Stop moaning and start supporting while we still can

Stop moaning and start supporting while we still can

With the Super League season done and dusted, there are only three – now two – more weekends left of Rugby League in 2023, before winter really kicks in and we’re left with the long, tough wait for the new season to kick off some time in February.

With that in mind, I had hoped – somewhat naively – that the England vs Tonga series would be welcomed with open arms by RL supporters, given that it’s all we’ve got left for around three months, but from the majority of comments I’ve seen on social media, it would seem that most fans can’t wait to see the back of any meaningful action.

Of course, social media isn’t always a great gauge with which to measure public opinion and the negative comments always seem to have a way of finding the top spot, but when it comes to Rugby League it never surprises me how much doom and gloom there is around the sport we all supposedly love.

So, here are a few of the common themes I’ve spotted on social media around this test series and my thoughts on them:

I didn’t even know it was on

Seriously? I’m not a big fan of the RFL and their marketing or lack of (more on that later), but for fans of the sport to claim they didn’t even know about this test series is hard to fathom.

I understand casual sports fans not knowing about it, in much the same way that I don’t know when the NFL is coming to London, but if you’re a Rugby League fan you’d almost certainly have heard about Tonga coming over.

Firstly, it was pretty big news in the RL world when it was announced, partly because it’s historic for them to be travelling over for their first ever tour here, and also because it meant England would get three tough games against a quality team at the end of the year, which is a lot more appealing than the usual walkover win against France, which is cobbled together when we need an opponent.

Not only that, it’s been mentioned fairly regularly in TV commentary throughout the season, and if you’ve been on the RFL website to buy tickets for the Challenge Cup final or the Grand Final, you couldn’t have missed the links to this series.

It’s too expensive

£25 is not too expensive to watch two of the best teams in the world play each other, whatever sport it is.

I’m not here to question people’s finances, and I’m sure for a lot of fans it may have been too much of a stretch, particularly if they’ve forked out for a trip to Perpignan, Wembley or Old Trafford this year, but can we please get out of this mindset of events needing to be priced in the bargain basement every time?

How can we encourage people from outside that RL is worth watching if we’re saying that tickets to watch the 4th vs 5th ranked teams in the world are only £5-£10? And even if we did, fans would still find something else to moan about (see the next point).

Now, before this turns into an all out rant where no solutions are being proposed, here’s one that could have potentially eased people’s concerns when it comes to price. Season ticket holders of ANY Super League, Championship or League One club can get a 20% discount. Who knows, maybe that could have worked to get a bigger crowd in on Sunday, but just to reiterate, £25 for an international match with lots of Super League and NRL stars is not outrageous.

They should have picked player XYZ and left out player XYZ

This is a common complaint around international selections, but it’s also part of what makes it all so interesting and gets us talking about the game.

Now, I don’t know how many people looked at the squad and chose not to buy a ticket as a result, but if you did then give your head a wobble…and consider getting one for at least one of the remaining tests!

Seriously, you only have to look at the England football team to see this play out every time there’s an international break. I’m sure most football fans can’t work out how Harry Maguire makes the squad every time, but it didn’t stop 80,000+ turning up at Wembley last week for their two internationals. And on that note, surely England vs Tonga in a test series is more appealing than England vs Australia in a football friendly?

They should have played a game in Newcastle/London/Coventry (anywhere but the 3 venues they chose)

This is the one that’s bugged me the most! As I said earlier, I’m not a big fan of the RFL and their marketing of the game, but here’s where I’ll come to their defence a little.

It’s occurred to me in recent weeks that a lot of fans have short memories, and perhaps we haven’t fully realised (myself included) the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had, and continues to have on the sport.

While football didn’t skip a beat after the resumption, with transfer fees and wages soaring, RL was one of the many industries that’s still suffering the after effects now.

With this in mind, when it comes to this current test series, my guess is that the RFL chose three ‘safe’ venues in the heartlands knowing that as long as they could get a crowd of 10k+, they’d turn a small profit and begin to claw back some of the huge losses the sport has suffered over the past three years or so.

After all, it would probably work out better for them to get crowds of 10k-15k in St Helens, Huddersfield and Leeds, than to get crowds between 15k-25k in Coventry, Tottenham and Newcastle for example, and be left with 25k-30k empty seats.

And who knows, maybe they were hoping that if fans really got behind this series and all three tests were sell outs, then it would show the demand for international RL is there and they could look to play in bigger stadiums away from the heartlands for the next test series. As it is though, if we can’t even sell out an 18,000 capacity stadium in the North West for the first game, then why on earth would they try and put a game on at Spurs or St James’ Park?

This is where the critics will come back and say, ‘if they market the game properly’, ‘if they push it to a nationwide audience’ etc, but this is probably where the pandemic’s after effects are really being felt. I don’t know what the RFL’s marketing budget looks like, but I highly doubt it would stretch far enough for primetime TV adverts, posters all over the London Underground and giant billboards next to every Premier League ground.

Which means, they have to be smart with what they do have, hence playing the games at ‘safe’ grounds and trusting existing RL fans to fill them.

If we can’t do that, then maybe the doom mongers will be right and the game will become amateur within a few years. And if that happens, then it’ll be on all of us who whinged, whined and complained about everything from ticket prices to squad selections to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we didn’t bother making the trip over to St Helens on a glorious Autumn afternoon to watch some of the best players in the world when we had the chance.

Darren Notley

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