Rugby league is a northern game. That’s what we’ve all been told, and that’s what many of us believe. But it’s not a view that stands up to scrutiny, especially once you’ve stayed for any length of time in one of the many cities without a rugby league presence. Rugby league – you can see then – is not a northern game.
The “rugby league is a northern game” truism is a favourite of the traditionalists, trotted out whenever an expansionist project goes wrong (see London Broncos, 2005) or whenever the expansionists get too full of themselves (see Celtic Crusaders). It’s a partial truth, used as a catch-all argument against the idea that league could ever be taken up by the union-loving Welsh, or by the southerners.
Yet, if rugby league was a northern game then it wouldn’t so easy to get cut off from it just by spending a week without the internet in Liverpool. Liverpool is very much a northern city (part of the historic county of Lancashire) but it’s still remarkably easy not to know that one of the engage Super League Grand Finalists is a mere 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre.
Rugby league news is hard to come by even when you’re looking for it. The rugby league papers just aren’t sold here, while – as we all know – coverage in the national papers is limited at best. There is only one city-centre pub to my knowledge that screens live rugby league. The news today is that Ireland have named their squad for the European Cup: without the internet it’s difficult for someone in Liverpool could find that out.
You could argue that there are ways and means: have the rugby league papers posted to you or something like that. But the point is that people talk of league as “a northern game” in the same way as soccer is “the national game”. But for all that, here in a northern city rugby league coverage is probably no greater than you would find is any southern city. By contrast, a great many people with no real interest in soccer will know how Liverpool and Everton got on at the weekend.
Of course rugby league is much bigger in the north than the south, but only in specific areas: Hull, West Yorkshire and certain towns in the north west. If league was a truly northern game then there would be professional teams in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Newcastle. There aren’t. There won’t be any time in the near future.
It’s easy to forget that expansion is more than far-out, whacky projects like the Magic Weekend and Celtic Crusaders. Expansion is more, even, than sensible, grassroots work in far-off places. There are many places – such as Liverpool – within touching distance of the rugby league heartlands where real expansion should go on, and indeed, is going on.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League