COLUMN: While the game dawdles over its future, the lower leagues are crumbling

The popular phrase is that while Nero fiddled, Rome burned (or something like that) – and while that isn’t completely and utterly true of British rugby league in 2018, it does ring true to some extent.

It would not be an over-exaggeration to say that at present, the sport in this country finds itself at a fascinating, and slightly drawn-out, crossroads. There is still some doubt about if any changes will be made to the league structure – though it’s perhaps important to clarify at this point in proceedings that there aren’t any cast-iron commitments to changing things.

But all that doubt has trickled down into life below Super League where, as we’ve seen this week, life is much more hand-to-mouth and much more precarious.

In the space of 48 hours, news has emerged of two clubs facing financial difficulty outside the top flight: one in the Championship, and one in League 1.

The first came when Sheffield supremo Mark Aston gave an interview with the BBC and said ‘the hounds are at the door’ in regards to their monetary situation. Citing costs of moving back to Sheffield and the Olympic Legacy Park – plus the impact of so many years out of the city – Aston admitted Sheffield are facing difficulties.

Then, and perhaps even more worryingly, came the public admission from Whitehaven that they need to raise £60,000 to ensure they see this season out. The good news for them is that talks are ongoing with an investor who will commit to a three-year plan if they do raise that money. Fingers crossed for Haven and Carl Forster.

It is not nice to say this, but the lower leagues are beginning to show signs of wear and tear. And that’s perhaps being kind. Furthermore, that is a worry for not only fans and those involved with life outside of Super League, but those in Super League themselves.

Clubs have a responsibility to maintain their own castle and ensure they don’t hit the wall financially – but in reality, with so much uncertainty surrounding the game at present, this is an issue which transcends how clubs deal with their own problems.

In the last round of Super League games a fortnight ago, there were well over a dozen players who came through the Academy structures of clubs now not in the top flight. Some of those, like Kyle Amor, were products of one of the clubs in Whitehaven who now face a real fight for their future.

Super League needs the lower leagues. It needs the lower leagues not only to provide a strong, competitive culture below the top-flight, but also to help provide players for their own squads: because the 11 Academy setups (excluding Salford, who don’t operate one) can’t do it all by themselves.

Some clubs do see the value in lower league rugby and how important it is for the landscape of the game in our country. But at times, while the big boys are arguing over how big a slice of the pie they should get for the next however many years, it’s easy to forget that great, famous clubs like Sheffield and Whitehaven are scrapping for their very existence.

It’s understandable why clubs at the top of the food chain have a vested interest in their own future. But for the good of the game, maybe it’s worth stepping outside their own bubble and looking at how they can help those in desperate need of support.

Because without those clubs, the sport would have a far bleaker future than it will with them.