Meet the new League, same as the old League

The revised revolution has a familiar feel, but there will be advantages for rugby league
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The Independent Online
By a circuitous route - around the houses, through boardrooms, hotel conference suites and the law courts - rugby league is back where it could have been four years ago.

The latest and, we are assured, final draft of the Super League takes us back to the debate that surrounded the introduction of three divisions in 1991.

If this is revolution, it suddenly has a familiar look about it. Only the fact that the game will be played in the summer - a change that was never discussed properly before it rode in on the back of the Super League - will make it appear radically different.

Those of us who would have preferred to see three divisions of 12 four years ago were assured that it could never work. There would be too few home games; it would be hopelessly uneconomic.

That suddenly does not seem to be a problem and, if we thank Rupert Murdoch for nothing else, we should be grateful that, after a number of false starts, his money is being used to produce competitions of a sensible size. Gate money, always the holy grail of shortsighted clubs, is no longer the sole issue when there is £87m swishing around in the game.

The goal-posts have moved so often since clubs voted for the original Super League proposals 24 days ago that there are few possibilities that have not been explored. As recently as last Friday night, an expansion of the Super League to 18, or even 20, clubs seemed a likelier option. That would have been a disaster: 12 is close to ideal, but there would be a case for moving to 14 if there were strong enough candidates pressing for inclusion.

The flexibility in the new scheme is one of its main attractions. There is scope for adding new clubs in strategic locations, on the heels of Cardiff, who, although nobody seemed to have remembered them on Sunday night, are still supposed to be in the inaugural First Division in March.

Newcastle United have expressed an interest and rugby league has had a long, on-off flirtation with the North-east. The League will not hesitate to "fast-track" a candidate of this stature towards, and that has to be right, although it is at nearby Gateshead that the groundwork for the code has been done.

There is a rough and ready fairness about the revised proposals. Clubs should, of course, have had advance notice that they were playing for a Super League place, but that, compared with some that have arisen, is a relatively minor injustice.

Widnes certainly have a grouse and Keighley may yet feel that their core complaint of being denied promotion still stands. Just about everyone else, however, seems to have been sweetened sufficiently to accept their destiny.

The new terms are infinitely more generous to the clubs outside the Super League. That is more equitable, but it contains dangers. The worrying truth, which also applies to the even better looked-after Super League sides, is that is the same men who were incapable of marshalling modest sums of money sensibly who are now being given large sums of money.

The other limitation of the latest manifestation of the Super League is that it is not very super. When St George won 11 Sydney Championships in a row in the Fifties and Sixties, limited-tackle rugby was introduced, in the main, to break their monopoly.

At least part of the reason for the game swallowing its fears about being swallowed by Murdoch was the hope that this would do the same to Wigan.

That is most unlikely to happen. Apart from the improbable event of London or Paris building a truly formidable side, there is no real prospect of Wigan facing sterner opposition next summer than they have this winter.

Only a pooling of resources could have achieved that, but the League made a complete mess of the issue of mergers. If it had said: "Here is an awful lot of money which we are going to use to fund a 12- or 14-team Super League. Go away for two weeks and come back with your submissions, bearing in mind that mergers will be looked upon very favourably", then several might have seen the way the wind was blowing.

To be told that their chairmen had voted their existence away for 77 million pieces of silver ensured that no self-respecting supporters or shareholders would allow any mergers to happen. How could the most powerful men in the sport know their game so badly? If you believed in the conspiracy, rather than the cock-up, theory of history, you might think that they were softening the game up for what they actually wanted - which was something like this.

I will stick with the latter theory, but out of it has come, for all the legitimate fears over a surrender of control to a hard-headed commercial organisation and the damaging chaos of bidding for the "loyalty" of players, something that could be made to work without destroying more than it creates.

Widnes tackle League, page 31