Rugby league fans can learn from non-league football


There was a mixed reaction to the news that the second test between England and New Zealand this autumn would be played at London’s Olympic Stadium. Some welcomed the opportunity to raise rugby league’s profile by playing a major international at an iconic venue in the capital city. Others, however, saw the downsides.

They questioned why a game should be played away from the heartlands at all. Why does the game need to be played so far away where “nobody” is interested? The RFL are, once again, “a joke”.

There has been and remains much to be critical of in our sport. But rugby league fans have over the last few years developed the ability to find negatives in everything. At one time supporters were evangelists, wanting to tell everyone about the greatest game. Now the message from rugby league fans to fans of other sports is “don’t bother – rugby league is rubbish”.   

At one time the claim that rugby league was on its deathbed came from rugby union commentators like Steven Jones, who claimed that “rugby league is dire and dying”. Yet now the same claim is found on the lips – or from the typing fingers – of rugby league’s own “supporters”. You only have to visit @RLMeltdown on Twitter to see “fans” claiming that referees are “killing the game” or that thanks to the RFL rugby league is “a dying sport”. 

(Though the person I feel most sorry for is Rafael from Brazil, Twitter name @rfl, who must wonder why every week he gets messages from English rugby fans telling him what a joke he is).

It has to be said that RL Meltdown is, by its very nature, not wholly representative of rugby league fans. The account only shares the outrage, the negative reactions and the conspiracy theories. Yet if you read the comments on Love Rugby League’s Facebook page – populated by people, I remind you, who by being there profess to love rugby league – or the letters page in the League Express, you will find that it isn’t exactly unrepresentative either.

There is another group of fans that rugby league can and should learn from – fans of non-league football.

A recent article on the football website Outside Write asked whether there was a “Golden Age” coming for non-league football, in part because of increasing disillusionment with the top flight. Non-league, the article suggests, “offer[s] a unique product: local interest, local beer, cheap prices, freedom of movement around the ground, the ability to stand and drink, and as a result the atmosphere is often better than at the multitudes of generic bucket seat league grounds”. 

The article is typical of non-league football fans’ pride in their segment of the sport and its culture, as well as the desire to persuade those who have never sampled it to give it a try. That’s why every season there’s a “Non-League Day” with a focus on bringing new people through the turnstiles. This pride, enthusiasm and evangelistic zeal was once typical of rugby league supporters.

There might be no golden age dawning for non-league, but an article predicting one is more likely to arouse people’s interest than a set of supporters publicly stating, in effect, that their game is close to death and not worth bothering with. At the moment there are too many rugby league fans creating a miserable atmosphere around the sport which can only serve to put anyone off who might otherwise take an interest.   

Leigh favourites for the Championship

Leigh Centurions could hardly have made a better start to the season, especially as their opening three Championship wins include victories over both relegated sides: Bradford and London. Sunday’s win over the Broncos came despite Jarrod Sammut being drafted in by London from Wakefield.

Leigh must now be favourites for the Championship, although it’s still early days. There are a number of sides with a realistic chance of making it into the top four, meaning that this may be the most exciting Championship for years.

The Centurions have also made an impressive signing in Gareth Hock. That said, there is always a risk with Hock of indiscipline, either off the pitch or on it. Hopefully we’ll see the better side of Hock once he pulls on a Leigh jersey, and nothing that will disrupt his new club’s season.

International expansion

It’s been great to see rugby league putting down roots in new places recently. This week Spain was accepted as an Affiliate Member of the Rugby League European Federation. There are a number of clubs in Spain now, and a national side that made its debut with last May with a victory over Belgium in Brussels.

Recently the Latin Heat side made up of players of South or Central American Heritage have been playing games against teams such as the Philippines and Portugal. In May the British Asian Rugby Association will play Italy in Rome, and in June Belgium and Malta will face each other at Headingley.

It’s great to see rugby league spreading in this way, and hopefully these nations will continue to develop to create a thriving internal rugby league scene in years to come.

Keep Your Eye On Rugby League