Featherstone have been out of rugby league’s top flight for 25 years, but believe they have everything in place to become Super League’s 12th team in 2021. CEO Davide Longo tells Sky Sports why.
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 15/11/20 8:25pm
It is perhaps easy to forget that when Featherstone Rovers were one of the six teams relegated from the top division in the penultimate season of winter rugby league 25 years ago, they only missed out on a place in the new Super League by two points.
Of the others, Salford Red Devils, Hull FC, Widnes Vikings and Rovers’ local rivals Wakefield Trinity have all returned to or been part of the top flight during the summer era, while that season’s bottom side Doncaster have spent most of the intervening quarter of a century in what is now League One.
Featherstone, on the other hand, have ridden out some difficult years around the turn of the century to become one of the Championship’s more successful clubs and last year were just 80 minutes away from winning promotion, going down 24-6 to Toronto Wolfpack in the Million Pound Game.
𝟮𝟬𝟮𝟭… 𝗪𝗲. 𝗔𝗿𝗲. 𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗱𝘆.#UTR | #RoversReady pic.twitter.com/1NYWw3qb3q
— Featherstone Rovers (@FevRoversRLFC) November 5, 2020
Toronto’s demise, however, has opened up a space in Super League for 2021 and Rovers are among the clubs who have already stated their intention to apply – with CEO Davide Longo in no doubt them re-joining nearby Castleford Tigers and Wakefield at the highest level is long overdue.
“When the club was removed from the old first division back in 1994/95, that caused a lot of friction around this area,” Longo, who was born in Wakefield and grew up in the area, told Sky Sports.
“The club has always been viewed as one of the top clubs by people around this area and, arguably, when I was growing up, I never differentiated between Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone – they were all highly competitive on the field.
“The only difference is the club has never recovered from that removal, so 25 years on we’re sat here and have never been in Super League. Although we’re going to be celebrating our centenary in 2021, we’re brand new to Super League.
I know from working in and around Featherstone we have a latent fanbase who were disheartened from when the club was removed from the top-flight. I think we’ve got a real opportunity as a club to re-engage a fanbase who might not always pay to come in to watch but are proud to call themselves Featherstone Rovers fans.
“I know from working in and around Featherstone we have a latent fanbase who were disheartened from when the club was removed from the top flight. I think we’ve got a real opportunity as a club to re-engage a fanbase who might not always pay to come in to watch but are proud to call themselves Featherstone Rovers fans.”
Three-time Challenge Cup winners and 1977 league champions Featherstone are expected to be joined by other clubs from rugby league’s traditional heartlands like former Super League champions Bradford Bulls, plus Leigh Centurions, Widnes and Halifax in applying for the vacant place.
Further afield, Toulouse Olympique have declared their intention to apply too, as have York City Knights, while London Broncos – relegated after one season back in the competition at the end of 2019 – could join them too.
There will, of course, be plenty of fierce debate as to whether Super League should continue with its expansion bid or stay closer to its roots. Indeed, in Featherstone’s case some might question what a club with two Super League teams on its doorstep in a town with a population of just over 15,000 would add.
Longo, however, points to the fact the Wakefield district is home to 350,000 people, with Rovers seeing their catchment area extending to the towns of Pontefract and Knottingley, and further south to a potential population of 150,000.
Not only that, but rugby league is the only game in town as far as professional spectator sport in the district goes and while he is not against expanding to new markets, the 44-year-old believes the challenges posed by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic means now is not the time to pursue that.
“If we have to be true and honest to ourselves, I don’t think we’ve exhausted the heartlands and it’s not like we’ve mastered every area of it,” Longo said.
“I’m not rubbishing expansion, I believe in what expansion needs to do and needs to be able to achieve. I think the problem we have as a game is, we’ve failed on most of the expansion projects we’ve had in place.
“I’ve been to Toronto three times, I’ve been to Toulouse a number of times, and all are very good areas and all can bring their benefits to the game, but one thing I would say we are to the game is low risk.
“In terms of the situations we find ourselves in with the pandemic and the ongoing challenges that presents, I would say from a Featherstone Rovers point of view we would be low risk and consolidation within the sport is probably what’s needed at this moment in time.”
The deadline for clubs to apply is November 30, with a panel headed by Lord Jonathan Caine expected to decide who will become Super League’s 12th team for next year by December 16.
Club’s finances, ability to host televised matches, social and digital footprint, community engagement, season-ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship are all areas which will be assessed, along with the team’s ability to be competitive.
What we do bring to Super League is a passion, we bring a tradition, and I believe we’re one of the best examples outside of Super League of a heartland club which has done everything which has been asked.
On the latter, Longo is confident Rovers would only need to make four or five new signings to make their squad competitive in Super League, while on the former he believes the club either have in place or are not far away from achieving the criteria set out.
“I’ve been in the post for four years and my plan was to bring Featherstone Rovers up to speed and up to date with what’s required of a professional sports club nowadays, and I believe we’re there,” Longo said.
“What we do bring to Super League is a passion, we bring a tradition, and I believe we’re one of the best examples outside of Super League of a heartland club which has done everything which has been asked.”
Source : Sky Sports