Editor’s column: Crowd conundrum and Challenge Cup shock

James Gordon

There have been some positive crowds in January, perhaps indicative that rugby league is coming out of the other side of coronavirus disruption.

Stefan Ratchford’s testimonial match between Warrington and Wigan attracted a healthy crowd of 7,657 at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

It was a good show of support for the popular full back, who celebrates a true testimonial in 2022 following 10 years service at the same club.

The crowd size did trigger an interesting debate on Twitter though, when it was highlighted that the attendance exceeded that which turned up for Warrington’s play-off defeat to Hull KR back in September.

Even after more than 25 years with the Super League play-off format, there still seems to be a drop off from regular season fixtures to play-off games.

Ratchford being popular, it being the first game of 2022 and both clubs being under new coaches are significant factors for this example.

But with even pre-season fixtures getting bigger crowds now, which removes the season ticket element as an excuse, perhaps the manufactured formats need some analysis in terms of what fans want to see.

On the subject of crowds, there was plenty to be encouraged about on the opening weekend of the Championship season.

Leigh boasted the highest at 3,334 against Whitehaven while Dewsbury welcomed 2,241 for their clash with Bradford.

London’s first game at Plough Lane against Widnes was witnessed by 2,182 and Barrow’s return to the Championship saw just shy of 2,000 in at Craven Park.

Just under 1,800 witnessed Batley’s fine comeback from 16-0 down to beat Halifax.

Cup upset

It was a tough start to the season for Oldham, who were dumped out of the Challenge Cup by amateurs Castleford Lock Lane.

The defeat prompted a statement of apology from the club.

As eluded to last week, the difficulty for League 1 clubs who exit the Challenge Cup at this stage is that they now have two months until their next competitive game.

For Oldham, a move back to Vestacare Stadium (formerly Whitebank) following their relegation from the Championship has seen a re-build under new coach Stuart Littler.

One game certainly won’t define their season, and they’ll still have hopes of earning an immediate return.

They also suffered with floodlight failure during the match, which was broadcast live on Our League.

Sadly, and they aren’t alone in rugby league terms, selling the family silver decades ago and not having a home to call their own is still a chain around their necks.

In the apology, chairman Chris Hamilton said: “What this does highlight, once again, is the massive issue that not having a ground of our own causes.

“For 25 years now we have battled against this problem and continue to do so. It is incredibly hard to move forward when, ultimately, we are not in control of our own destiny. Fans can rest assured that this is something we continue to work on to try and rectify and that will not change.”

It’s a shame that over the years, Oldham RLFC weren’t able to put their roots down at Whitebank when the opportunity was there and develop it as their own, as tier nine football side AVRO FC have done since.

On Lock Lane, a great night for them and they will be hoping to land one of the Championship big boys in the next round.

Maybe in the never ending talk about structure what ought to be considered is the link between League 1 and the National Conference League – which is far closer and more realistic for competition than the link between Super League and Championship.

Now that League 1 central funding has all but been diminished, perhaps rugby league could open itself to allow more of a connection to the community game ala the football pyramid.

Insight to new rules

Thanks to the RFL for hosting an informative media briefing around coronavirus and the tweaks to the laws of the game last week.

The introduction of a new green card sounds like an interesting move to help stop needless delaying of games, and it appeared to have at least had some impact already over the weekend.

The change to the ball steal situation is welcomed too.

There was also some fascinating insight to the science behind the return of scrums, and the reason tackling in itself wasn’t seen as a significant risk for passing on the virus during the height of COVID.

A lot goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see.

PLAY: Our free-to-play Fantasy Rugby League competition for Super League and Championship is back for 2022.