22 July 2008

(Going) up and (going) under

As I write this, the RFL are about one hour or so from handing out the new Super League franchises. These are three year deals for 14 rugby league clubs to compete at the highest club level without the threat of relegation.

(Southerners and sport-haters, please read on - grit your teeth and remember that film with Neil Morrissey and Samantha Janus in it).

Not too many shocks are expected, though the allocation of 14 franchises when there are only 12 teams currently in Super League means that at least two differently-based sides (one of whom could be French) are going to get a fast-track to the top tier. The least controversial thing that could happen is that one or two of the lower sides with seemingly the best case for an upgrade, like Widnes or Salford, might miss out. More controversial could be the removal of current Super League stragglers like Castleford or Wakefield (just ahead of the latter appearing in the Challenge Cup semi-final this weekend, as if the players would appreciate a distraction) because their stadium facilities are not of the highest calibre. Anyone who has been to St Helens' ground in recent years will know about that, but they are proper Super League elite and they're getting a franchise, no question.

These licences (as the RFL prefer to call them; "franchise" would appear to be too emotionless for them) are being handed out, as I understand it, to start a process of evening the balance between the teams in rugby league's top division - the one bought up by Murdoch 11 years ago and switched, via Sky, to the summertime from the winter. Therefore clubs have to apply by showing their credentials regarding on-field success, youth development, training and stadium facilities, heritage, community standing and general good upkeep. There are probably other factors taken into account too.

I don't approve. As someone brought up in the round ball game who was greatly disturbed by the Wimbledon/MK Dons outrage, I expect it's a way for smaller sports like rugby league - which, barring planted French, Welsh and London sides over the years, remains a M62 corridor game - to up their standards and bring in outside interest and investment, but it doesn't make it morally right and it doesn't feel like sport. Unfortunately, for the clubs who don't get franchises, or haven't been in a position to apply, life is going to get even tougher. I've always felt that sporting prowess - or lack of - should be the sole key to organisations or people ascending or descending the echelons, but maybe I'm a bit square.

Rugby league isn't new to deciding the winners and losers by means of something than actual points on the board though; it currently has a long season with a normal league table, but whoever finishes top of that table (last season - St Helens) isn't crowned champions unless they also win a lottery-style six game play off at the end of it (last season - Leeds), rendering the achievements of attaining the most points after a gruelling season almost entirely worthless.

Here in Hull, nobody seems anything other than ultra-confident that the one true derby of rugby league will remain, and both Hull FC and Hull KR will be awarded their licences for Super League's next three years. Both fit the criteria with ease. The sport remains a huge pull in the city, even though it's never been as big as the round ball game as they make out, and has been trumped just lately by the impending arrival of the Premier League. It would, like kicking out a huge club like St Helens because their stadium is rubbish, be a PR disaster to omit either side and rob the game of its biggest club occasion. And, of course, no sporting organisation likes bad PR.


Matthew Rudd said...

An hour on and the announcements are made - all 12 existing clubs remain in Super League, and Celtic Crusaders and Salford City Reds have got the remaining two. The Crusaders are based in Bridgend, meaning next season there will be 11 clubs in the north of England, one in London, one in Wales and one in France.

Widnes will be distraught.

Lee Slator said...

Like you said early on in the blog, it's just a way to encourage more followers in different areas than the North (in particular the M62 corridor).

I personally don't think that its for the good of the game. The smaller clubs in the lower divisions will be even harder done by becuase they will have even less chance of progression.

I've never really been a fan of this league system anyway. How can it be that at the end of a season, the club that finishes top doesn't get crowned champions?

I'm not a real big RL fan. Give me the round ball any day!