Rugby League Week #5

As the League 1 Cup gets up and running, Forty-20 editor-at-large Tony Hannan has a suggestion that would also boost rugby à treize.

Adaptable beggars, human beings. A revolutionary development comes along and before very long it’s as if we’ve lived that way forever.

At the risk of this turning into a ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, as a kid we used to make our very own ‘walkie-talkies’ from two tin cans connected by a length of string, the perfect innovation for conversing with a pal standing three feet away behind a hedge. Back then, telephones were fixed to the wall or sat on a little table next to the front door. Either that or hanging in a red box that stank of urine, awaiting the two pence pieces you rolled in whenever you wished to speak in privacy.

The idea of mobile telephonic devices was science fiction, a concept only seen on ‘Star Trek’ or ‘The Tomorrow People’, peer-to-peer radio contact unheard of, for us ordinary folk anyway. So you can imagine the buzz brought about by the CB radio craze of the mid-1970s, with its jargon about smokies (police), bears in the air (police helicopters) and putting the hammer down (going faster than the designated speed limit. Tut. Tut.).

Indeed, so popular was said craze that it spawned films, songs and, in 1976, a spoof hit tune for Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks, ‘Convoy GB’, an alias for Radio 1 deejays Paul Burnett and Dave Lee Travis, at least fifty per cent of whom has had more to worry about from ‘smokies’ than speeding fines lately. On the back of the old crystal wireless sets of the 1940s and ‘50s, CB radios were an important cultural link in the chain that led, eventually, to iPhones, social media and no doubt a generation of downward looking, round-shouldered, cricked-necked Morlocks in around three decades time.

Last weekend, with the launch of the iPro Sport Cup, the clubs in the modern-day rugby league’s most geographically diverse competition, League 1, finally got their season underway ahead of the start of the divisional scrap proper on 3 April. Along with National Conference league and cup winners West Hull and East Leeds – summarily thrashed but no doubt glad of the experience – fourteen clubs set out on the road to Blackpool’s Summer Bash.

As in League 1 itself, these were Barrow Raiders, new boys Coventry Bears, Gloucestershire All Golds, Hemel Stags, Keighley Cougars, London Skolars, Newcastle Thunder, North Wales Crusaders, Oldham, Oxford, Rochdale Hornets, South Wales Scorpions, Swinton Lions and York City Knights. So far, so normal, but let’s just mull that over for a moment.

I well remember, not so very long ago, writing an article for ‘League Express’ in which I proposed some sort of national competition for the fledgling disparate clubs who were beginning to emerge through a century’s worth of parochial permafrost up and down the UK. Although, come to think of it, this was in fact about twenty years ago – another sure sign of advancing age, time speeds up. Anyway, it wasn’t so far back in the bigger picture and an era that, in RL geographical terms, looked very different to the one we take for granted today.

If a game was staged in Cardiff, say, or Oxford, or Wolverhampton, it was a newsworthy event, in the trade papers and magazines at least; something to shout about, no matter the quality – or more frequently otherwise – of playing standards. In short, if you’d shown your average expansionist back then the League 1 table as it reads now at the start of 2015, never mind the array of regional snakes and ladders that now exist beneath it from Cornwall to Aberdeen, they’d have either keeled over in shock or exploded in their underpants.

And yet here we are at the dawn of a ‘New Era’, all blasé about how Newcastle, yes Newcastle, will play York in the cup before opening their season proper with a trip along Hadrian’s Wall to Barrow. And among the rest of the fixtures, Swinton will welcome the competition favourite Crusaders – a side based in Wrexham – while the Cotswolds will thrill to the sound of the All Golds v Sgorpionau De Cymru from Parc Dyffryn Pennar, Mountain Ash. Many if not all of these games will attract at least a small crowd and be covered by local papers, radio and even television. Amazing. And yet nowadays, so very very ordinary.

Sadly, elsewhere are signs that league is retracting. The number of amateur (or community if you must) clubs in the so-called heartlands seems to be in decline, so it’s good to see the likes of East Leeds and West Hull invited to the semi-pro party. As my learned colleague Phil Caplan writes in the next issue of ‘Forty-20’, it would be wise to widen the brief of the Challenge Cup too. Kick it off in October or November and open it up, on a regional basis to begin with, to every community club who wishes to take part wherever they are based and at whatever level they find themselves, something in the style of the FA Cup. Now that really would be a ‘one game philosophy’, wouldn’t it?

Meanwhile, over the channel and Catalans Dragons apart, the game in France also seems to be struggling. Rugby àtreize is on the verge of reinventing itself again, as Toulouse and maybe a regional Cathares side continue to seek access to Super League while the rest consider expanding their own top-flight to take in major population centres like Bordeaux, Marseille, Montpellier and Lyon.

And it’s here that I feel our very own League 1 really could come into its own as a development tool not only in the UK, but also in France and maybe even northern Spain and beyond.

Dans un nutshell, League 1 should be run as a parallel competition to the French Elite 1. Each division would mirror the other in terms of numbers and season length before coming together for end-of-season play-offs and, ultimately, a Superbowl style Grand Final featuring, hopefully, one British and one French side, though not necessarily. The winners of this game would win promotion to the Championship, along perhaps with the table-topping teams in one or both divisions, if the play-offs were to feature those teams from second to fifth.

In an instant, and thanks to the new structure already in place, every ambitious club owner in Europe would have a practical route to the northern hemisphere top flight, building from the ground up rather than depending on divisive, unsustainable and ambition-stalling administrative largesse, as has been the case with Toulouse for the past decade. It really would be Super League (Europe) again.

Sounds like une bonne idée to me. Which, with any luck, in a few years’ time will be as commonplace as touchscreen tablets and Snapchat. Ten four, good buddy. Do you copy? 

 

Tone’s Tips: Victories for Leeds, Saints, Huddersfield, Castleford, Catalans and Warrington. Jarryd Hayne given spray by Aussie papers for wearing flowers in hair.

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