July 22, 2008

It's Salford City Reds and Celtic Crusaders!: The Rugby Football League has announced which 14 teams will be awarded a licence to compete in Superleague 2009-2011. The existing 12 clubs have all been selected, plus Salford City Reds and Celtic Crusaders (from Bridgend, South Wales). Missing out are Widnes, Leigh, Halifax, Featherstone, and Toulouse. Wakefield and Castleford must be relieved, but the inclusion of Celtic over Widnes is a huge risk, as the RFL try to expand the game into new areas - in this case, a tradionally rugby union area. PS - Can we have a "rugby" category? Pretty please?

posted by salmacis to other at 10:17 AM - 6 comments

Some background info: Firstly, this is about rugby league, not rugby union. Different sports, different governing bodies. The Rugby Football League was formed in 1895 when northern clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union, over charges of professionalism. Since then, the sport has been popular in northern England, but struggled for attention in the rest of the UK. The current top tier of competition is Superleague - a league of 12 clubs, with promotion and relegation to the National League. There are currently 10 clubs within the league "heartland" (an corridor stretching from Liverpool across to Hull), plus Harlequins RL (London) and Catalans (Perpignan, France).

In 2007, the RFL announced that the competiton would be expanded to 14 clubs, and a bombshell: there would be no more promotion and relegation, and clubs - including the current 12 - would have to apply for one of the 14 places. The idea was to raise standards across the game, forcing clubs to improve youth development, stadium facilities and attendances, but also to try to expand the game outside it's traditional areas.

Celtic Crusaders were set up only three years ago, when the Welsh Rugby Union contracted the Celtic Warriors in the Magners League. While they have made great strides in that time, doubts still persist as to whether rugby league can survive in an overwhelmingly union area.

posted by salmacis at 10:42 AM on July 22, 2008

I live in the other heartland of Rugby League - along the east coast of Australia, from about Cooma northwards to Cape York. We also get the Superleague matches on pay TV. Salmacis - it would be interesting to get your perspective on the promotion approach of Superleague in Britain - what is it up against in terms of expanding teams outside the traditional base? This is a major concern for Rugby League in Australia, too, but I think the respective situations are very different. Out here, NRL and State of Origin games on telly consistently rate highly, media coverage is huge (in Sydney and Brisbane anyway), but actual crowd attendances are dwindling, especially compared to the rival code of Aussie Rules, as well as the new football A- league. I suspect a breakdown of the audience would also show an ageing demographic. On the field, professional Rugby Union and the Superleague also seem to be more cashed up and ready to poach the best players. There are also problems with junior development, with football and more recently Aussie Rules having better approaches to getting young kids into the games. There is a real danger that the once dominant Rugby League will become a minority sport, played only in the country and amongst certain ethnic groups, something which the NRL is aware of, but doesn't seem to know how to address. We are in the middle of centenary year celebrations here - 1908 was the first season of the game played under 'Northern Union' rules in Sydney. Declaration of interest - my family comes from Cumbria, and my grandfather was a semi professional league player in Barrow-in-Furness. However the succeeding generations all played football, while keen on League as spectators.

posted by owlhouse at 05:28 PM on July 22, 2008

I saw this story on BBC Breakfast whilst half asleep this morning and I must admit it did seem a little strange that established teams like Widnes and Wakefield had been overlooked in favour of two teams I'd never even heard of. But then I suppose I don't follow rugby league that closely. However despite my relative lack of interest in the eggchasing I second the suggestion of a rugby category as it's a perfectly cromulent sport whatever the code.

posted by squealy at 03:19 AM on July 23, 2008

Actually, it's two perfectly cromulent sports.. ..and Wakefield weren't overlooked. Owlhouse, I live well outside the league heartland and rugby league has a very low profile here. Sky Sports gave a shedload of money to the RFL, which means that if you don't have Sky Sports, actually watching any league is difficult. Unlike football, pubs are unlikely to show it. The BBC has a weekly highlights show, but it's on at a useless hour and not very good. Match Of The Day, it ain't. The BBC does at least get to show the Challenge Cup. Woo. The Sky money has enabled all Superleague clubs to be fully professional, and crowds, although small compared to football, are on a par with union. Clubs like Harlequins, Huddersfield and Wakefield can't draw flies. National newspapers will provide coverage of games, but the amount of space given is small compared to rugby union - which is again tiny when compared to football. Sometimes I have to look results up on the BBC website. I imagine that northern editions of the national papers give far more space to rugby league, and the northern local papers obviously will. Generally, rugby league is seen as northern, provincial and working class. I'm pretty sure many fans are annoyed at the inclusion of Celtic Crusaders simply because they are outside the traditional heartland. All in all, league does well enough in it's niche, but over the last 20 years club rugby union has got its act together, and league will have to find a way to reach beyond it's traditional areas.

posted by salmacis at 09:55 AM on July 23, 2008

Actually, the fact that squealy, as a Midlander, has never heard of Salford City Reds, despite the fact they were in the Superleague last year, shows just how low the profile of league is outside the heartland.

posted by salmacis at 09:57 AM on July 23, 2008

It's strange to think that RFL in England had a higher general profile when Eddie Waring was commentating on Featherstone Rovers vs Wakefield Trinity on a torrential, dark Saturday afternoon in December for Grandstand. Actually, I think that's slightly inaccurate: my personal sense is that league had a national profile that outstripped union in the years after Waring's retirement until the mid-90s. The shift of union from shamateurism to full professionalism (which redrew the map for some traditional homes of the game) also transformed league, and now we see players switching codes (and nationalities) to go where the money is. The players have dictated the shape of both codes, rather than the clubs and their fans, and this planned "expansion" seems in keeping with that sad trend. Say what you like about Russell Crowe's takeover of the South Sydney Rabbitohs -- Versus is showing the fly-on-the-wall documentary right now -- but investing in traditional strongholds that have fallen on hard times seems like a better strategy than opening up shop and expecting a new generation of supporters to show up.

posted by etagloh at 03:02 AM on July 26, 2008

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