Since Northampton Town FC changed their mind about entering a team in Co-operative Championship division one next season the RFL has named two more new clubs that will take up a place in that division: Oxford and Coventry Bears. Oxford will line up alongside Gloucestershire All Golds and Hemel Hempstead Stags in next seasons, while Coventry plan take a year to make their final preparations and enter the league in 2014.
It’s great to see new clubs entering the semi-professional leagues – I’m particularly pleased for the Bears as my wife is from Coventry.
Yet the demise of the proposed Northampton Rebels before a ball had even been kicked does raise doubts about the sustainability of these clubs. Northampton Town chairman David Cardoza was concerned the new clubs would have “no chance of success”, a very worrying statement for anyone considering the prospects of the other four teams. Why will things be any better for the University of Gloucestershire or the new set-up in Oxford?
There is another way of looking at this however. Ralph Rimmer, RFL chief operating officer, argued that “It had become increasingly clear in recent weeks that Northampton were not where they needed or wanted to be […] Whilst it is clearly a very disappointing development, our decision provides verification that the rigorous checks we have in place are working and that there is a quality threshold being applied.”
In other words, the failure of Northampton actually provides reassurance that the other new clubs stand a decent chance of making a success of semi-pro rugby league. Why? Because when it turned out that Northampton weren’t going to be up to the challenge, the RFL agreed with those in charge at the Rebels that the club withdraw and not take up its place in the Championships.
As Rimmer argues, this shows that the RFL are taking seriously the issue of whether or not these clubs are meeting a certain “quality threshold”. We can therefore be assured that Gloucestershire, Hemel and Oxford have met that threshold, and that if Coventry don’t they won’t be in Championship One come 2014.
Now, there is the chance that this is simply RFL spin. After all, there didn’t seem to be any “quality threshold” checks in place for the Celtic Crusaders’ infamous Super League bid, and as things began to unravel in Bridgend and then Wrexham every comment from the RFL was about exciting new opportunities rather than an honest admission that things were going badly wrong.
That said, when the licenses where next up for grabs the RFL persuaded the Crusaders that their Super League future was untenable, rather than force the Wrexham-based club and the entire game to endure another three years. And the same has happened at Northampton, where the RFL have acted swiftly in persuading Northampton to step down and identifying a potential replacement in the shape of Coventry Bears.
There are plenty of negatives in rugby league at the moment. For example, there is the early retirement of Bryn Hargreaves due to disillusionment with the situation at Bradford and in the game as a whole; or the worry of Championship division one fans and supporters about operating in a nine-team league next season. These could cause people to be negative about this grassroots expansion.
Yet trying to take rugby league to new areas and audiences is not something that runs contrary to helping solve rugby league’s current problems, it’s very much part of that fight. And the demise of Northampton Rebels, though unfortunate, does provide some assurance that the RFL is assessing these new clubs rigorously, and that they do stand a decent chance of establishing themselves in the semi-professional leagues.
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