With rugby league’s new era almost upon us, here are the 10 most important changes to keep a track of in 2015.
1) The season begins with three leagues
There will be three tiers initially: the Super League, the Championship and the newly named League One. The 12 teams finishing 1st-12th in last year’s Super League will compete in the competition this season. London and Bradford were relegated from the elite competition at the end of 2014 and will join the teams who finished 1st-9th in last year’s Championship, as well as the winners of last year’s Championship One, Hunslet Hawks, to form the 2nd tier. The five clubs relegated from the Championship at the end of last season will join the remaining eight Championship One sides and new team Coventry Bears to form a 14 team League One.
2) After 23 rounds it all changes
In the Super League and Championship each team plays each other twice (home and away) as well as contesting a 23rd game at either the Magic Weekend (Super League) or the Summer Bash (Championship). The 24 teams are then split up into three groups determined by where teams have finished in their respective leagues.
Teams finishing 1st-8th in Super League will continue to compete for Super League glory with points gained in the first 23 rounds being carried over. Each team plays each other once, with the top four sides playing four home fixtures. 1st will then play 4th and 2nd will play 3rd for the chance to compete in the Grand Final.
Teams who finish 9th-12th in Super League will join the top four Championship sides in the Qualifiers. This will be a new league with each team starting on 0 points and playing seven games- 9th and 10th in Super League and 1st and 2nd in the Championship will play four of the fixtures at home. The top three will then play in Super League the following season, with a 4th v 5th play-off final determining the 4th Super League spot in a match dubbed as ‘the million pound game’.
Sides finishing 5th-12th in the Championship carry their points forward and compete in the ‘Championship Shield’. Each team plays each other once with 5th-8th playing four home fixtures. 1st will then play 4th and 2nd v 3rd to decide who competes for the Championship Shield. The bottom 2 sides are relegated to League One for the following season.
3) Promotion and Relegation is well and truly back
All eyes will be on the Qualifiers to see who will take the four Super League spots for the following season. The same four sides finishing 9th-12th could return or it could be four new sides who line up in Super League the following season. The million pound game is also likely to gain a lot of interest with so much at stake.
4) The Magic Weekend will remain
To be held at St James’ Park in Newcastle, the Magic Weekend will return in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. The weekend will see all 12 Super League sides compete in one venue over a weekend and has proved to be hugely popular with fans in recent years. The ‘Summer Bash’ will also be introduced this season. This will see the same concept as the Magic Weekend but for Championship sides and will be held at Bloomfield Road in Blackpool.
5) A lot more importance on the Championship
The licensing system killed off a lot of Super League interest in the Championship, but with sides finishing 9th-12th facing the top Championship sides, there will be a few teams looking over their shoulder. Bradford and London will join a league which already boasts a few sides capable of Super League quality in Leigh, Featherstone and Halifax.
6) No Super League salary cap changes
Much to the dismay of Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash, there will be no change to the Super League salary cap in 2015. However, Championship sides will see their cap raised to £1m in an attempt to help bridge the gap between the two divisions.
7) Challenge Cup places will be determined by league finish
Where a team finishes in the league also holds significance for the stage at which they enter the Challenge Cup the following season. The 12 Championship clubs will join in round four and the bottom four from Super League in round five. The top eight Super League sides will only enter at round six which means they are only three wins away from Wembley and four away from lifting the trophy. The final will still be held on the August bank holiday weekend.
8) Every minute of every match will be meaningful
Every game across the leagues will be of importance with each point gained determining which group the club competes in after 23 rounds. For the top Super League sides a top four finish rather than top eight will now be a priority, as well as the race for 8th spot having never before being so crucial. Getting home advantage for four of the seven games is another priority across all leagues and could be a factor in how well the team does in their group.
The new league structure is the right way to make rugby league bigger, more exciting and more competitive than ever before.