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Relegation and Player Movement in Super League

The more time passes, the more I feel like one of a small small number who think whatever the change to structure in Super League, return of promotion and relegation between the top tier and the semi-pro tier shouldn’t be one of them.

As I’ve gone over the ideas that are thrown around, thinking about journo Andy Wilson’s preferred option of a two ten-team tier Super League is the only way I see this as a reasonable option – but there isn’t enough money for a 14 team Super League, so a 20 team Super League wouldn’t really advance things from what I can see. Before something like that could be considered the clubs and the RFL would have to do a lot to raise revenues and would need to think harder about sharing them too.

Here, I’m going to propose another reason why I feel promotion and relegation is of little benefit. I think there is only a limited number of players to go around. This is becoming even more the case now we’re seeing an overall ‘trade deficit’ in playing talent between the Super League and the NRL. Even before this switch around in player trading, I feel the issue I’m going to highlight was seen.

I reckon clubs that go down see the bulk of their important players move on to stay in Super League, and the clubs that come up sign players available from other Super League clubs. I write this introduction before I’ve really done my research, and I won’t be ashamed if my assertion is proved wrong. Sometimes (often I’m sure!) that happens.

Largely using the brilliant Rugby League Project database as my source, with a bit of wider internet clarification when I feel its needed, I’ll be going through the rosters of clubs that have either left or entered Super League in the recent past and will consider what the stories of players who played in more than 50% of their Super League games in that relegation season or that year after promotion. An exception will be the Catalan Dragons, whose entry to Super League I wont be looking at in the same detail because of the limited numbers of French representation before their entry - though if I do find some examples to support my argument I might throw them in if I need to save face! I’m also not going through the Salford and Crusaders entry when the league expanded in 2014 – as the league had more teams, there were no teams leaving to take players from.

Having looked into it a bit more, you could almost interpret things two ways depending on your starting position. There are many who want a return for promotion and relegation and don’t know why. There are others who come from a bias of supporting the lower levels and so want that purpose to their clubs promotion brings. Broadcasters probably want those extra few meaningful games relegation might bring to the top league too. These people will (particularly the middle ones, exemplified by journo Gareth Walker) see that promoted clubs have often brought a number of the players that got them up with them. That is surely a good thing in favour of promotion being brought back. It also goes against the assertion I made above – some new players were getting a go in Super League and there was an avenue for players to reach the top level without needing to be signed by an incumbent club, which isn’t a frequent occurrence.

The other way is to look what happens when clubs go down. The core of that season’s squad was lost in the majority of cases. Ok, that squad can’t have been up to much as they got the team relegated, or the wooden spoon in Crusaders’ case, but some of them must have been good enough as nearly 40% of players got a new gig in Super League and a decent number found their way on to NRL squads the following year too. This meant, in the majority of cases, the core of the side needed to be totally rebuilt – almost four times as many players that played 50% of games were no longer on the squad the year after, only 22% were.

Promoted teams (including those promoted as part of league expansion):

relegation1

Clearly the teams involved in geographic or numerical league expansion had good retention and a lot less players were brought in from Super League clubs for the season – this indicates that these teams had longer to plan their promotions as these were mapped out in advance. Other clubs promoted via the league or a promotion final had much less time to plan for life in Super League. Over two fifths of players who appeared in 50% of the promoted teams games were retained from the previous seasons squad, which is a decent number and higher than I expected. A third of these players however were picked up from other Super League clubs for the new season in the top level.

As noted above, these numbers don’t overwhelmingly support my suggestion that there isn’t much talent regeneration in Super League from promotion and relegation, and that the system just brings instability. They don’t show the opposite either – most teams are made up as much by players who were in Super League or on NRL rosters in the previous campaign as they are by retained players from the NL1/Championship squads.

I would add that Huddersfield and Hull KR are the only teams not to have returned to a lower level at some point after promotion.

My hypothesis is more supported when relegation is looked at n more detail:

relegation2

The Crusaders are an anomaly at one end of the scale, but their financial issues and special dispensation for clubs to sign their overseas players is an explanatory factor.

The 2002 Salford team are the other anomaly, taking a good number of players down with them, which helped them earn promotion in 2003 and bring plenty of these players back to Super League for 2004 (shown in above numbers). Every other relegated club saw as many or more players stay in Super League with other clubs, and saw as many again either return to Australia, retire or find deals at other lower level clubs. When you lose 78% of the core of your Super League squad on average for the next season, its hard to build or remain stable – Castleford and Salford became somewhat yo-yo teams, all the teams in the list other than Huddersfield have suffered or are suffering high profile financial difficulties, and its likely that only two will be featured in a 12 team top tier following restructure.

As a control to make sure Super League in general didn’t see the same levels of player movement as promotion and relegation cause, I looked at Wigan and Wakefield, who has remained in Super League with varying fortunes over the period looked at. On average, these two sides retained 70% of players that appeared in 50% of one years games from season to season (Wigan 75%, Wakefield 65%).

I would note that in the closest relegation fights, Wakefield were inevitably the team that came on of this battle standing, so are a good comparison to make. Wigan have had successful and disappointing sides during the period. Both still managed to retain a much higher proportion of their squad year in year out and only saw on average three players per year leave to other Super League clubs, and six core players leave on average each year.

The averages show that teams that don’t suffer relegation can maintain much greater on field stability. Wakefield have suffered some off-field instability and are a team that still need to progress in that area, but even with that issue, their playing squads haven’t been seriously disrupted and that has helped them avoid relegation and earn the odd playoff spot along the way.

relegation3

 

Outside the control sample, think of the consistency of the Bradford, Leeds and Warrington squads in their periods of success.

Yo-yo team Castleford and skin of their teeth Wakefield haven’t been able to develop off the field how they might want to either because of promotion and relegation distractions. Yes, Cas have a strong youth development production line, but Wakefield are not as prominent in this area. Neither had made much progress in terms of stadium development. Salford, similarly don’t have a stellar youth system and had to wait until well into licensing to finally move to a modern home. Halifax took a decade to finish the grand stand at their renovated stadium following relegation and weren’t ever able to get themselves back to the big table or really achieve anything until they started planning long term.

In conclusion, I feel its clear that on field stability leads to better success on the field. Off the field, concentration on avoiding relegation or regaining promotion takes teams eye away from other matters that need addressing.

I’m not saying promotion and relegation is the big evil, but I just wanted to show the effect it has on players and a club’s squad. It causes a great deal more movement and on-field instability than you get without the system, even if what replaced it hasn’t necessarily proved to bring greater off field stability – I’ve spoken about this before and economic conditions have been a massive mitigating factor since 2008 that it would be unfair to not acknowledge, and also I feel licensing wasn’t a strong enough move anyway (see Structure of Super League piece).

What I want fans of P&R to see is that it hasn’t really helped anyone out. It didn’t let clubs plan long term or get off-field matters sorted out. Fans of those clubs affected should realise players weren’t coming in to play for the club, they were coming to play Super League, and they were gone when that was taken away. Do you want to see new players (and often coaches) trying to put together a new team year after year with no identity and continuity? Catalan Dragons, protected from relegation initially, have shown what that chance to plan long term affords a club – now they have better facilities, more French players coming through and regular playoff matches to compete in. They have a style and identity that has been allowed to develop and flourish.

Is one day at the top worth it? I’m not so sure. I followed a club that reached somewhat, and that was just for promotion between Championship 1 and the Championship, and all the good steady work was undone and the club went off the face of the RL world – now I have no local semi-pro team to go and watch because of the impossible dream of promotion.

A note on the proposed restructure for 2 x 12 > 3 x 8 set up, I don’t think this will improve clubs retaining players and building long term – players will want to play in the top 8 division, so I think the player movement will increase mid-season as well as in the close season. Clubs losing out on top level revenues midway through a campaign when they are told they can no longer get decent crowds from hosting well supported clubs like Wigan, Leeds, Warrington, Saints and Hull FC will need to cut wage bills to survive. Combine this with top clubs wanting top players and top players wanting to play at successful well paying clubs and you will see mid-season deals of some sort. Stability won’t be maintained. The issues I’ve talked about above won’t be fixed. The proposal misses the point, but I’ve not had chance to fully map out my opinions on this yet outside the snipets I’ve raised on Twitter or other forums. I would say I don’t like it, and will try and substantiate that some more at some point.

Big sports fan (Wigan Warriors, Manchester United, Pittsburgh Steelers, Lancashire County Cricket Club, St. Johnstone). Walking enthusiast.

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