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Should Toulouse Olympique be exempt from relegation in 2022

After 11 games, Toulouse are rooted to the bottom of Super League with just one win.

It is the outcome many expected and has become common place in Super League. Following in the footsteps of Leigh in 2021 and 2017 and London in 2019, it looks likely that the French side will be relegated after just one season in the top flight.

They are four points adrift of 11th and missed out on a better chance of making a battle for survival when they lost 25-14 to Leeds a week ago. The Rhinos went into the game just a point above Toulouse and were ravaged by injury but were able to defeat their French counterparts and a second consecutive win over Hull KR on Friday now leaves them five points clear of Toulouse at the bottom.

But how good is this for the game?

There’s an argument to be made that the sport – certainly its expansion – would benefit from Toulouse avoiding relegation this season and developing into a fully fledged Super League side over the coming years especially with a World Cup in France on the horizon in 2025.

Surely, if rugby league is to get the best out of a World Cup in France, two Super League teams from the country would be a massive benefit.

That’s the opinion of Toulouse coach Sylvain Houles who suggested a rule change to save Toulouse from relegation should be something the league considers. This came yesterday following their 48-12 defeat to Hull FC according to the Examiner Live.

So, is this a route Super League should take?

It has worked before. One of Super League’s current top teams is only around now because of a similar exemption in 2006. Catalans is of course the team in question. The Dragons are now a major force in Super League and have been for a decade in all honesty.

In fact, in 2008 they finished third just two years after relegation exemption when they finished bottom in 2006. Furthermore, they made the play-offs in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. They also finished in the top four in 2012 and won the Challenge Cup in 2018. A member of the top four in 2020 and League Leaders in 2021 on route to a first Grand Final, it is clear that allowing a French side with backing to be exempt from relegation can enable them to grow into a royal force.

However, it could be said that Catalans’ success has come at the expense of other clubs. In 2005, the year before the Dragons were brought into the league, two clubs were relegated instead of the usual one. This was harsh on Widnes who in a normal season would have survived. The Vikings were eleven World Champions and a major name in our sport especially in the 80s. This was a blow to them as they also seemed to develop as the Dragons would.

Equally, in 2006 Castleford were condemned to relegation for finishing 11th rather than 12th because of Catalans’ safety net and in some ways this made a mockery of the very concept of promotion and relegation. The Tigers of course recovered but it could have been a very different story had they not bounced straight back up in 2007.

Exemption is a double edged sword. It has the power to develop the game in one area but damage it elsewhere. Would it be fair for Wakefield, Salford or even Leeds to suffer relegation for finishing 11th – probably not and all three bring something to the league. Salford played in a Grand Final as recently as 2019 and have pushed the top two all the way recently. Wakefield have been, and likely will again, be a side in and around the play-offs whilst Leeds is one of the biggest clubs in the sport as a whole. Losing them or any other side who could slip down the league would be damaging and harsh.

Perhaps the answer lies in expansion. Looking at the Championship both Featherstone and Leigh appear to be a cut above the rest such is their ambition and financial backing. They are both deserving of a place in Super League so why not return to the 14-team format? It’s worked before. That way Toulouse would be saved from relegation and two top Championship teams would be given a crack at Super League.

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