We love a moan in rugby league. It’s our factory setting. However, consider this. This week I found an old newspaper cutting from 30 years ago with a report of perennial champions Wigan beating Leeds a few days before their now-famous World Club Challenge win over Manly. Nearly 14,000 were at Central Park to see the game’s biggest two clubs meet. The other six top flight games that afternoon attracted an aggregate attendance of fewer than 25,000 people.
More than 7,000 saw Halifax beat St Helens at Thrum Hall – a reminder of Halifax’s not-so-distant strength – but there were only 4,000 at Warrington. Hunslet were the minnows of the Stone Bitter Championship then: a mere 2,601 rattled around Elland Road for their local clash with Cas. But that was not the smallest gate of the weekend: Bradford, who we all consider fallen giants of our game, hammered Swinton in front of just 2,510 at Odsal. This was early October, when the season was new, hopes were fresh and the weather mild. The average top flight attendance then was under 5,000. Thirty years later, Super League gates average just under 9,000.
There was no TV coverage of the league whatsoever in 1987. The BBC showed the occasional cup game on Grandstand, but Yorkshire TV were yet to re-launch RL Action as Scrumdown and Granada were two years away from starting their live Saturday afternoon coverage. Now you can watch three live Super League games a week on Sky, all eight NRL games (seven of them live last weekend) and Toronto’s expected romp through League 1 on Premier. A dozen games in full every week. Wow.
But it all comes at some considerable cost. Back when Ellery Hanley, Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards were yet to hit their peak, all TV was free. Now, if you decide not to spend your money on subscription channels, BBC show all the top flight tries on the Super League Show and we have more national radio coverage than ever before thanks to Talksport 2 and Radio 5 live sports extra.
The importance of being on live TV is debatable. The BBC were delighted that 42,000 people watched the Siddal v Toronto mudfest online, with Oldham’s tie against amateurs Haydock streamed on Saturday lunchtime. Given that the production costs of televising a live game are well over £50,000 and the cost of live streaming with one or two cameras is one per cent of that, with similar sized audiences for some games, it is clear where the future lies. The 2021 World Cup is all going to be live on the BBC but only half of the games will be on TV and the rest will be streamed online. That may have disappointed traditionalists but in four years’ time it is expected many of us will watch our sport online – probably on our giant TV screens – anyway.
Ten years ago 98% of all TV viewing was done live. That is down to 85% now, with more people watching on delay. Live sport is the exception to that, though. Few of us want to watch a game hours or days after it has happened, seeing as we almost always know the score and the critical events.
Highlight packages are different. The BBC’s extended highlights of Scotland’s Four Nations games against Australia and New Zealand were both watched by around a million viewers, a tenth of the UK audience, even though many already knew the outcome. The viewing figures were not spectacularly bigger when England games were on live. But when word got round that they were losing to Scotland, viewing on BBC2 peaked at 1.6m, a figure that delighted the BBC.
That represented good value for the Beeb, unlike Sky who, by my reckoning, are spending almost half a million quid on each Super League match. With viewing figures under 70,000 commonplace on Thursday nights, each viewer watching on Sky has, in effect, paid somewhere between a fiver and tenner to do so! Friday night audiences are often around double that size, so could we eventually see Sky show two games on a Friday night instead, one on the red button or streamed online?
Australia now has its own 24-hour rugby league channel with Fox showing all eight NRL games live and uninterrupted by adverts and nine magazine shows (yes, nine) plus pre-game programmes and four post-match analysis. Add Channel 9’s free-to-air coverage, radio and online streaming and it has become whatever you call far more than blanket coverage. Quilted coverage? Eiderdown?
Meanwhile, we don’t even get to see Championship tries on TV here (other than the Summer Bash weekend in May), nor are listeners kept up to date with Championship scores on national radio at a time when women’s rugby union internationals, for instance, are going out live on Sky with score updates on BBC 5 Live. Many junior clubs and school teams get better coverage than that. Since relegation, subscriptions to Hull KR’s online streaming service have shot up. Surely the rest of the Championship should follow suit.
Top sportsmen have to come from somewhere, of course, but it still seems surreal that Gold Coast Titans have a centre from Cavendish School in Hemel Hempstead. Hemel Stags product and former London Broncos and Wigan star Dan Sarginson is one of four Englishmen trying their luck in the NRL for the first time, with four Antipodeans returning to their original competition.
The net migration continues to be from south to north. Nineteen players have moved from the NRL to Super League this season, five of them being Europeans returning home. By the way, a Cavendish Old Boys sports team at Cavendish would be rather special: as well as Sarginson and Kieran Dixon, they also produced upwardly mobile Spurs midfielder Harry Winks. It’s not Wigan, but it ain’t bad. Shame any aspiring player will have to leave Hemel now to play senior rugby league as the Stags first team are, ludicrously, based in Dewsbury.
Clubcall: Toronto Wolfpack
So it’s four from four for the Wolfpack, whose devastating line breaks and suffocating line speed did for London Broncos on a wet and windy night at Ealing on Friday. Toronto were impressive on and off the field (they had their merchandise on sale in the Broncos’ club shop) but it was strange to hear the players’ wives and girlfriends speaking in broad Bradford or Lancashire lilt. The Wolfpack are currently a shell of a Canadian club: there were no North Americans on the side on Friday. I am sure that will evolve over the season and it’s vital they have some local heroes on the field in Toronto.
By far the finest rugby league player in Canada remains John Walsh, the former St Helens, England and Great Britain centre. Walsh had a degree in Special Maths from Hull University and went on to add a Masters in Statistics at Manchester Uni, earning him the title “the brainiest bloke to play rugby league”. In 1972, Walsh won the Challenge Cup and the World Cup. He retired at just 28 to concentrate on his career in insurance. Soon after retiring he went on holiday to Canada, applied for a job, there and still lives in Oakville, Ontario. I hope he is invited to be a special guest of the Wolfpack. You can read more about his amazing life in John Walsh – Saint and Winner by Bill Bailey (no, not that one).
When Andrew Cudbertson, Jack Abernethy and the late, extraordinary Cec Thompson (look him up) set up a rugby league team at Leeds University 50 years ago this month, little could they have imagined what they had started. Last week Leeds Uni RLFC celebrated their golden anniversary with a dinner and the unveiling of a blue plaque marking the birthplace of Student Rugby League. Doff your cap to their chairman, Jeremy Shires, for ensuring such an important event in the game’s history is marked in perpetuity.
On 31 March, my alma mater, the University of Salford, will mark their 50th birthday with the annual Irwell rugby league varsity match against Manchester University at Salford’s AJ Bell Stadium. I will be on a flight that night but I was at the Artillery Ground in the City of London earlier this month to see Oxford University’s team, who celebrated their 40th birthday last year, see off Cambridge for the eighth successive year in the varsity match.
It was a fitting send-off for Oxford coach Dan Garbutt, a West Country league guru who is stepping down after having led the Dark Blues for 13 mainly glorious years. Credit too, to sponsors Pcubed, who have now backed the venture for 19 years – since before some of this year’s players were born – and who brought in Jamie Peacock as guest speaker (ask him about Mike Forshaw and to tell his Tom Jones story).
Among the interested spectators was former Hull FC player-turned much-derided director Tim Wilby, who used to coach Oxford and has remained a supporter ever since, and leading RFL official Jon Dutton, who played for Northumbria University. More evidence the student game is vital for our code.
Fifth and last
This is the 75th edition of the No Helmets Required blog – plus the three recent long-read interviews with Paul Cooke, Sylvain Houles and Jamie Peacock – so please join me in raising a glass to our diamond edition! We can also celebrate No Helmets being read by more of you last month than ever before (other than when we also appear in the rugby union section of the website). Three times as many of you read No Helmets last month as when we started three years ago and your feedback is a constant aid. See you next month!