It wasn’t surprising to see negative comments regarding the RFL’s plan for a Championship division one side in Northampton, backed by Northampton Town FC. After all, expansion (a synecdoche for geographical expansion) has never been universally popular among rugby league’s supporters. Comments on the Love Rugby League Facebook page included, “another one-year wonder team” and, “I don’t understand why the RFL do things like that … so silly”.
The RFL announced in February that it would seek expressions of interest from clubs wishing to join the third tier, and in October confirmed that four clubs would enter the league in 2013. Northampton are the first of those clubs.
The decision has elicited not excitement but rather groans of “here we go again” from many onlookers. Why, they wonder, do the RFL continue trying to set up new clubs in new places when they always seem to fail? Why do we have to try and convert union-loving Southerners and Welshmen into rugby league supporters? Why should a town like Northampton, in that no-man’s land between the Midlands and the South-East, be given a place in professional rugby league?
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some rugby league fans oppose expansion as a matter of course, regardless the pros and cons of a particular new team, nation or event. They seem to believe not that the method of expansion is wrong, but that expansion in of itself is undesirable. How else do you explain comments such as this, which I’ve quoted before: “They wanna start putting some effort into backing proper clubs, Batley dewsbury, featherstone. Not the welsh wazzacks, or the southern ponces. Stick to the m62 corridor!!!!!!”
Yet this kind of gradual expansion is just the kind of thing rugby league needs. We know from recent history that moving clubs from non-rugby league areas into Super League straight away simply doesn’t work. In the case of Celtic Crusaders we know that from very recent history. But why is it wrong for a club or an area that has made a success of amateur rugby league to be introduce to the lowest professional tier?
In the case of Northampton, the local side Northampton Demons now runs a number of teams at open-age and junior level, has seen three players join Super League youth sides – one at St Helens and two at London Broncos – and one playing first-team at Sheffield Eagles. The Demons have been regional RL Conference champions in 2009 and 2010. Why shouldn’t the town be given this opportunity?
However, once you get past the arguments of those who simply suffer from bigoted and parochial attitudes, there are a number of legitimate concerns. The first of these is the cost of travel: Championship division one could be the most geographically diverse league, with maybe two clubs in Cumbria, two in Wales, and others in the Midlands, South West and South East. However, as Love Rugby League’s Gavin Wilson pointed out, the RFL does subsidise the cost of travel at this level.
Another concern is that the club that enters the league in 2013 won’t be Northampton Demons. It will be a new club owned and operated by Northampton Town FC. The issue here is that the football club perhaps only want a rugby league club to make a bit of money throughout the summer months. If things go badly the new club could find itself jettisoned by its parent club and forced out of its Sixfields home.
There is another concern that applies to all four of the new Championship One clubs. Once these clubs turn semi-pro, are the RFL happy to leave them to find their own level? If these clubs are already being earmarked for Super League in 2015 then, much as happened with the ill-fated Crusaders, things will go badly wrong. Unlike the Crusaders, these clubs need to be allowed to develop at their own pace, even if that means they never move beyond this level; that’s the nature of what we call sport.
It’s pleasing to see expansion going on, and at a sustainable level (at least for the time being). All rugby league fans should hope that Northampton are a success, if only because we want more and more people to enjoy our fantastic game. I for one am excited to find out who the other three clubs will be.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League