Thursday, 28 September 2017

Going Backwards

Super League’s own 'Brexit' leaves Championship clubs carrying the burden of RL’s failed international dream

Times have changed.

I can just about remember my first Hornets away game. Widnes away, Lancashire cup, some time in the early 70s.  I stood on the terracing on the 25 yard line at what was the dressing room end of the old Naughton Park. The crowd was much bigger than I was used to. First scrum, Jim Mills’ head came flying back out on the end of an Alan Hodkinson uppercut and all hell broke loose.

In the end, it didn’t make much difference. Hornets lost and I sat on the coach on the way back repeatedly asking my dad if he’d seen that punch.

The coach trip to and from Widnes was pretty exciting. On the Saturday morning beforehand I’d gone with my dad to this thing called ‘Hell & Smiths’ (odd name for a bus company I thought), housed in a cubist conservatory - fittingly located at the back of the Roebuck Hotel - to book ‘one and a half to Widnes’.  The bloke hand-wrote a receipt on which said ‘Coach 2'. Imagine that. Two coaches!
Spot the difference: 45 years apart, we're
pretty much back where we started

Late Sunday Morning, we trekked back to Helen Smiths where we found two coaches and, roughly, two coach loads of people waiting on Newgate. This was where the adventure began - a lifelong Rugby League Odyssey that’s taken me all over the UK (and, now, beyond) watching Rochdale Hornets.

Fast forward to the present and we play in a Rugby League World that my late dad wouldn’t recognise. Having been to outposts from Newcastle to Hemel (and all points in-between), the last couple of years have thrown the madness of Toulouse into the mix.

But next year sees the potential for travel that’d have my dad spinning in his grave. If we hadn’t cremated him, obviously.

From waiting in the rain for a bus to Widnes, we arrive at the possibility of trips to Toulouse, Toronto and Perpignan - should Catalans Dragons choke in typical French-style in this weekend’s Million Pound game at Leigh Sports Village. Never has so much mileage, it seems, hung on such an incongruous pairing.

Yes, the prospect of three from eleven away games next season involving international travel is a huge ask of players and fans alike. But, more interestingly, when Rupert Murdoch introduced the European Super League concept in 1995, I’m not sure he quite envisaged an international club competition being awkwardly accommodated in a predominantly part-time 2nd tier.

Indeed, if the Catalans do go down, I think it’s legitimate to declare the whole European Super League Experiment as having failed - ending up with all international/London interest squeezed uncomfortably into the Championship, leaving Leigh v Hull KR the alternative in a competition boiled back down to the bare bones of the M62 corridor.

A game in retreat? SL in 2018 could reinforce its Northern stereotyping
Indeed, of the 16 clubs I watched with my dad back in 1973, 10 of them could be in Super League next year. And that’s progress?

With the potential 12 participants split evenly East and West of the pennines, it looks like more a retreat - a rearguard action, with RL’s wagons huddled in a Northern circle, the game’s back turned on the rest of the country. Indeed, without the ‘exotic’ inclusion of a Cumbrian component, the 2018 Super League could well look even more parochial than its 1995 counterpart . Which hands League’s detractors all the ammunition they need to point out that ours is a ‘local game for local people’ - played in in a three county corridor 120 miles long and 12 miles deep.

Not quite the destination Super League had in mind, we'd imagine.