Mergers sow first seeds of discontent

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The Independent Online
The dust was settling yesterday after the cataclysm that shook the game on Saturday. That will be a temporary respite, however, before clubs and individuals study the small print in the agreement to sell the game to Rupert Murdoch and start to kick up that dust like mad.

The unanimous agreement of the club chairmen to accept a five-year £75m package will have huge repercussions. The plan is for a 14-strong summer super league, partly created by mergers between Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers; Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone; Widnes and Warrington; Salford and Oldham; Sheffield Eagles and Doncaster; and Workington, Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle and including two new clubs in France. Thus, this will be the last conventional season. The next will be a truncated, transitional affair, allowing the new league to kick off in March 1996. Then, for the first two seasons, there will be no promotion or relegation.

"The phones have been melting," John Drake, a spokesman for the Rugby League Supporters' Association, said. "Our view is that we are giving it a guarded welcome. It could be the game's biggest opportunity to promote and develop itself. But the club mergers are going to cause an absolute furore. They already are doing in towns like Featherstone and Castleford. There is going to be blood in the streets there."

Another flashpoint, where Warrington and Widnes eye each other suspiciously along the Cheshire boundary, produced contradictory signals yesterday. Warrington, despite voting for the plan, were still against merger. Widnes, despite their chairman, Jim Mills' resentment at being left out of the discussions between prospective super league clubs that ensured the eventual result, were talking about it as a sad inevitability.

What those and other mergers will bring is a rash of redundancies among players, coaches and administrators, the implications of which were just starting to sink in yesterday.

Each club involved in a potential amalagamation will believe that it is better run than its neighbours and that its board, secretary and coach are the ones best equipped to steer it through a turbulent future.

The grounds for wrangling - even before they start arguing about grounds as such - are limitless and expecting such issues to be resolved in time for a dry run to precede the super league this August seems preposterous.

The unhappiest clubs this weekend, however, are Keighley and Batley - two clubs who have built themselves up from destitution to the verge of the top division. They are now to be denied that for which they have worked so hard. Their chairmen are threatening legal action. But their players and supporters are entitled to ask how those chairmen could put their hands up and vote for the package.

Despite the widespread feeling that something radical was needed, the clubs that have put Murdoch and the Rugby League chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, in a position to answer every criticism by pointing to the unanimity of the vote, will face rigorous questioning about what they have agreed to.

"What we have do is look at the alternative," Drake said. "If the Rugby League hadn't co-operated, Murdoch would have done it anyway. He would have bought all our best players and taken them to Australia. At least this way, the British game carries on. Whether it can take its supporters with it is another matter."

Other doubts centre on whether the game can carry existing sponsors and terrestrial television along - will the BBC, for example, be interested in televising a watered-down Challenge Cup?

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