OPINION: League 1 is stronger than it’s ever been: de-regulating it would be a disaster

At first, the sentence ‘de-regulation of League 1 on the cards’ may have passed a few people by.

When the story first appeared in League Express several weeks ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people were quickly trying to find out what on Earth de-regulation was.

Of course, now most people are aware of what the proposed plans were – or are, in fact. The proposition to make the third-tier a strictly amateur competition is what de-regulating the competition means: essentially, the opinion was that the league doesn’t bring enough to the professional game. Don’t let anyone kid you otherwise – that’s what the belief is in some quarters.

Does the competition need some tweaking? Probably. Are there some teams who may not bring as much to the table in terms of return on investment as others? Without a shadow of a doubt.

But making everyone in the competition amateur is, quite frankly, an absurd proposition – even by rugby league standards. And that point has been further emphasised by the weekend’s Challenge Cup results.

Three League 1 sides – York, Whitehaven and, on Tuesday, Oldham – dumped Championship opposition out of the cup. Yes, some of those Championship sides left some of their bigger names out, with one eye on the league: but it doesn’t change the facts. Three League 1 sides progressed at the expense of higher-placed opposition.

But the cup results don’t even begin to tell half the story. You could go as far to suggest that League 1 may well be in the rudest health it’s ever been – that’s not to say every single one of the 14 sides are in good shape, but there are a greater number of ambitious teams and encouraging stories intertwined in League 1 to back that earlier claim up.

The obvious headline act in that regard are Bradford, who have already helped to provide two bumper crowds at York and Keighley in the opening month of the season. But the City Knights and the Cougars more than played their part in getting those gates to be as big as what they were – and they deserve as much credit as the Bulls.

Doncaster are making all the right noises about developing the sport in that particular part of South Yorkshire, with their links to the local football club already bearing fruit. The Cumbrian game has been given fresh impetus by Leon Pryce’s ability to sign a number of high-profile players at Workington, while down the road, Carl Forster and Whitehaven continue to make great strides on and off the field.

Throw in Newcastle Thunder – who will surely bring a bumper gate in for their pre-Magic Weekend game against the Bulls in May – and you’ve over half a dozen sides who will fancy promotion this year. Not just that, but they’d fancy their chances of surviving – and even thriving – in the Championship, too. Oh, and that’s without mentioning the conquerers of Halifax, Oldham.

Want more? The sport is desperate to see reserve grade made mandatory once again – but as many League 1 clubs (three – Bradford, Keighley and North Wales) have fully-functioning reserve sides as Super League clubs (Wigan, Wakefield and St Helens).

Imagine turning round to all these teams and telling them they’re going to go amateur. Forget the damage it would do to the local communities which those clubs are the heartbeat of for a second – what does it do for rugby league at the highest level?

Let’s not escape the fact that there are some sides in League 1 who maybe don’t quite bring back a return on investment they should. That argument is completely fair, and with plenty of merit. But de-regulating the whole league and turning our back on a whole host of historic, proud and, most importantly of all, ambitious, clubs? Nonsense.