Rugby league is back, but it’s the weather that’s been dominating the headlines.
We’ve seen controversy over the iPitch at Widnes, the City of Salford stadium covered in a blanket of snow and yesterday Catalan Dragons v Hull FC was called off leaving frustrated travelling Hull fans sitting in French airports with no rugby to enjoy.
Today a total of six games in the Northern Rail Cup were postponed due to frozen pitches or bad weather. We can hope that as the season progresses these problems will become less and less of a talking point in the sport and as the weather heats up, hopefully the rugby will too. It does make you wonder how weekends like this could be avoided. Reports say that St Helens staff were on site from Tuesday putting in their best efforts to get the pitch ready for Friday’s game against Salford. A dome was erected over the Langtree Park pitch and hot air was circulated to keep the playing surface thawed as temperatures in the North West plummeted to -5 degrees. Now perhaps it is a matter of finance, man power or facilities which prevent lower league clubs from trying out strategies like this but if the sport wants to progress it’s got to be done. Somehow.
Thousands of rugby league supporters have braved the cold in the last fortnight to attend home games as well as travel across the country to see their side get the season underway and it’s a real shame that so many of these fans have been let down by a sport crying out for growth. Some examples for you:
Gateshead v Doncaster, postponed, 220 mile round trip.
Hunslet v Whitehaven, postponed, 270 mile round trip.
Rochdale v South Wales, postponed, 460 mile round trip.
And that’s just three of the six games called off in the Northern Rail Cup this weekend not to mention any fans travelling to London Skolars from Toulouse, Featherstone fans travelling to Oldham and Swinton fans making the trip to York who even being the club with the shortest distance to travel faced 75 miles of driving, each way.
The Super League has gained a huge sponsorship deal with Stobart this year who in partnership with Heinz are aiding the sport in its efforts to increase awareness and popularity, but where does that leave the lower leagues? Sky Sports have for many years pledged allegiance to Rugby League but this year decided to scrap coverage of Championship games which is now only available on subscription channel Premier Sports. It comes back down to the age old problem that Rugby League is not favoured enough by broadcasters who can provide the sport with a massive boost.
The problem is the world of lower league rugby is currently in a vicious cycle. For the sport to gain popularity the crowds need to be bigger, increasing the demand for consistently available coverage. For the crowds to grow the sport needs more recognition and promotion which can only come via national coverage, which can’t be expected to be provided if clubs can’t get the crowds, and for clubs to get the crowds…you see my point. The solution in our sport in succeeding in that age old ‘bums-on-seats’ strategy but with games being called off left right and centre within the first few weeks of the season the most avid fans could be forgiven for being opposed to making long trips just for games to be called off.
Some may say that with such smaller crowds attending Championship and Championship One games then it’s not a huge problem, but when it comes to trying to expand the sport in every aspect it is actually the issue of lack of man power and lack of finance resulting in cancelled games it is actually one of the biggest stumbling blocks the modern game faces.