The rugby league off-season can be a bit of a tedious time of year. We may only have to wait a month and a half from the time the dust settles after the autumn internationals to the time the frost settles on pre-season friendlies and the early rounds of the Challenge Cup, but we’re impatient, ravenous folk. Therefore, a big thank you goes to Crusaders RL for nearly imploding in such entertaining fashion.
Well, that’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek: the furore over whether the Crusaders would actually make the Super League starting line-up gave the credibility of rugby league a good kicking, and that’s never a good thing.
The whole point of the licensing system was – as I understand it – to prevent clubs reaching Super League who would be unprepared for the rigours of top-flight football. Even if, like me, you prefer the idea of promotion and relegation, there’s no doubting the logic of this viewpoint; if the RFL can pick and choose which clubs reach Super League, they can prevent the inclusion of clubs that would be overstretched, damaging both themselves and the sport’s flagship competition.
Yet having nearly expired at the end of their first Super League season (three wins, 24 defeats and six players deported) the Crusaders have surpassed themselves by having a repeat performance to mark their first season in Wrexham. This time the club went into administration in November, the business being declared untenable, ostensibly due to inherited debt. Having been re-purchased, the Wales-based franchise have survived to struggle their way through 2011, with a four-point deduction for their trouble.
It’s illuminating to look back over why the RFL set up this licensing system in the first place. According to Nigel Wood, quoted in the Yorkshire Post in December 2007, “[t]he obvious benefit of moving to a licensed competition is the removal of the annual fear of relegation”. Obvious though it may be, the Crusaders have done their best to keep that annual fear alive; and not just the fear of relegation, but the fear of ceasing to exist altogether.
Wood was also of the opinion that “[c]hasing the dream causes financial failure. We’re trying to deliver profitability for clubs at all levels so people and commercial partners are attracted to the industry, and we’re trying to raise standards across all aspects of running clubs”. Yet, Crusaders RL have made a mockery of this, having shown themselves to be unprofitable at the end of each Super League season, and it is their chasing of the Super League dream that has, as Wood observes, resulted in financial failure.
So it seems the RFL have designed a system to prevent unsuitable clubs from being promoted to Super League, only to blithely award a Super League license to just such a club. No promoted club over the last decade have done quite as badly has this hand-reared, hand-picked franchise.
If the Crusaders had been promoted it wouldn’t be as bad, because the RFL wouldn’t look so foolish for having actually chosen them. If they could be relegated it wouldn’t be so bad, but instead they have to carry on in Super League for another agonising season. Presumably then they’ll be handed another three-year licence; after all, last season the RFL through Nigel Wood proclaimed the club’s hastily-planned relocation to Wrexham “a very exciting opportunity” when “a complete unmitigated disaster” might have been more appropriate, and this time around the RFL “were determined to keep Crusaders alive”, or so it says on their website.
Meanwhile the expansion of rugby league has been discredited, with fans the length and breadth of the M62 corridor muttering that league can only ever be a northern game. If the RFL had wanted to persuade the game’s supporters that expansion was viable and desirable, then that’s another failed ambition. A pity they thought it necessary to put all the expansionist eggs in this flimsy Welsh basket.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League