Rugby League: Outdated game set for radical changes

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THE GAME is facing its hardest decisions and most radical structural changes in nearly 100 years following yesterday's unveiling of a far-reaching report.

The report, 'Framing the Future', drawn up by independent consultants, says that there are too many professional clubs chasing too small and too geographically narrow a market and that too many fail to provide the facilities necessary to compete with other forms of entertainment.

It suggests an elite premier league, with mergers reducing the present number of 32 professional clubs and firm criteria which those clubs must meet.

An accompanying financial report also presented to club representatives yesterday highlighted serious problems, with many clubs paying out more than they can hope to recoup. That is something some at League HQ believe can be tackled with a salary cap.

Although the League insists that the momentum for change must come from the clubs themselves, there is little doubt about the direction in which the game's central administration, its board of directors, wants it to head.

'The board will resist the thought of abandoning any clubs,' the Rugby League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, said. 'But some clubs two miles apart are killing each other and there are clear examples of clubs which should merge.'

Lindsay said he remained in favour of the game expanding into new areas, but that it might have to contract in its traditional heartland. The historical accident that has placed so many clubs so close to each other 'is now a strait- jacket to us', he said.

Lindsay sees the smaller operations surviving as 'community' or 'feeder' clubs. Central to that line of thinking is the disappearance of any distinction between amateur and professional clubs, leaving those not part of the premier league free to find their own financial level. 'I think we will abolish the terms amateur and professional,' Lindsay said. 'It is an artificial distinction.' There would be a pyramid structure, but with promotion dependent on meeting set standards off the field.

One of the suggestions in the report, which was compiled after visits to all the professional clubs, is that a number of clubs have impoverished themselves by chasing First Division membership to the exclusion of all other considerations.

The premier league would not be a case of going it alone and leaving the rest to sink, Lindsay insisted.

Other suggested initiatives include more international competition - a World Cup every two years and a World Club contest involving more teams - to raise revenue and the level of national interest, and a National Rugby League Association to run the game below premier league level.

'This is not a defeatist document, but one that shows that there are things which need to be done,' Lindsay said. 'We have a clear indication of the way ahead and will be making an announcement within the next 24 hours.'