It’s expansion, but perhaps not quite as you know it in its current guise.
You know the drill by now; an individual appears and declares they want to start a franchise in an unnamed, exciting city. They approach the Rugby Football League with the idea and, more often than not, the idea falls by the wayside.
But irrespective of how their story ends, it’s very easy to get the feeling that Valencia Huracanes are quite unlike any expansion side that have preceded them before.
“If you’re a fan, you will think Valencia has appeared from nowhere, but there has been over a year of planning that has taken us to this point,” explains the Huracanes CEO, Dean Buchan.
Buchan, who is from Leeds but moved to Spain six years ago, had scoured the Valencia region for a rugby league club to allow his two sons to play the game he loved. When he was unable to find one, he decided to create his own.
“We spent a whole year developing our plans and not speaking to anyone about them; not the RFL nor any clubs. We wanted to have the right pieces in place before approaching them and I think it’s the first time it’s happened that way in having foundations in place before going to the RFL.”
Valencia formally submitted their proposals to enter League 1 for 2021 six months ago. However, since then, they have hosted Featherstone in a friendly which attracted almost 600 people, and have arranged two mid-season games against League 1 sides Rochdale and Keighley: albeit subject to RFL approval as well as a unique double-header in the Philippines.
“We are already set up, we’re active and we could literally enter League 1 today,” he insists. “I’ve got 32 players, I’ve got a manager, a stadium and backing. There’s the start of a fanbase here too. What am I missing?”
Expansion as a concept has placed its roots predominantly in North America in recent years. Ottawa are widely expected to be admitted in 2021, and New York could still follow. However, Buchan believes his vision much closer to home has far more appeal – and viability.
“It’s eight hours across the Atlantic with a six-hour time difference and its expensive for fans,” he explains. “Here, it’s two hours to fly to Valencia. Part-time players don’t need to take time off, fans don’t need to save up; it’s cheap as chips and you can get return flights for peanuts. It’s a rugby fan’s dream.”
Buchan also appears to be in sync with the concerns many league fans have when it comes to expansion into North America: the prospect of blooding local talent. It is not just a vision for Valencia: it is a core principle of their long-term goals.“We have no interest whatsoever in buying success, and our business plan is not based on needing to be in a certain league at a certain time,” he explains. “We will be focused completely on developing Spanish talent, and you saw that in the Featherstone game, when all-but three players were Spanish.
“Will we add a sprinkling of UK, French or Australian players? Sure, but the majority will be Spanish. Our project is all about 3 things: development, sustainability and growing the game. That’s what every new club should be bringing in, isn’t it?
“There are not enough players in the game, that’s a really important truth for people to grasp. We know that. I don’t think fans want expansion clubs full of British and overseas players, and that wouldn’t work here anyway. Spain is a traditional country, and the only way we can attract a new audience is by having a Spanish identity. That all filters back into the national team.”
The crucial question is, though, how hopeful is Buchan that Valencia could perhaps forge their way up the queue of expansion clubs wanting in and be admitted in time for 2021? “Well, I really have no idea if that’s possible,” he says. “We are in constant dialogue with the RFL, we’re chasing things up and while there’s a clear logistical reason why you probably couldn’t get two North American teams in for the same season, the same doesn’t apply for us.
“You can get here quicker than it would take Newcastle to get to London, West Wales or anywhere like that. You don’t need to take time off. But to answer your question, how convinced am I? I guess that’s a question for the RFL.
Valencia have also applied to enter next seasons Challenge Cup having been refused entry for 2020. “I feel that we’ve proven more than other clubs who’ve been admitted in the past and of course we have work to do to keep developing as a club but that’s my point – We are a real club with infrastructure and were ready. We are busy organising a series of games for 2020 that will help us to be competitive in 2021.
“I’ve seen that we’ve been accused of ruffling feathers by our pro-active approach but I’m not sure whose feathers they are or who could possibly be upset by what we are doing. We are arranging games in the UK, France, Asia and beyond so rugby is the winner here regardless of acceptance into League 1.
“With a strong ex-pat community of around 400,000 in a population of 5 million – there is the potential to build on their existing fanbase already, with about half of the 587 that watched the Featherstone friendly local according to Buchan.
“We had Wigan fans, Hunslet fans, all sorts of fans who live here and were just happy to have a rugby league match to watch locally,” he said.
“Our fanbase is only going to grow. We’re in the press, we’re visiting schools and every day more and more people are learning about Valencia Huracanes. I would hope it’s around 700 or 800 for our next game. Many people will have waited to see if this was a real thing, whether it could work. But as you saw against Featherstone we’ve already shown it can work before we’ve been admitted. I believe that’s a first. The fact that Featherstone wanted to come back next year and the excitement of their fans when they announced it demonstrates we must be doing something right.
A clear remit of the Huracanes is to boost the future of the Spanish national team, too. Later this year, club and country will head to the Philippines to play in a unique double-header and with 50,000 rugby union players in Spain, work is already well underway on searching for potential league converts.
“Our development guys are at union games all the time,” Buchan says. “We’re going into schools, and we’re really not as far behind as some people might think. Its quite possible that Spanish rugby league could have a pool of 500 players to pick from by the end of this year and I don’t think it will be too long before you start to see them in other UK clubs.
“So I guess that’s my message to the fans who perhaps don’t know exactly what is happening. We’re here; we have all the foundations in place after plenty of hard work and if the RFL, the clubs and the fans want it then we are ready. It’s now up to them to decide whether we should be granted entry – but I am yet to meet someone who doesn’t want this to happen.”