As England prepare to clinch a series win over Tonga, the domestic game this week moved a step closer to major change with the release of its new “club gradings” that will replace promotion and relegation in the Betfred Super League.
The opinion-splitting “reimagining of rugby league” by global management company IMG began to feel real on Wednesday when each club was handed a grade that, from 2025, will determine its standing rather than on-field success alone.
Super League promotion and relegation will be scrapped, with club performance instead being graded in the boardroom under five pillars - On-Field Performance, Fandom, Finances, Stadium and Community.
It is a move that was voted through overwhelmingly by the clubs, but has nonetheless proved a divisive debate-fueller through the wider game, given its likely safeguarding of those already in the elite.
Seven clubs achieved an A grade, with powerhouse Leeds Rhinos ranking top despite a dismal season that saw Rohan Smith’s side miss the playoffs.
London, who secured a shock promotion into the 12-team Super League, are the anomaly. The Broncos are graded only 24th and appear to have no chance of retaining their elite status when the new rules come into effect the following season.
Chairman David Hughes accepted their score, adding that the club remains committed to establishing itself “as a Super League club now and in years to come.”
The Super League new-boys rank even lower than Newcastle, despite the Thunder already announcing they will drop out of League One and may fold completely following relegation from the Championship.
Castleford, who survived relegation, rank 13th, below relegated Wakefield and Championship Toulouse, but have already launched an appeal citing an administrative error.
And Featherstone, who finished top of the Championship, missed out on promotion and are graded just 15th, have told IMG they must “urgently get a grip on the direction of travel” of rugby league which is “on a downward spiral which needs to be urgently addressed”.
Just another normal day in rugby league then, but an important marker of the direction this fantastic sport is now heading in.
The announcement was followed by a media briefing in which RFL chief executive Tony Sutton and IMG boss Matt Dwyer fielded a wide range of questions about what this all meant.
Both spoke with passion, logic, and a clear data-driven business strategy.
There was of course the usual management jargon and business bluster too, which felt so far away from the real soul of sport that makes us fall in love with it, that Mikey Lewis for example so heart-warmingly laid on the line in his soul-bearing interview after Saturday’s England debut.
Sutton succinctly outlined how the sport “has had to examine itself really closely at all levels”, adding that the brave new world is “far more data-crunching and scenario-testing than opinion.”
Dwyer at one point noted frustration that most of the questions were about London - a grade B club, wanting the focus instead to be on the 7 clubs who managed A grades, far exceeding the “four or five” that they had anticipated.
“The purpose of grading was to create as many category A clubs as possible and that should be where the focus is,” said Dwyer.
“We are looking for long-term growth towards being category A clubs, so if London has aspirations to be a long-term Super League club with category A status then they have to improve across all of the different metrics that are in the grading.
“It is difficult to answer whether it is impossible for London to keep their place in Super League as it depends on what other clubs do as well. For London to become a powerhouse in this sport there is a lot that needs to be done.”
There are other key points to remember in this discussion too.
None of this is immediate, and for one more season it is business as usual for all concerned. From then on the 12 top-ranked teams are in Super League.
It is that simple.
Newcastle’s surprise mid-table ranking when they are in reality going out of business is explained by financial accounts being provided one year in arrears. So in 12 months time, if they are alive to be given a ranking, it will likely be worse. All of the other four categories are marked in real time.
And we could still be heading towards a 14-team Super League, which gives fresh incentive to the likes of Featherstone, Bradford, Leigh and Castleford.
That seven teams have already hit top grade increases the chances of this happening sooner.
“It does accelerate it and the pleasing thing is how clubs have responded,” Dwyer added.
The paperwork, the approach, the strategy and the goals all make perfect sense.
But I’m still left feeling a little empty about how much of this sport will now be defined off the pitch.
We fall in love with sport for its ability to offer hopes, dreams, upsets and fairytales.
Not impressive spreadsheets.
One of the big romantic stories of this rugby league season for example was North Wales Crusaders’ stunning run to the Betfred League One Grand Final, renewing hope of a strong Welsh presence in the professional game. Their rank of 35 out of 35 clubs this week will no doubt have left the team feeling like just giving up completely.
Romance like the Crusaders is why we love sport, and we need to safeguard hopes and dreams amongst all the data.
Away from the boardroom England are gearing up for the second Test against Tonga after edging that tense Lewis-inspired opener at St Helens.
Boss Shaun Wane has a few absentees for the second Test in Huddersfield though. Forward Morgan Knowles and winger Dom Young won’t play any part, and with Tommy Makinson now injured, Warrington’s Matty Ashton will get his big chance on the wing, with two-try Tom Johnstone continuing on the other.
“I’m excited to see Matty,” said Wane at a delayed media briefing on Wednesday afternoon.
“I just know Tom Johnstone and Matty will do really well and I’m genuinely really excited for them.”
Wigan’s Liam Farrell will also play.
Elsewhere Daryl Powell is back in coaching having been named the new boss of relegated Wakefield, and Sam Burgess has landed from Australia to start work in Powell’s old job as Warrington head coach.
Burgess will speak to the media for the first time next week.
And Salford are desperately looking at their recruitment options following the double sale of key men Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers to Leeds. Stand-off Cade Cust is being weighed up after his departure was confirmed from champions Wigan.
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