Sixty-seven and a half thousand people had gathered at Wembley Stadium, London to cheer on an England team in a World Cup Semi-Final. The hopes of a nation rested upon 17 great men and with 20 seconds to go England fans were still dreaming of a World Cup Final. Sadly it was not to be the fairy-tale that many had dreamt of. As Shaun Johnson crossed the whitewash in the dying seconds the Kiwis leapt with joy and the English wept with despair. England, the hosts, were knocked out of the World Cup and it was left to Australia and New Zealand to contest the Final at Old Trafford. England fans were left in tears but whilst English heartbreak is not uncommon in sport, this was especially hard to take for all sorts of reasons, not least because it was Rugby League in the spotlight. A sport too often cast aside and neglected by national media.
The professional game in Europe has changed substantially in recent years. The top tier is called the Super League, or First Utility Super League, and has 12 teams. It was created in 1996 to replace the Championship and moved to a summer season for commercial purposes. It has since seen a greater investment from sponsors such as Sky Sports , who cover the game comprehensively with two or three games a week during the season, whilst the BBC air the later stages of the Challenge Cup and The Super League Show – a highlights show of the week’s matches. Nevertheless, professional Rugby League remains largely ignored by broadsheet newspapers, regardless of the fact that it has gone from strength to strength with the end of season Play-Offs providing more opportunities to gain public exposure and increased stadium capacities.
But it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Rugby League. Set up in 1895, in opposition to the Rugby Football Union’s “amateur principle”, the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU) enabled players to earn an income from playing sport. In time the NRFU abolished the line-out, reduced the amount of players from 15 to 13, and replaced the ruck with a play of the ball, all in order to make the game faster, more entertaining, and enjoyable for spectators and players. The changes were vindicated by larger stadium attendances which peaked at 102,569 in 1954 for the Challenge Cup Final at Odsal Stadium, Bradford. However, outside of the north of England, Rugby League struggled to gain a following. A Southern Amateur Rugby League structure was formed in 1949 following three previous unsuccessful attempts to set up a London-based side, it included Brixton, Slough and Southampton, yet it wasn’t until the London Amateur Rugby League Association was set up in the 1960’s that Rugby League established a strong foothold in the Capital. Nowadays, the sport has a global appeal with around two and a half million registered players, 27 professional leagues world-wide, and teams in 64 countries. But the greatest success story to come out of Rugby League has been the formation of the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australasia. The NRL consists of 16 teams and is widely regarded as the elite competition in the world – being the most viewed and attended, whilst the current free-to-air broadcasting rights spanning 2012-2017 were bought for 1 Billion dollars by Nine and Fox Sports.
Nevertheless, the success of a sport is based upon more than just attendances, participation, and investment. The culture behind a sport such as Rugby League is perhaps more significant to its long term sustainability and development. It started as a class-based sport in the North of England to allow working-class players to earn a living and play to a high standard. Over a hundred years on and little has truly changed, it may have now grown into a global game but the north remembers and the M62 still beats as the heart of Rugby League in England. Old rivalries such as Yorkshire and Lancashire are reproduced on the pitch, whilst it remains a rite of passage to play Rugby League at school. Reputations are forged upon the backs of the sport, and as a whole Rugby League retains its northern heritage – an area renowned for its love of gravy, friendliness and, more than anything, tradition. Rugby League is everything the north loves: strength, skill, camaraderie. Rugby League is the north and the North is Rugby League. Yet it is a testament to the sport, the RFL, and the area that Rugby League continues to grow and has a bright future.
The expansion of professional ranks with clubs outside of the northern heartland has been extremely beneficial for the profile of Rugby League. With teams in Wales, Oxford, Hemel Hempstead, London and France, the sport has reached fans and communities that would never otherwise come into contact with it. And with its reputation in the Home Counties as the younger sister of Rugby Union, this expansion has meant that it is finally developing an identity of its own. The RFL has not allowed the sport to rest on its laurels. In March, RFL Chief Executive Nigel Woods announced the Strategic and Operational Plans covering all aspects of the game from 2015-2021. This set out targets such as increased annual turnover from the current £118 million to £146 million. The RFL also want to see the number of spectators at games grow from 2.3 million to three million, and for TV audiences to grow from 17 million to 22 million. Whilst on an international level it wants England to win the 2017 World Cup. It is forward thinking and gives the game of Rugby League in England something to strive for. However having come so close to the pinnacle of international Rugby League will still hurt and the extent to which those cuts have healed will give us a valuable insight into the ability for England to challenge the best in the world when they face New Zealand in three test matches this October.
The test matches against New Zealand are not only a chance for England to test themselves against one of the World’s best but it is also a chance for redemption. Rugby League will again be in the public eye and hopefully this time we will have something to cheer about.