Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on the upcoming Super League licensing

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City of Salford Stadium

The proposed City of Salford Stadium - I assume it'll be much bigger in reality

Since the Murdoch money reared its head and British rugby league entered the Super League era, the RFL has always been at the helm of some crackpot scheme. Occasionally sensible, mostly strange, the next big thing is licensing. Now, they call it licensing but the plain-spoken rugby league fan knows it’s just a softer word for the most hated word in rugby league; franchising. To be frank, Super League has always been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The league was originally conceived as a franchise league. The top five English clubs at the time – Leeds, Bradford Northern, Wigan, St Helens and Halifax – would form the backbone of the league along with franchises in London, Paris and Toulouse, France’s Rugby à Treize heartland. The remaining six clubs would be area or regional “super-clubs”, requiring the forced merger of local rivals in the rugby league heartlands such as Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers, Warrington and Widnes and Castleford, Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers.


When it came to fruition, Toulouse and the mergers were dropped, relegation and promotion remained and the whole exercise came across as a rebranding. They tried no relegation and promotion in 1999 and 2000 but it was restored soon after. Four of the previous top five clubs, with Halifax the exception, still dominate rugby league, as salary caps can only do so much. Promoted teams and those consistently at the bottom have become desperately short-termist and you can hardly blame them. The jump to the Super League is massive and the only way to stay there is to get in ready-made players. The usual solution is to import Australians en masse. The RFL blames this for why some clubs have trouble developing players and back in 2005, they announced a plan to put it to an end.

From the 2009 season, promotion and relegation will be suspended and presence in the Super League will be decided by three-year licences. Super League will also expand to 14 teams. Clubs must already exist, be playing professional rugby in either Super League or National League One, rather than forming from scratch as most franchise leagues would require, and must meet minimum current standards to apply. The RFL have set out ten criteria for licensing, with two points each available for the stadium, attendance, finance and player strength. Two other points are available for keeping within the salary cap and if the club is outside the rugby league heartlands.

The RFL has a vision of rugby league being played out in front of large crowds in large, modern stadia by teams filled with British players, whose clubs are stable, well-financed businesses that do not break the rules and the criteria match pretty much that. Some of the criteria work with each other well. For instance, they ask for a 12,000 stadium, a 10,000 average crowd, Premier-level facilities and a 40% average occupancy. Whilst some may struggle to make the first two criteria, a smart, smaller stadium where the crowd is over 40% of capacity would receive points. Meanwhile, clubs with older stadia may still get points for capacity and average occupancy, despite dwindling crowds.

Should a club get over eight points, they will receive an “A” licence and will be guaranteed a place in the league for three years. Teams with between five and seven points receive a “B” licence, though are not guaranteed place should many teams meet the criteria. From the looks of it, all “A” and “B” licence teams should make it. Below five points and you are granted a “C” licence and must await further scrutiny from the RFL. Personally, I feel “C” licences are there so that the RFL can pick whomever they want. All Super League teams have applied, as have Celtic Crusaders, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Leigh Centurions, Salford City Reds and Widnes Vikings from National League One and French Elite Championship team Toulouse.

Problem is nobody can seem to agree on the criteria and how to rank teams. It’s not an open book unfortunately and, past the open factual information such as attendances and stadium size, much of it is open to opinion. Widnes were in administration last autumn but are now doing well financially. Are they getting one of the finance points of does the previous administration count against them? Given that the RFL will not publish a breakdown of how points were awarded; there could very well be a whitewash. This process needs to be more open.

To illustrate to vagueness of the criteria, rugby league magazine Code 13 and Sky Sports’ “Boots ‘N All” both tried to grade the applicants and couldn’t agree on who met what criteria beyond the factual, as they are relying on the information they get. Whilst in the main, I think the Boots N All gradings have been right, they came up with some screwy ideas. They took clubs at their word when they claimed solvency but which club is going to say “no, we’re not solvent”? The process also revealed that the point for having a turnover of over £4m can only be gained if the club have turned this over for three years. However, Boots ‘N All gave Widnes a point for solvency despite being their recent administration.

Where the Code 13 and Boots ‘N All differ is on the former rating Wigan, Bradford and Catalans higher and the latter rating Leigh, Salford and St Helens higher. However, what shocked me on Boots ‘N All is the confused thinking over the Leigh Centurions and Salford City Reds bids. When it boosted their score, Leigh were alternatively graded on Hilton Park, in the case of average occupancy, and on Leigh Sports Village, in the case of a premier stadium with a capacity of over 12,000. Meanwhile, Salford have a new stadium in the pipeline but graded entirely on their current stadium. They can’t have it both ways. Either it’s all on the new or all on the old. Leigh, who were graded as a C licence in Code 13, were rated as a B licence on Boots ‘N All through confused application of the criteria alone.

Ultimately, I can’t see a current team getting thrown out. It’s the first time around and it would be beyond harsh to do so. So it’s twelve plus two from the remaining seven. Only one club stands out from the pack, which is Widnes, but their formerly precarious financial position will likely count against them. Featherstone have been open about using this application to improve standards for the next round of licensing. Halifax have rebuilt the club and the stadium but they’re not there yet. For me, it is down to Leigh, Salford and Widnes, with Celtic Crusaders and Toulouse the outsiders who are still in the game due to geographic expansion. Salford, with their stadium plan near Trafford Park, have positioned themselves as Manchester’s team, despite Leigh also being in Greater Manchester. Leigh, like Widnes, could suffer from being unfashionable. I think it would be lunacy to give a licence to Celtic Crusaders, whose main argument seems to be that they’ll go bust without Super League. While I think they meet more of the criteria than the rest, Toulouse suffer from France not being ready for another team from a playing perspective. Catalans still rely too heavily on non-native players so how could Toulouse get enough players, especially when Catalans already have the best?

As much as the allure of geographic expansion is very great, I feel a lot of work needs to be done in South Wales and South-West France before we can welcome them into Super League. As such, I think it will be two from three of Leigh, Salford and Widnes, though lack of crowds, lack of a new stadium and previous financial woes could count against them respectively.


Written by Michael Farrow

July 1, 2008 at 7:30 pm

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