We have an all Lancashire SL Grand Final (Wigan is in Greater Manchester and St Helens is in Merseyside but let's not quibble about details) and coupled with Warrington's successive Challenge Cup wins, the future of Lancashire Rugby League seems bright. Or is it?
Rugby League has traditionally been a northern sport with strongholds in Yorkshire and Lancashire but with seven Yorkshire clubs and only four Lancashire clubs SL is unbalanced. While Wigan, St Helens and Warrington are dominant forces, other traditionally strong clubs such as Oldham and Swinton are mere shadows of their fomer selves. Hull KR have demonstrated how dormant support can be reinvigorated and the RFL urgently needs to produce a format where clubs outside SL can proper.
Even a former glamour club like Salford have struggled but their new stadium is finally under construction in a high profile position next to the M60 near the Trafford Centre. The local amateur game has been largely swallowed up by the global monster that is Manchester United and I am struggling to think of any Salford born SL players other than Adrian Morley but with a large proportion of the BBC moving to Salford, including the sports department, they can be very optimistic about the future
When the next SL licenses come up for renewal, I strongly suspect a Yorkshire club will be discarded in
favour of one West of the Pennines, probably Widnes who have a fine stadium and a good production line of local juniors. The RFL seem keen to promote a Magic Weekend involving derbies e.g. Wigan v St Helens, Bradford v Leeds etc and Warrington v Widnes can join this list. They have a rich benefactor but should be vary careful because Widnes is a small town which doesn't seem to thriving commercially and twice in recent memory the club has gone bust trying to compete with the big boys.
The two teams who seem to be most under threat are Castleford and Wakefield who both play in old stadiums to average crowds and both had disappointing seasons. Castleford is a proven nursery for fine RL talent but performance on the field will be crucial in 2011 because the RFL will find it hard to discard a team near the top of the table. Salford seem to realise this and have invested heavily for their last season at the Willows.
Many traditional RL fans will be upset that development clubs such as Harlequins and Crusaders seem to be safe as far as their SL franchises are concerned. We cannot retreat to our M62 corridor stronghold and we must look to expand and develop new markets. There will be setbacks along the way but if we stand still we will die.
Admittedly, Harlequins play before low crowds and their results on the pitch have been mediocre. However, they play in a fine stadium and have made a conscious decision to develop a London based team. Their development work has been very successful and they are producing large numbers of local juniors which is attracting the attention of bigger clubs. Will Sharp has joined Hull, LMS has joined St Helens and surely it is in all our interests to increase the player pool in this way. I look forward to the day when international players come from places beyond the traditional Northen strongholds of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. It would be madness not to build on the good work in progress.
Unfortunately Harlequins play in a Richmond/Twickenham area which is an obvious RU stronghold and very few Londoners seem to realise that Harlequins RL club exists as a separate entity. I know that the RFL has promised to assist in the marketing of the sport in the capital and possibly a new name should be considered.
After the embarassing problems Celtic Crusaders faced in their first SL year with poor results, poor crowds and player deportations Crusaders RL have been a welcome but unexpected success. They made the play offs and played before good crowds (under the circumstances) in a fine stadium. They need to continue this development, reduce the number of imports in their team and provide a career path for the Welsh players who performed so admirably for the South Wales Scorpians e.g. Lloyd White. This success was more by luck than design but RL needs to develop new markets and Wrexham is in Wales and they have a whole country to aim at. It would be madness not to continue to build on and expand this development work.
I can remember when Gateshead Thunder played their final SL game against Warrington. They brought a large crowd with them and when they won convincingly their supporters performed the conga on the pitch. I fully expected them to go from strength to strength without realising how they would be swallowed up by their debts. Remember this was a sport that had recently been given £97 million from it's sponsors. It was such a missed opportunity and such a waste. Let's not repeat the same mistakes.