Editor’s column: Excitement builds for Championship return plus international demand

James Gordon

Widnes forward Kenny Baker in action

The release of the Championship and League 1 fixture schedule over the weekend has certainly whet the appetite for the return of rugby league.

It is nearly 12 months since either competition saw any action.

Although the season is expected to start behind closed doors, it could well gain more attention than ever before – with all games expected to be live streamed, either via the RFL’s Our League app or individual club channels.

That accessibility of games has already seen interest grow in the French Elite Championship in recent months, and it will be interesting to see how rugby league can capitalise on this interest.

The Championship has a fascinating make-up in 2021.

Former World Champions Bradford and Widnes are joined by the favourites from France, Toulouse; while Featherstone have put together arguably the strongest squad in the division, ironically as a result of the removal of dual-registration which some of their fans have felt has shackled them too closely to Leeds.

London Broncos are now more than 40 years old and have an expected move to the storied Plough Lane, home of AFC Wimbledon, which we all hope can prove to be the long-term home that rugby league’s premier club in the capital needs to thrive and grow.

READ: London Broncos close in on new home at AFC Wimbledon’s Plough Lane

The unfortunate demise of Toronto, and the subsequent elevation of Leigh, has opened up the opportunity for Newcastle to step up, just over a year since they suffered play-off final heartbreak against Oldham, who will continue to play at Bower Fold in Stalybridge.

The progress of Newcastle will be fascinating to see. Afforded an unexpected boost, they have made no secret of their Super League ambitions, and have capitalised on the delay to Ottawa Aces to the RFL ranks by recruiting some top-end Championship players. They will no doubt become the hipsters’ choice, joining York – who start life in their new stadium with a glut of Super League recruits put together with the intention of pushing for promotion.

Revitalised Halifax enter a new era looking to attract new fans and return to their glory days under their new Panthers moniker, and though Sheffield will play their games out of the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster, hopefully progress of their new community stadium at the Olympic Legacy Park will provide suitable motivation for them to move forward – they too have the 1895 Cup to defend.

Sheffield Eagles are the current holders of the 1895 Cup

Batley, Dewsbury and Swinton will pose problems as they often do, and Whitehaven fly the flag for Cumbria off the back of an interesting period of recruitment, that has seen them bring in a number of overseas players, coupled with their local talent, which could make them a formidable prospect.

There promises to be many twists and turns – and we can only hope that COVID doesn’t impact too heavily on the season.

The points percentage system will come in to force, and it remains to be seen how impacted Toulouse will be; though virtually impossible to predict given the fluidity of the pandemic situation.

The action in France has provided a welcome rugby league fix, and even rugby union is trying its best to keep us entertained – with Jonny May’s try for England against Italy drawing plenty of comparisons with tries scored in the 13-man game.

There were plenty of rugby league fans chirping up about that try, given the attention it got, and while appreciating both sides of the debate, it is true that we need to be more pro-active in pushing what we have got, and not what we think people want us to have.

That certainly means more internationals. It’s more than two years since England RL played a game, so it’s no wonder no England rugby league wingers can get the attention that May got at the weekend.

The biggest issue for international rugby league is simply, players. There aren’t enough quality players being developed by other countries.

In the meantime, England must start playing at least France and Wales – the two countries in the most advanced states in terms of player development – on an annual basis.

READ: Calls for more internationals between home nations amid Exiles revival talk

If the scorelines are blow outs, well that’s just a sacrifice that the game needs to take. France and Wales are not going to get better by not playing England. And it builds up nicely for the end of season tours, World Cups or whatever takes place. Rugby league isn’t in the position to be choosy; it’s not really feasible to play the southern hemisphere nations mid-season, even if the unlikely does happen and both Super League and NRL are prepared to sacrifice a few weekends to enable travelling across the world to happen for both squads.

One other positive coming out of France, which seems to have renewed impetus following the election of Luc Lacoste and plans to increase the number of teams in their top division, is the potential for a relationship with Spain.

The Spanish rugby league hooked up with Bath RL community club recently, and it appears that their focus could now be to get a club in the French Elite Championship, rather than the hazy plans for Valencia Huracanes to join Ottawa and New York in League 1.

That would certainly add a new dimension to expanding the game; it’s clear that there needs to be alternative professional competitions to those operated by the RFL.

A competitive Anglo-European cup competition in 10 years? Put me down for that.

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