The risk of franchising

Celtic Crusaders have reached the half-way point of their debut engage Super League season, and no doubt they will be a little disppointed in how things have turned out so far. The Welsh franchise has only one win to its name, leaving it some way off the pace in Super League, while attendances for the last three home games have fallen below the 3,000 mark.

Of course it’s still early days and the Crusaders could turn things around before the end of the season (or in the next two seasons they’re going to be in Super League, or thereafter when the chances are they’ll still be in Super League). Yet, when in 2003 I labelled that Halifax side that finished the season with just one win as “not good enough” I did so unflinchingly; if I were to label the Crusaders as “not good enough so far” I know I’d look like a backward-looking, flat cap-wearing bigot to the most ardent expansionists out there.

In fairness the Crusaders have had some narrow defeats, and some of the attendances been quite respectable (5,272 against Hull and 6,351 against St Helens for instance) but a look at almost any underperforming club in any league in any sport will probably tell you the same story. The difference is that the Crusaders’ existence is, by nature of their status as an outpost club, is a little more precarious.

Should the Crusaders experiment end in failure – if the club ceases to exist – the consequences for rugby league in south Wales are potentially disastrous. The game will be discredited, the self-satisfied anti-league media will tell us with barely-concealled grins that our game is incapable of spreading itself outside the northern heartlands and grassroots rugby league in the region will suffer. The fault will lie with the RFL for pushing the Crusaders too far, too soon.

After an article I wrote opposing franchising on Last Tackle some time last year, someone e-mailed me to explain why I’d got it wrong. Franchising, he explained, was a process of “natural selection”.  However, when you think about it this patently isn’t the case.

In a system of promotion, the club which has the best team is promoted. If a club has the best team it is because it has the most money to buy the best players (because it has the most fans or best sponsorship deals) or because it has the best coaching or the best youth set up. If that club then avoids relegation the following season this is because it was able to do. Promotion and relegation constituted natural seelction. Franchising is when the RFL chooses what club they think is best: this is a process of unnatural selection.

This is borne out by a look at recent history. Since promotion and relegation was effectively reintroduced in 2002 no new team have performed as badly as Celtic Crusaders. In 2002 Widnes Vikings reached seventh place and stayed in Super League for four years. When the Vikings were relegated they hadn’t finished bottom; that ignominy went to Leigh Centurions, but even they had more points than the Crusaders by this stage in the season. Hull Kingston Rovers are the best example, having earned promotion under the old system and now sitting second in the Super League table.

That’s not to say that franchising doesn’t work: Les Catalans Dragons have been a success by any standards. Yet franchising means that the RFL can overpromote clubs such as Celtic Crusaders, instead of giving them the time they need to progress naturally and expand our game in a sustainable way.

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