The latest outcry in rugby league is the issue over the Challenge Cup semi final between Wigan and London being staged at what people regard as a non-neutral venue. Saturday’s game will be staged at the Leigh Sports Village, just a few miles from Wigan (and, though Leythers won’t want to hear this, in the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan) while the venue is over 200 miles away from the capital.
Broncos fans have been angered by the RFL’s decision, as have others in the rugby league world. Greg Mulholland MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Rugby League Group, wrote to the RFL calling the decision “not fair” and asked for the decision to be reversed.
It’s interesting that people are now of the opinion that a venue is only neutral if it is equal distance between the two clubs. That’s not a view that I can ever remember being aired so definitively before this month.
It even started before the venues were announced. On the morning of the announcement – before the Warriors’ quarter-final win over Widnes – Love Rugby League’s Twitter feed received the following message: “A lot of people thinking that London won’t get a neutral ground”. The admin, clearly confused, responded with “Why wouldn’t they?”, receiving the replies “Ground would have to be in the Midlands. Might have to be a union ground. Not very fair for London to have to travel up North when Wigan/Widnes wouldn’t have to travel far is it?”
When was it decided that a ground in the North of England was a non-neutral venue for London? That it isn’t fair to play a semi-final nearer to one club than the other? Neutral always used to mean a ground that was not the home venue of either club. Somehow in the last fortnight that’s all changed. And if this redefinition applies retrospectively, the RFL have a lot of explaining to do about these non-neutral venues:
2012: Leeds v Wigan (Huddersfield)
2010: Warrington v Catalans (Widnes); St Helens v Leeds (Huddersfield)
2009: St Helens v Huddersfield (Warrington)
2008: Leeds v St Helens (Huddersfield)
2007: Bradford v St Helens (Huddersfield); Wigan v Catalans (Warrington)
2005: Leeds v Toulouse (Huddersfield)
2004: St Helens v Huddersfield (Warrington)
2003: Leeds v St Helens (Huddersfield); Wigan v Bradford (Huddersfield)
Look how many times Leeds have been given what is now considered home advantage by playing their semi-final at Huddersfield. Even if you consider the other semi-final this year – Warrington v Hull, also at Huddersfield – the Black and Whites have 75 percent further to travel than their opponents.
Is Leigh really the best semi-final venue? That’s a perfectly valid question to ask, but redefining the hitherto universally accepted definition of neutrality is a strange thing to do. Did anyone make this argument when London played Castleford at Headingley on the way to Wembley in 1999?
The LSV is not Wigan’s home ground – indeed the Warriors have never staged home fixtures there. It is therefore a neutral venue. Arguing that a venue nearer to one club than the other is non-neutral, or even a “home” fixture for the club in question, raises too many difficulties – not least, if London win will the final have to be moved to Villa Park?
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