A fortnight ago, Leigh Centurions and Catalans Dragons faced off at the Leigh Sports Village not with promotion on their minds but survival. In a game which nobody could have expected to be entertaining or free flowing, the Dragons prevailed and Leigh were sent packing back to the Kingstone Press Championship after a one year stay in Super League. Since then, all and sundry have made clear their views on the future of the game with points made both for and against the million pound game.
Almost uniquely, the middle 8s’ final game is a play off for survival between two teams in Super League rather than one going for promotion at the expense of their opponent. Yes, the million pound game could, feasibly, be between two teams from the second tier which would give a different emotion and story to the event but, in the last three seasons, two Super League teams have faced off; 2015 saw Bradford lose at Wakefield, 2016 had Salford snatching a golden point drop goal to relegate Hull KR and this year saw Leigh face Catalans. It is hard for a full time team with Super League wages and infrastructure to maintain that status and quality when relegated into the second tier and that is one of the most prevalent arguments made recently.
Leigh owner Derek Beaumont has assured Leigh fans and players that the club will be remaining full time and, while some players have been made available for transfer, livelihoods are hardly at risk in that case. One thing rugby league clubs seem to do well is contracts; some of their footballing counterparts don’t write a clause into a player’s contract whereby they can leave for a set fee or the contract becomes null and void following relegation which can lead to financial ruin. That isn’t going to happen at Leigh as, for example, the club have come out and said that the new contract Josh Drinkwater signed is now void as the club have been relegated which doesn’t leave Leigh having to pay Super League wages to who will have been one of their highest earners. While there may be a mass exodus of players, one needs look no further than Hull KR’s 2017 season where, after losing many of their 2016 squad, they won the Kingstone Press Championship and then finished in the top three of the middle 8’s to reclaim their Super League squad.
In my opinion, the million pound game should be replaced by a straightforward play off system to reach Super League. I feel that there should be at least one guaranteed team joining Super League from the Championship because, at the moment, that simply isn’t the case. If I was to design a promotion and relegation season, I would have the bottom Super League club getting relegated straight away and being replaced by the winners of the second tier. Following that, there may be an argument for the tenth and eleventh teams in Super League to face the teams in second and third of the Championship in a mini play off series with the winners or top two of that mini league going straight up without a ‘final’ game – removing the dilemma of the million pound game. Part of the issue with that match is that there is only one week’s notice for the game. In the system outlined above, teams would know far in advance how promotion and relegation would work and there isn’t room for misunderstanding or ambiguity.
The current system does give Championship clubs vying for a place in Super League a chance to show their ability against teams from the top tier and that element is a strong one of the current system. To be honest, the main issue with it is the million pound game and the short notice nature of it – it’s all fine and good saying that teams know from the start of the season how it works but teams will only find out a week before the match itself whether they are in the match and, indeed, where it will be played.
Surely there has to be a better way?
Image from http://www.skysports.com/rugby-league/news/12204/11061903/coaches-call-for-million-pound-game-to-be-scrapped