Championship Focus: Rugby League’s unity has to be a strength moving forward

There will have been a few knowing smiles among Championship and League One officials last week.

News of the Government’s £16 million emergency loan was welcome enough for clubs outside the top-flight, but the impact of its awarding may yet extend well beyond short-term financial security.

Because those officials haven’t forgotten the events of what was labelled a civil war within the sport in mid-2018, when Super League clubs pushed hard to form a breakaway of sorts from the RFL.

Many senior figures within the Championship and League One – and a lone voice from above in Gary Hetherington – stressed they thought the game would be stronger as one entity.

But the breakaway occurred after weeks of public disagreements, giving the sport two sets of administrators.

Fast forward almost two years and it is the RFL who secured the Government cash injection after weeks of meticulous work and pressing of the sport’s case – from all levels.

There have even been senior and respected Super League figures admitting in public that the sport may have to come back together to help it survive once it is allowed to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.

Fundamentally – and this was always the argument from those in this camp at the time – the sport and its impact on local communities extends well beyond the twelve clubs that are fortunate enough to sit at the top table at any given moment in time.

Rugby League would not have secured this financial aid had it been what was effectively ten English Super League clubs pushing its case, because the sport’s reach spreads way, way further than that, extending right down to the amateur game (which is being helped by Sport England grants, again with RFL guidance, rather than last week’s loan).

The Rugby League communities of Wakefield and Salford are in no way more important than those of Halifax and Widnes, just because those clubs currently happen to sit at the top table.

It should never be that way. Sport is cyclical and if you gave some of the strongest Championship clubs the kind of annual financial support Super League clubs have had over the last 25 years, there’s a strong argument to suggest that some could have done a better job.

That’s not to say that you can’t understand and appreciate some of the reasons for Super League’s desire to take a greater control of its commercial performance.

The sport at the top level produces the vast majority of its income, and the stronger that element of the game is, the better for Rugby League overall.

And perhaps there will be a way that Super League can retain an element of autonomy moving forward.
But Rugby League needs a view that extends beyond a small group of clubs now more than ever.

There are many, many clubs in the Championship and League One that do extensive work in their local communities on a fraction of the help that their top-flight peers receive.

That work is every bit as important to those towns as it is in Wigan, Castleford or Leeds.

The quotes from Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, were telling.

“From my first sports visit as Secretary of State to Leigh Centurions, I could see how important these clubs are to the communities they serve,” Dowden said.

“They are the beating heart of their towns and cities, and their impact goes far beyond what happens on the pitch.

“Sports across the board are facing unprecedented pressures, and we are supporting them through wider Government measures.

“In this case we are intervening as an exception, not to save an individual business or organisation, but to protect an entire sport, the community it supports, the World Cup held here next year and its legacy for generations to come.”

Dowden’s reference point was Leigh Centurions, not Warrington Wolves or Hull FC.

He clearly says “to protect an entire sport”, not just what we all watch and enjoy on a Thursday and Friday night.

That covers Super League champions St Helens right down to Blackbrook ARLC, who have admirably spearheaded the delivery of supplies to the vulnerable in the town in recent weeks.

Both kind of clubs – and all of those in between – have a vital part to play in the future of Rugby League moving forward.