Rugby league’s false dichotomy

The debate over expansion has raged in rugby league for many years, and it’s no surprise that the debate has been reinvigorated since the events of last week. The downfall of one of Super League’s three “expansion sides” has led to much discussion over which is the correct course for rugby league to take: continue with expansion in the hope of success, or admit failure and concentrate on the game’s northern heartlands?

It’s a worthwhile discussion, but nevertheless irritating when it’s assumed that all rugby league fans fall neatly into one of two categories: either pro- or anti-expansionist. This is a false dichotomy.

A dichotomy is any splitting of the whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts. The starting line up of a rugby league match constitutes a dichotomy because each player belongs to either one team or the other – it’s not possible that a player should belong to both teams, or to neither team. The debate is framed in much the same way – a rugby league fan is either on the pro-expansion team or the anti-expansion team – but this is far from the truth, as there are often varying shades of opinion.

I started thinking about this when I saw the upcoming episode of the podcast ‘Talking Points’ advertised on Twitter by Dave Parkinson. Dave advertised the podcast as including a debate between “Expansion vs Heartlands”. This is in no way a criticism of ‘Talking Points’ – Dave and his guests do an excellent job on the podcast and this one will be well worth listening to – but it’s a shame when a whole host of complex opinions are so often boiled down to this black-and-white picture – “Us” versus “Them”. Although, your perspective on this really depends on who you consider to be “Them”.

If you generally favour expansion, then your “Them” will be traditionalist, history-loving northerners with parochial attitudes and an automatic prejudice against anything the least bit progressive. If you generally oppose expansion, then your “Them” will be out-of-touch dreamers who favour clubs from anywhere outside the M62 corridor (except Cumbria), whose most fervent desire is to consign the likes of Hunslet, Workington and Swinton to the pages of history – and then rip up the pages of history and burn them on a bonfire in Chipping Norton or Sturminster Newton.

I’m not saying such people don’t exist. They’re always in evidence on internet forums, radio call-in shows and the like – from the hyper-expansionists who as soon as South Wales RLFC came into existence were talking about having two Welsh teams in Super League, to the flat-cappers whose argument against the inclusion in Super League of Les Catalans Dragons was “we’ve already tried Paris once”. But these are more often the extreme ends of what is a spectrum of opinions rather than a dichotomy.

I worry that an expansion-at-all-costs mentality will do irreparable harm to the game. Expansion in Wales was progressing reasonably well, and the over-promotion of Celtic Crusaders has done it a great deal of harm. Yet it’s also true that I worry about those on the other extreme, who seem ideologically committed to refusing any attempt to introduce our game to a new audience – the people who make comments like this, from the LoveRugbyLeague Facebook page: “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!!!!!!”

The conviction that the division of rugby league fans into two teams of pro- and anti-expansionists is a false dichotomy stems from the belief that I can’t be the only one who feels this way: valuing expansion, but refusing to let it destroy the game’s history; valuing history, but refusing to let it hold the game back. So in a sense this is a personal gripe, because in my time I’ve been accused by plenty of people of belonging to one camp or the other. But then again, I’ve also been accused of being a bitter Yorkshireman from Bramley, so never mind.    

It’s ironic that those who do belong to the extreme ends of the spectrum have actually reached the same conclusion: that the Crusaders’ demise marks the end of expansion. Meanwhile, those with a more nuanced point of view can see that Wales still has a Championship 1 club, an RL Conference National club, a six-team Welsh Premier League and a four-team Welsh regional league. That should be an encouragement to rugby league fans everywhere.

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