On Saturday afternoon 80,000 rugby league fans will descend on Wembley Stadium for the Challenge Cup final. The majority will be sporting the shirts of Wigan or Hull, but what makes the final one of the highlights of the sporting calendar for me is the number of “neutral” fans who’ll be there.
Thousands will arrive from all over the country in the colours of their own clubs, representing all levels of the game. They will travel, walk down Wembley Way and take their seats beneath the arch to show their love of rugby league: wanting more people to fall head over heels with this fantastic sport played by supreme athletes who run faster, tackle fiercer and occasionally punch harder than most other sportsmen around.
Football can afford to be complacent for the time being. Fans still flock to top-flight games, companies fall over themselves to be associated with its premier competitions and players don’t need “publicity”. Rugby league, like many sports unfortunately, has to battle for recognition, for an increasing fan base and for sponsors. It is a source of embarrassment that the powers-that- be could find no title sponsor for the Super League this season.
And rugby league is tough. I used to narrate a show for the BBC called Rugby League Raw. It received unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to second-tier clubs. As is commonplace now, but rarer several years ago, the referee was given a microphone for one game. With a player down injured – and in rugby league they only go down for a good reason – a team- mate tried to bring his injury to the attention of the ref. “What do you want me to do?” replied the man in the middle. “Kiss it better?” And the game continued. I can’t remember what the injury was, but it can’t have been as bad as one player who went to hospital after a game with a “sore arm”, only for the x-ray to reveal that he had an opponent’s tooth embedded in it. It’s not a common injury in the round ball game, that one.
The absence of the “prawn sandwich brigade” also adds to the attraction. Players are accessible to the media and, more importantly, to the fans. You don’t have to go through 27 different press officers to get to them. Nobody is constantly worrying about one line being taken out of context, or causing offence. Go to the right game and you get a cracking atmosphere at affordable prices.
And you can have fun. There is a recognition that while, yes, the game is a serious business, it is also meant to be entertaining, with many of the clubs at the heart of their northern communities. Refreshingly, there is an adult attitude to what you would have to call a “man’s game”. Fans are even trusted to drink beer in their seats while watching it!