Expansion – let’s walk before we run with Valencia and Belgrade

For people who love travelling, rugby league is quickly becoming a handy hobby to help feed their travelling bug.

Perpignan, Toulouse and Toronto are among the holiday destinations that can provide jet setters with their travelling and rugby league fix. In recent times there have been opportunities to mix holidaying and rugby league in Sydney and Barcelona too.

Soon, there could be more locations to tick off. We already know that Ottawa and New York are on course to be a part of the RFL’s league structure in 2021. Now there are talks of more expansion clubs. Figures behind bids in Valencia and Belgrade have declared their intent to enter League 1 in 2021.

It’s certainly an exciting prospect for a sport burdened with a reputation for being played on the M62.

But let’s get real here. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

When Valencia hosted Featherstone in a pre-season friendly earlier this month they were forced to draft in players from professional clubs in the UK to raise a team. They lost the game 104-12.

Meanwhile, Belgrade lost 38-10 to Millom in the first round of the Challenge Cup. For reference, the Cumbrians were in the third tier of the National Conference League.

Of course, both teams could recruit players from the sport’s hotbeds. Problem solved.

But both have stated their intent to field homegrown sides.

Dean Buchan, the brainchild behind Valencia Huracanes, told The Mirror they want 50% of their squad to be Spanish from day one, adding they believe they can be competitive in doing so. Remember, they conceded over 100 points against Featherstone.

In League Express, Belgrade senior director Matthew Wright said the club will be staying true to their values of playing and promoting Serbian players.

Red Star Belgrade declare intent to enter RFL league structure in 2021

As admirable as it is, going down that route will see them be whipping boys from day dot.

The temptation to recruit overseas would surely rise once the beatings came regularly. But that would go against the vision and the purpose of these clubs and would be another drain on the player pool. What good does that do for either the clubs or the game?

Not that we should discourage expansion purely because they won’t be competitive from the get-go. Every club and every emerging nation has to start somewhere. Belgrade, in particular, have done that, playing in the Balkan Super League, which hosts 14 clubs from eight countries.

But to think that this is a club-ready to jump into League 1 level is far fetched, certainly at present. Valencia are further away in that regard too.

There is then the off-field to consider. The stadiums, to the credit of both clubs, would appear to at least pass League 1 criteria, a good start. Valencia is easily accessible for travelling fans and boasts many ex-pats. There’s potential to draw decent crowds. Hey, there’s little doubting there’s potential for both clubs.

But there’s more to work out logistically than a stadium and flight times. There is infrastructure, accommodation and above anything, cost. Wright admitted there’s no millionaire in the wings waiting to fund the Belgrade project, he admitted that in going public they hoped to find some sort of corporate investment. But that also suggests that they’ve not got the required funding to make entry realistic right now. Again, it makes 2021 inclusion seem unobtainable. Throw in the additional costs of flights, accommodation and everything else, and, quite honestly, it’s preposterous.

Then there are the part-time clubs already facing two trips to North America next year to think about. The prospect of adding Spain and Serbia to the list becomes too demanding for part-time players. At League 1 level, most clubs have players who can’t commit to regular training due to work commitments. They simply won’t be able to fulfil four overseas games.

Toronto Wolfpack has been an overwhelming success. Nobody will convince me otherwise. But it has been funded by millions and millions and millions of pounds. And let’s face it, even they have encountered many challenges despite all that investment. Running an expansion club isn’t easy or easily affordable. And they came in on their own, a one-off. Not as one of four.

What Toronto have done is whet the appetite of not only the game’s fanbase but also entrepreneurs and rugby league fanatics who want to see the game grow out of the heartlands. That’s fantastic.

But that can’t cloud the game’s judgement and allow other clubs to join the league from here, there and everywhere on a whim. The last time rugby league pushed through an expansion club too quick was Celtic Crusaders. Let’s not go down that route again.

Expansion is an absolutely essential part of rugby league’s long-term future.

But it shouldn’t be done for the sake of it.