The abolition of promotion/relegation, part of the much debated licensing process, has received a mixed response from fans. But how much of an effect has it had on Super League?
Last weekend saw Bradford pull off a fine come-from-behind victory against league leaders St Helens to bounce back from what was a humiliating home defeat to Warrington just a week before. On the same night, we saw Harlequins pull off a superb 21-4 win at the home of Super League champions Leeds.
Both the Bulls and Quins have fine, young British coaches at the helm in Steve McNamara and Brian McDermott. Although McDermott has been quietly been going about his business – building a solid squad based around English players admist the turmoil and struggles that the London-based club follow in terms of finances, sponsors and getting fans through the turnstiles – rival McNamara has faced much criticism from fans after the Bulls steady fall from grace since their last Grand Final victory in 2005.
McNamara took over from Brian Noble in April 2006 and despite leading them to the play-offs, they were beaten by Hull – the first time the Bulls hadn’t reached the Grand Final in six years. During McNamara’s tenure, he’s had to watch players of the calibre of Leon Pryce, Stuart Fielden, Ryan Atkins, Paul Johnson, Lesley Vainikolo, Ian Henderson and Chris McKenna leave the club, and it has seen Bradford slip further down the Super League ladder.
And despite wins against Saints and Leeds, Bradford find themselves 12th in Super League, five points off the play-off places. But would McNamara still be in a job if relegation was still in place? Probably not, although the form of Celtic this season suggests that it would be unlikely the Bulls would have finished 14th anyway. McDermott too, is another coach who has a tricky job, but can spend time building a squad without the threat of relegation. The rewards of this are already evident, as Quins sit in 7th place on the ladder, just below Castleford, who finished rock bottom of the table last year.
But as with anything, there is two sides of the argument. Celtic are already being cut adrift at the bottom of Super League, with ten consecutive defeats since their elevation to the top flight via the licensing process last July.
And they have been rocked this week with rumours of a fall out between them and the owners of Brewery Field, raising doubts over the financial situation of the club.
The Crusaders are thought to be considering switching several home games to other venues and Wales’ end-of-season international against England is set to be played in Neath.
Gerald McCarthy, spokesman for the ground owners, said: “Sport has a unique place in the culture of Bridgend and the surrounding areas and we are beginning an exciting journey which, we believe, will lay the foundations for a strong business and exciting times.
“The Crusaders are part of this unique fabric. They are the latest member of the Bridgend sport family and, to have Super League at our ground is quite incredible.
“In that respect, we are creating a new Brewery Field that becomes a seven-days-a-week business rather than simply a sports ground in the traditional sense.”
But there still seems to be some uncertainty over the Crusaders status, and their crowd on Sunday against Castleford slipped below 3,000. Will fans continue to turn out and watch a team that is losing every week? Just what have Celtic got to play for this season? If relegation was in place, they would have to fight to survive, but as is the case, they can virtually write this season off, which surely isn’t good for the fans – particularly for a club like Celtic who need to be expanding their fan base immediately.
Maybe soon, their first Super League win will provide them with the press they need to attract the fans through the doors.
But, there will be clubs outside of the top-flight itching for a chance to prove themselves, a chance denied them by the abolition of promotion/relegation. Halifax are one club who are sweeping all before them in the Championship, but their achievements will mean very little come the end of the season. Sure, they’ll put themselves on the map for a licence application in 2012, but is that what the fans want?