Ohen Toulouse Olympique were promoted to the Super League last October, the joy of their success was not limited to the 9,000 supporters at the Stade Ernest Wallon or the pink walls of this beautiful city. Yet, just two weeks from kicking off in the big moment, their hopes of survival have been badly shaken.
the shock departure of talisman Johnathon Ford and the potential loss of three other senior players – including star full-back Mark Kheirallah – is due to France’s Covid rules and players refusing to be vaccinated. Ford spent 10 years with the club, leading them on an extraordinary march from the Elite League to the Super League via Ligue 1 and the league titles. For him to walk away now, citing the ‘holistic’ needs of him and his family, seems unfathomable and surprisingly cruel to coach Sylvain Houles and the club.
After winning two successive French Elite titles, Houles has led Toulouse to higher finishing positions each season: 25th on the ladder in 2016 to 17th, 15th, 14th and 13th last year, when they topped the league, all with Ford as his general in the field. When Ford and Kheirallah were on the team, it wasn’t unbelievable to think that Houles could get them to the safety of 11 October in October.
In response to those who doubted Toulouse’s chances of survival given their lack of big-name signings, Houles argued that they made that recruitment last year and were rewarded with winning the league. Nineteen of their current squad have played in the Super League and eight have won it, the Challenge Cup or the NRL, Ford and Kheirallah are not among them. But the pair’s influence on the way Toulouse play is profound.
Toulouse was already confronted with history. The Super League is a difficult competition to break into, with only one promotion spot for 14 Championship clubs. Conversely, they should also be among the easiest to stay, given that only one of the 12 Super League clubs goes down. Newly promoted teams only have to avoid being the worst team in the competition to survive, but very few manage to do so. Four of the last five Championship winners have not lasted more than one Super League season. And they rarely recover either: of the last seven relegated clubs, only Hull KR is now in the Super League.
A comparison with football is instructive. Clubs promoted from the National League to the Football League face a similar situation to that of rugby league clubs promoted from the Championship to the Super League: they come out of a competition which brings together full-time players and part-time, where mobs of 500 and 5,000 are unremarkable, and the odds of moving from one to the other are extremely similar (two out of 24 go up and down). Still, promoted football clubs fare much better than their rugby league counterparts.
One usually reaches the Ligue 2 play-offs in their first season, often going straight up, while the other almost always survives. Not a single one of the last 50 teams promoted from the National League to the Football League has come down. Of the last 20, 16 are still there, including two now in Ligue 1.
So why are newly promoted football clubs doing better than their Super League counterparts? Former London and Wakefield full-back Alex Walker, who has seen promotion, relegation, survival and defeat in the play-offs over the past four years, knows better than anyone. “The main thing is consistency,” says Walker, now a free agent who passed pre-season tryouts with Halifax.
“During their day, the top teams in the Championship might beat Super League opposition, but not week in and week out. Doing your best every week is tough. Established Super League clubs have the opportunity to rotate with same quality players because they have more depth in their squads.It takes a while to build that up so you have to stick around for a few years like Hull KR did.
Besides the fabricated Super 8 final, relegation battles have been conspicuously absent from the Super League in recent years, with one club off the pace from the start, usually the promoted club. Promoted teams need to go down on a flyer – like Hull KR did when they stayed on their feet comfortably in 2018 – to have any chance of surviving. “You have to win games at home and make the most of what’s in your favor,” says Walker, whose London Broncos side lost a record 10 wins in 2019 after a bright start. “We won our first games at Ealing. Clubs didn’t like playing on 4G, they weren’t used to traveling, and it was probably in their head. It certainly helped us.
Following their surprise promotion, London have been accused of not being ambitious enough, only increasing their overall spending from £2.7m to £3m in Super League. But Walker understands why some newcomers refuse to spend big when there are few suitable players in the market or come with a promotion bonus. “It’s very difficult to build when it all boils down to one game in October – a lot of clubs don’t know what division they’re going to be in until then,” he said. “It means having to recruit very late or potentially spending a lot of money on a team that will be in the Championship next season.”
Promoted clubs often fall into the trap of signing the relegated club’s best players – players who have proven too good for the Championship but are unwanted by higher clubs. Toulouse have signed winger Matty Russell from relegated Leigh as well as James Cunningham and Gadwin Springer – who were with Toronto when they couldn’t buy a win in 2020 – but they are all experienced Super League talents. “When a team breaks down, there are always quality players on the market who deserve to be in the Super League,” says Walker, who could be on Toulouse’s shopping list if Kheirallah leaves.
“A lot of people are waiting for the end of the season to see if they’re going to be in the Super League or the Championship. Up-and-coming clubs can buy a new team and hope it gels quickly or keep the team together and add quality “You can also bring in players mid-season, but they have to fit in and add quality. The right person is hard to find.”
So who will win the championship in 2022?
It will be a major shock if someone stops the clubs with the biggest budgets and most stars from meeting in the Championship grand final: see for yourself when Featherstone Rovers host Leigh Centurions live on Premier Sports Monday evening. Both picked up comfortable first-round wins, as did Bradford Bulls and Newcastle Thunder – who went full-time – but in last season’s clash of beaten semi-finalists Halifax – which looks stronger on paper now – lost to Batley.
While Leigh has invested heavily in a management team of Chris Chester, Adrian Lam and Tony Clubb, the ambitious Featherstone, fed up with being the bridesmaids, means nothing. Their sizable budget not only attracted Dean Coach Brian McDermott, but also provided him with a hugely experienced squad to work with, which now includes Samoan international Joey Leilua, a two-time NRL Dally M Center of the Year with a past not so eventful. like tartan.
“Featherstone have brought in some quality players,” said Walker, who played for them as a full-back on loan from Wakefield in last October’s final loss to Toulouse. “They are my advice to finish top and be in the Million Pound Game, potentially against Leigh. Fev has a great team with real depth; it’s not just 17 years old.
The Super League’s most successful manager, McDermott’s extraordinary success with the Leeds Rhinos sits alongside unexpected relegation battles with Leeds, a dismal start to 2020 with Toronto and failure to turn water into wine with the team US National and Oldham last year. But when it has the ingredients to work with, it usually delivers. After telling the media that “players should put their money on Leigh”, McDermott admitted there was “expectation, not pressure” at Fev. Expect him to continue his magnificent Grand Finals record in the fall.
World Cup to watch: Abevia McDonald, Jamaica
You can see Tottenham Hotspur’s stunning new home from the top of the stand at New River Stadium, about a mile west along White Hart Lane. So it was the perfect place to watch some of the early Challenge Cup action on Saturday, four months before the final at Spurs.
League One club London Skolars totally dominated the first 50 minutes against amateur opponents London Chargers, scoring six unanswered tries, including one by lanky Jamaican winger Abevia McDonald, who looked at home at this level and should contribute to the Reggae Warriors World Cup cause. October.
The Skolars were heading for a routine win when Clapham-based visitors’ hooker Eric Sims suddenly became a cross between Andy Gregory and Rangi Chase, creating two quick tries with stunning bursts and sublime passing that had the crowd screaming with appreciation. Skolars didn’t panic and emerged 40-22 winners. The only shock of the round came on Sunday night when fans at Castleford Lock Lane won at Oldham, who were competing in the Championship just four months ago. Their reward is a draw at home with Rochdale Hornets in the third round.
One last thing
As well as the return of rugby league to Premier Sports and its Channel 4 debut next week, the new season has seen the welcome return of Rugby League World Magazine after nearly two years of waiting. The glossy monthly was put on hold when the pandemic hit, but was brought back to life by publishers League Publications Limited under its first editor, longtime LPL staffer Lorraine Marsden. However, the LPL’s decision to bring back Rugby League World on a subscription-only basis makes Forty20 the only rugby league title available domestically from newsagents.