Friday the 13th has long been a date that brought fear to people, and today is no different. The news from Newcastle Thunder this morning is a tragedy for the sport coming so quickly as it does after the withdrawal of London Skolars. Our hearts go out to the loyal Thunder fans, many of whom have been there since the Gateshead days, and the Board, who we know have tried their best to avoid this sad outcome.
As a sport, we often talk about “The Rugby League Family”. Well, if ever there was a time for that family to come together for the good of the sport it’s now. It’s little secret that Hunslet has consistently pushed for a merged Championship and League 1 division, split into two conferences, for a number of years. Unfortunately, at last week’s Championship and League 1 Forum, a number of Championship Clubs made it clear that they had no interest in that option. We understand protectionism, but the simple fact is that a third tier in the professional game is now unsustainable, especially with only 8 Clubs. We would now urge the RFL, and all Championship Clubs, to reconsider the Conference proposal. League 1 Clubs need to be given a fighting chance of surviving in the new IMG grading era. We accept there is limited central funding, and none of us are looking for a bigger slice of that pie. What we do need though is the opportunity to grow our businesses and that’s best done through playing derbies, and having the opportunity to play games against the biggest Clubs outside Super League. That will, in turn, help to increase our existing fanbase. It will also allow us to drive additional sponsorship and investment into our Clubs and start the financial “levelling up” process that can only benefit the competitiveness of the whole sport. After all, IMG’s key driver is to create jeopardy in every single fixture, and without financial “levelling up” that just won’t happen.
Outside of France, as a sport, we need to accept that expansion simply hasn’t worked well. It’s not that long ago that Northampton were heralded as the way forward for the sport but dropped out without even playing a game. Since then we’ve welcomed, and lost, Oxford, Gloucester, Hemel, Toronto, West Wales, and now the longer serving London Skolars and Newcastle. All of those incomings and departures have impacted on League 1 in one way or another, and it’s unfair for League 1 to continue to bear the brunt of what is becoming an expansionism burden. We would encourage a fundamental root and branch review of the RFL’s expansion policy, including full consultation with all member Clubs, before any further expansion is considered. Let us be clear that we are not against expansion per se. It’s more about how we support the interests and growth of both new and existing Clubs, and clearly understand the benefits to the wider sport when we look to expand. That way we can all have a significant level of surety and confidence.
League 1 needs help. If there really is a “Rugby League Family” then now’s the time for it to stand up and be counted. If not, can we really rule out further withdrawals?