where there is a mine of talent (Leigh for example).
I?d like to see other options tried and tested before taking this big step. My own suggestion is to move the National League seasons back a few months, allowing promoted clubs more time to prepare for ESL and allowing clubs to have a fairer crack at the transfer market.
It?s always a shame to lose big clubs such as Castleford to relegation. But they?ll come back stronger. Just as Huddersfield and Salford have from their short stints in the National League.
And can we really take away those distant dreams, the aspirations and ambitions, and the promised land of Super League away from the supporters of clubs who originally missed out on ESL? And the drama of relegation that gives the lower ESL clubs something to play for? Who knows whether a closed competition would work in England. And whether that?s the way that Super League is heading.
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