Licensing takes the focus off the pitch

This season isn’t over and we’re already talking about the Super League licensing decision which will take place in the spring.

It seems that Widnes are heavy favourites for the nod, as they are the only club to satisfy the RFL’s minimum criteria for Championship clubs to be promoted, although the possibility of two clubs going up hasn’t been dismissed, which could open the door for either Leigh or Toulouse.

It’s a crying shame that the on-pitch product has little to do with progress these days, but it’s hard to argue that Widnes shouldn’t be promoted for 2012. They’ve looked at the RFL’s stipulated criteria and have strived to meet it, complimenting their excellent stadium facilities by investing in a youth structure which has seen their Under 18 academy climb to the top of Super League.

Chuck in their sound finances and solid average attendance, and the Vikings represent a reliable, low-risk inclusion for the RFL, who will no doubt be looking to avoid the controversy brought by Celtic Crusaders, and their financial difficulties, let alone the visa-gate scandal and the large number of quota players they have.

As for Toulouse, it’s hard to see how they will be ready for 2012 and also what they would bring to the table. Just 983 fans turned up for their play-off crunch match with Widnes last weekend, at a stadium that requires work if it is to meet Super League standard. The problem is, where does rugby league fit in the public’s imagination in Toulouse? Their rugby union team is the best in Europe, and their football team will be pushing for a European spot in the top league in French football this season. When football plays second fiddle, it makes it even harder to see how a rugby league team is going to bring in the 10,000 mark that the RFL aspire to.

The problem too with the French experiment is cost. Rugby league is hardly full of money as it is, and with at least one team having to go one way or the other each weekend, it all adds up. Where does it end with French teams? If Toulouse come in, will Villeneuve, Lezignan or Limoux follow? What does that mean for fans? Will they have to face the prospect of missing a quarter of their teams matches?

While Barrow and Halifax may point at their on-field success in comparison to Widnes, they don’t boast the all-round package. Barrow hold the Cumbrian card, but even with that their facilities and lack of a recognised youth set-up will prove a hindrance, and Halifax will perhaps suffer from their Challenge Cup misdemeanour, which saw them booted out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player.

Featherstone may have left it too late to take advantage of the uncertainty facing their neighbours Castleford and Wakefield, but Leigh do have a realistic chance of progressing alongside Widnes, but only if they achieve the on-field criteria by reaching the Grand Final.

But while it makes the conclusion of this season interesting, in terms of whether Leigh, Featherstone or Toulouse will achieve the on-field requirement, what the point of next season is for teams in the Championship remains to be seen.

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