Written by Stuart McLennan
Time will tell if the announcement of a new European club rugby league competition – Euro XIIIs – during the week on the Chasing Kangaroos Podcast is a good thing for our game.
The merits of the proposal were debated extensively on social media in the hours following the release. The positive outcome is that people are talking about rugby league development in Europe.
Optimistically we should believe that Dean Buchan (CEO of Espana RL and Valencia Huracanes) and Orazio D’arro (President of the Federazione Italiana Rugby League) are passionate rugby league fans and have the good of the game in Europe at heart.
The announcement of an impending Euro XIIIs brought up more questions than answers. We were told funding had been secured and discussions with broadcasters were ongoing. Buchan said 14 teams clambering to get on board. We have no further detail on additional countries (Spain and Italy are a given you would assume), investors or broadcasters. It is uncertain whether this is due to confidentiality agreements or whether they are trying to ‘fly the plane as they are building it.’
Serbia have made it clear they don’t intend to participate in Euro XIIIs while Greece have not made any commitment to it. Both these countries boast sustained successful domestic competitions.
If you take out France and the semi-professional Red Star in Serbia (who apparently are not part of the proposed new venture) the game is strictly amateur in Europe. It’s amateur in the truest sense of the word. There is little or no sponsorship, jerseys are often donated by professional clubs when they are finished with them and players pay their own way for everything.
My experience coaching the Athens based Aris Eagles in the Balkan Super League provides some perspective of rugby league life in these regions.
The Balkan Super League could be considered a ‘dummy run’ for a full blown European competition. A great concept, conceived within the RLEF that has struggled to keep its head above water.
The competition, featuring club teams from multiple countries, has no major sponsor despite concerted efforts from administrators and participants. Forfeits based on a lack of funds and lack of player availability to travel has been a thorn in the BSL’s side since it started in 2017.
When our Aris Eagles team was pitted against Partizan in Belgrade in 2018, the boys worked out the cheapest way to get there. It involved a flight to Sofia, Bulgaria followed by a five hour bus trip. Accommodation was six to a room in a hostel on the outskirts of the city. Belgrade has better facilities than most for rugby league. They still fall a long way short of anything we see in Australia or England. An NRL assistant coach who agreed to help us at training in Athens told me his players wouldn’t even walk on the surface the Aris Eagles were training on.
The bottom line is that investors would need at the bare minimum, to fund travel, accommodation and compensation for missed work (sound a bit like 1895?) for players. When we went to Belgrade to play Partizan we took a squad of 13 due to work commitments rendering some players unavailable, that number reduced to 12 with an injury before halftime.
There are the costs of match officials, administrators and ground hire to name just a few of the additional overheads.
A question arises around player quantity and quality. Again we are taking France out of the equation here in saying that there are a handful of European domestic players that have been able to find a place in the lower tier semi-professional English and French divisions.
If the intent is to recruit players from Australia and the United Kingdom then costs would be very high and doubts would be raised on how it assists domestic development in the same way questions have been asked about the Toronto Wolfpack in Canada.
Spain and Italy don’t have domestic competitions as I write.
The Valencia Hurricanes were formed in 2019 by Dean Buchan, who at the time stated an intention to compete in the 2021 UK third tier League One competition. They planned to stage a double header with Super League teams St. Helens and Salford earlier this year. After that fell through the club hosted a standalone fixture against the Featherstone Rovers, which Valencia lost 102–14. As Chief Executive of Spain Rugby League Buchan flagged plans for a 8-12 team domestic competition at the start of 2020. The COVID -19 pandemic is likely to halt any progress in that area for the immediate future.
Italian rugby league President Orazio D’arro has nominated Verona, a club that appears not yet established, as the team to represent Italy. Development of a domestic competition has been hampered by the strength of rugby union and would require a large group of committed league players to ensure any success.
Baseline domestic championships feeding into an elite tournament would seem to be an essential component for success. Development of sustainable competitions requires years of hard work on the ground in-country. I am convinced it can’t be achieved remotely.
The RLEF have been discussing a similar competition with member countries for some time. I can attest to it because I was involved in some discussions. Italy at least was also involved with those talks. The stumbling blocks are around funding and broadcasting. The RLEF have not gone to the media with details of a Euro competition because at this stage there is nothing tangible to announce.
The RLEF are more than just a governing body for rugby league in Europe. They provide support, advice and assistance, which is sometimes financial, in the absence of other options for members. It is likely that many countries would only participate in a tournament that has the endorsement of the Federation.
At this stage the words ‘rebel’ or ‘breakaway’ seem premature although thinly veiled potshots are starting to appear in the media.
Rugby league has a history of opportunists looking to create new competitions and alliances.
European rugby league is too small to accommodate Super League type wars or even duplication of what happened recently in Greece.
Any successful initiative will require the cooperation and collaboration of all federations in Europe.
There will be one chance at this. If a shot goes off too early, without the necessary support and structure, it will likely set any further attempts back and potentially make the region a laughing stock with potential investors and broadcasters.
The global pandemic has brought reports of sports and businesses that are suffering and unsure of their futures. Super League and the lower semi-professional tiers in the UK are on shaky ground while the NRL is seeking to cut costs and the major broadcaster (Nine network) is threatening to walk away from rugby league. Many businesses will be looking to curtail risky investments in a bid to survive.
Any organisation that achieves a robust, harmonious and sustainable European club competition deserves congratulations and our full support.
My gut feeling is that we are at least five years away from having the right conditions to make that a reality.