The traditional 'M62 corridor' has always been the heartland of Rugby League; the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria boast the most Rugby League teams in the British game. And, whilst there has been a number of attempts to expand the game outside of these localities to expand the sport as a whole, the north of England still continues to be the breadbasket of the sport. Yet, is this 'old school' domination conducive for a sport which has been left behind by its Rugby Union and Football counterparts and which has seen, recently, a splurge of attempts to take Rugby League into different and exciting places?

The northern game

Ever since Rugby League split from its Rugby Union counterpart in 1895, the sport has been associated with the north of England.

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The divorce of League from Union was principally caused by the RFU's decision to enforce the amateur principle of the sport which prevented "broken time payments" to players who had taken time off work to play Rugby. As northern teams typically had more working-class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle, the decision was made to form the Northern Rugby Football Union.

122 years on and Rugby League is still very much concentrated in the north of England and past attempts to develop the game in areas such as Wales (Cardiff City Blue Dragons, South Wales Dragons, Celtic Crusaders) and London (Kent Invicta, Fulham FC, London Crusaders, Harlequins RL and now London Broncos) have all produced less than satisfactory results.

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Most of the Rugby League fraternity have called repeatedly for investment in the traditional heartlands; the towns of Workington, Whitehaven and Barrow of Cumbria, the Lancashire towns of Oldham, Rochdale and Swinton and the Yorkshire towns of Halifax, Dewsbury and Batley are places where Rugby League have a tremendous history, but they are also areas in which their clubs struggle to keep their heads above water financially. These are clubs which are crying out for investment, but these are also clubs which continue to be ignored by wealthy backers and the governing body, the RFL, and, as such, have been left to fend for themselves whilst money is churned into other, more inviting projects.

Recent expansion projects

Although Catalans Dragons have generally been a success in the top flight of Rugby League, they are the only club outside the M62 corridor to have cemented a spot in Super League with the likes of Paris St-Germain, Celtic Crusaders and, most recently, London Broncos all falling victim to financial instability and dwindling crowds.

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Whilst Super League continues to be fought competitively between so-called 'traditional' clubs, the Championship is another story; Toulouse, London and now Toronto - following their promotion from League One - will make up a quarter of the second tier next season.

But, in a league which still has part-time teams plying their trade elsewhere as well as in Rugby League, the strains of travel and accommodation could well prove to be too much for clubs whom are used to travelling between northern counties rather than the length and breadth of the country as well as the Channel and the Atlantic. Is Rugby League stretching its capacity too far, trying to compete with other sports that have generally attracted more national and international interest?

Rugby League has to expand

Perhaps, perhaps not; one thing is for sure though, if Rugby League is to become a more successful brand - which all Rugby League fans want - it has to punch its way through the traditional barriers that are currently blocking the route to expansion. Yes, Championship sides Toulouse and London pull in disappointing crowds - just over 1,500 spectators turned out for the former's Shield Final against Sheffield Eagles in 2017 whilst London continue to attract sub-1,000 fans at their Ealing home - but so do most sides in the same league. Rochdale, for example, has regularly dropped below 500 spectators for home games in recent seasons.

Yet, with the arrival of Toronto, who drew in crowds well into the thousands in the 2017 League One season including a record 8,456 in their last home game, the big-city potential is changing. And, Rugby League cannot afford to let this potential drift by. In a world and a sport which very much represents the phrase "dog eat dog", Rugby League simply has to escape the 'small sport' mentality and welcome the arrival of teams such as Toronto with open arms. After all, Toronto has generated an unprecedented number of headlines on Rugby League in the past year and, with plans in the pipeline for a new team in New York and others in North America as well as a barrage of publicity surrounding a potential team in Dublin and the positive international effects of the current World Cup, Rugby League appears to be gearing itself up for expansion on a scale previously unthinkable.

But this will, undoubtedly, affect towns such as Oldham and Barrow whom simply cannot compete with the teams, such as those created and bankrolled by Eric Perez - the man behind Toronto. In a perfect world, investment in both sides of the game: the traditional and the new, would make all fans happy. Yet, this world is certainly not perfect and there are painful choices to be made.

Traditional vs new

The cities of Toronto, New York, Dublin and even London - backed by David Hughes who has ploughed millions of his own money into the club - have more pulling power than the historic Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria towns. The clubs from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria need help and it is extremely difficult to witness the demise of Rugby League teams, who have a history which transcends decades, from these areas. But, with an ever-decreasing will to invest in such teams and with more opportune projects flashing the elusive pound signs, Rugby League is changing.

Yes, the Super League still harbours 11 sides from the heartlands, but this is not a change that is going to happen overnight. Super League, unlike the Championship, will be a harder nut to crack. Attendance levels are growing each year and the competition is becoming more unpredictable. In the top flight, the M62 corridor continues to thrive; it is no surprise that when Catalans Dragons play away from home, the home side registers their worse spectator count of the season. Therefore, it is possible to say that the immediate future of Super League perhaps relies on the traditional clubs.

Yet with tradition comes complacency and, for too long, Rugby League has been a stagnant sport. The big cities and the excitement that they create, have the potential to move Rugby League to a place where it can, not just compete with, but dominate rival sports. Then, perhaps, backers and consortiums could well flock to the so-called 'traditional' clubs that have been left behind, pulling them to the level which all Rugby League supporters want to see them at. Rugby League needs both 'traditional' clubs and new, exciting ones too; undoubtedly though, it is the latter which is currently gaining the momentum. And, although it remains to be seen how far this momentum will carry, its impact could well be colossal. #RugbyLeague #RLWC2017 #RunWiththePack