Championship needs a vision

It will be a relief when the season starts up again in the next few weeks so at least some of the talk can be deflected away from off-field activity.

Financial strife, relocating franchises and relegation reprieves have dominated the debates over the past few months and it’s about time we got back to talking about where it all matters – the rugby on the pitch.

As a consequence of the licensing system, discussions seem to centre around who have the best facilities, who’s stadium is next around the corner and whether your rival team has a better youth set up than yourself.

St Helens have of course this week announced that 2010 will be their final season at Knowsley Road, and they at least seem further along the path to a new home than Salford and Wakefield do (sorry, I’m talking about licenses again), while Halifax were dealt a blow with the news they can’t run an under 18s side without fielding an equivalent under 20s side – something which they, apparently, cannot afford.

And the new South Wales Championship 1 team have immediately set their stall out and made the bold aim for Super League in 2015; naturally because the first Welsh franchise – sorry, ‘licensee’ – has been such a success.

The problem is, Super League is developing in to the be all and end all scenario for professional rugby league clubs. Why can’t we sustain a thriving Championship for teams to aim for? Why must South Wales merely see the Championship as a stepping stone.

As it stands, the Championship is always going to be full of teams who don’t want to be there (although try telling that to Leigh, who will be counting their lucky stars for Gateshead’s demise, which has handed them a Super League lifeline of their own).

Even Toulouse, who face a travel of about 800 miles for their away league games, are only their as a stepping stone to Super League.

Eventually though, Super League is going to have a surplus of teams – and what happens to them then?

You could of course argue that there is a surplus now, what with 19 teams applying for a 2009-11 license. Halifax, Leigh and Widnes are among the teams to have been denied once, and what if they are denied again? What happens to those clubs then?

Graham Clay has done a good job spearheading Halifax’s Super League push for 2012, while Steve O’Connor’s backing of Widnes have transformed the club that were probably the biggest losers on 2008 announcement date.

But the 3+ years of hard work done by people like the above two could once again go unrewarded, if their face doesn’t fit. They could do everything asked of them, and still be denied.

Instead, something must be done to prevent the “be all and end all” mentality surrounding Super League becoming even more detrimental to the game. Of course, the removal of promotion and relegation has had a substantial effect on this.

Aspiring Super League clubs are of course improving their standing – take note of the increased support at Barrow or the stadium improvements at Halifax – as a consequence of the licensing system, but what if their hard work is for nothing? Will all the progress be undone? It’s hard to say.

The hard work put in by clubs can be sustainted and maintained in a thriving Championship, providing the support is there. At the moment, it is merely a three-year home for clubs who aren’t chosen for the top flight. While all clubs should aspire to reach the top flight, that shouldn’t be at the expense of the second tier, which should be driven forward with a vision, much as the Super League trying to do.

It needs to become a respected league in itself, and a place where teams want to be. Whether that can be done without the presence of a reward (e.g. promotion), remains to be seen. It was competitive last season, although the decrease in the salary cap won’t help it’s cause, it needs to become something like it’s football equivalent – a thriving, well supported league where teams want to play.

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