Yesterday's defeat by Bradford sees Wakefield Trinity Wildcats installed as hot favourites for relegation from Super League. They're leaking points, coachless (and with their perceived first choice of James Lowes stating that he doesn't want the job) and struggling to see where their next win is coming from.
According to departed coach Tony Smith, the players weren't fit enough. Perhaps he misunderstood what the meaning of the word "coach" entails, as you'd have thought it was his job to make sure they were. Or he's maybe just using "fit" as a euphemism for talented?
Of course, they're not the only Super League club standing on the edge of the cliff looking down. Wigan are edging away from the precipice with the help of Dave Whelan's emergency airlift, while the likes of Harlequins, Huddersfield and Castleford can't break out the sun loungers at training just yet. Catalan Dragons may still finish below all of them, but are of course exempt from relegation for their first three seasons. There's also the slim possibility that the National League One winners may decline or not be accepted for promotion, giving everyone a reprieve.
Should Wakefield fall through the trap door into the National Leagues, they may become victims of unfortunate timing. Relegation in any of the previous years would have seen them maintain a full-time squad in an attempt to romp through NL1 and win back their place in the elite on the field. The spectre of franchising hangs over any team relegated this season however, and there is a distinct possibility that on-field success in 2007 on its own would not be enough to get promotion.
Traditionalists, particularly those linked to clubs currently outside SL, have been gnashing and wailing at the prospect of "pulling up the drawbridge" and denying teams automatic promotion to the top flight. Without that, they argue, what is there to play for in the National Leagues? The counterpoint to that argument is the experience of promoted clubs, who have such a short turnaround between the NL1 Grand Final and the start of pre-season to try and recruit a side capable of competing and finishing at least second from bottom in Super League. Wouldn't it be easier for those clubs to have a year or two to plan for entry to the top flight as Catalan Dragons have had?
Rugby League is not football. The sport does not have 25-30 teams all capable of playing in the top division, the sort of market where on-field criteria can be the only way to judge who plays in the top division while still maintaining both on and off field standards. It is important as the flagship competition of the game that Super League is seen to be played in front of decent sized crowds in modern stadia with adequate facilities, rather than in front of 3,000 people in a ground with toilets like something out of a Dickensian novel. If clubs cannot deliver that, do they deserve to be in the competition simply because they won a one-off game in the autumn?
Franchising does not pull up the drawbridge. What it does is create a set of guidelines that all clubs with Super League ambitions will have to meet, both on and off the field, before they will be considered for entry. Those clubs who have genuine ambitions of making the elite will strive to meet those criteria, improving the experience for their own fans in the process - as Doncaster are already doing with their new lakeside development. Those clubs who wish to stay in the top flight must also strive to develop both new markets and improved facilities as in the case of Salford.
Tradition should be something to celebrate when you look over your shoulder, not a millstone to stop you going forward.