Loyalty Lessons from League

Times Column 8/01/05

The New Year in the Zurich Premiership kicked off with a sell-out.  At Worcester, Bath, Gloucester, Northampton, Harlequins and Newcastle, 64,000 supporters watched live club rugby on January 1st and 2nd.  This followed excellent attendances in Christmas week, when Leeds Tykes doubled a previous record crowd to over 14,000 for their clash with Jonny Wilkinson. 

Jonny won, with three penalties and a drop goal, but Leeds are getting closer to that impressive Headingley capacity of 18,000.  To help get them there, it can’t hurt that later this month the England team will be training with the Tykes’ sister club and current Super League Champions, the Rhinos.  So it’s all aboard the England charabanc to Leeds, because if Andy Robinson hopes to learn something from Rugby League, he has to travel to the heartlands. 

Elsewhere, Rugby League isn’t much in evidence.  The BBC still covers the odd match, like the recent Tri-nations series, but the game’s presence in the national consciousness is as hazy as a memory of Eddie Waring on the Mike Yarwood Show.  For an accurate indication of how far the profile of Rugby League has slipped, imagine Alistair McGowan on Christmas prime-time in the role of Ray French.  Or Exhibit B, for those in need of further persuasion: a rugby league player as BBC Sports Personality of the Year.  Not even J.K.Rowling could imagine that one.

League has suffered from shifting its elite season to the summer, when the floating TV fan has sunnier satellite sports like cricket.  There’s also the lack of genuine international competition, with three teams able to compete but only Australia allowed to win.  Add to these obstacles an absence of stars who transcend their sport, a perceived bias in the media, and a geographical stubbornness that one hundred years of sincere effort has not much managed to budge.  And now the imminent arrival of Andy Robinson.

Union has already plucked some of the tastier morsels from the living body – the finest home-grown coaches like Phil Larder and Dave Ellis, and stand-out individual performers like Jason Robinson.  Now the vultures are circling above Headingley eyeing the technical lifeblood – the tactics and strategies that make the two codes different, and therefore attractive in different ways. 

Intent on the pitch, Union risks missing a much more valuable lesson, and one which is infinitely harder to stow in the swag-bag.  Twenty-four hours before the record-breaking Leeds Tykes vs Newcastle Falcons, Leeds Rhinos attracted 13,238 for an out-of-season friendly against Wakefield.  The Rhinos have an average attendance at Headingley of over 16,000, and these Rugby League fans keep on coming despite their game’s ongoing difficulties, not least England’s unmissable victory in last year’s World Cup. 

Nationwide, the League supporters are many times fewer, but consistently they’re twice as vocal.  Earlier this season, for example, Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times did a webchat after the resignation of Clive Woodward.  There were surely a great many Red Rose supporters with questions for that madcap Clive of ours, but the organised and loyal League fans indisputably arrived firstest with the mostest.  Ninety percent of the questions were about the urgent League issues of the day.  The Sunday Times had asked for questions about rugby, and that’s what they got. 

In the tiny Union grounds, many of them more saucepan than cauldron, the RFU and the Premiership would do well to nurture cores of support as fiercely loyal and organised as these.  As it is, nobody yet knows whether the current upsurge in attendance is permanent, or as prone to deflation as a Jonny Wilkinson bicep. 

What is certain is that 13,000 people will turn out for a Leeds Rhinos close-season kickabout while Union hyper-ventilates about attendances half that size among the elite of the Zurich Premiership.  Never mind the angles of running, this is what Union should be learning from League – how to embed a club in its local community, how to attract families, and how to inspire the same phenomenal loyalty in bad times as well as good.

Only then can we be sure that the numbers currently turning up for the Zurich Premiership will be back.  Not just once or twice during the holidays, but game after game, season after season, into a bright sporting future where an ageing Alistair McGowen does a cracking John Inverdale.