IMG are ‘re-imagining’ rugby league – what that entails will be put to clubs of all three tiers next month.
The criteria for clubs has yet to be announced but there looks to be an emphasis on digitalisation as the likes of Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants share impressive online statistics.
Concrete facilities will also likely be important, whilst on-field results, academies and community work could also potentially be a tick in the right box as well as the potential for growth on and off the field.
Only four Super League clubs, as things stand, are expected to be given Grade A whilst a number of Championship clubs will be aiming for Grade B in a bid to be given potential leverage for a spot in Super League.
With this in mind, which Championship clubs will be aiming for Grade B?
Featherstone will be hoping that 2023 is the season that they finally put the ‘nearly men’ tag to bed. Always knocking on the door of Super League promotion for the past decade, Rovers have twice lost in the Million Pound Game, but now the West Yorkshire club will be aiming high. Rovers have already revealed their digital growth as well as the increase in season tickets and home crowds whilst the redevelopment of the Millennium Stadium puts them in a good place. Great community work and academy progress will also go in Rovers’ favour. However, the proximity with Wakefield and Castleford may go against them – will IMG want three clubs in such a small area?
When IMG revealed their plans, they did so revealing ‘a cap’ of two on non-British clubs. With Catalans Dragons one of them, that leaves Toulouse as the likely remaining beneficiary – something which cannot be disputed given the superb Stade Ernest Wallon as well as the loyal backing of owner Bernard Sarrazain and chief executive Cedric Garcia. Toulouse will be aiming to bounce straight back from a disappointing relegation in 2022, which would undoubtedly help in their quest.
If this restructure of rugby league had been done five years ago, Bradford may not have been on this list, but the club has been impressive on and off the field in recent seasons. The potential for a new facility has been mooted at Odsal whilst on-field results will take care of themselves under Mark Dunning in 2023. The Bulls will be aiming high in a bid to rekindle the status that made them so feared at the beginning of the century. The pull of a big-city derby against the Leeds Rhinos and the potential for growth in a place which once yielded five-figure attendances cannot be underestimated.
You can always count on Halifax to be in the Championship play-offs come the end of the season. One of the most entrenched clubs in the second tier, the Panthers have the facilities with the on-field product seemingly getting even better under Simon Grix. As well as an increased presence on social media, Halifax’s community engagement has always been something the club has prided itself on though crowds have been somewhat lacking in recent years.
On the field, the Broncos will be aiming for much better in 2023, but IMG has already hinted at plans to grow rugby league in London so a Grade B will be something that the capital club will surely be aiming for. The Cherry Red Records Stadium, or Plough Lane, may be an appealing facility, but it only holds just over 9,000 – would this be acceptable for IMG? The Broncos do have a track record of blooding through impressive youngsters from around the capital, but they will need to up attendances and on-field success to have any chance of the top flight.
Isn’t it great to see a traditional club like Keighley rise from the ashes to make it into the conversation about being a potential Super League side? On and off the field, the rise has been meteoric with chairman Mick O’Neill the perfect example of backing coach Rhys Lovegrove to the hilt. It may be too early for the Cougars at present, but the foundations are very much in place to achieve the Super League dream in the near future. Superb community work, increasing attendances and a chance to showcase their credentials in 2022, Keighley are a club very much on the up.
One of the greatest facilities outside of Super League, Widnes’ DCBL Stadium is certainly a top-flight venue in waiting. Unfortunately, the on-field product has let the Vikings down in recent seasons, but under new boss John Kear, there is a great deal of optimism within the ranks at the Cheshire club. After going into administration in 2019 and just about escaping liquidation, the Vikings have been building off the field as well with the consortium headed by chairman Chris Price putting the Widnes club on a much more stable footing.
A Super League club in York does seem mightily attractive, with the club situated in one of the most incredible cities in the UK. A brand new facility, with groundbreaking moves in the women’s game, the Knights are a club most definitely on the up. Though York finished inside the Championship play-offs in 2022, they were thrashed by the promoted Leigh Leopards in the semi-finals. James Ford has joined Wakefield with Andrew Henderson taking over the reins, but in every aspect off the field, York a Super League club in waiting.