Reaction to the IMG preliminary grading of clubs has had a very mixed response from clubs and fans alike with those faring well being relatively comfortable with their score, while those who are down the rankings kicking back against the system, criteria, the Rugby Football League, and IMG.
There is no question that IMG have been handed a poisoned chalice, and it is impossible for them to make proposals to expand the game without upsetting a few, if not the majority of clubs. But if you believe what a lot of fans say, in that the game is dying, then there seems to be little option than to try something radical and make a change at a fundamental level.
Social media is awash with criticism, but those with the most to lose will always shout the loudest, there are unlikely to be many evangelists putting a positive slant on the proposals, as those who are destined to benefit will keep their heads below the parapet.
We take a look at some of the main criticisms levelled against the gradings and proposals and give our thoughts. Bear in mind that 86% of clubs voted in favour of the proposals back in April, and the preliminary gradings are just that, an indication of where the clubs currently stand with a chance to change that standing over the coming twelve months.
Many have suggested that the 2024 season is now a non-competition as performance on the pitch with count for little when it comes to determining the league structure for 2025. On the grading system some 25% of the marks are given for on-field performance over the last three seasons. That means that good league performance and the collection of trophies could help increase a sides grading by a couple of points at best. It is unlikely to worry the likes of Leeds, Saints, Wigan and Catalans but for sides like London, Leigh, Castleford, Wakefield and Bradford it could make the difference between a top 12/14 spot and a position outside the topflight.
Some have suggested that it will be impossible for London to make the top 12/14 for 2025 as they will need to find another five points from somewhere, despite gaining promotion in 2023. It looks incredibly difficult for them to make up the points, and a minimum of ten places in the rankings to be inside the top 12/14. This does look like a genuine concern, and with widespread speculation that IMG favour an expansionist approach, it would seem that London Broncos might be a victim of the criteria which was devised to assist them. It would take a miracle to lift them unless they can vastly improve their ‘Fandom’ score or find a magnificent stadium in which to play their games.
It is being speculated that Castleford Tigers may be playing their last season in the topflight in 2024, after avoiding relegation in 2023, as they will be unable to gain many more points in the rankings due to their ancient stadium and lack of movement on the development of a new ground, along with poor on-field performance over the last three seasons. The loss of several Championship One sides could be a lifeline for the Tigers as it is looking increasingly unviable to maintain three divisions in 2024, yet alone going forward. We suspect that it is a real possibility that Super League (or whatever it may be called) will be expanded to fourteen teams in 2025 which could see Castleford limp into the topflight where they would likely be joined by Bradford Bulls and Wakefield Trinity from the Championship, London dropping down into the Championship regardless of their league finish in 2024. Should Super League stay at twelve sides then it does look grave for the Tigers.
The grading systems should be more transparent. We agree, we’d like to see a detailed breakdown of individual scores for all clubs and how they were reached along with a right to reply from each club to point out where they believe any errors have been made. This would also allow the fans to understand how their club has been graded down the finest detail, and don’t forget that only 14% of clubs voted against the criteria for the grading system. It is difficult to be empirical rather than subjectve, but if the way forward is through grading systems, then empirical it must be with statistics and evidence to back up the findings.
There seems to be little clarity about what will happen beyond 2025. Will the gradings continue and will it still be possible for a brilliantly performing Championship side to enter the Super League at the expense of a poorly scoring one? Will Super League clubs be allowed to rest on their laurels or will they need to keep pushing the game forward? Will clubs have to gain an 'A' grade to have any chance of 'promotion'? There are many unanswered questions.
The usual doom-mongers say that this will be the death of the game. This time they could be right, but they are also the same people who say that changes must be made to save the game and the IMG proposals and grading are one such flavour of changes. There will never be a system which satisfies everyone, as some clubs will ‘miss out’ under any system and their supporters will be the most vocal. IMG published their strategy, secured the clubs agreements, and then went ahead and implemented it. The clubs now have a year to improve their scores, IMG a year to fine tune their methods and transparency, and in 2025 we will enter a brave new world.