Friday September 21st, 2018
After my most recent trip to the United Kingdom I have returned to Australia a tad pessimistic about the state of rugby league in the country which gave us the 13 man code.
My wife and I attended the Challenge Cup final between Warrington and Catalan Dragons at Wembley, 40 years after we attended our only other cup final. That was in May, 1978, and there were 98,000 on hand for what proved an absolute thriller between Leeds and St Helens.
The Warrington v Catalan match was just as good, but the crowd just nudged past 50,000. There are a number of reasons for that, not least the fact a French club was involved, bringing around 6,000 supporters, as opposed to 30,000 if a top English club had qualified.
Ticket prices also discourage working class league fans, and the fact the Super League grand final is now the most prestigious day on the British calendar, also impacts on Wembley.
But speaking to fans at Wembley – people from Bradford, Castleford, Wigan and Leigh – it is clear all is not well.
Some say the game is hanging on by the finger nails, and they worry that the next Television rights deal will not deliver what the code needs.
The salary cap in the UK is way below that in Australia, and rugby union has seemingly bottomless pockets.
There are no superstars in the English game, like Ellery Hanley, Garry Schofield, Martin Offiah And Johnathan Davies, who were recognisable outside the northern strongholds. Things might be different if the the likes of the Burgess boys, James Graham and Gareth Widdop were not playing in the NRL.
In England I caught up with my good mate, Paddy Hart from Widnes. The last time I saw him was 2000 when I covered the World Cup in Britain, for News Limited. Paddy still goes to Widnes games, but also drives up the road to watch St Helens, a far classier outfit.
Paddy lived in Brisbane in the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s and loved going to Lang Park to watch club football, cheering and jeering the likes of Ross Strudwick, Wally Lewis, Des Morris and Mal Meninga.
One of his favourite players was Brothers’ forward, Bob Cock. There were so many characters then. They are few and far between now, and Paddy hates the predictability of league, so much so, he finds himself watching Union more and more.
There is nothing scientific about this final assessment, but if Paddy Hart is a bit disillusioned with the game, there is much to be worried about.
Footnote: One of the reasons behind the great Wembley spectacle this year, was the fact there was just one referee. The game flowed beautifully.
Photo: Gary Schofield