Growth. As a rugby league fan, it is hard not to avoid the word, with the desire to grow the game beyond the so-called ‘M62 corridor’ shared by fans, players and bigwigs alike. Growth comes in many forms, but if you were to glance at the Challenge Cup first round you may well be pleasantly surprised with sides from Northampton, Scotland, Wales and the North East all involved. We also have an Irish team in the first round for the first time in 20 year and a London derby to look forward to as Hammersmith Hills Hoists travel to London Chargers.
So is the picture rosy? Well not quite, but there are a lot of positive spots such as the rise of Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse, the number of ‘southern’ players now turning out for the likes of London sides Broncos and Skolars and a potential New York side on the horizon. However, we all want the RFL to do more to grow the game and that is exactly why they have selected the first game of the Magic Weekend to be Toronto’s clash with Toulouse.
It is safe to say that this has been a fairly unpopular decision and there was plenty of social media backlash when the announcement was made. Now, the RFL could definitely tweak some things it does with the Magic Weekend, but the addition of an extra game hardly seems like a bad thing. Whilst not popular with everyone, the two-day event garners plenty of interest from across the country and it is a key opportunity to market our game to a wider audience.
With that in mind, surely it is a good thing that Toronto will play Toulouse at St James’ Park. Hopefully, people (and more importantly sponsors) new to the sport will see the match and realise that our game is played not only in northern outposts, but also in places which will attract money and help support the game in the heartlands and further aid growth.
Jon Wilkin made an impassioned stand on rugby league when interviewed for 5Live during the Rugby League World Cup. The St Helens player seems to be a divisive character (his choice of trousers whilst on BBC duty certainly split opinion!) but he was right when he said that rugby league needs to get away from the image of flat caps, whippets and fans shouting ‘Gerrem onside’. Surely showcasing a match featuring a side from Canada and one from across the Channel would be a good way of starting that process.
Some have argued that Newcastle’s match with Bradford Bulls would have been a better curtain raiser. However, Newcastle have played their home match on the Friday before Magic Weekend for a few years now and it is often a much-needed boost to the coffers of the North East side, particularly with Bulls fans likely to travel in numbers anyway.
Another interesting argument, if this match is not to be played in Toronto, was to play this game in Montreal where the majority of the population speak French. Were the game to be marketed as a France v Canada style affair, it would have perhaps drawn a reasonable crowd and taken the game to a new audience.
The final argument seems to come from fans of Championship sides who feel that their, perhaps more deserving side, has been overlooked for this game. Featherstone’s match against Leigh that weekend will certainly be an interesting one after Rovers’ off season recruitment and it will no doubt be a keenly contested affair between two sides looking to crack the top tier. However, were you to have that match on, there is a sense of ‘preaching to the converted’ about it.
We all acknowledge the need for the game to grow and we cannot grow without money. Just this week, Callum McLelland, who had represented England Academy, jumped ship to go and play rugby union north of the border. If we cannot keep hold of our top young talent, what hope do we have of growing the game as a whole? The match between Toronto and Toulouse will hopefully help raise the profile of the game further and hopefully will want sponsors to get involved with a game that seems to be breaking boundaries.
That, at least, is my take on the whole thing and I feel that it can only be good news for the game. I am sure many of you will disagree with me and that many of you will be going to the Magic Weekend to cheer on your side. However, I hope that there is one thing that we can agree on and that is that more rugby league, be it Toronto Wolfpack or Thatto Heath Crusaders under 18s that is readily accessible to watch and enjoy, the better.