Despite all its detractors, rugby league’s still here...125 years on – Peter Smith

NOT MANY sports can trace their origin back to an exact date, but rugby league can.

Wednesday, 26th August 2020, 4:35 pm
Great Britain and Castleford legend Malcolm Reilly pictured in front of The George Hotel in Huddersfield where the game of rugby league was born 125 years ago this Saturday. Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com.

Saturday will be the code’s birthday, 125 years to the day since the famous meeting, at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, at which the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed.

Later to become known as rugby league, the game arose out of a split between a group of northern clubs who wanted to compensate their men for taking time off work to play and the resolutely amateur Rugby Football Union.

There was no messing about by the new governing body; the first matches took place eight days after that meeting, on Saturday, September 7.

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The plaque outside the George Hotel, Huddersfield. Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com.

Results that afternoon included a 6-3 win for Leeds at Leigh, Wakefield Trinity’s 11-0 loss at Bradford, a 5-4 defeat for Hunslet away to Warrington and 7-3 Batley victory over visitors Hull.

The rebel sport has supposedly been on borrowed time virtually since the famous meeting at the George – soon to be the site of a new rugby league museum – was adjourned and a century and a quarter later it is in the middle of another crisis, though one out of its control.

Covid-19 achieved what two world wars couldn’t by bringing the sport to a halt and the financial impact of the disease will be long-lasting, but – while there may be casualties – rugby league will survive. It always does.

When rugby union went openly professional in the 1990s, some observers felt that would be the death knell for the 13-a-side code, after all, if players are paid to play rugby union why would they want to play rugby league?

Rugby league convert Sam Burgess pictured playing for England in the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup. David Davies/PA Wire.

On May 7, 2001, the late Frank Keating, in a column for the Guardian newspaper, claimed rugby league was “totally doomed”.

He wrote: “It is only a matter of time – and not much of that, either – before rugby league in Britain is forced to merge with a voracious union. I give it five years, and that is being generous.”

In 2006, Keating returned to the subject of rugby league, to apologise and, grudgingly, admit he was wrong.

The leading sports writer claimed to have been bombarded over the previous five years with comments from angry northerners, which proves a point. League fans like to moan continuously about their game, but woe betide anyone else who does it.

Keating’s misguided view of league’s future, or lack of it, was not uncommon, but massively underestimated what the code is all about.

Back in 1895, the self-made men who owned the north’s pits and factories – and ran its rugby clubs – were not going to be strong-armed by the southern, public school dominated establishment – and little has changed in that regard.

No other sport has been as publicly ridiculed and discriminated against as rugby league.

For a century, the rugby union authorities imposed a form of apartheid, under which an individual could be suspended for life for playing league, even as an amateur.

During the second world war the Vichy government in France banned Rugby a XIII and seized the sport’s assets, at a time when it was making huge strides on that side of the Channel.

Supposedly, we are all friends now, but only five years ago Sol Mokdad was jailed in the United Arab Emirates, apparently for organising a rugby league competition and the same year an England World Cup tie was scheduled for Manchester on the same date as the Betfred Super League Grand Final.

That backfired as Leeds Rhinos beat Wigan Warriors in a thriller in front of a full house, across the city from where the union side played a dead rubber after having already seen their chances of progressing in the tournament eliminated. That failure, of course, was blamed on one player, league convert Sam Burgess.

Without establishment backing, rugby league in England has not expanded in the way its fans – or some of them – would have liked.

The sport at professional level remains largely confined to the area which spawned it all those years ago, but it is still here and setting the rugby agenda.

Back in 1895 the code had to make itself more attractive to spectators to generate revenue so players could be paid.

As a result, it has evolved into an entirely different game, a spectator sport rather than one for players and over the years union has become more like league, rather than the other way around.

League was first with a World Cup, substitutes, sin-bins, blood-bin, video referees, play-offs...the list goes on.

League is now no longer a version of union, it is a sport in its own right, one with plenty of problems, largely due to its lack of cash, perpetual in-fighting and habit of shooting itself in the foot, but also rock solid values.

It might be a cliche, but – particularly now the heavy industry has gone – league does give towns like Castleford, Featherstone, Widnes and Wigan an identity.

That’s why, despite everything thrown at it, the game endures.

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