Since the drama on the pitch concluded at Elland Road last month, rugby league has been gripped by the dramas off it.
Just where will Crusaders play next year? A move to Wrexham is strongly rumoured – just 32 miles from Widnes, one of the clubs denied a place in the elite as the RFL bravely opted for expansion – but the uncertainty over even a location of the club raises question marks over their future. Brian Noble must be itching to get engrossed with what promises to be a good challenge for him, but it will be difficult for him to build a competitive side unless the uncertainty over their future is resolved soon.
Apparently, Leighton Samuel is looking at selling the club to a Wrexham consortium, hence the move, amid rumours he is unhappy at the decision to move the club from Bridgend to Newport. However, existing Crusaders fans may not follow the club to Wrexham, with the news that a Bridgend-based club has applied to join Championship 1.
A move north will essentially undo the work done by the club in the past few years, and the Wrexham side will basically be starting the season without a fan-base, in a move that will no doubt create a few nervous faces at the RFL.
The failure of the Crusaders to inspire in a debut year dogged by off-field problems has struck a blow to the expansion of the greatest game. The RFL also spoke out about the disappointing attendances which appear to be hindering the progress of Harlequins, who are still failing to get people through the doors despite being in Super League for every season since its inception.
And just a year in to the licensing process, the business plan that Celtic Crusaders submitted that convinced the panel to give them a three-year Super League berth has been rendered almost absolutely obsolete. It’s a blow for the licensing system, and ammunition to those who want the return of promotion and relegation.
The problem is, the gap has been increased even further between Super League and the Championship that no club could hope of stepping up to the top flight at such short notice. In previous years, such as Castleford and Widnes in 2007 and Hull KR in 2006, top end National League clubs could well have competed with bottom end Super League sides with a few extra faces.
But with the Championship salary cap decreasing by 25% for 2010, the gulf appears to be widening.
Money remains a big problem. Many Super League sides have posted losses while financial problems are beginning to haunt the second and third tiers, with Keighley the latest club subject of a winding-up order. We’ve already seen Leigh handed a relegation reprieve thanks to Gateshead’s demise, and it appears that off-field issues are becoming more relevant and readily talked about than what happens on the pitch.
The de-listing of the Challenge Cup may come as a blessing in disguise for rugby league – despite the disappointment of fans – because it will give the RFL an extra event to sell and raise much needed revenue.
Besides the lucky few at the top table, there appears to be an unstable feel about rugby league. Some third tier clubs aren’t living, but merely existing. Doncaster, Gateshead, Oldham, Rochdale and Swinton form half of Championship 1, and all five clubs have had some sort of financial difficulty in the past couple of years.
The reports of Super League finances recently also remains a worry. Super League may have a strategy centered around the licensing system, but what about those clubs who aren’t unfortunate enough to be selected?
How can they continue to attract fans who are undoubtedly put off by the trials and tribulations of rugby league off the pitch?
As per a previous blog, I think the Wrexham re-location could work – but Crusaders may well be giving themselves too much to do from a standing start. Had they started there, things may have been different. The underlying message is that gradual expansion should be the focus.
Birmingham for Super League?