The Catalan question – part one

In 2009 the Rugby Football League will be introducing a franchise system to Super League. This will see the end of promotion and relegation, for so long a staple of rugby league and British sport in general. It will also see franchises in new parts of the country and France fast-tracked into Super League.

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This year we saw a demonstration of just how the franchise system will work. Les Catalans are a franchise in very sense of the word, having been brought to Super League not through any direct promotion but through their off-the-field capabilities. Union Trieziste Catalan – the club that gave birth to the Catalans – were not even the best in French RL when their Super League place was announced – this only happened afterwards, when they had taken the best players from other teams in the French Elite.

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It is questionable whether the inclusion of the Catalans will have any benefit for French RL at all. For a start the area is very patriotic about Catalonia – the people consider themselves Catalans rather than French. This could alienate the rest of French RL – who are needed to support the venture.

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Also, taking the best players from the French league to play for Catalonia in Britain will only weaken that league. How will Elite French sides react to becoming feeder clubs for this Catalan side?

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Rugby league does need to grow, it’s true. But that growth is being achieved through initiatives such as the RL Conference, Powergen Schools Cup and others. This means that expansion is steady, sustainable and not at the expense of existing clubs.

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My biggest worry are that Les Catalans are representatives of the future of rugby league – a franchise system where teams are brought into the top flight on the basis of their finances, stadiums, attendances and geographical location and playing standards will barely be considered. That future stinks.
 
In my opinion a closed-shop Super League will simply stagnate. The system works in the NRL where teams use the security of guaranteed league status to bring through youngsters and put long term plans together. Look at how Penrith changed from bottom of the ladder to Premiers just a few years later.

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But in this country clubs would not do this. Go back a few years, to when Huddersfield where finishing bottom every year. During that time relegation was effectively suspended but the Giants showed no improvement at all – they continued to struggle and finish bottom of the pile. It was only after their relegation and subsequent promotion that Huddersfield showed any improvement. 

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At the same time such a system would be grossly unfair to the clubs left out. In Australia there are fifteen league clubs – enough for just one division. In Britain we have thirty three league clubs which is too many for one league. Is it fair to deny two thirds of those clubs the chance of a shot at the top flight – no matter how unlikely it may be?

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Let’s not forget that had the franchise system been in force at the outset of Super League in 1996 Hull would have been excluded. Now Hull are 2005 Challenge Cup winners and look ready to compete for the Super League title.

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Another major problem of the franchise system is the inevitable mergers. Mergers have a history of failure in this country. Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants, for example, were a complete farce. So much so that the Giants abandoned the Sheffield in their name and the Sheffield club had to start again in the NFP.

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Most people refer to mergers when discussing how rugby league in Cumbria could be revived. They feel that if our three Cumbrian clubs were to merge and become a Super League franchise RL in Cumbria would be a success.

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But this is plainly not true. For a start Barrow still considers itself part of Lancashire, so count them out. A merger between Whitehaven and Workington would be a disaster. The franchise would have two boards, two sets of coaching staff, two sets of players and two home grounds. Making that work would require a minor miracle. And that’s not mentioning the fact that the two sets of fans despise the other’s club. The franchise would collapse and destroy Cumbrian RL together.

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This is the path that Les Catalans Dragons will lead us down – make no mistake about it. That is why I feel that the club is a threat to the future of our great game.

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