In April 2012, five minutes after half-time Kieran Dixon dived over the line at a half-empty Headingley Stadium wearing the colours of London Broncos. This put London on the scoreboard but did nothing to change the momentum of the match as Leeds comfortably won 52-10. Just over three years on and Dixon found himself ten metres from his own try line on the wing in the Hull derby at St James Park, Newcastle. A quick bit of thinking and an interception later, Dixon accelerated away from the Hull FC assailants to score a length of the pitch try and put Hull KR within 4 points of their rivals after 29 minutes. Not for lack of trying, Dixon again found himself on the end of a drubbing, this time Hull FC coming away with a 46-20 win over Hull Kingston Rovers.
Kieran Dixon is undoubtedly a success story of Rugby League’s expansion in the south of England, but back in 2012 the London Broncos side also included the likes of Tony Clubb from Kent, Omari Caro from Hammersmith, and Dan Sarginson who, along with Dixon, grew up in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire and played for local side Hemel Stags, now in Championship 1.
During the 120 year history of Rugby League, the south has consistently produced top tier Rugby League players yet the sport remains an enigma to many residing below the M62. A vast population still play the game in the south, with clubs spanning Portsmouth to Norwich, however it is still a world closed off to the likes who look to Twickenham for their physical contact and entertainment. Sadly the media also fall foul to the allure of Rugby Union and with the Rugby Union World Cup on the horizon it is proving ever harder for Rugby League to capture the public’s imagination, regardless of what happened at Wembley in November of 2013.
The RFL will continue to market the great game of Rugby League to all parts of the British Isles but it has to be said that if the sport can crack London surely popularity and participation will surge and spread. As I sit down to watch Hull FC vs Wigan Warriors in my Buckinghamshire living room, it is easy to guess that the neighbours have something else on their telly box, but it will always be hard to accept. How can a sport that promotes skill over strength, rewards teams for attacking the line rather than kicking a penalty, or restarts play by a quick tap ‘n’ go be less popular than a sport that sees lineouts, scrums, and rucks take up over three-quarters of the match time? How is it that a sport that gives referees the power to dictate the tempo and score-line achieve total media coverage during their world cup? And how can a sport market itself as the ‘Rugby World Cup’ when there are two variations played worldwide. The answer is simple: Rugby Union controls London. It controls the media, the fan base, the money.
The north and the south have more in common than meets the eye. Both enjoy the camaraderie of Rugby League, both admire the physical and mental strength needed to play the sport, and both respect the nature in which the game is played. It is a universal game that spans all social classes and personalities, yet Rugby League continues to yield beneath the weight of Rugby Union in the south. So what can the Rugby Football League (RFL) do to promote the game?
Firstly, create a face of Rugby League. Yes the sport is a team game and placing one individual on a pedestal could be detrimental, but you only have to look at the impact of David Beckham, Paula Radcliffe, Bradley Wiggins, and Freddy Flintoff on their respective sports to see how positive role models can increase participation and interaction.
Secondly, establish a unique selling point that incorporates the history and tradition of Rugby League along with the current high quality competition. This can be a State of Origin-esque series with the North and South or Yorkshire and Lancashire, for example. Historical rivalries capture the public’s imagination and have the potential to increase media exposure in ways that the England and Exiles game could not.
Third and finally, don’t give up on the south. The RFL continues to market the sport by putting on events, placing big games in the south, using charity associations, coaching local children, and funding London media campaigns but it takes time and perseverance. Either that or find a new PR team.
These are simple solutions to the problem of Rugby League popularity in the south but could have a hugely positive effect on the sport as a whole. The south is the key to funding and sponsorship deals beyond the dreams of many at the RFL, whilst participation and quality will undoubtedly soar as the sport becomes more accessible and understood. Rugby League deserves a national audience and with the right marketing the south will help it take centre stage.