Rugby League’s ‘Million Pound Game’ Needs Scrapping

The ‘Million Pound Game’ claimed its third victim, yesterday, as Leigh Centurions went down 10-26 at home to French side, Catalans Dragons. It is a recent invention – brought in alongside the new Super 8s format ahead of the 2015 season – but it is one that needs serious revision.

Complicated system

The Super 8s format as a whole is a rather complicated play-off system. And, although one could say that the Super 8s worked for the top eight in Super League – all eight teams could have finished in the top four play-off for the chance to get to the Grand Final with just two games to play – the Middle 8s qualifiers continued to draw increasing criticism.

The qualifiers – made up of the bottom four in Super League and the top four in the Championship – may well add more excitement and does indeed give four Championship teams a possibility at gaining promotion to Super League. But, a team finishing ninth in Super League could well find themselves in the Championship the following season if their Middle 8s campaign goes awry.

Even more traumatic, for whomever finishes fourth and fifth in the qualifiers’ table looks forward to the highly-dressed up, yet terribly controversial ‘Million Pound Game’. Essentially, whichever team wins this game stays in, or gets promoted to, the elite tier of Rugby League, an achievement said to be worth the equivalent of a million pounds, hence the name.

Yes, if a Super League team finds themselves to be in that position, one could say that it is that team’s fault for not doing well enough in both the 23-round Super League competition as well as the seven-round Middle 8s. But, the horror and dread leading up to the game, as broadcasted quite heavily in the week leading up to the Leigh and Catalans clash, does nothing for the sport.

For the two teams it is like waiting to be hanged, not knowing whether or not they will be safe in their jobs until the final whistle blows.

Insecurity

The Friday night before the game, the Leigh and Catalans teams’ partners, wives, families went to bed knowing that the same time the next day, their futures could be thrown into jeopardy. For the Leigh family fraternity, this horror became reality as their team were out-muscled and out-played by a Dragons side that should have been fighting for a top four Super League place.

The atmosphere at the Leigh Sports Village was one unlike any other witnessed throughout the season. It was intense, almost eerie, especially as the visitors looked to be pulling away from the Centurions. As Leigh battled to the last ten minutes, chants of “Leigh until we die” reverberated around the stadium and tears filled many Leigh’s fans eyes as referee Ben Thaler called time. Not even the Catalans players celebrated their victory; it was a hollow one. How could they celebrate winning a game that consigned the opposition to weeks and months of uncertainty over their jobs, houses, mortgages?

Players affected too

Tears were also shed by both sets of players, for Catalans is was a huge relief, for Leigh it was a case of back to the Championship after a year in the top flight. Both sets of coaches, Steve McNamara and Neil Jukes respectively, called for the end of the ‘Million Pound Game’.

“There’s lots of tears in the dressing room.They’re tears of relief, there was a release of a huge amount of tension from everybody involved. I thought our players showed huge respect at the end of the game and I was pleased about that. We probably produced our best performance of the season under the most extreme pressure. But if you want promotion and relegation, take the gloves off and have no salary cap

“Let the clubs spend what they want.”

– Catalans Dragons coach, Steve McNamara.

“This was all about not losing a game. The uncertainty surrounding this situation is ridiculous. You talk a lot about player welfare and mental health but that comes around job security so this is hypocritical of what we stand for. There’s got to be a way for clubs to get up but ultimately people lose jobs and that’s sickening. There are guys in the changing room who are tough men and they’re crying.”

– Leigh Centurions boss, Neil Jukes.]

The Story of Kevin Larroyer

https://twitter.com/SL_TMarket/status/909322038904582144

In 2016, Hull Kingston Rovers were the second team to succumb to the end-of-season thriller at the hands of a golden point drop-goal against Salford Red Devils. Most players continued to play for the club despite the anticipation of job losses, yet just look at players such as Kevin Larroyer. He had signed a three-year deal with the Robins at the beginning of the 2016 season and, with Hull KR being a top eight side, the French international could have been fairly certain about his future and security.

Wind the clock to the end of September 2016 and he was out of a job, just a day after he had got the keys to his new house. This was because rules state that clubs can terminate players’ contracts upon relegation – a rule the East Hull club put into action with Larroyer.

Kevin did not find a club until February 2017 when Castleford Tigers stepped in and brought him in until the end of the season. Those five months must have been a tremendously difficult period which no Rugby League player should ever have to go through.

“In my head I couldn’t believe we would go down, but I still had two years contract, so I was fine. So after the Million Pound Game, I’m just unemployed. I had two years on my contract, so I couldn’t afford to lose my job. Something is wrong with that.”

– Kevin Larroyer, Castleford Tigers.

Something is indeed wrong with that. Whilst most Leigh players will likely be wearing a Centurions’ shirt in 2018, some, like Kevin could well be cast aside.

Promotion and relegation is correct

Now, promotion and relegation in this day and age is the avenue the Rugby Football League should be aiming for. But, just make it simple – one up one down. At least in this case, a club can plan for the future. Take Widnes Vikings and Leigh for example. Finishing the Super League season bottom (12th) and second bottom (11th) respectively, the two clubs had known that they would not make the top eight with weeks of the season still to go. Therefore, adequate planning could have been made by both clubs in the event of finishing bottom. The Middle 8s and the Million-Pound Game, however, throws up yet another dimension: there is no way of planning the outcome.

Widnes were awful throughout the 2017 season and rightly finished bottom, yet finished third in the qualifiers, earning their place outright in Super League. Catalans, on the other hand, finished tenth – third from the bottom – yet faced the ‘Million Pound Game’ and the eventual possibility of relegation to the Championship.

No fancy promotion and relegation system

The Super League season tests teams over the course of 23 rounds, as does the Championship. It is the consistency and perseverance of a team over this period of time that should decide who is relegated from the upper tier and who is promoted from the second tier.

It undermines much of the Super League season that Widnes finished bottom of Super League, but lived to fight another day, yet Leigh, whom finished above Widnes after 23 rounds, now face the Championship once more.

The ‘Million Pound Game’ is a symbol of the farce of the Super 8s system. The propaganda surrounding the one-off highly-controversial has been dressed up in an almost theatrical fashion. This match should, in no way, decide the futures of a club, its players and their families.