This season will be the last of rugby league as we know it. A unanimous vote of the game's chairmen in Wigan yesterday agreed that a summer European Super League of 14 clubs will begin in March 1996. There will be new clubs in Paris, Toulouse and Cardiff, the last of which will initially play in the subordinate British First Division.
Other Super League clubs will be formed by amalgamations, many of them cutting across a century of fierce local rivalry. The projected make-up of the League is this: Wigan; St Helens; Leeds; Calder (a merger of the Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone clubs); London Broncos; Cumbria (an amalgamation of the county's four clubs); Cheshire (formed by merging Widnes and Warrington); Toulouse; Paris (or two other French cities, if that fits in better with the plans of Jacques Fouroux); Manchester (a combination of Salford and Oldham); Halifax (although there remains a possibility of their joining forces with Huddersfield or Bradford Northern); Bradford Northern by themselves; South Yorkshire (Sheffield Eagles and Doncaster); and Humberside (Hull and Hull KR).
These teams will play each other home and away, on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, from March to October, the same season as the new British First Division. The top four Super League clubs will then play off against their Australasian counterparts, with international representative matches to follow. Although the First Division is conceived as a feeder league supported by an initial hand-out of £2m, there will be no promotion or relegation between it and the Super League for the first two seasons.
Much of this revolution will come into effect even earlier than 1996. The idea is that a truncated 1995-6 season will be played by the newly amalgamated and re-organised clubs, as what the Rugby League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, described as "a trial run" for the big kick-off next March.
Whatever one makes of all this - and there is much detail still to be revealed - the idea that 35 club chairmen, individuals of varying capabilities, should make these decisions after two hours' talks and no opportunity to consult with their boards, players or - God forbid - supporters, looks precipitate in the extreme. "I can only answer that by pointing to the unanimous vote," Lindsay said.
The chief executive - who becomes chief executive of the Super League as well - side-stepped the apparent embarrassment of Murdoch's News Ltd, twice announcing the result before the chairmen even voted on the proposals, by explaining that the press release trumpeting unanimous acceptance of the plan 90 minutes before the meeting began referred to a meeting the previous night between prospective Super League chairmen.
That meeting, held for logistical rather than symbolic reasons in Huddersfield, the birthplace of the game in 1895, thrashed out many of the objections. When it came to the vote yesterday, even Leeds, with their opposition to summer rugby and veiled threats of an injunction to prevent being railroaded into a decision, raised their hands with the rest. The reason for this united front is, clearly, money; more money than clubs, most of them bankrupt beneath the casuistry of their balance sheets, have ever permitted themselves to dream about.
The Super League will get £15m for each of the first five years. That, rather than any dynamic world vision of where the game can go from here, was the motivation behind the voting.Wonderfully unifying factor as £75m is, the total unanimity over the future did not survive the walk across the car park when yesterday's meeting broke up. As Lindsay admitted, Warrington and Widnes remain adamantly opposed to merger. "Both clubs want to continue separately," the Warrington chairman, Peter Higham, said.
How, then, could he vote for a plan in which that merger is explicitly required? The reply was disarmingly frank: "I voted for the £75m. In the overall interests of the game, I had no choice."
Even those chairmen who gave their blessing to their clubs disappearing into new organisations might have severe difficulty selling the concept to their supporters. And then there is the question of where these newly- formed clubs are going to play. In their hurry to get their hands on the money, British clubs ignored a plea from the chairman of the Australian Rugby League and the game's international board, Ken Arthurson, who is fighting his own, increasingly doomed battle with Murdoch and wanted a decision delayed.
By the decision yesterday, Britain has cut itself adrift from Arthurson and the ARL, and the effects of that could be far-reaching. If Arthurson wants revenge he could wreck this October's Centenary World Cup by ensuring that most of its participants pull out. That would be a terrible price to pay for the Murdoch adventure.
Even rugby union in the southern hemisphere appears likely to suffer a haemorrhage of talent following its World Cup in June. Twenty union internationals - from the Wallaby, All-Black and Springbok sides - were said to be set to join the Australian Super League on $1m (£471,000) contracts after the event. The Sydney newspaper, the Sun Herald, claimed yesterday that the Wallaby captain, Phil Kearns, and team-mates Jason Little, Willie Ofahengaue and George Gregan are among those committed to the new league. The Australia winger, David Campese, is quoted as saying that up to a dozen Wallabies will join up. News Corporation was also scouting for talent at an All-Black trial match yesterday, as well as offering the Australian league international Ian Roberts $900,000 (£424,000) to leave Manly and join the Super League.
Meanwhile, the Great Britain league 1996 tour to Australia is already dead. There will simply be no time-slot for it and, in any case, the Murdoch contract forbids Great Britain now from playing internationals against teams other than those drawn from the Super League.
Then there is the Challenge Cup, a constant of the game for 99 years. It is hard to see how it can fit adequately into the new summer timetable. But yesterday, as the cash rolled in, that was regarded as a relatively minor detail.
How the new world will work
August 1995 Start of the last British winter season. Truncated programme begins, with a Premier League made up of future Super League clubs, and a First Division taking in the rest. All sides play each other once
March 1996 End of season. Start of Super League and new summer format
October 1996 European top four to play Australasian top four for World Championship
November 1996 Possible international series, involving Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand
The Super League Wigan, St Helens, Leeds, Calder (amalgamation of Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone), London Broncos, Cumbria, Cheshire (Widnes and Warrington), Toulouse, Paris, Manchester (Salford and Oldham), Halifax, Bradford Northern, South Yorkshire (Sheffield Eagles and Doncaster), Humberside (Hull and Hull KR)
British First Division Cardiff, Bramley, Leigh, Highfield, Hunslet, Batley, Keighley, Swinton, Huddersfield, Rochdale, Ryedale, DewsburyReuse content