In recent years, Rugby League has seen the likes of Toulouse and Toronto become a force in the lower leagues of the British game. And, with a New York side firmly in the running to join League 1 in 2019 and with plans for more North American sides and even a Serbian one to join the British game in the future, Rugby League is expanding beyond the parameters that once defined the game as a northern, working-class sport, confined to the M62 corridor. But, is this a good thing?

Expansion is necessary

The arrival of Toronto Wolfpack - a franchise geared to compete in the 2017 League 1 season and backed by a number of wealthy benefactors - has possibly changed the dynamics of the British game more so than ever before.

Opponents of expansion often highlight that teams outside of the M62 corridor are very poorly supported, London, for example, attract less than 1000 supporters per game at their Ealing ground.

Yet Toronto - a team situated in the largest city in Canada - drew in crowds well into the thousands in the 2017 League One season including a record 8,456 in their last home game. Rugby League simply cannot afford to let this potential drift by. In a world and a sport where the phrase "dog eat dog" is most relevant, 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 generated an unprecedented number of headlines on Rugby League in the past year - whether good or bad - and publicity is what grows the sport.

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The recent World Cup highlighted more than ever the need to move forward; the international game needs improving and the only way to do this is if more countries embrace Rugby League, creating more competitive nations on an international scale. Yes, Toronto have very few Canadian nationals in their squad, but a Canadian-majority squad will take time to build. The necessary structures are in place to build a stable footing in the city and grow the sport.

The creation of a brand which North Americans will support is vital; if just 1% of two nations with a combined population of over 350 million embraces the game, Rugby League could experience its greatest growth in history, and, who doesn't want to see the game take off? Down the line, if the reception that Toronto obtained from the city in their maiden season is anything to go by, Rugby League could be in for exciting times in North America.

Harmful consequences

But, just who will this expansion benefit? The taking of the game to previously untouched corners of the globe will, undoubtedly, affect the beating heart of the game itself.

Sides such as Oldham and Barrow simply cannot compete with the new, globalised teams, such as Toronto. Whilst the likes of Barrow limp financially from season to season, Toronto are a side bankrolled by seriously wealthy individuals.

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 - are just simply more inviting than the historic Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria towns. The so-called traditional clubs need help and, whilst innovative new projects get people talking, it is extremely difficult to witness the silence surrounding the demise of long-established Rugby League sides which boast a history transcending decades.

Magic Weekend

Toronto and Toulouse, for example, will be included in this year's Magic Weekend - despite it being a Super League event. Since its inauguration in 2007, the Magic Weekend has been an all-Super League affair. Other Championship sides such as Featherstone and Halifax have been waiting years for an opportunity to step onto one of the greatest stages in the Rugby League season, yet, Toronto and Toulouse - in what will be just their first season in the Championship - will be the first second-tier teams to do so.

Therefore, not only are Championship sides - most of whom are from the traditional heartlands of the sport - missing out on an unprecedented amount of exposure, they are also seemingly being cast aside for the new 'favourites' on the block. Upon the decision to include the two expansion sides, Super League General Manager Mark Foster stated: "Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique are sure to put on a great display and show fans what the Championship has to offer."

But, aren't the likes of Featherstone and Halifax just as capable of putting on a great display? And, at least heartland Championship sides would actually bring some fans to the opening match; Toronto is nearly 4000 miles away from Newcastle, Toulouse is just under 1000 - are any of these fans actually likely to make these daunting trips?

Atmosphere and Costs

This brings up another pertinent point: crowds and costs. Expansion sides are all well and good when they're playing at home in front of thousands of their own supporters, but, it is no surprise that when Catalans Dragons play away from home, the home side registers their worst spectator count of the season. Though Toronto's visits to the UK brought in more, intrigued spectators such as the 2,600 that turned up to York's Bootham Crescent in July 2017, this interest is likely to die away the longer the Wolfpack play in the British game.

And, sides such as these that bring literally no supporters to away matches, dent the income for those clubs playing at home - a few hundred Halifax fans, for example, are certainly better for the coffers than no Toronto fans. But absent away fans also negatively affects the atmosphere at games. In 2012 when Catalans beat St Helens at Langtree Park with a last-minute try and a kick after the hooter in one of the greatest endings to a Super League game ever, there was silence - Saints fans were stunned, yet with no Dragons' fans there, the ending actually seemed rather flat.

Moreover, whilst thousands of Castleford fans attend Headingley for their clash with Leeds Rhinos on an annual basis and vice versa, thousands just cannot afford the cost - travel, accommodation, spending - to the south of France or Canada, despite how tempting it may sound.

A licensing return?

Even more potentially damaging for the lower-tier sides is that there is the possibility - and rumour - that Super League will return to a 14-league franchise sometime in the future. The two additional teams are also rumoured to be - no prizes for guessing who - Toulouse and Toronto. Licensing didn't work prior to the new Super 8s system - introduced in 2015 - so what's changed to make it work now?

With no hope of promotion to the Super League, Championship sides will suffer; interest will diminish if there's no real prize at the end of the season and with it, so will clubs' profits. All this for the sake of keeping the new Rugby League sweethearts satisfied. This is, however, hypothetical as promotion and relegation are still present at the moment, though for how long nobody knows.

A sporting conundrum

Whilst expansion is key to growing the game and definitely essential to allow Rugby League to rival other sports, the potential consequences on those small-town clubs that just simply cannot compete could be catastrophic. Does Rugby League attempt to nurture new, exciting projects that could globalise the brand, but face destroying teams that form the breadbasket of the sport, or does it try to find a happy medium by trying to please both?

One could also question what do sides such as Toronto bring to the game anyway? Are they really Canadian? They will have a base in Manchester for the 2018 season and, with an English coach, an English head of rugby and with very few Canadian nationals in the squad, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Wolfpack are an English side dressed in Canadian clothes. But, all expansion sides have to start somewhere; to go with a Canadian coach and squad would have been disastrous for Wolfpack's creator Eric Perez' plans in 2017.

Toronto and Toulouse are growing, but, most fans of the more traditional clubs can't help feeling that they are becoming lost to the Rugby League world in the wake of the current expansionism. And, with the likes of New York and Belgrade expressing an interest, only time will tell if their worst fears are to be realised. #RugbyLeague #RunWiththePack #RL