THE IMAGE of rugby league as ‘the family game’ is a myth.
It is still possible to attend a rugby league match as a family, to mix with supporters of the opposing club and to not to see or get dragged into any trouble at all.
That is probably most fans’ regular experience, but growing numbers of supporters are being put off, especially from big matches, by the increasing amount of, at best, anti-social behaviour taking place in and around grounds.
Three recent games have illustrated this: there was fighting in the Salford end following their home defeat to Leeds Rhinos on July 25, a week later bottles were thrown on to the pitch during the derby against Bradford Bulls at Headingley Carnegie and then there were the unpleasant scenes following Castleford Tigers’ Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final win over Widnes Vikings.
After the final hooter a group of Widnes fans ran on to the pitch, initially to commiserate with the beaten team. They then advanced towards the Castleford end of the ground, Tigers’ mascots – Tigerman and JT – were attacked and a woman was hurt when an advertising hoarding collapsed.
To their great credit, Castleford’s fans – almost all of them – stayed where they were and didn’t react, while the players made a valiant attempt to keep the advancing yobs away.
It’s one thing attacking a bloke dressed in a furry tiger suit, but quite another taking on the likes of Justin Carney or Jake Webster. It could have been much worse, but – though the BBC TV coverage didn’t make much of it – the sport’s reputation suffered another setback.
It was also a real shame for Castleford’s players and fans, who were unable to celebrate together after a magnificent victory and for the Widnes club and their genuine supporters, many of whom were left deeply upset by events.
Widnes have made great strides over recent years, but last Sunday wasn’t the first time some of their followers have been involved in bother. There was trouble, for instance, at their league game away to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats last season.
The aggro last week was almost inevitable, given the amount of drinking being done well before the game. Most of this was going on outside the ground, but it’s something the RFL will need to consider when they review last weekend’s scenes.
Angry Tigers fans – who remember their club being fined following a couple of incidents at the Jungle – have called for action to be taken against Widnes, but that would be unfair.
Obviously Widnes need to identify the idiots involved – which shouldn’t be too difficult given the pictures which have appeared on social media and in the papers – and hand out long bans.
But whereas Tigers were fined for being unable to control supporters at their own ground, Sunday’s trouble happened at a neutral venue. The level and quality of stewarding will need to be considered. The pitch invasion wasn’t a shock and more efforts should have been made to prevent it.
While the yobs managed to get on to the pitch largely unmolested, one accredited photographer claimed afterwards he had to resist attempts by a steward to snatch his camera, as they didn’t want pictures taking. Hopefully fear of trouble won’t put genuine fans off attending Wembley next week, but not everybody who makes the trip will be there for the game and the sport simply can’t afford a repeat of last Sunday’s scenes.
LAST WEEKEND’S Challenge Cup semi-final results must make Wigan Warriors favourites for the Super League leaders’ shield.
Wigan will go top of the table if they win at Hull KR tonight.
Current leaders St Helens are running out of players and face a potentially tricky game at home to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats tomorrow, at the same time as fourth-placed Castleford Tigers visit Warrington Wolves, who are fifth.
Warrington will want to respond to last Saturday’s Cup defeat by Leeds, while Tigers will have one eye on next weekend’s final.
Leeds – currently third – will finish top if they win their four remaining games. They visit London Broncos on Sunday and coach Brian McDermott will have some thinking to do before naming his squad.
Several of his key players have had time off recently, but Rhinos have a history of picking up injuries to key personnel ahead of Cup finals and McDermott will be desperate to avoid that happening this time.
London will fancy their chances of breaking their duck, which would almost certainly end Leeds’ hopes of top spot. Even if they win, Rhinos face Saints and Wigan in successive weeks after Wembley, which is a big ask.