The subject of mergers between clubs is an emotive one, even fifteen years after they were first outlined as part of the original plans for Super League, the subject has again been brought to the fore since implementation of the franchise system. This is mainly because the perceived wisdom tells us that while Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield all have hopes of staying in or reaching Super League, only one at most will be awarded a coveted Super League license when the decisions are made next season. However, many believe that a merger of these three clubs would ensure a top-flight future.
Last week Andy Wilson of the Guardian stirred up the debate with an article suggesting that – although it was not his place to advocate a merger – there were many convincing arguments in favour of doing so. Wilson makes the point that “there are powerful, logical reasons for the three rivals to come together and form a club that could challenge for honours on a regular basis, rather than scramble to survive”.
It can be argued that a merger would be a way for all three clubs to gain a Super League license. All three suffer from (relatively) small attendances and play in stadiums that are well past their best: if the clubs were to pool their resources they could invest in a brand new stadium, count on the support of nearly 15,000 people and be guaranteed a place in Super League. In addition, the club would be able to rely on a sizeable pool of talent in that area; in turn the local talent would have a pathway to the very top of the game. This is nothing if not logical, and even though I’m a lover of history and tradition, you can’t let that stand in the way of progress.
The trouble is that when you start talking about “progress” like that you sound like a businessman-villain, telling his workers their jobs have to go because the pit’s no longer profitable, a bit like Stephen Moore’s character in Brassed Off, obscure reference though it is. On YouTube there’s a news report from 1995 about fans opposing the mergers, and it’s fair to say that most aren’t making any arguments against the logic behind the merger; the most common argument is that this is our club, and this is our community, and we can’t have that taken away from us.
You might think that’s backwards thinking or needless emotionalism, but without such emotions and feelings what happens to rugby league? Shorn of such attachments the sport becomes 26 muscle-bound men throwing an oddly-shaped ball around a field for no discernable reason.
In addition, do not assume that because the arguments in favour of a merger are logical then the arguments against are somehow illogical. Those in favour talk as though it’s just a case of declaring the merger and seeing everything fall into place, while ignoring the administrative difficulties involved in making the whole thing work. A new club would start life with three boards of directors, three sets of coaching staff, three squads of players, three home stadiums and three sets of supporters. Making that work would take more than can-do spirit and a first-class honours degree in business studies.
Logically, the merging process also means that all three clubs lose their identity. Therefore, instead of being everyone’s club the new entity would be no-one’s club, and very few would support it. The new club would wither and die, while Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield would be re-formed as amateur or semi-professional clubs, just as Gateshead Thunder and Sheffield Eagles were re-formed.
Just as Andy Wilson said it was not his place to advocate a merger, it’s even less my place to tell the fans of these clubs that they shouldn’t merge. However, I will say this: in 1995 Peter Appleyard of Featherstone, one of the few who supported the merger, declared that “the bottom line is, if we don’t do it we won’t survive”. Fifteen years later Rovers are top of the Co-operative Championship. People often suggest that if rugby league doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that it will die, but in most cases that argument simply doesn’t follow. Rugby league will survive – preferably in France, London and Wales as much as Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield – but in any case, it will survive.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League