Hull FC coach Tony Smith says off-field criteria must be factored into promotion and relegation issues if Super League clubs are ever to bridge the gap in class and cash to their Australian counterparts.
As part of its long-term strategic partnership with the game, global media giants IMG have proposed a form of licensing from the 2025 season, which could see clubs excluded from the top flight if they fail to satisfy a range of as-yet-undetermined requirements.
And Smith believes such a change in outlook is crucial if clubs are to stop the continuing exodus of their best players to Australia’s comparatively-lucrative NRL, as well as giving them breathing space to nurture new stars of their own.
Smith, who is preparing his new side for the Super League season that kicks off next month, told the PA news agency: “I don’t think we will produce so many fantastic young players in this country as long as you have promotion and relegation as it is now.
“I have never been against promotion and relegation, but it has to be based on far greater criteria. A club with a good business model should be promoted up to the top flight, and you’ve got to prove that in a lot of ways. And if anybody’s holding back the competition, they go.”
Australian Smith first came to Britain to play for Workington in the inaugural Super League season, before launching a distinguished coaching career, in which Hull – whom he joined in a controversial cross-city switch from Hull KR last year – are his fifth Super League club.
I have never been against promotion and relegation but it has to be based on far greater criteria— Tony Smith
Despite the unrest that surrounded the initial introduction of a licensing system under then RFL chief Richard Lewis in 2009, Smith has fond memories of that period, insisting its lessons were self-evident and ought to drawn upon as the game’s authorities, led by IMG, plot the way forward.
“I’ve been here for 22 years and at certain times the administration has been very good, and under Richard Lewis I thought it was terrific,” added Smith.
“It brought a whole lot of credibility to the sport and we started to get on the map because it was well run and respected.
“Financially it was pretty sound and in that period some of the best rugby league was played, not panic rugby league, not the kind of rugby league that is all about, ‘Let’s not take any risks so that we don’t get relegated’.
“It freed everybody up, but it also allowed people to put the time and effort into developing fantastic young players who became household names both here and in Australia, and I don’t think we’ve produced so many since.”
All senior clubs with the exception of Keighley Cougars either voted in favour or abstained in a vote for IMG’s initial plans in September.
But while there is clearly an appetite for change, many clubs are reserving full judgement until the precise criteria for the proposed A, B and C-grade licences are revealed in March.
They are set to find an enthusiastic backer in Smith, after another close-season in which a number of star Super League names, including Wigan trio John Bateman, Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce, left or committed to leaving for Australia.
“While Australia are in the position they’re in, they’re going to continue to pluck off our best players,” added Smith.
“The only way to stop that is to have a fantastic competition for them to be a part of. We can’t compete with them in terms of money, so as a sport we need to recognise that if they are to take our best, we need to replace them by producing more of our own and developing a more sustainable competition.”