Expansion shouldn’t start and end with Super League

Given the pipe dream that Gavin posted up a few days ago my post today seems quite topical. I’m sure many of you follow football as well as rugby league and you’ll probably be aware that the fixture list for next season was released last week. The press make a big fuss about it hoping that anything football will continue to sell papers but generally it’s a non event and met with me by a shrug. During the season I often can’t remember who we’re playing on the Saturday of kick off so finding out who we’re playing on the first weekend of February doesn’t excite me much. That said I flicked through the newspaper supplement anyway and what really sparked my interest was the map that marked the locations of the top flight clubs. Reproduced (roughly) by me here.

What struck me was that it isn’t the encompassing spread I expected, it’s clustered, London, the North West, Birmingham followed by outposts in the North East, Swansea and Norwich. Does that in any way damage the following of football in the other areas? There are huge swathes of land without a premier league club, Yorkshire is a notable one but does that diminish the following and belief that Leeds and Sheffield have big clubs? No it doesn’t.
As you progress down the leagues the spread gets more even and the gaps get filled in, once you got down to league 2 you’d have dots over most of the country. In Rugby League the comparison isn’t quite the same, there are less clubs and the cluster is very much the extended M62 corridor and Catalan and London. But lets say you look at the football one again, is that not an M6 corridor with a couple of outposts?

As I said the Premier League is not all encompassing geographically, what it is though is the top quality league in the country. It is then backed up with increasing nationwide spread through the lower leagues. And you won’t find too many clubs as you go down the leagues who consider themselves small clubs because they aren’t in the Premier League, there are a few reasons, firstly getting into the Premier League is a realistic ambition for most Championship level clubs, they don’t have to jump through hoops and submit applications. The other is just looking down as far as the Championship the majority of clubs have at some point in the not too distant past been in the premier league, I think it’s about 18 former Premier League clubs in the Championship.

Whilst our sport isn’t football and comparing the two can often lead to unfair comparisons I think this does bring up a worthwhile point. That the Super League can only be a top quality league with a solid back up of good quality rugby league divisions below it. I personally think there is too much tinkering and micro management of the principle with licensing and that we should allow relegation and promotion to give a natural path to the Super League, to allow clubs something to aim for more than once every three years. Also to give struggling Super League teams the chance to drop down and restructure or find a truer level for their game. Another thing would be to bring the league systems in line, I still find it strange that the Championships run a different league point scoring than the Super League.

It’s also worth considering franchising and where it is successful, certainly it has allowed a Super League where teams are capable of taking points off each other but there are still a dominant top four clubs, the clubs themselves just appear to be changing. The most compelling examples for success of franchising are the NRL and US sports and one notable thing there is that these are leagues spanning huge geographic areas, the sport in the UK just doesn’t (obviously there’s the French connection but aside from that). I may be thinking too hard about the geography here, but with their promotion of expansion right at the top level the RFL make it hard not to make it a consideration. Personally I believe introducing expansion clubs at lower levels and giving them the support to grow organically may be a slower process but a necessary one. There is obviously an argument against this and it is shown by the announcement of growth of the game in North Wales since the Crusaders move, I wonder how much smaller that growth would have been with a team building from lower leagues? I don’t know but I think the RFL may occasionally be guilty of impatience with the expansion of the sport.

The drop of funding from Sport England also says a lot about the roots of the game. The change of people playing the game once a week from 88,300 in 2008 to 44,000 in 2010 – 2011 is monumental, that’s nearly half! I was shocked by the actual scale of the drop although the RFL are obviously keen to do something about it and hopefully the switch to summer for a large part of the amateur game will help.

Now after last week I hope that doesn’t come across too much as a moan at rugby league! I hope it’s more, erm – constructive observation. I think the Super League needs stronger lower leagues and these in turn need promotion and relegation. I also think that growth should be focused at a lower level and allow teams to build to Super League.

But onto the usual business of the tipping and I should have known it, just when I take the last Quins players out of my fantasy rugby league line up they turn up with a win, typical, and summed up a pretty dire week for my tips. A few other slight surprise results giving me a grand 2 right. Must do better, so here we go.

Crusaders 18 – 10 Salford – Both teams are more than capable of picking up a win here but after a narrow loss to Leeds I’m backing Crusaders to take the home team win.

Leeds 22 – 10 Bradford – Both teams shadows of their recent former selves and have shown glimpses of good play and good performances and will no doubt be up for this game. But Leeds to take it by a couple of tries.

Warrington 30 – 18 Saints – Saints were out of sorts last week shut down in the first half by Wigan and coming to face a free scoring Warrington who found their feet again at Hull KR last week. A low scoring game for Warrington but a win and possibly 30 points +.

Wigan 30 – 18 Huddersfield – Many people have commented that Huddersfield aren’t quite looking the same without Danny Brough and this is a game they would certainly have liked to have him available for, still I think they will find their feet without him soon enough. Wigan though had a commanding performance last week, something like a 90% completion rate at least early on in the Saints game is phenomenal. For me all signs point to a Wigan victory.

Catalans 22 – 8 Castleford – Castleford will have been pleased to put away Salford last week and will hope to follow up with another away win but a trip down to the South of France isn’t the nicest at this time of year. Even a late kick off will have little chance of stifling the heat too much and I expect the home team to welcome the familiar conditions and victory.

Quins 12 – 10 Hull KR – Is that it? Is it a turn around for Quins or a one off? They got a victory against a Wakefield side who weren’t looking in bad form and now get to entertain a rather indifferent Hull KR team who have had their own troubles this season. They may just sneak a win and make it two in a row at home.

Wakefield 18 – 28 Hull – Hull will be buoyed by putting Bradford to bed last week and will be confident

heading to Wakefield to play a team who have just put Quins losing streak to an end. A win for Hull.
So there ya go, I surely can’t do much worse than last week so the only was is up.

I will end by issuing an apology, I was one of those who suggested Huddersfield were the team in the wrong with the kit mix up with Castleford. As it turns out Castleford had asked for a reverse of strips for their home game and subsequently the RFL agreed and issued a directive to change the kits for the return fixture. However they didn’t seem capable of updating their own site and kit directives so for those of us who checked the available information Huddersfield were playing a home game which on the RFL list available to us had them playing in their home kit, hence my questioning of Hudderfield’s kit choice. Justified questioning and in future we should probably just stick to home game – home kit away game – away kit. Unless it’s a Challenge Cup final, in which case both team should be allowed to wear home kits if they clash!

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