David Attenborough and the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy

IF you were, Family Fortunes-style, to ask 100 people to name something they would associate Sir David Attenborough with, the chances are rugby league would come some way down the list – if at all.
But while being best known for his work with the BBC’s Natural History unit, it is often overlooked that Attenborough’s time of controller of BBC Two led to him having an unintentional role in changing the face of the sport.
And it all came from the introduction of a made-for-television competition, the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy.
Attenborough’s brief was to make the channel’s output as diverse as possible from BBC One and ITV, with 1965 seeing the launch of a new midweek tournament for those rugby league clubs with floodlights.
This was not the 13-man code’s first foray into this kind of event, with eight sides having competed for the Independent Television Floodlit Trophy ten years prior.
Played at football grounds across London between September and November, with the second half from each match broadcast live as part of Associated-Rediffusion’s ‘Cavalcade of Sport’ – ironically, not shown in rugby league’s heartland due to ITV not commencing broadcasts to the north of England until 1956 – it was won by Warrington and each participating club received £400 for their troubles.
Given rugby league’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with television and the BBC at the time it might seem a surprise the Floodlit Trophy actually got past the planning stage.
Nevertheless, a payment of £9,000 for the rights led to St Helens, Leigh, Warrington, Widnes, Swinton, Oldham, Castleford – the seven clubs with floodlights – and Leeds, who would install floodlights in 1996, being invited to take part.
To satisfy the demands of the broadcast and, cynics might suggest, in keeping with the RFL’s love of needlessly complicated competition set-ups, the format saw the participants compete in two qualifying rounds, with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals.
Played across 11 weeks, the inaugural Floodlit Trophy was won by Castleford thanks to two goals from Ron Willett securing a 4-0 victory over St Helens in the final.
Barrow, Rochdale Hornets and Salford’s entry to the following year’s Floodlit Trophy necessitated the introduction of a two-legged knock-out preliminary round, with Castleford again emerging triumphant, this time with victory over Swinton in the final.
But while the first two editions had helped establish rugby league a regular television presence, the second season also introduced an innovation which would change the sport forever.
A desire to make the game more competitive and encourage attacking play saw the four major league-playing nations of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France saw them agree to trial the four-tackles-then-a-scrum rule, with the Floodlit Trophy giving the RFL the perfect place to experiment with it.
Such was its success that the change to the Laws of the Game was implemented in all matches from October 31, although not, as Tony Collins notes in his book Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History, without a few teething problems.
This was eventually increased to six tackles in 1972, by which time the Floodlit Trophy had become an established part of the calendar and encouraged more clubs to install lights, with 18 sides by now competing in a traditional straight knock-out format.
Despite that, the 1973 tournament has the distinction of being the only one won by a team without floodlights.
Thanks to the effects of the Three Day Week, perennial strugglers Bramley beat Widnes on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 18 to claim the only trophy in their history, with the final eventually being broadcast at 8.10pm that evening.
But by the end of the decade, budget cutback saw the BBC’s commitment to the tournament wane and it was eventually axed after the 1979 competition which saw Hull triumph over bitter rivals Hull Kingston Rovers – a match which was broadcast only as highlights.
These days, the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy is remembered as little more than a footnote in rugby league history, although it did receive brief recognition in 2008 when the trophy was revived to give to the winners of the short-lived Carnegie Floodlit Nines.
Nevertheless, its contribution to the sport should not be overlooked. Neither should that, however inadvertent it was, of a certain Mr Attenborough’s.

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