The Championship’s conundrum as D-Day beckons

The Rugby Football League has had some unenviable tasks in recent times, but sorting out how feasible it is for the Championship and League 1 to restart this year must be among the most difficult.

That is down primarily to the wide range both of club views and circumstances, ranging from those with Super League aspirations and full-time squads, to smaller operations, some of which are on a financial knife edge.

In short, every club’s situation is different, much more so than Super League.

That was illustrated by the insights from Mark Sawyer’s dual role that were featured in League Express a few weeks back.

Sawyer is the chairman of Dewsbury Rams and chief executive of Bradford Bulls, the latter a position he was given special dispensation for by the RFL to help steer them through the current climate.

The clubs ground share at the Tetley’s Stadium, but the Rams have access to several revenue streams the Bulls don’t, such as car-boot sales and the use of five-a-side pitches.

Bradford are also much more heavily reliant on having crowds at their matches, with their larger supporter base providing a much higher percentage of their income.

For a more radical comparison, we have relegated London Broncos, whose central funding this year is around £850,000, including their Super League parachute payment, and promoted Whitehaven, whose money is closer to £170,000.

One runs a full-time squad, the other a part-time one. How furlough works for both differs significantly, making coming off that scheme to return to play a different proposition for the two clubs.

The likes of Leigh and Featherstone have been publicly vocal about their desire to return to play, after having invested heavily in squads capable of pushing for promotion.

In fact Rovers announced a 2020 signing last week in NRL star Fa’amanu Brown, which depends on getting back onto the field with promotion at stake.

Other clubs have been less vocal in public about their stance, but privately have huge reservations about the impact that returning to play could have, not least after the RFL confirmed that testing would, at current levels, cost around £5,000 a week for each club.

That is a major stumbling block for the vast majority, especially given that there will be no crowd income, at least at first.

So too is the fact that part-time players will have to gain clearance from their employers to return to the field. And having sterile training venues will be much more problematic than in Super League, with some clubs using a variety of venues that are often multi-purpose.

The governing body last week circulated papers that updated clubs on the findings of two working groups set up to investigate the feasibility of returning to play ahead of Thursday’s conference call.

The conclusions to those make interesting reading and provide the very latest situation ahead of the meeting.

They read:

* As stated throughout, the three key factors to be taken into account in looking at restructuring the competitions are player welfare, financial sustainability and competition integrity.

* A number of clubs would struggle, on their current set-ups, to deliver the standards required under the Return to Train Protocols. This is imperative to safeguard the welfare of all individuals involved (and the wider public).

* On a pure financial analysis, a number of clubs could not afford to play matches BCD (behind closed doors).

* The position is however fast evolving and it may well be possible to play in front of crowds (albeit socially distanced) during this season. It is important to note that this is likely to still require adherence to a substantial part of the RTT policy.

* A decision needs to be taken regarding whether clubs wish to have clarity now or whether a decision can be delayed to see if there are favourable future movements. This could either be (i) that matches can be played in front of crowds; or (ii) the infection rate in the country (considered against the level of contact in RL) means that testing is no longer required at the current level or that costs of testing have reduced.

“The views of the clubs on the above are sought at the forum, in addition it is proposed that after the forum, a survey is circulated to all clubs to provide their feedback.”

That paints a picture that makes returning to play look unlikely, and it will certainly be interesting to learn the results of the club survey that takes.