40 years of pins in the professional rugby league map

A rugby league map of all professional rugby league clubs since 1980

It’s 40 years since London Broncos, or Fulham as they were known then, started an expansion trail that rugby league hasn’t quite cracked in the decades since.

Now in their second stint as the Broncos, Fulham became London Crusaders and Harlequins moving around a range of stadia in London.

They will play in the Championship in 2022 as a part-time outfit from AFC Wimbledon’s new Plough Lane ground.

A league below them will be rugby league’s latest trailblazers – Cornwall RLFC.

Another new destination

Cornwall was the UK destination chosen by Eric Perez, who had previously taken over Hemel Stags’ RFL membership and planned to take it to Ottawa.

With COVID, amongst other reasons, putting that to the sword, it is on the south west coast that League 1’s 11th team will be based.

There will be another refresh in expansion terms too – Coventry Bears have opted to rebrand to Midlands Hurricanes in an attempt to increase and no doubt accelerate their reach, as clubs in the third tier wrestle with substantial central funding cuts.

But can they succeed where others have failed, and finally give rugby league the established professional base it craves?

We look at all the clubs that have tried to take the game beyond its heartlands on the rugby league map in the last 40 years.

Mansfield Marksmen in action at Mewdow Lane, home of Notts County FC, in 1985.

Back in 1980-81, Wigan were in the Second Division. There were 16 teams in the First Division and 15 in the Second.

Those 31 clubs were: Barrow, Batley, Blackpool, Bradford, Bramley, Castleford, Dewsbury, Doncaster, Featherstone, Fulham, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hull KR, Hunslet, Huyton, Keighley, Leeds, Leigh, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, St Helens, Swinton, Wakefield, Warrington, Whitehaven, Widnes, Wigan, Workington, York

In 2022, there will be 37 clubs across three divisions. 28 of those were present in 1980/81*

(*on the basis that the new clubs in Bradford, Fulham and York are continuations of their predecessors).

Expansion timeline

Here is a timeline of when clubs have joined the professional structure in the past 40 years.

Season / Number of teams in professional structure / Info

1981/82 33 ✅ Cardiff City Blue Dragons ✅ Carlisle
1983/84 34 ✅ Kent Invicta
1984/85 36 ✅ Mansfield Marksmen, ✅ Sheffield Eagles (Cardiff became Bridgend Blue Dragons, Kent became Southend Invicta, Huyton became Runcorn Highfield)
1985/86 34 ❌ Bridgend Blue Dragons ❌ Southend Invicta
1987/88 34 Blackpool became Springfield Borough
1988/89 34 Springfield became Chorley Borough
1989/90 35 ✅ Chorley Borough (old Chorley became Trafford Borough, Mansfield became Nottingham City)
1991/92 36 ✅ Scarborough Pirates (Runcorn became Highfield)
1992/93 35 ❌ Scarborough Pirates (Trafford became Blackpool Gladiators)
1993/94 32 ❌ Nottingham City, Blackpool Gladiators, Chorley Borough
1995/96 33 ✅ Chorley Chieftains
1996 35 ✅ Paris Saint Germain, ✅ South Wales (Highfield became Prescot Panthers)
1997 34 ✅ South Wales (Chorley became Lancashire Lynx)
1998 31 ❌ Paris ❌ Carlisle ❌ Prescot Panthers
1999 32 ✅ Gateshead
2000 30 ❌ Gateshead ❌ Bramley
2001 31 ✅ Gateshead (Lancashire became Chorley Lynx)
2002 30 ❌ York Wasps
2003 32 ✅ London Skolars ✅ York City Knights
2006 34 ✅ Blackpool Panthers ✅ Catalans Dragons ✅ Celtic Crusaders ❌ Chorley Lynx
2009 35 ✅ Toulouse
2010 36 ✅ South Wales Scorpions
2011 35 ❌ Blackpool
2012 34 ✅ North Wales Crusaders ❌ Crusaders ❌ Toulouse
2013 37 ✅ Hemel Stags ✅ Gloucestershire All Golds ✅ Oxford
2014 38 ✅ Coventry Bears
2016 39 ✅ Toulouse
2017 38 ✅ Toronto ❌ Oxford ❌ Gloucestershire All Golds (South Wales became West Wales Raiders)
2019 37 ❌ Hemel
2020 36 ❌ Toronto
2022 37 ✅ Cornwall

A pattern seems to be frequent moves and rebrands, with very little time given to any of the new clubs to bed in a new area.

Of all the names above, Gateshead and Crusaders have fought back from the demise of their respective Super League franchises to remain established.

Other than that, only Catalans, London and latterly Toulouse have enjoyed some sustained presence and/or success.

Map of all professional clubs in UK since 1980

Here’s a map view of all the UK clubs (green markers are remaining clubs, red crosses are clubs who have since departed – *nearest locations are used where the ground used no longer exists)

In 2003, National League Three was created. There was no automatic promotion and relegation with National League Two, but the RFL hoped to introduce this in the future.

RUGBY LEAGUE MAP: Map of every rugby league club in the UK

The inaugural NL3 clubs were: Bradford Dudley Hill, Coventry Bears, Hemel Stags, Manchester Knights, Sheffield Hillsborough Hawks, South London Storm, St Albans Centurions, Teeside Steelers, Underbank Rangers, Warrington Wizards

Teams were later added in Birmingham, Bramley, Carlisle, Essex, Gateshead, Dewsbury and Featherstone.

For 2007, NL3 became the National Division of the Rugby League Conference.

A final word must go to the esteemed Phil Caplan of Forty-20.

Only time will tell if Cornwall and Midlands Hurricanes follow the path forged by the few rather than the many.

READ MORE: Has rugby league moved forward since 2004?

10 Comments

  1. A potential owner stepped forward and said he would carry on the Toronto Wolfpack, but his offer was rejected. Clubs that are financially on the edge and some in massive debt said they didn’t have confidence in his plan. If it had been a storied UK club in the same position and someone came forward to keep it going, I’m sure that the result would have been exactly the same. There’s never been any questionable club owners or plans there.

  2. The challenge has always been money – not enough of it – and when there is some it’s in the wrong hands. I can remember when Richard Branson was a part-owner of the London Broncos – he used to go to games with his family. To my mind there needs to be a serious injection of Private Equity money – and a new leadership structure – taking the sport as a whole as its priority rather than the self-interest of the current leadership.

  3. The power retained by certain clubs continue to restrict growth. Add in the blatant media bias carried over from 1895 to today. The failure to have ever held the RFU to account for their behaviour. Latterly rising costs, stagnant wages, increasing costs, the majority of games only available through subscription models, League is an expensive luxury if you’re on a low or fix budget. Look at the current plans, split into two divisions of 10, we all know that will rapidly become the elite and the also rans. The amateur game is dying a death. No decent reserve grade. Reliant on Southern Hemisphere imports. Too many other competing attractions, according to the sports editor of the Daily Mail they justify almost zero coverage of League because UFC and NFL are more popular! Complain about bias to the BBC, they say “how dare you have the temerity to question the bias of the BBC in it’s sports content”. Every game you will hear “for those of you watching for the first time…”, the sport has existed since 1895, but the BBC are sure it’s new to everyone. If they cover an event at a major Sydney stadium, they’ll call it the Football stadium, but fail utterly to mention the type of football. A Question of Rugby Union and Golf, sorry Sport, do they ever have League players on? The only person I’ve ever seen with real passion about League on the telly was Johnny Vegas, he’s not on much now, and corralled when he is! We remain the sport played in secret against the wishes of the Establishment.

  4. I continue to be amused by the trend to “start up a new Rugby League club” as if it were a pizza franchise or a new curry house. Even then, you would expect the aforementioned eating establishments to base their expansionist policy on some serious groundwork by a marketing department which has thoroughly researched the appetite, if you’ll pardon the pun, exists in said target area, prior to putting in any ground work for the new ventures.
    Instead, Rugby League appears quite happy with the “pin in the map” analogy, where someone rolls out a map of the country (or the world), identifies a large area where there are no Rugby League clubs, sticks a pin in the middle of the area and says “that’s where we will start a new club”, with no apparent research on what the background sporting appetite is for the region, or whether it is feasible to have other amateur, shoestring clubs travelling the distances involved, and I’m not just thinking Toronto here. A new team in Cornwall in a sport played in the summer. I shudder to think how long it will take the likes of Whitehaven to travel to Cornwall in the middle of the summer holidays. I discount Toronto, as for me, that has to rank as one of the thirteen-a-side codes most ridiculous propositions – having a team playing in European leagues based such a long way off and with weather patterns which simply do not support playing an outdoor game on a regular basis prior to the end of April. We also need to think whether that amount of non-essential travel should even be suggested, with the COP 26 talks in mind.
    Realistically, growth has to be sustainable in areas which already have a foothold at grass roots level for the exponential growth to take place. Witness the total farce of Paris Saint German with the undeniable achievement of Les Dragons Catalan.
    “How wonderful it would be to have a new Super League club in the French capital” – where nobody plays the game and few amateur clubs had ever shown an interest, compared with an area in the South of France where amateur rugby league was already well established.
    So, what is my point? Well, in much the same way you would have criteria to satisfy to establish whether anything new is worth starting in that area, Rugby League needs some rules to lay in front of any potential new club wanting to join the RFL which have to be met (or at least a large percentage of them do), before any application is considered. Realistically, look what we are contemplating now. “Can I buy an existing UK club and move it to Ottowa please?”. “OK, then”. “Sorry, I’ve just realised Ottowa probably wasn’t a good idea. How about Cornwall instead?”. “OK, that’s fine”.
    It actually sounds like a joke reading it.

  5. As somebody who has recently formed a Rugby league team here in the UK ( Stoke Staffies RLFC), we have taken every step in the challenge to guarantee we will have some success. Granted we are a 5th tier club who will play in the Midlands Rugby League, but it has already been an adventure. I grew up playing the game in Australia, spent four years here in the old Southern Conference ( Surrey Heath and Hemel Stags ), and can’t see a lot has improved in terms of development outside of the northern belt. This ridiculous fiasco with Toronto and Ottawa makes a laughing stock of what rugby league is all about, and just being able to but a club, move it to Canada, then to Cornwall seems absurd. The current Cornish lads have done a great job with their club over recent years , as have many of the Southern so called ‘grass roots ‘teams. If the lower grade clubs don’t manage everything right , then they’re history pretty quick. Not everyone has a sugar daddy ready to pick up the bill. I think if people had a more professional approach to exactly what their purpose was in the first place , instead of this name changing, globe trotting , throw a dart at the board mentality, then we could seriously move forward a lot quicker.

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