Page XIII editorial, first published 6th July 2012 in Rugby League World, Issue 376 (Aug 2012)
If the huge television viewing figures for the England football team’s exploits in the European Championships, the clamour for tickets to see the Olympic Games and the excitement surrounding the passage of the torch across the country beforehand tell us anything, it is that there is nothing quite like international sport for grabbing the attention of the public. Not just those who are already interested, but those who normally wouldn’t care less.
Yet in Rugby League, it appears to be the opposite. Almost twice as many fans watched Bradford’s do or die victory over Wigan at the DW Stadium as turned up to watch England defeat the Exiles at Langtree Park. That’s just one example. Club attendances regularly eclipse those of the national team, except when they are playing Australia.
What can be done about it? England can’t just limit themselves to playing Australia. The whole point of introducing the Exiles in the first place was to give them a tougher test that would hopefully, one day, help them beat the Kangaroos. Similarly, fans cannot be dragooned into watching the national team if they don’t want to.
But we can make it easier for them.
Times are tough, money is short, but the Rugby League calendar is stuffed to bursting point with events, some of which are struggling to attract the audience they deserve. The England v Exiles games and the Magic Weekend, plus a Nines tournament and an Anglo-French Challenge that slipped under the radar so completely they may as well not have happened at all.
Why not bundle them altogether?
An England v Exiles game as the Saturday night highlight of a Magic Weekend at the Etihad Stadium would address several weaknesses of both concepts at once.
The Magic Weekend has no focus, no point at which the thirty-odd thousand fans who attend each day are all in the stadium together. They watch their own team, then they clear off to the pub. Holding an England game at the end of day one would give those who have already paid for their ticket and are already in or around the venue to watch their club, an incentive to stick around.
In addition, having England play on the bigger stage of the Etihad, would immediately give the game more of a ‘big match’ feel. No disrespect whatsoever to Langtree Park or the Galpharm, both fine stadiums in their own right, but they are club grounds. Fans go there all the time. Watching England play there is not ‘special’, and watching England should always be special, no matter who they are playing or when.
How can England (or the Exiles) play on the same day as clubs who will supply most of their players?
I would suggest that the Magic Weekend becomes a ‘Home Grown / Home Nations’ festival, where clubs take the opportunity to field fully home grown teams, resting all their overseas stars, and where England are limited to selecting a maximum of three players from any one club.
The Magic Weekend is the perfect opportunity to give fans the chance to see some of their club’s fringe stars in first team action (I’m sure they wouldn’t let anyone down) and to see some of their best players in international action into the bargain, while giving this extra round of fixtures the kind of point it has never had before. Any club that felt it was significantly weakened by the loss of their overseas contingent might want to look again at how it develops its own players for the future.
As for the Nines, won by Cumbria, it was great to see the finals televised on Premier Sports, but not so great to see that an exciting concept was being played out in front of an almost empty stadium on a Tuesday night. The games are short enough to be accommodated in the breaks between the other games and they would be watched and enjoyed by many more than turned up at Headingley for this year’s finals. As for the Anglo-French Challenge, make it a one-off game between the French Champions and the Co-operative Championship winners and play it as the finale to day two, helping to further extend the attraction of the Magic Weekend beyond Super League.
Sure, it would be a logistical challenge fitting so much into one venue over one weekend, but Rugby League would have one utterly unmissable event as a result, instead of several underperforming ones.
John Drake, Editor