Are Toulouse the only exception

“You are the only exception” sings Hayley Williams from Paramore, and some rugby league fans believe Richard Lewis and Nigel Wood have made similar intonations towards Toulouse Olympique. Perhaps it’s a mark of how much we enjoy a conspiracy theory, or maybe it’s the perception of the RFL as more than a little untrustworthy, but people are having a great deal of trouble accepting that Toulouse will be made subject to the same criteria as other Co-operative Championship clubs.

It was pointed out recently that the Rugby Football League’s Operational Rules allow invited “overseas clubs” to submit a Super League licence application without being subject to the same criteria as Championship clubs: namely, that to submit an application the club must first make a Championship Grand Final appearance or win the Northern Rail Cup in the years immediately prior to the license decision. Immediately thoughts turned to a duplicitous RFL trying to sneak Toulouse into Super League ahead of English clubs.

The relevant section is Article 1:6 (a), which states that “the Board [RFL Board of Directors] shall invite applications for membership of Super League from: (i) current Super League Clubs; (ii) Clubs in the Championships that meet minimum standards set by the Board; and (iii) any overseas clubs invited to apply by the Board”. This has particular resonance, because it was only last March when a story in the Rugby League Express had it that an exception was made for Toulouse, and they would not have to meet the same minimum criteria as other Championship clubs, and a spokesman from the club confirmed that such was the case.

However, the RFL vigorously denied the truth of that story, with a statement that read “The RFL has confirmed that Toulouse Olympique do need to appear in the 2010 Co-operative Championship Grand Final to earn the right to apply for a Super League licence from the 2012 season onwards”.

Looking closely at the Operational Rules, there’s nothing to suggest that Toulouse can by-pass the system in their current position. This is the January 2010 version of the Operational Rules, and it was stated in an online discussion that such a clause had not appeared before; however if you read the PDF file of the February 2009 version the clause does appear as Article 1:5 (a); the only difference is that in that version there is no mention of “minimum standards” set for Championship sides.

The rules, however, state that if an overseas club fail in their Super League application they can be offered a place in the Championship, and that’s what happened to Toulouse in 2008. Now, I’m reading between the lines a bit here, but as I understand it there are three classes of clubs that can apply: Super League clubs; Championship clubs having met the minimum standards; and overseas clubs invited to apply by the RFL. Yet Toulouse, having taken up the offer of a place in the Championship, are no longer an “overseas club” invited to apply as they were in 2008; now they are, literally, a “club in the Championship”, subject to the minimum standards. This would be in keeping with the RFL’s statement in March. Therefore, as a Championship club Toulouse cannot by-pass the process to which all other clubs are subject.  

That said there is a way in which Toulouse can by-pass the “minimum standards”, and that is to cease operating as a Championship club. Applications from the relevant Championship clubs are to be made in December, with the decision to be made in March 2011. Other applications are due in April 2011, and if Toulouse have dropped out of the Championship and returned to the French league they would then be classed as an overseas club and could be invited to apply by the RFL. The RFL rules also leave the door open for a rumoured Super League side in Paris backed by union side Stade Francais.

We could, therefore, see a scenario where, for argument’s sake, one top-flight club is booted out in favour of Widnes Vikings in March, and come July a second deposed in favour of Toulouse. The unfortunate club will surely derive much comfort knowing that their place at the top table has been taken from them in a manner which is honest and above board.

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