Pyramid plan signals revolution

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The Independent Online

Clubs could face play-offs to decide relegation as well as top-of-the-table issues, if they accept some of the more radical proposals being considered in a strategic review of the game.

The full recommendations of the review are not due to be unveiled for another three weeks, but clubs were given a preview of some of its contents yesterday. They include restructuring the game into five divisions, headed by a 10-team Super League and two more divisions for the remainder of the game's professional clubs.

Below those would be one division of the leading amateur clubs from the heartlands and one comprising the stronger clubs to emerge from the Rugby League Conference in development areas.

The concept is for promotion and relegation to be decided by play-offs, as is now the case for the Super League and Northern Ford Premiership champions. In a division of 10, every club would be involved in a play-off, either at the top or the bottom.

The system would create gangways between the areas of the game administered by three, sometimes antagonistic, parent bodies – Super League, the Rugby Football League and the British Amateur Rugby League Association. It would, therefore, require the burying of many differences and, presumably, the setting up of a governing body to oversee it all.

No restructuring will be attempted for next season, so the position of Widnes and their application to join Super League will not be affected. What is not clear, though, is how a reduction to a 10-team competition will be achieved for 2003: by league position next season or by the assessment process to which Super League clubs are already subject.

The proposals come at a time when the game is perceived to be under unprecedented pressure from rugby union, with fears that the trickle of players and coaches to the other code could become a flood.

One of the code's weaknesses is that it is divided and lacking in convincing leadership. If the clubs decide to accept the blueprint they are being shown, it will require strong leadership to carry it through, with Nigel Wood, the former chief executive of Halifax, who has been in charge of the strategic review, the obvious candidate to fill that role.

Although there will be other proposals to be thrashed out, the key aim is to create a pyramid – a smaller version of that which prevails in football – which would enable all clubs to find their level.

The distinction between amateur and professional clubs – already a blurred one in practice – would have to disappear, as it would become possible, in theory, for an RL Conference club in Coventry or Crawley to play its way into the top division.

There are serious doubts whether the standard of the game outside its heartlands is high enough for that to happen, but the changes could lead to a genuinely national competition.

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