BRADFORD Bulls could be relegated on Sunday, capping a disastrous season which has seen them enter administration, docked six points and lose key players. As planning begins for their first campaign outside the top flight since 1973-74, Super League general manager Blake Solly says the new structure affords Bradford and London the opportunity to bounce straight back.
Ross Heppenstall: How big a challenge do the Bulls face in attempting to return to Super League next year?
Blake Solly: First and foremost, they would need to finish in the top four in the Championship. That would see them play in the qualifiers to get into the top flight in 2016, where they will compete against the bottom four Super League teams. If they can perform well on the pitch, a quarter of their season next year will be in a competition with Super League opposition. The teams who finish in the top four are going to put some pressure on the bottom four in Super League. That middle eight is going to be a really exciting proposition.
RH: How many clubs do you think will be full-time in the Championship next season?
BS: Four or five – Bradford, London, Leigh and possibly Featherstone and maybe one other. My understanding, having spoken to the owners and management of both clubs, is that Bradford and London really want to give it a go next year. They understand that if they can perform well on the pitch then they have got a seven-week series to try and regain Super League status. They are committed to giving themselves the best possible opportunities to do that at the first time of asking.
RH: How do you see the Championship shaping up next season in terms of its competitiveness?
BS: I think it’s going to be a fantastically competitive division when you look at how Leigh have performed this year, and Bradford and London having stated they will stay full-time. Halifax, Featherstone and Doncaster are all very proud clubs with good squads and ambitions to make their mark next season. The new structure will add a great deal of interest from the word go. Every minute of every game is going to matter and I think rugby league fans have got a lot to look forward to.
RH: Super League clubs surely have an advantage, though, with the disparity in central distribution between the top flight and the Championship?
BS: One of the reasons for the restructure was to give those relegated clubs a central distribution that allowed them to stay full-time in a competition that was exciting and innovative. There will be a £1million salary cap in the Championship next season and the Bulls will receive over £750,000 in central distribution. That will be paid monthly just as the Super League distribution is now. While falling out of Super League is obviously difficult, the Bulls will be in receipt of more centrally funded distributions than they were this year and last.
RH: How does this compare to what Super League clubs will receive?
BS: Top-flight clubs will receive £1.6million in central distribution next year and can spend up to £1.825million on the salary cap.
RH: Is staying at Odsal viable for the Bulls in the Championship? The recent Catalan attendance of 5,188 was the lowest home gate in the club’s Super League history.
BS: I’d be surprised if crowds dipped too much next season. The Bulls are pretty confident that they won’t and I think average crowds of around 4,000 would be perfectly viable. But that’s one for the guys at Bradford because they know the market and what is going to improve their fanbase and what isn’t. A number of potential derby games can only help.
RH: The Bulls remain tenants of the RFL at Odsal and will presumably continue to pay rent to the governing body?
BS: We’ve still got the lease and the club will remain tenants, so we don’t really see anything changing on that front. They will be paying the same amount of rent.
RH: Perhaps the many lost supporters will return if, as you would expect, the team are winning regularly?
BS: Absolutely and there are lessons to be learned from other sports about relegation not being the end of a club. Far from it, in fact. You look at Northampton and Harlequins in rugby union and Newcastle United in football. Relegation is always difficult to stomach but the aforementioned clubs have come back into their elite competition far better prepared for the challenges that they face. Hull KR were admitted to Super League on a very strong platform and have been there ever since. Ten years they weren’t in Super League and now it’s hard to think of them not being in it.
RH: How great a challenge does Marc Green face in rebuilding the Bulls after all the off-field problems which have blighted the club in recent years?
BS: Of course it has damaged the club and the sport, but I think it fairness to Marc and the sport, everyone has worked hard to recover that damage. The process is ongoing and will continue for as long as it takes. Marc is working as hard as he can and we will support him. The infrastructure around the club is still very strong despite the issues it has had over the last three years. That augurs well for them to perform very well if they are in the Championship next year and give themselves a real shot at getting back into Super League. I think every town or city with a sporting team always benefits if that team is successful – that’s universal. And I’m sure Bradford will be competitive in a very competitive Championship.
RH: What is the limit for overseas players in the Championship next season?
BS: Five – the same as Super League.
RH: How do you view the state of rugby league generally?
BS: I think it’s in really good health. We face our challenges like every sport does but next year is going to be an extremely exciting year. In some ways, what the clubs have learned in the past few years is an attention to sustainability. There has been some changes to the regulations on that and I think what is at the front of everyone’s mind is making sure that clubs spend what they can afford and we avoid any reputational damage that always comes with clubs in financial distress or insolvency.