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An Easter Monday resurrection for rugby league expansion?

Billy Slater. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Expert
4th April, 2018
18
1367 Reads

It was circled in the calendar months ago: Toulouse vs Toronto.

Up until this fixture popped up in the British championship, I had lived in abject remorse for not attending that trial match between Melbourne and Adelaide in Hobart at the beginning of 1998 (Terry Liberopoulos has the program).

I am proud to say I saw the Hunter Mariners play Paris Saint-Germain in 1997, with John Paul Young singing Love is in the Air at halftime and the Paris side including more Australians than their opponents.

But for the rugby league anorak Toulouse vs Toronto with full-time sides – I think some of the Olympique players might still have jobs on the side? – tops them all.

So on Saturday night the better half and I set off for Heathrow mid-afternoon, arrived at Blagnac airport close to midnight and retired after an oversized beer each.

Sunday was spent in the idyllic town square eating baguettes and drinking pastis, followed by yet another Touchstones book launch at Pub O’Clock – one of the home side’s sponsors.

I have a rule with these launches: if there are fewer than ten people there, my duties are zero besides signing and selling. There were more than ten, so I had to speak, and what I said was along the lines of this column so far. What a time to be alive, eh?

Monday was as enjoyable a day at a rugby league game as I can remember. The Olympique CEO, Cedric Garcia, hosted a lavish luncheon in a marquee and in the first half we sat next to a full brass band at Stade Ernest Argeles, home of Blagnac rugby union.

In the second half, sunshine and presions were in ample supply on a deck as the Wolfpack withstood a comeback to win 24-22 and go to the top of the table.

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Steeden Rugby League

Cedric explained that Olympique’s home ground, Stade des Minimes, is undergoing renovation and won’t be ready until 2020. So if they go up next year, they’ll still be here.

Friendly, familiar faces like former French Rugby League Federation head honcho Carlos Zalduendo, French national coach Aurelien Cologni and ex-France skipper Olivier Elima abound, a perfect melange of the old and new in rugby league. Manase Manuokafoa, who’s playing for nearby Albi, is there as a spectator, as is his coach, former Penrith centre Eric Anselme.

But without overusing the word ‘sobering’, take a look at the teams mentioned at the top of this story: Adelaide Rams, Hunter Mariners, Paris Saint-Germain. They don’t exist anymore.

By most measures Melbourne Storm are the only successful expansion club (in other words, club from a non-rugby league area) in the sport’s entire history. At my London book launch last year the Storm’s former CEO Mark Evans estimated $9 million had been spent to keep them afloat.

For all I know, Wolfpack owner David Argyle may have already spent that much.

The beauty of the English competitions is that the expenses involved are far lower than they are in the NRL. One rich guy in any part of the world can theoretically have his team in Super League in three years and playing away to Toulouse in two.

North Sydney Bears could be playing away to Toulouse in two years if they wanted to, so could the West Coast Pirates.

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It’s a situation, a lack of red tape, that is thrown up by other professional sports that could see teams in Boston and New York within a couple of years.

But I am not blindly optimistic.

Toulouse Olympique have been around since 1937 and will survive not going up to Super League. Toronto have been around for two and you need to spend time with Argyle to realise how serious he is.

We need more like him and more days like Monday. These guys shouldn’t have to find us; we should be out pitching to them. I’ve only learnt in the last two months what a ‘deck’ is – a short, engaging document pitching for investment. Why can’t the sport itself identify areas it wants to expand into and use these things to pitch to millionaires and billionaires?

I don’t want to be talking flippantly about Toulouse vs Toronto in 20 years the way I speak about Hunter vs PSG today.

But I am not yet convinced I won’t be.