Written by Keith Whitelock
Most diehard NRL fans are probably capable of naming around five or six Super League clubs, usually in the form of Leeds, Wigan, Warrington, Hull, St Helens and oh yeah, there’s a French club in there too, the one that Trent Robinson used to coach?
What’s lesser known to NRL fans is the current state of Rugby League in the UK. The last thing the author of this piece wants to do is kick the game whilst its down. God knows, the sport is already seen as a self-destructive sport intent on squabbling for a tiny piece of tiny pie whilst other sports prosper around us. In saying this, “we need to talk about Kevin” (obviously Kevin is Rugby League in the UK in this poorly thought out analogy).
Something that failed to make the rugby league sites in Australia was the recent demand from the Rugby Football League (RFL) that overseas expansion clubs have been asked to pay a “deposit” to ensure head office don’t make a loss if their club happen to make the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. For those in Australia (or elsewhere) who don’t know, the Challenge Cup is Rugby League’s version of football’s FA Cup, where clubs from all divisions compete in a quest for the sports most prestigious domestic trophy culminating in the final at Wembley. For the past 30 years, the trophy has almost always been won by one of the northern English clubs mentioned above. All this changed last year when French club Catalan Dragons won the trophy to the surprise of many English fans. This was a big moment for the sport of Rugby League, resulting it Catalan Dragons parading the trophy at half time during a Barcelona FC games in Spain. This showing has now led to the team playing the first ever rugby league game at the iconic 100,000-seater Camp Nou next year.
Catalan making the Challenge Cup final presented a situation the game in England wasn’t used to; a final where one of the teams would be contributing vastly more fans than the other. For those who don’t know, it’s quite difficult to get from the south of France to London, certainly a lot more difficult than a train ride from northern England to London, however overpriced the fare may be. In the end a crowd of 50,672 turned up to see the French Team create history, roughly 18,000 less than the year before where 68,525 people saw Hull F.C defeat Wigan. 50,000 seems like an okay crowd doesn’t it? Well, not for the accountants at the RFL. Head Office is thought to have lost roughly £750,000 (A$1.35M). A loss like this can’t be seen again given the poor financial state of rugby league in the UK, hence why overseas clubs were brazenly asked to pay a large deposit (speculated to be £750,000) before entering the tournament. If the club couldn’t sell a certain amount of tickets to the final, then the residual would be taken out of their deposit. Toronto Wolfpack and French team Toulouse Olympique balked at this request and are subsequently not participating in the 2019 Challenge Cup. This withdrawal threatens the integrity of the Challenge Cup now that all teams aren’t participating.
Now, there are many things that could be criticized with this debacle, not least of all the likelihood that Toronto would almost certainly draw a larger crowd than say Salford or newcomers London if they made the final, but one point in particular typifies the decline of rugby league in the UK; the fact the game has generated so little money that it still relies on away fans to make some home games profitable. This is no doubt partly a consequence of geography, with northern English clubs’ fans historically being able to drive to away games no matter who they played. This meant not only a boost in attendances for smaller teams who came up against bigger teams, but also that clubs and the sport could get by not having to worry about accommodation and flights as they had nowhere to fly to. 2019 is now upon us and many clubs in the Championship or League 1 simply couldn’t survive if they made it to the Super League. This is despite grants from the RFL, almost solely generated from a Television deal with Sky Sports.
Toronto Wolfpack owner David Argyle currently pays for all flights and accommodation for traveling teams, at least until they make the Super League. If Toulouse, Toronto and even New York where to join Catalan Dragons in the top flight, what does a club like Batley do if it suddenly finds itself in the Super League? It’s this kind of situation that has created an uneven top-flight competition, as some clubs spend only a small part of the salary cap (set to increase to £2.1m by 2020) yet larger clubs spend the entire salary cap and utilise “marquee player allowances”. This means teams like newly promoted London Broncos will come up against teams like Leeds Rhinos. London operate on a shoestring budget, yet Leeds have used both marquee player allowances on Konrad Hurrell and Trent Merin, creating a roster worth up to three times more than London.
In the past, travel hasn’t been a problem as players would commute to the away venue and return the same day. The world has moved on from this kind of arrangement but rugby league in the UK has not. Ricky Wilby, the man behind the New York bid to enter the English leagues has pledged up to A$52 Million over the first 3 years. With this kind of money available, surely the sport needs to jump on the opportunity? Unfortunately, the silence from the RFL around this bid is deafening.
2019 sees the controversial “Super 8’s” system scrapped in favor of a simple one up one down relegation system. This will most likely lessen the chances of poor clubs all of a sudden finding themselves in the Super League, underspending on the salary cap to stay afloat but is it out of the question to scrap relegation and promotion all together? To fans of the English game, this may sound like a terrible idea, ignoring the history and cultural rivalries that keep the game alive. To antipodean fans, this may sound like common sense as this is how the NRL has always been. The reality is there’s no easy fix, but the certainty is that something does need to change. As a sport, we can’t be turning down bids like Toronto and New York who have more money than most English clubs combined.
The recent series win by the England Academy over the Australian Schoolboys shows there is genuine exciting talent coming through the English rugby league ranks. Currently, these kids are at risk of going elsewhere down the track, rugby union at worse and the NRL at best. With a salary cap of only £2m, it’s almost inevitable that any future superstars will be offered significantly more money to ply their trade elsewhere.
Recently, Super League clubs voted to split from the RFL. This makes any tough but necessary decisions on the future of the game very difficult as self-interest and self-preservation will always be a major factor. Nonetheless, these tough decisions need to be made or the sport risks receding further into the background of the British sports scene.
Coming back to the title of this piece though, what does this have to do with fans of the NRL? Despite all of the above problems, Super League is a thrilling and exciting competition, with arguably more attacking flair and less wrestle than the NRL. It is the only other alternative to watch professional rugby league. If the competition where to decline completely, rugby league risks being no different to Aussie Rules, being played professionally in just one country. British rugby league presents us with two French teams, a Canadian team and possibly an American team in the future.
It’s often said that Rugby League is in itself a community. Well, if you’re a fan of the NRL then there’s a big chance you’ll be a fan of Super League. When was the last time you gave it a shot? Go out, buy a Super League jersey, press record on Foxtel or Sky next Super League season and support our great game in the Northern Hemisphere.