Rugby League did an about-turn on an about-turn by decreasing the size of its Super League to 12 last night.
A five-and-a-half hour meeting in Huddersfield, which had originally been presented with proposals for increasing the size of the News Limited- backed competition, decided instead to set up an lite league of this season's top 10 First Division sides, plus the London Broncos and Paris. Below that there will be a First Division of 11 clubs and a Second Division of 10, with Chorley Borough coming back into the professional ranks.
The revised proposals were passed by a majority of clubs but will not meet with universal approval. Widnes, who had been destined for the Super League, will now play in the First Division and their chairman, Jim Mills, voted against the new plan.
Keighley Cougars, who are already considering legal action against the league, also find themselves in the First Division and were out of the meeting when the crucial vote was taken.
News Limited, which is setting up the European Super League to run parallel with the competition they intend to start in Australia, have put extra money into the deal here to enable the spoils to be spread more widely. The 12 Super League sides will receive nearly £1m per season and the First Division teams almost £500,000 each for each year, with £1.5m to be shared among the sides in the Second Division.
There will be at least one up, one down on a promotion-relegation system for all five years of the deal.
The new structure marks a return to a three-division system, which ran for two seasons before ending in 1993, and is a far cry from the original Super League plan, which required clubs to merge in order to form new, and more viable entities.
It was confirmed at a news conference after the meeting by the RFL's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, and its chairman, Rodney Walker, that Sir John Hall, the chairman of Newcastle United, had expressed interest in forming a rugby league team.
Walker explained how the Cougars came to miss the vote. "Keighley decided during the course of the meeting to leave the meeting and go and consult with their lawyers," he said. "The meeting was delayed for up to an hour- and-a-half to give Keighley time to return and to participate in the vote.
"In the end there was a unanimous decision of clubs that they regretted most strongly the fact that Keighley had chosen not to play a full part in the meeting and had failed to take the opportunity to put their case to the full membership and were wanting to pursue what they believe is their case outside the normal structure of rugby league."
But Keighley's solicitor, Richard Cramer, expressed surprise that the vote had gone ahead in the club's absence. "We are urgently requesting the details of the resolutions. We are unable to comment further at this stage."
Keighley were by no means the only club to be unhappy at the original proposals for the Super League, which were first revealed and approved by clubs three weeks ago.
"The revisions take account of concerns raised over the past three weeks," Lindsay said. "I believe that we have now been able to allay the fans' fears over club mergers and the loss of the game's traditions."
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