The current Super League champions, the Bradford Bulls, have become the latest club to dabble in rugby union by unveiling plans to take over the National League One side, Wakefield.
Bradford have negotiated to acquire a controlling interest in the union club, although the deal still needs to be approved by the Rugby Football Union. Provided that approval is forthcoming, Wakefield will move into a redeveloped Odsal when it re-opens in 2003.
The Bulls' chairman, Chris Caisley, who will also head the union operation, insisted yesterday that the move would not weaken the Bulls' commitment to rugby league.
"The deal will be to the substantial benefit of both the Bulls and Wakefield," he said. "We only took this step after satisfying ourselves that we could give our supporters an absolute assurance that the future of the Bradford Bulls would not be detrimentally affected and, indeed, that the deal brings some actual and potential benefits to our league operations."
The Bulls are temporarily based at Bradford City's Valley Parade, but have been granted planning permission for a new, 26,000-seat stadium at their old home at Odsal.
"We will need to utilise the new stadium to the fullest extent," Caisley said. "This deal fits our long-term strategy for what will be the only modern, purpose-built rugby league and union stadium in the north of England and to get as much use and income out of the new stadium as possible. Standing still is not a realistic option for us," he added. "We need to diversify, whilst at the same time not straying too far from our core rugby league activity."
Bradford's move means that the "big four" Super League clubs will all have an involvement in union. Leeds share Headingley with their Premiership sister club, Leeds Tykes, Wigan's owner, Dave Whelan, has recently taken control of Orrell, and St Helens have close links with Liverpool-St Helens.
Set alongside the continuing drift of coaching talent to union – with Oldham's Mike Ford's recruitment by Ireland the latest blow, the trend raises fears that league, after more than 100 years of fighting for its existence, is being gradually absorbed by the rival code.
Caisley yesterday dismissed any talk of a merger between the codes. "I don't believe there will be one code of rugby in the future," he said. "Both have their different attributes."
A more realistic danger is that Wigan and Bradford, dissatisfied at some of the directions that league is taking, could transfer more and more of their attention to union. Like Wigan, Bradford are looking towards players appearing for both the teams under their control.
"I don't think you will see Robbie Paul turning out for Wakefield in the near future, but it's absolutely clear that there will be some contracted Bradford Bulls players turning out," Caisley said.
Michael Oughtred, the outgoing Wakefield chairman, also played down the idea of a single code. "Rugby league, particularly in this area, has a very strong heritage," he said. "It's a great game to watch and there is a fantastic amateur set-up which is very widely supported.
"It's a very healthy and thriving game and there is every reason for rugby league to continue to develop and prosper. Competition makes everybody better."
Wakefield are currently struggling against relegation from National One, but Bradford's clear ambition is to get them into the Premiership. Gordon Braide, one of two Wakefield directors set to join the new board, is sure the news will be welcomed by the players and supporters. "I'd be very much surprised if there is a single member of the club against the move."
Elswehere, amateur clubs will be able to draw home ties against the professionals of the Northern Ford Premiership in the third round draw for the Kelloggs Nutri-Grain Challenge Cup tonight. The League has scrapped the system under which Barla clubs had to concede home advantage and a complicated draw involving three bags of balls also sees two French clubs, St Gaudens and Toulouse, entering the competition.
Huddersfield fear that Mark Moxon, their scrum-half, has a depressed fracture of the cheekbone and could be out for five weeks.Reuse content