The French Connection

At the end of May, 2004 the Rugby Football League finally ended months of speculation and agreed that from 2006 a French side, Union Treiziste Catalane (UTC), should be invited to join the Tetley?s Super League. The decision has been widely welcomed amongst RL fans as a means to ensure the immediate survival, and eventual expansion, of the game in France. However, despite this general enthusiasm, the RL press described the vote to admit UTC as ?close?. No official figures appear to have been released , but given that Huddersfield argued openly against UTC?s admission, with occasional public murmurings of support from Salford, Wakefield, Warrington and, Widnes, it is likely that ?close? means that the vote was 7-5 in favour of UTC?s admission . This post examines why some clubs were opposed to UTC?s admission. It suggests that unless UTC prove competitive the RFL has created some potentially serious future problems.

It will be helpful to begin by looking briefly at two of the problems which recently have beset Super League. Firstly, the salary cap. Money, or so they say, is power and to understand the power relations within the RFL it is helpful to identify the ?haves? and ?have much less? clubs. The so-called ?Big Four? of Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan are the ?haves?. They are by far the richest clubs and exert most influence. Throughout 2004 a row has rumbled on over proposals by some of the less wealthy ?have much less? clubs to create a more level playing field by lowering the salary cap, a move fiercely resisted by the ?haves?. Secondly, promotion and relegation between Super League and the National Leagues has never been properly structured. Instead it is decided on a year-by-year basis, according to ground criteria which sometimes seems to arbitrarily applied.

In part, at least, the salary cap proposals from the ?have much less ? clubs were probably made with at least one eye on the future admission of a French club. At present, Super League consists of twelve clubs; therefore, if it was to accommodate UTC by expanding to thirteen clubs, the money from the SKY television deal would have to be split thirteen ways instead of twelve. Although the Big Four would hardly notice the difference, it would create severe financial difficulties for everybody else. At its May meeting, the RFL dealt with this issue by voting to keep the number of SL clubs at twelve with all clubs, including UTC, being subject to the salary cap which, it was further agreed,would be maintained at its current level for the time being.

The RFL also guaranteed UTC?s Super League palace for 2006 and 2007. However, instead taking the opportunity to address the long-standing problem of promotion and relegation the RFL fudged the issue and deferred a decision until some unspecified later date. This inaction leaves the ?have much less? clubs facing an uncertain future. If there to be no relegation or promotion in 2006 and 2007, does that mean that there is no way back until at least 2008 for whoever gets the 2005 wooden spoon; if UTC finish bottom will the next to bottom club be relegated; and, is the door to be slammed shut on the National League clubs?

My own view is that the salary cap row will continue to be an annual event, however UTC fare. How long the present compromise agreement will last, or if UTC will eventually be given dispensation to exceed the cap, remain open questions. On the relegation issue, the RFL will cross its collective fingers and, hoping UTC don?t finish bottom of the league , will not take any decisions until the end of the 2006 season. Without the prospect of promotion the NL sides, who are already in serious trouble with falling gates will find it even more difficult to attract players and sponsorship, and the currently dormant prospect of a breakaway from the RFL and Super League might even be once again actively discussed.

Of course if UTC do make an impact on Super League these issues will not be forced, but it is a gamble. It seems, therefore, that there is a danger that once again, from the best of motives, the RFL?s failure to think through the consequences of a ?good? idea has set the scene for a potentially serious future problems

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