Look through the sports pages of any major newspaper, and chances are that if you see a Rugby story, it’s Rugby Union. The fifteen man code is strong the world over. In France and Wales it can spell greatness for those of humble beginnings; in Australia and New Zealand it’s part of the national psyche. Even in the United States, home of American Football, Rugby Union enjoys a strong following.
Major competitions such as the Heinkeken Cup and the Six Nations ensure that the game retains a prominence the world over. The only exception to that is Northern England, the spiritual home of the other Rugby code, the one played by thirteen men a side. Rugby League.
Here League, which was born when amateur players turned professional in order to keep playing the game back in the 19th century, can be tasted in the air, so thick is its presence in towns like Wigan. Players are born and raised through children’s teams such as St Patrick’s or St Jude’s, to become the stars of the next generation, and sometimes the whole line-up of a Superleague winning side can claim local roots. Fierce rivalries extend back through those same generations, yet all that passion about the game never spills over beyond the pitch. There is no violence between fans of rival clubs, unlike in Football, and often fans from different sides can be seen sitting together.
For all that apparent strength though, Rugby League has never come close to dislodging its rival code. Even when Wigan Warriors were at the height of their success in the 1990s, beating Brisbane Broncos in 1994 to win the World Club Challenge and triumphing over the elite Rugby Union sides to claim the Middlesex Sevens two years later, League never found itself anywhere near the top tier of professional rugby. Not even the obvious deficiencies of the Union sides, which simply couldn’t keep pace with Wigan (who trounced Bath 82-6 in a League game, and lost by a far smaller margin, 44-19 in the Union match that had preceded it) could propel League to the global prominence it deserves.
Instead Rugby League is like a submarine. It surfaces now and then in terms of its popularity. Attracting the interest of the big newspapers and the public at large whenever there is a big game on, such as the Grand Final or Challenge Cup Final. This year it will do so again when the cream of Australia’s National Rugby League match wits and skill against their English counterparts. St Helens, long Wigan’s great rivals and occasional bete noire, as Wigan have been for them, will play Sydney Roosters. Superleague champions Leeds Rhinos will face North Queensland Cowboys while Wigan themselves will renew their old links to Brisbane Broncos when the two teams meet again on the 20th of February.
While this might not lead to a greater prominence for the game, it will add some much needed spectacle and glamour to the game, and with any luck, reverse the decision on the salary cap. This has been one of the most detrimental aspects of Superleague, ensuring that the best players such as Sam Tompkins or Chris Ashton either decamp to Australia or switch codes entirely to the far more lucrative Rugby Union.
Scrapping the salary cap, which ensures League players can never earn the same as their Union counterparts would be a far better idea for increasing the game’s popularity and prominence, than either bringing the Australians over for a few games, or holding the Challenge Cup final in London. Even providing the capital with its own team, the London Broncos, never did much for the game south of Hull.