Peter Smith: Shifting the goalposts on league structure so late on, would be a big own goal

York head coach James Ford chats to Catalns head coach Steve McNamara.
York head coach James Ford chats to Catalns head coach Steve McNamara.
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THE MOST interesting and closely-fought battle in rugby league at the moment isn’t in Betfred Super League or the Championship.

It is at the top of League One, the third tier of the professional game, where York City Knights and Bradford Bulls are duking it out for the title and automatic promotion.

Bradford Bulls head coach John Kear.

Bradford Bulls head coach John Kear.

With four rounds remaining Knights are two points clear of second-placed Bulls, boast a better points difference and are on the verge of what would be a remarkable achievement for one of most progressive clubs in the European game.

The league leaders will secure a place in the Championship with the second-placed side going into the play-offs, alongside the teams from third to fifth, to decide the second promotion place. Maybe.

A proposal has been made by the Rugby Football League (RFL) to promote the top two in League One with a third team also going up through the play-offs, for sides from third to sixth.

The idea is to increase the Championship to 14 clubs for 2019, so only the bottom team in the second division this season would be relegated. That would at least breathe a bit of life into the most pointless competition in sporting history, the Championship Shield. That is the bottom-eights league, for Championship teams who failed to make it into the Qualifiers.

Shifting the goal posts with little more than a month of the season remaining isn’t something a professional, well-run sport should even be contemplating.

Peter Smith

As it stands, the top two – guaranteed from the start to be Featherstone Rovers and Leigh Centurions, though not necessarily in that order – will contest the final with the bottom pair, almost certainly Rochdale Hornets and Swinton Lions, being relegated.

Both are on eight points, seven behind third-bottom Barrow Raiders with only five games to play so a late change in the structure would provide one of them with a lifeline.

The majority of Super League clubs are in favour of the proposal, but those outside the top tier are apparently split. That could lead to an extraordinary general meeting and more delay.

If the proposal is approved rugby league will, yet again, be made to look amateurish. Shifting the goal posts with little more than a month of the season remaining isn’t something a professional, well-run sport should even be contemplating.

Featherstone Rovers head coach John Duffy.

Featherstone Rovers head coach John Duffy.

It may be valid to debate the future structure of the competition, but that should be done at least a year in advance, not two months before pre-season begins.

The only workable option is to devise a structure for 2020 onwards and stick with the existing formula for next year as will be the case in Super League.

The top-four play-offs will decide the 2018 champions and the Qualifiers will continue as planned, with the top three in the middle-eights securing Super League status and the fourth and fifth-placed teams deciding the final spot through the million pound game.

The RFL’s plan, backed by most top-flight clubs, is to revert to one-up, one-down between Super League and Championship from the end of 2019 with top-five play-offs leading to the Grand Final. Teams will play each other once home and away, with six repeat fixtures and the Magic Weekend to make up a 29-game regular season. In other words, the bold new future involves reverting to a combination of formats which have been tried and rejected in the past.

Since Super League began 22 years ago, first past the post, top-five, top-six, top-eight and top-four play-offs have all been tried as a way of deciding the champions along with automatic relegation, licencing and the Qualifiers to determine the make-up of the competition.

The only certainty now is that in two or three years’ time the latest format will be written off as unworkable and a new, possibly bizarre, option will be on the table.

What the code needs is for everybody in a position of power to put their differences aside, pull together for the good of the game as a whole, come up with a workable structure and stick to it. Sadly that’s unlikely to happen and the sport will continue to tear itself apart in search of an ideal format that 123 years of experience suggests does not exist.