Floundering flagship sets new course

Dave Hadfield charts the changes rugby league must make to survive
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There has been an uncharacteristic outbreak of thinking ahead in the official echelons of the rugby league. A body addicted to the quick fix and the knee-jerk panic measure sat down and considered where it wants to be in several years' time. A meeting of the Rugby League Council last week not only reformed the governance of the game, it also opened up a much-needed debate on the direction - or lack of it - of its flagship Super League.

This was not entirely a voluntary change of attitude. It sprang from the game's paymasters at News Corporation pointing out that what they bought with their pounds 87m is simply not being delivered.

That money was committed on the basis that the Rugby League would use it to create a national, indeed international, competition. The international aspect is still just about intact, with Paris surviving another season. But the national profile that the game was supposed to achieve under its new financial arrangements is as far away as ever.

If the sport is to have any hope of renewing its contract with Rupert Murdoch at the end of its first five-year term in 2000, it had better be seen to be at least making an effort.

Thus it was that the representatives of the existing professional clubs voted for a new franchising system under which some of them could lose their Super League places to sides set up in five designated areas: Glasgow, Dublin, the North-East, the Midlands and Wales and the South-west.

It is, as the game has proved in the past, a long way from pious declarations of good intent to actually doing anything. But this is the clearest recognition so far of the need to change tack if Super League is to survive. Clubs are notoriously reluctant to give up their slice of the cake, but they finally seem to realise that, without a radically different mind-set, there could be no cake at all.

At the end of next season, existing clubs will have to re-apply for their places, not just in Super League but in the divisions below. They will have to show that they deserve to be there and they will have no automatic right to preferment over new franchises.

As the league's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, bloodied from the clipping of his wings but, ironically, seeing some of his pet theories gaining credence, told the meeting, that present Super League clubs have had a two-year start and, if they cannot make a convincing case, they do not deserve to be included.

So what will Super League look like at the end of the millennium? The odds are now in favour of it incorporating a Glasgow team, playing at Partick Thistle, part-funded by the city council and possibly with a major input from the Australian club, the Hunter Mariners.

The other named areas have less definite prospects. There have been at least two approaches from prospective backers in Dublin, but in Wales and the North-east the odds have lengthened over the last year.

The existing South Wales club in Cardiff was allowed to die of neglect and, in Newcastle, Sir John Hall was fobbed off long enough for him to lose interest.

The up-side is that in both places there is energetic grass-roots work going on. There is something, however unpretentious, for a Super League club to base itself around.

The other prospect is for a second club in London. When Peter Deakin, the League's marketing expert, switched codes and joined Saracens, he hinted that there could soon be a league team playing at Vicarage Road alongside the rugby union and football teams.

There is an element of self-justification in these nudges and winks and, yes, he would say that, wouldn't he? But the advantages of a second team in the South-east are legion - and Watford is conveniently outside the M25, within which the now highly-successful London Broncos will argue that they have sole rights.

The best guess for the year 2000 is for a Super League of 14 teams, including Glasgow and maybe two of the others that have been mooted, followed by another professional division, including several sides who have tried Super League and cannot stand the heat, and one that would be strictly part-time.

That would be a structure that makes far more sense than the current one, but it will not happen by magic. It requires the rift with the amateurs from Barla finally to be healed, something that seems easier to them now that Lindsay's power is diluted.

It needs serious ground-work to be done in the cities where we hope to capture a new audience. There is a working model for this. Although it has become convenient for Super League to decry the Australian Rugby League's expansion policy, it was the way that the ARL took club and representative games all over the country that established the base from which it could become truly national.

In Britain, with a maximum of hundreds rather than thousands of miles involved, a couple of clubs - Sheffield in Cardiff and St Helens in Liverpool - have gone out into new areas.

Bradford have expressed a willingness to take a match to Glasgow next season. While they are in the mood, all clubs should be told now that they will have to mount an equivalent missionary trip. Then, perhaps, the expansion on which the very existence of Super League depends will start to become a reality.