Robert Elstone

Super League will scrap the current Super 8s format next season and switch to a ‘one-up, one-down’ system, says new chief executive Robert Elstone.

Promotion and relegation is currently decided by fusing the Super League’s bottom four after 23 regular season games with the Championship top four.

After playing each other once, the top three go up, while a fourth versus fifth play-off completes the quartet.

“The Super 8s was well-intended,” Elstone told BBC Sport.

“In the search for a competition format that retained interest right through is a laudable objective, but what it has created is too much uncertainty and risk.

Huddersfield v Featherstone

“Right now 12 Super League clubs, six or seven of them are worried about dropping into the Qualifiers, getting a bad injury run and facing big life changes.

“The Championship clubs looking up are thinking it’s a great opportunity, but in the medium term if you’re promoted then a year later you face the same risk.

“Fans aren’t sure about fixture lists, broadcasters aren’t sure about fixture lists, and I think we just have to take the uncertainty out and go back to something we are used to.

“The detail of one-up one down in terms of standards, the automatic nature is something we need to work through.”

That format, introduced in 2015, means all clubs play 30 games before any further play-off activity, six more than their National Rugby League counterparts in the southern hemisphere.

With Challenge Cup ties also added to the schedule, elite players in the northern hemisphere are taking on a greater workload.

‘It’s an absurd grab for power’

There has already been one dissenting voice after Elstone revealed the changes – Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington.

Hetherington, who has had administrative roles at Sheffield and Leeds as well as coaching and playing positions, and was formerly president of the RFL, was quick to reveal his discontent.

“Today’s announcement regarding plans for next season appear to be an absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game,” the statement from Leeds said.

“Leeds Rhinos are not party to this and are totally against the creation of a separate Super League executive.

“Super League clubs voted 7 to 5 at our last meeting on some key issues related to promotion and relegation.

“The game is in need of strong leadership from Brian Barwick and his board of directors at the Rugby Football League, the games governing body, and this announcement should bring a response from everyone connected with the game.”

Wide-ranging address

Batley at the Summer Bash

Elstone, flanked by St Helens owner Eamonn McManus, Wigan owner Ian Lenagan and Warrington owner Simon Moran, covered a wide range of topics on his introduction to the media.

The key messages were:

  • The Super League was keen to work with the Rugby Football League, working together to strengthen the game
  • Fears of a loss of funding for Championship and League One clubs outside Super League – currently guaranteed up to 2021 by the broadcast deal – were allayed
  • Super League is the main point of attraction for new fans of the game and must be given the best resources to grow the sport

There had been some concern that the appointment of a new chief executive was a precursor towards a split similar to that of the Premier League from the Football League in 1992.

However, the message at the press conference was one of partnership and reconciliation rather than breaking out.

“The game can’t be fractured, it has to heal and come together as one, I have to establish positive working relationships with RFL that recognises Super League’s responsibility to the wider game but equally we have to set bar highly for the RFL,” Elstone added.

“We need them to be best in class around rules, compliance and referees. We have to be brilliant at developing commercial focus, but we need to work together.”

There had been whispers earlier in the season that the future of funding for Championship and League One clubs could be changed.

But all parties were keen to point out the broadcast agreement the sport has with television broadcaster Sky would remain in place.

“There is a commitment, that financial security is in place for the entirety of the broadcasting deal,” Elstone said.

Saints chairman McManus added: “We’ve been in discussions in recent months with the RFL directly and ultimately with the Championship clubs and with the funding they take out of Super League at this point in time will remain in place, it has been agreed.”

Super League a beacon for rugby league

Super League's champions Leeds

Elstone said the sport could learn something from the way the football structure works in England, where a strong top flight filters down interest throughout the leagues.

“If we can create a much stronger Super League and grow that cake, if we can raise interest in the top flight competition then that benefits all,” he continued.

“The obvious analogy is football with Premier League and the Championship is the fifth or sixth most-watched league

“Football and rugby league are vastly different economics, but ultimately the attraction of the Premier League, where every kid, boy or girl from whatever ground is obsessed by Premier League football, drives them into stadiums to watch at clubs like Barnsley, Crewe or Chester.

“We are never going to get to that level but it’s a model we can aspire to.”