WIDNES Vikings are entitled to feel a little miffed tonight, after being denied a Super League franchise. And their fans are more than a little miffed.
Whatever the Vikings do over the next three years, they won’t be playing in the top flight of rugby league, thanks to a system which was set up partly to help clubs avoid exactly the sort of problems that Widnes fell into just under a year ago.
There’s a big gap between the full-time ranks of Super League and the part-time ranks of the National League, and it hit Widnes hard when they dropped out of the top flight in 2005. Having stayed full-time in a bid to bounce back to Super League at the first attempt, they lost the 2006 National League play-off final to Hull KR.
When the Vikings fell at the final promotion hurdle again 12 months later, this time to Castleford, the financial burden of staying in the National League for another year became too much, and they plunged into administration.
Widnes are now back on a sounder financial footing after being taken over by Cheshire businessman Steve O’Connor last November, and had been hoping to complete their recovery by winning back a place in Super League.
But the old system that caused them so many woes has been replaced by a new system that has created new agonies for them.
In order to encourage long-term investment in a sport which has little depth in this country, the Rugby Football League decided to ease the threat of relegation on top-flight clubs by introducing a franchise system for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. The 14 teams winning a franchise would effectively be guaranteed top-flight rugby league for three years. Great if you win a franchise; soul-destroying if you don’t.
With the 12 current Super League clubs odds-on to win franchises, that left two more for everyone else to fight for. And with apologies to Leigh Centurions fans, Salford and Widnes might have been expected to be a shoo-in, were it not for the threat from Bridgend.
Celtic Crusaders – who were only formed in 2005 – do not have the tradition of Salford, Widnes and Leigh. But they offered the RFL the chance to expand the sport into the rugby union heartland of south Wales. And the RFl took up that chance, awarding the final two franchises to Salford and to the Crusaders.
The decision comes as a huge relief to Salford, who are committed to building a new stadium off the M60 at Barton (not too far from the Trafford Centre), but where on earth does it leave the Vikings, who now face another three years in the National League whatever they do?
One of the tenets of supporting a club is the belief – however ridiculous – that this could just be your year. Vikings fans know now that not only will 2008 not be their year, but neither will 2009 or 2010. They can apply for a Super League franchise again in 2011, and if successful, would be readmitted to the top flight in 2012. It’s a long time to be dreaming.
Curiously, while Widnes’ fans are upset, it’s Leigh whose officials have been quickest to kick up a stink over the decision to award a franchise to the Crusaders.
Centurions chief executive Allan Rowley accused the RFL of giving Celtic a place in Super League purely on geographical grounds.
“We now have a team that fielded 10 overseas players against us, because they are classed as a development team, and are now in our elite competition which is a complete contradiction of terms and we feel this decision is purely a geographical one,” read Rowley’s comments on several websites.
It might have been easier to take if Crusaders had a bit more history behind them, and didn’t feel quite so manufactured. While their long-term aims are to produce more homegrown players – and there are a number of Welshmen in their squad – it still rankles. For Widnes and Leigh, it’s the equivalent of seeing your favourite band beaten to the Christmas No 1 by whichever shop assistant or factory worker has won The X-Factor this time around.
RFL chief executive Richard Lewis hardly dispels Rowley’s criticisms with his comments, either.
“Market research suggests that we have a lot of support for rugby league and the Super League in Wales,” Lewis said.
“It’s a calculated risk to go with Crusaders. They put together a good application and convinced us they can make a real success of being a Super League club.”
In fairness, Lewis did go on to say that the Crusaders – along with the other 13 Super League franchisees – are now under pressure to prove that they are worthy of their status. But that’s little consolation to those who feel tonight that they have been unfairly overlooked.