Robert Critchley explains why Rugby League's newly adjusted third tier is worthy of attention.
Rugby League and parochialism often go hand in hand, and while debate rages about the ongoing viability of the London Broncos, and whether a second French side should be added to Super League alongside the Catalan Dragons, an expansion league has popped up almost by accident and is producing some quality players, exciting games and the odd star attraction.
The Championship 1 is the third tier of professional rugby league, so in essence it is still run along amateur lines. Don’t let this fool you though, as some of the travel, training and hard work done by both the players and the administrators is akin to anything the professionals go through.
Super League sides have two away days, when they have to travel to The Twickenham Stoop to play the Broncos, or down to Perpignan when it is their turn to brave the South of France heat and take on the Dragons. The rest of the time, it’s a trip to either the old counties of Lancashire or Yorkshire in the heartlands which is desperately trying to cling to the game.
Only two of the nine sides in Championship 1 are based in the heartlands, and they are two of the oldest and historical names in the game in Oldham and Rochdale Hornets. The remaining seven are pioneering clubs looking to take rugby league to a new audience, almost nationally.
Oxford, London Skolars and Hemel Stags represent the expanding junior game in the South East, tangible evidence that the game does have a future in the region, even if the Broncos are going through a somewhat trying time at the moment. Interest in schools and further education establishments in surrounding areas is certainly there and amateur playing numbers are on the increase yearly.
These sides are essential if the game is to grow, and the work being done is of huge encouragement to the rugby league in their plans to expand. If success can come on the field as well, and the clubs can rise through the divisions and challenge the top of the Championship while putting a plan together which will allow for Super League admittance (in whatever form that will hold in the future) then there could one day be an expansion club in Super League who have gone about getting to the top in the correct manner, rather than the ill fated way in which it was thrust upon the Crusaders.
Speaking of the Crusaders, after their brief foray into the big time and their two seasons in Super League, they have now gone back to a more natural level where they are able to rebuild their club back up and put it on proper foundations.
Along with South Wales Scorpions, they are the two Welsh representatives in Championship 1, and while the Neath based side have found the standard hard and are currently sitting seventh in the division, the Crusaders, still playing out of Wrexham are second in the division, and have a real shot of progressing to the Championship.
Obviously, in Wales Rugby Union is king, but small steps are being made to spread the League format and it seems that the two codes are on much more cordial terms than they have been in the past. There is growing evidence of players playing both codes, and having two competitive sides will encourage more of this cross code development. Wales will also be hosting four world cup games in the upcoming tournament, including the opening ceremony and opening day double header at the Millennium Stadium.
The World Cup and the Championship 1 are also linked by the development in place in the South West. Bristol will be staging a World Cup game as well, and the Gloucestershire All Golds team, currently bottom of Championship One in their debut season have played no small part in securing this.
While the Cook Island versus the United States may not be a game between super powers of the game, there will be no shortage of skill and courage on show, and the people of the South West, who have worked so hard in securing the fixture will justifiably see this as huge progress. Gloucester and the South West are building from the ground up, and a year on year improvement is what is desired.
The remaining Championship 1 club, which really makes this division as diverse as it is, is Gateshead Thunder. Gateshead are another side who are in the division following an ill fated season in the Super League. The Thunder now have a core of local players and sponsors, and in Kevin Neighbour, their coach and record appearance holder, have someone who understands the needs of a club in their situation.
They have developed deep community roots and while struggling near the foot of the division have a side which has experience at a higher level and are slowly improving, and importantly leaving an imprint in their area.
The Championship 1 is a league which deserves the respect of the wider sporting community. Developing the game from the bottom up is the way to expand each and every sport, and these seven expansion clubs are prime examples of how much hard work it will take.
Will you be watching? Which club has the most chance of success?
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