Rugby league clubs across all levels of the domestic game have continued to express cautious optimism over an IMG-led shake-up which will scrap automatic promotion and relegation between its top tiers and elevate teams on the basis of an annual grading.
Super League strugglers Wakefield Trinity and ambitious Championship club Barrow Raiders are the latest to indicate their broad support for the proposals, subject to more details of the as-yet-unestablished grading criteria and guarantees about the transparency of the process.
The tentative backing of Wakefield and Barrow – both clubs who had much to fear over prospective structural changes – is indicative of the encouraging reception throughout the game to IMG’s plans, with Championship new boys Keighley Cougars the only side so far to go public in expressing their opposition.
Wakefield chairman John Minards said he welcomed the clarity such a system should bring, with clubs theoretically able to improve their off-field elements, including facilities and development, to a standard which will secure them ‘A’ grade status and with it the guarantee of a place in the top-flight and immunity from the drop.
“I think these recommendations are a big step in the right direction for the game,” Minards told the PA news agency.
“I’m positive about the opportunity they present to clubs, should they invest and meet the required standards for a seat at the top table.
“The concept of it not being fixed, and being open to any club who can demonstrate through their behaviours and facilities their potential on and off the field, is to be welcomed.”
Wakefield recently started a £12million overhaul of their historic Belle Vue stadium, and will hope the improvements edge them towards an ‘A’ grading in time for the proposed re-structuring at the start of the 2025 campaign.
By then, remaining places in the 12-team top-flight will be filled by ‘B’ grade clubs based on a ranking system.
Those clubs would find themselves subject to possible demotion each year if a lower-division team was able to achieve the top standard and take their place.
While Barrow chairman Steve Neale believes the new proposals will make it harder for his club to realise their top-flight ambitions, he welcomed the opportunity for clarity and hopes the forthcoming criteria will make it clear what they need to do to earn a ring-fenced Super League place.
“The most encouraging thing about it for me is that I can still see hope at the end of the day,” said Neale.
“What I feared was they would pull up the drawbridge and tell clubs like Barrow that we had no chance of ever getting into Super League.
“If they publish criteria that is clear and transparent, it gives us something to work towards. Provided it is transparent and not subjective, we can see exactly what we need to do to become an A-rated club and lose that jeopardy overnight.
“I think it is going to be a hell of a journey for us to reach Super League without a new ground. But it is still there, and it is important that we have still got that ambition.”
IMG has today presented the recommendations arising from the Reimagining Rugby League Consultation Project – a key part of the first phase of the agency’s 12-year strategic partnership with the sport agreed in the spring.
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) September 28, 2022
Andy Mazey, chairman of League One Rochdale Hornets, commended what he called IMG’s “whole game perspective”, allaying fears that clubs outside the top two divisions could be cut adrift by the new structure and effectively forced to revert to amateur status.
“It doesn’t change much for us in the short-term but the one thing we asked was for it to be a whole game perspective and I think they’ve listened,” said Mazey.
“If you’ve got ambition and potential you rise to it, and that’s a positive for me.”
More details of IMG’s plan are set to be presented to clubs early next month. A majority vote will be required among Super League clubs to change the structure of the competition, but a further vote involving the 25 other professional and semi-professional teams is understood to be non-binding and purely indicative.