What will you be watching in 2019 – the 15-man game or the 13-man game? Rugby Union v League; the age-old challenge for footy fans’ support. With preseason games soon to be scheduled, the 2019 season is nearly upon us. Will union still draw viewers or is league the more attractive option?
In the Southern hemisphere, the winter code has crept further and further into summer. With preseason games scheduled for late January, both rugby union and rugby league are trampling on the cricket season in order to gain the following of more sports fans. In a congested market, some will be successful in 2019, as others have to scrap for the attention and critical space in the newspapers or newscasts of television networks across the globe.
Rugby union v league is your classic inter-sport rivalry. Both derived from football, yet each now distinct codes that are challenging for the same pool of sports fans. Men, women, boys and girls, fan support is essential – lose it and you end up with less interest and sponsorship. It can also have dramatic effects on a team’s survival [see the Western Force]. This conversation applies worldwide, across many similar sports which occupy the same time of the year. We look primarily at footy but it might be the NFL v NBA [as another example].
In 2019, the challenge is on.
The faster, less structured play of rugby league draws fans for its intensity and colour. Rugby union relies on tradition, set plays and familiarity to hold supporters in a tight market. So as the preseason arrives, Last Word on Rugby have to ask the question…..What will you be watching in 2019?
Rugby Union v League battle continues
When the two codes split at the turn of the 19th century, it brought about a competitive scuffle for the attention of footy fans. As well as football [soccer], the games of rugby union and league have to compete against Gaelic Football and Aussie Rules, so it is a crowded market, no doubting that.
To achieve cut-through, your product needs to be presented at it’s best. To that end, the two rugby codes challenge each other from the outset and in the Southern hemisphere especially, the success of each have risen to highs and fallen to lows. Currently, the argument is that the 13-man sport is winning the rugby union v league war.
With higher viewership in Australia, popular in New Zealand and with a solid support base in the United Kingdom and South Africa (to an extent), the NRL competition holds a stronger position. It commands a higher broadcasting rights deal, with the millions earned from advertising giving the sport a solid base – one that union wishes to destabilize.
With negotiations by SANZAAR of the next round of broadcast rights on the table, the Super Rugby competition has to generate interest and support from day one. That is via better marketing, popularity across all nations and in the results. To do so, teams must ‘run out’ with the mindset of showing off the sports attributes and values.
That starts from the very beginning of the year. No time is available for a ‘soft launch’ so the two codes will again hope to draw regular fans and entice new audiences in 2019.
That fight starts shortly, with rugby union getting a leap over their rivals, holding their preseason warm-up matches in late January/early February. That is before the season-opening weekend of February 15-16.
Preseason program for Super Rugby sides:
ACT Brumbies v Melbourne Rebels – Saturday January 26. Viking Park, Erindale
Lions v Bulls – Sat Jan 26. Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Highlanders v Waratahs – Friday Feb 1. Molyneux Park, Alexandra
Hurricanes v Crusaders – Sat Feb 2. Levin Domain
Double header: Sunday, Feb 3. Cape Town Stadium
Stormers v Bulls/Lions v Sharks
ACT Brumbies v Waratahs – Thursday Feb 7. Goulburn Workers Arena, NSW
This is one place that I'd love to be #FarmlandsCup down at the @SouthbridgeRFC @crusadersrugby v @Highlanders
If you are down in South Canterbury, get down to the park and see some great #preseason footyhttps://t.co/Y9Zs9juHME pic.twitter.com/8qFeY8MKsA
— scott hornell (@scotthornell73) January 12, 2019
These rugby union matches proceed the opening weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby season. That kicks-off on February 15, with week one matches starting Friday night – see the full schedule here.
While the XV man code gets a head-start, that does not mean the rugby union v league war over fans attention is won. On the exact same evening that the Chiefs host the Highlanders in Hamilton, across the ditch, the NRL begins their program of warm-up games to gain viewers over the season.
This year, a revamped schedule now includes a new attraction for league fans; an All-Star New Zealand Māori team will square off against the Australian Indigenous All Stars in a men’s and women’s doubleheader in Melbourne, to open the 2019 NRL preseason.
The 2019 @NRL season kicks off at @AAMIPark when the Australian Indigenous All-Stars take on the New Zealand Maori Kiwis in a marriage of cultures, history and community. #NRLAllstars tickets: https://t.co/VxUF779jYf pic.twitter.com/WRKT8ZY3U7
— Melbourne, Australia (@Melbourne) August 22, 2018
This concept match is then closely followed by a more traditional World Club Challenge match – that pits Northern hemisphere against the 2018 NRL Premiers. This year, the battle will be fought in the north, at DW Stadium, Wigan on Monday, February 18 (AUS time).
Wigan invites the Sydney Roosters to town in a bid to reverse the common trend of the reigning NRL Premiers running all over the Super League champions. Will 2019 be any different? For the sake of the rugby union v league argument, the 13-man code will want a competitive match to answer their inter-hemisphere critics, ahead of the 2019 NRL season.
Preseason program for NRL Rugby League sides:
Storm v Warriors – Friday February 22. Kardinia Park, Geelong, VIC
Titans v Cowboys – Saturday Feb 23. , Bokarina, QLD
Rabbitohs v Panthers – Sat Feb 23. Redfern Oval, Sydney
Raiders v Bulldogs – Sat Feb 23. Bega Recreation Ground, NSW
Dragons v Knights – Sat Feb 23. Jubilee Stadium, Carlton, NSW
Sea Eagles v Sharks – Sat Feb 23. Lottoland, Brookvale, NSW
All the dates for 2019 NRL trials including @NZWarriors hit-outs in Geelong and Whangarei.#NRL2019 #NRLTrials #WeAreWarriors@PhotosportNZ
[Read] https://t.co/XRzOjjuYDj pic.twitter.com/wiAHbsRDuM
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) January 9, 2019
Warriors v Wests Tigers – Saturday March 2. Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
Knights v Sharks – Sat March 2. Maitland Sportsground, NSW
Broncos v Titans – Sat March 2. Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast, QLD
Storm v Cowboys – Sat March 2. BB Print Stadium, Mackay, QLD
Panthers v Eels – Sat March 2. Panthers Stadium, Penrith, NSW
Sea Eagles v Roosters – Sat March 2. Central Coast Stadium, Gosford, NSW
The Dragons will play the Charity Shield on Saturday, March 2 & their Round 10 NRL Premiership match on Sunday, May 19 at Glenn Willow Regional Stadium, Mudgee in 2019.#redv @MWRCouncil @NRL @destinationnsw pic.twitter.com/sRK6ZcqmTU
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) October 19, 2018
The preseason schedule concludes on a high note for NRL fans. The annual Charity Shield game between two longtime rivals. The South Sydney Rabbitohs will head back to Mudgee for the second year running to take on the St George Illawarra Dragons on Saturday, March 2 at 7:30 pm on Glen Willow Stadium.
Provided that the fans’ team of choice do not suffer any season-ending injuries – which means preseason can become a nightmare for coaches – each sport has its clear strategy to draw in fans. That doesn’t stop in March though, as, over the full calendar, each sport will look to ask the same question of fans.
The age old question; What will you be watching in 2019?
As the preseason games take in both large and small stadiums, metropolitan, suburban and rural grounds across New Zealand and Australia, the impact made by those matches might see new spectators hooked.
Loyalty will always play a large part if you are honest.
Family, friends, school or even from work colleagues – it all influences which sport you favour. Lifelong fans are hardly drawn from one sport to the other but the fans’ focus can frequently change. Very often focused on the ‘big clashes’ but as much relevant now – if a team visits a center close to them in February or March; fans can segment their regular diet by catching one of the other games.
If you like the product; the speed of the six play action of league; the practiced method of rugby to gain territory and to commit tacklers, each will earn or lose fans. And over the entire year, the fact that Super Rugby runs up until July in 2019 means that some rugby fans are surely going to turn their attention away. Hardly a surprise when the regular International schedule is reduced for union, due to the Rugby World Cup in September.
In fact, right when that tournament is beginning, is when the NRL finals series will be running. Head-to-head clashes will see the questions asked. So the question asked now, will be even stronger by September.
What will you be watching in 2019? Who gets your vote in the Rugby Union v League decision.
Some might say one or the other. Others will decide to combine and follow both, yet the conversation only highlights what a wealth of choice sports fans have in the Southern hemisphere. And that is worth celebrating; no matter which code gets your vote.
“Main photo credit”
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