A FULL-scale rugby league war might not yet have broken out, but shots were fired by Marwan Koukash as he gears up to take on The RFL in a long-running feud with the game’s rulers.
The most headline-grabbing moment of the maverick Salford Red Devils owner’s hour-long press conference at the AJ Bell Stadium on Wednesday was his call for his fellow chairman to back him in a proposal for Super League to be run completely independently of The RFL.
Frustration at flat-lining commercial revenues, inconsistencies in the disciplinary process and his personal hobby horse, the salary cap, were among the myriad of reasons which caused Dr Koukash to issue this call to arms.
“The future lies in the hands of the 12 chairmen of Super League,” said Koukash. “I have no intention of being the leader of such a move, but before the end of the week I will have contacted all my fellow chairmen and I’m going to arrange to get together within the next two weeks.
“Again I have to stress this: the future of the game rests in our hands. I need their backing.”
Dr Koukash’s proposals have drawn a mixed response from rugby league supporters, with many backing him and others worried about what long-term effects a civil war could have on the sport.
It is a hugely complex issue and while this treatise does not pretend to hold all of the answers, it is an attempt to address some of the more pertinent questions.
So, what exactly is Marwan Koukash proposing?
The Salford owner wants to see Super League completely break away from the control of The RFL; “full control of its finances, its compliance unit, refereeing and the lot,” as he put it.
The scenario has been likened to that of the Premier League breaking away from the Football League in 1992, although this analogy is not quite correct.
For starters, Football League had always been run independently of the Football Association and the Premier League was formed with the backing of the FA, even operating out of an office at their former headquarters of Lancaster Gate early on.
And in any case, the FA still operates as the game’s regulator and oversees the disciplinary process for the Premier League.
If anything, the competition in English sport most comparable to the position Super League presently finds itself in is arguably cricket’s County Championship.
It, too, is wholly administered by the sport’s governing body, The ECB, and as a result is subject to their whims – resulting in constant tinkering with the format of the three major domestic tournaments – and has no commercial independence.
The difference is the 18 first-class counties are entirely beholden to The ECB as a result of the handouts they receive from revenue generated by the England team and television rights.
Despite rugby league not exactly being flush with cash, the Super League clubs are arguably in more of a financially stable state that their county cricket counterparts, thus more able to stand on their own two feet initially, and have a product they would surely have no trouble monetising with broadcasters should they decide to go it alone.
Many questions remain unanswered about what Dr Koukash is proposing though, such as:
– What would be the timescale for setting up a totally independent Super League should the majority vote to go it alone?
– How would current broadcast contracts be affected?
– If Super League was to completely secede from RFL control, would its clubs still enter the Challenge Cup?
– Would a system of promotion and relegation between the Kingston Press Championship still remain or would Super League again become a closed shop for 12, or possibly more, franchises?
– Where would the match officials come from and what sort of training programme would be in place for them?
– How would this affect the international programme? Would there be separate national teams representing Super League and The RFL as was the case in Australia during the Super League War in the mid-1990s?
– If, as Dr Koukash has said, he does not want to run a breakaway league, then who would administer it? Would it be another club chairman or a committee of them, or would independent people be brought in?
– Who would comprise the judiciary panel?
– Would there be any salary cap or would clubs simply be allowed to spend what they like on players?
How much support does Marwan Koukash have from the other 11 chairmen?
It is difficult to ascertain at this stage how many more clubs are behind the Salford owner’s proposals, but history would suggest they are resistant to any attempts to radically change the status quo.
Dr Koukash’s attempts to change the salary cap have generally met with stern resistance and although he did eventually win a ‘marquee player’ exception, the majority have repeatedly voted against raising the cap from its current limit of £1.825million.
As many have already pointed out, Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenegan attempted to lead a revolt over proposed changes to the league structure in 2013, only to be defeated.
It would be fair to say both Hull Kingston Rovers’ chief Neil Hudgell and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Michael Carter both sympathise with Dr Koukash, at least if the various correspondences between the three on social media are anything to go by.
But while both have remained tight-lipped over a split from The RFL, Carter did send a cryptic tweet to Sky Sports commentator Rod Studd earlier this week in response to the punishment handed out to Danny England after being found guilty of punching.
— Michael Carter (@WTWChairman) May 17, 2016
One chairman who Koukash is unlikely to find much favour with though is Catalans Dragons supremo Bernard Guasch.
What about the Catalans Dragons?
The French side, who have been mainstays of English rugby league’s top flight for a decade now, were another one who got it both barrels from the Salford owner during his one-hour press conference.
One of the main bones of contention for Dr Koukash is what he sees as the Dragons having failed in one of their aims, which was to grow the game of rugby league in France.
“I am all for growing the sport, not just in this country but others including France,” said Koukash. “But I know 10 years ago the French said their aim was to have 75 percent of their players playing for France.
“I look at the team we played recently – 11 of them do not qualify to play for France. That’s almost 75 percent of their players not qualifying to play for France, so we have failed to grow the sport.
“But when I look at the players closely, I notice there are nine non-European players. And I think ‘every team is only allowed seven, how are Catalans getting nine?’”
Dr Koukash is correct in that Section B1:15 of the Operational Rules states clubs are not allowed more than seven players who are not Federation Trained or Academy Juniors.
However, there are exceptions to this. For starters, The RFL have the power under Section B1:17 to grant an exemption to this rule. The Catalans, along with London Broncos and the Crusaders when they were both in Super League, have both benefitted from that in the past due to being considered “non-heartland” teams.
Secondly, while there are 11 members of the Catalans squad who are non-French players, five of those do not count under the foreign quota due to either holding European passports or coming under the Kolpak regulations.
Richie Myler and Jodie Broughton are both British, while Pat Richards holds an Irish passport having represented the country at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.
Paul Aiton and Willie Mason hold Papua New Guinean and Samoan passports respectively too, which means they do not come under the foreign quota as those countries are part of the ACP group of nations and have a trade agreement with the EU.
Has the Catalans project failed though? Insomuch as having 75 percent of their players playing for the national team, yes.
However, the growth in the number of French players playing in Super League over the past ten years has to be seen as a sign something is being done right, while the Dragons have certainly become a force to be reckoned with since finishing bottom in their first season.
Dr Koukash also expressed consternation about how much the Catalans continue to cost the other 11 clubs in Super League, putting it at £100,000 per club per season due them having to pay the French side’s travelling expenses.
His comments about the Catalans bringing relatively few away fans with them seemed somewhat unfair though.
After all, it is not like fans of an English team being able to save up for one weekend trip to the south of France a season, it is having to go to England every other week, so no wonder so few do follow the team on the road.
For his part, Guasch seemed surprised by the criticism and released a statement in response.
“We were used to better manners from the chairmen and owners from other Super League clubs,” said the Catalans chairman.
“We are delighted of your recent arrival in our sport. As we did 10 years ago, you have brought a new impulse to the competition.
“I am available to discuss with you about how we negotiate contracts with players and their agents and our ability to fill our stadium.
“I invite you to spend few days in Perpignan to discuss this together, I’m sure a journey in the South of France will calm your anger.”
Koukash, naturally, was quick to reply via his Twitter account.
Good morning Bernard, pic.twitter.com/JlCcumLOpj
— Marwan Koukash (@drmarwanK) May 20, 2016
Then there were unsubstantiated claims of English teams contributing £10million to the local economy in Perpignan as well, along with repeating hearsay that Kingston Press League One French side Toulouse Olympique are being given around £200,000 a season in central funding, compared to £75,000 each Championship club gets.
Toronto Wolfpack did not escape Dr Koukash’s opprobrium either, but he was right to flag up whether or not The RFL have done due diligence on the mysterious money men behind the project – regardless of the fact the Canadians have vowed to meet all costs.
What is the latest with Salford’s appeal against being found guilty of salary cap breaches?
Oh dear, oh dear…where to even start trying to unravel this mess?
Dr Koukash went into great detail about why he feels the Red Devils have been hard-done-by in being charged, and subsequently found guilty, by a tribunal and made a very compelling case.
Many would sympathise with his view that if The RFL knew about Salford allegedly going over the cap in 2014, then why has it taken two years to take any action – particularly with Super League supposedly operating under a ‘live’ cap?
Dr Koukash conceded the club were at fault for not declaring rent payments for two players – £7,500 and £10,800 respectively – and a further £32,200 given to another player for “leadership training” and another payment.
That comes to a total of £50,500, but The RFL claim Salford were over by £94,200. Not only that, but while Dr Koukash stated the Red Devils were only over from July 9 to July 17, the governing body deemed them to be over for a staggering 109 days.
Someone, on one side or the other, has got their mathematics badly wrong.
The Salford owner was in no doubt who was to blame, saying: “When I look at why they (The RFL) have done it, I would say they either deliberately misled the judge of the tribunal or they were totally incompetent.”
He also went onto explain his version of events over the breach, saying: “I knew we had enough money in the cap to spend money. To those who follow our club, I’ll take you back to May of 2014 in which we had a player at our club called Jake Mullaney, and he used to be our full-back.
“In May 2014, we signed Kevin Locke to come to us in December for the following year, but unfortunately Jake suffered a long-term injury on May 7 and was out for the season.
“So I went to The RFL and I said ‘Mr RFL, we need an overseas spot for Jake and we need to free room under the cap, can you please de-register Jake in order to bring Kevin from Australia?’
“And the answer was ‘yes’ and we brought Kevin into the club in July. Now, you would have thought a sensible governing body would have de-registered Jake then registered Kevin, but they did it the other way around.”
Not only that, but Kevin Locke made his debut for the club against Huddersfield Giant on July 5 – four days before Dr Koukash claims they were over the cap – and Salford would only have been able to play him had approval been given.
“Mr RFL, are you telling us you allowed us to play Kevin Locke without being registered?” added Koukash, waving around a piece of paper with Salford’s live salary cap details from the period of time in question.
“Your salary log is full of elementary errors and for a governing body to be producing something like that, I would be embarrassed being part of a body that produces a log like this.”
Added to this were – at this time unsubstantiated – allegations of another unnamed club being £158,060 over during the 2014 season and simply having that swept under the carpet.
Of course, clubs have a responsibility to keep themselves under the cap rather than waiting for The RFL to catch them out before correcting it. Nevertheless, these allegations raise plenty of concern about the governing body’s ability to regulate the salary cap properly.
So, where do we go from here?
That is the million-dollar question. All we can say is: Watch this space, because this is far from over.