Rugby league pursues its own American Dream

ANY talk of a Rugby League World Cup being played in the USA would normally elicit a response of a sarcastic “oh really?” followed by the rolling of eyes.
But when the New York Times, no less, features an article on that very subject, then maybe the idea is not as fanciful as it might first seem.
The Newspaper of Record carried such a piece on Tuesday, featuring an interview with Australian sports promoter Jason Moore, who has submitted a bid with the RLIF to host the 2021 World Cup on American soil.
His plan would see the six-week tournament played at eight to ten National Football League or Major League Soccer stadiums and goes up against the bid tabled by The RFL for the World Cup to come back to England recently.
Moore is not just some chancer trying his luck. After all, it was his company, Moore Sports International, which was involved in the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers playing two regular-season Major League Baseball games at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
And he spoke with great enthusiasm about the potential for crossover appeal with fans of the NFL, citing the similarities the two sports share and how the “gladiatorial” aspects of rugby league should find favour with the American sporting public.
Cracking the potentially lucrative market across the Atlantic is something many sports have long dreamed of and although football has made some inroads through MLS, the landscape is still overwhelmingly dominated by the big four of the NFL, MLB, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.
It is worth remembering rugby league has been here before as well, from aborted attempts by Californian rugby union officials to switch codes just prior to the outbreak of World War II, Mike Dimitro’s American All-Stars and former NFL player Michael Mayer’s stalled efforts to launch a domestic competition in the late 1970s.
And who can forget the Great American Challenge exhibition match between Wigan and Warrington in Milwaukee in 1989, where both sets of players simply set about settling old scores and referee John Holdsworth seemed determined to make himself the centre of attention?

Nevertheless, the progress rugby league has made in the USA since the turn of the century should not be overlooked.
It is perhaps easy to forget how the national team defied the cynics at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, finishing top of Group D by beating more established rugby-playing nations Wales and the Cook Islands, before bowing out to eventual champions Australia in the quarter-finals.
The domestic competition continues to thrive as well, particularly now the sport in America has been re-united under one governing body, and work has been done in growing youth participation.
The challenge, of course, will be convincing the American public to come out and fill the stadiums. After all, some of those cavernous NFL stadiums – and even MLS grounds – will look awfully empty if the marketing is not right.
And then there are the financial risks, with the 2000 Rugby League World Cup serving as a constant reminder of the damage that can be done to the international game by running before learning to walk.
Moore will undoubtedly be aware of all of this though and his bid should not be dismissed as fanciful dreaming.
Besides, rugby league has always been a sport for pushing the boundaries in the face of external criticism and being downtrodden by outsiders. Hosting a World Cup in America may just be a situation where the potential rewards far outweigh any risks.


The Armchair Pundit: Tradition isn’t what it used to be

Challenge Cup

ASIDE from a noticeable section of empty seats at the Keepmoat Stadium and Brian Noble’s appalling taste in neckwear, Friday night’s Challenge Cup semi-final between Hull FC and Wigan Warriors once again showcased everything great about rugby league to a national audience.
The BBC’s decision to screen one of the last four match-ups on a Friday evening for the second year in a row, along with the Warrington Woves-Widnes Vikings clash in the quarter-finals, has been generally well-received – except, perhaps, by those Wigan fans who were put off by the prospect of a 174-mile round trip to Doncaster at an inconvenient time.
Despite the Keepmoat effectively being annexed as a south-western suburb of the black and white half of Hull for the night, the attendance of 10,488 was fewer than 600 down on the previous year’s Friday semi-final, which necessitated Leeds Rhinos fans making a similarly long-distance trip to see their side face St Helens at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Nevertheless, there have been some rumblings of discontent from some pundits – but not for the reason you might think.

Former Warrington half-back Lee Briers and ex-Leeds prop turned Sky Sports analyst Barrie McDermott were both vocal on Twitter in their opposition to Challenge Cup semi-finals being played on a Friday, and all because it goes against tradition.

McDermott put forward a particularly bizarre argument about how it is okay for Super League to be innovative because it is still relatively new, while the Challenge Cup should stay as it is – or was – because of its history stretching back 120 years.
Fine, let us go back to playing one semi-final on a Saturday and one on a Sunday. And while we are at it, bring back replays for drawn games – a concept which was abolished many years ago, yet still remains in place if the final ends level.
McDermott’s argument simply does not stack up on closer examination. For the majority of the wider viewing public, the Challenge Cup is their window to the world of rugby league and if showing one or two games on a Friday night allows more people to view the sport then surely that can only be a good thing?
And is it not also a good thing that people can see rugby league as a forward-thinking, inovated sport rather than being wedded to the past in these occassional bouts of introspection?
As well as this, there are still those rose-tinted spectacle-wearing luddites who believe the final should be moved back to its old end-of-May slot to restore the prestige of the Challenge Cup.
However, this overlooks the fact the whole reason it was moved to the August Bank Holiday weekend was that the switch of the league season to summer while leaving the Cup as a winter competition had made it start to seem like little more than a pre-season knockabout.
Throughout its history, rugby league has always been willing to change to made it as appealing as possible for both players and spectators alike.
Tradition is important too, but just because we have always done something a certain way does not mean we should keep doing it the same way. That, after all, is one of the worst reasons for not making bold, but ultimately beneficial, decisions.

Meanwhile, on the pitch…: As for the matches themselves, they could hardly have been more contrasting.
Predictably, the BBC started their Friday coverage by bigging up the Hull-Wigan showdown as a repeat of the 1985 Challenge Cup final – regarded by many as the greatest of all-time – and this match-up proved to be every bit as thrilling.
Marc Sneyd carried off the man of the match award as Hull triumphed 16-12, although it was once again the work done up front from back three Mark Minichiello, Sika Manu and Gareth Ellis, along with the effervescent Danny Houghton, which laid the platform for their backs to shine.
The following day at Leigh Sports Village, Wakefield Trinity simply found themselves overwhelmed by a rampant Warrington outfit, who ran out 56-12 winners to book their fourth Cup final appearance in eight seasons.
Competition sponsor Ladbrokes have the Wolves as 5/6 favourites, with Hull rated as Evens to lift the trophy for the first time since 2005. If you are feeling adventurous and think the teams are equally-matched, the draw is available at 16/1.
Of course, no Challenge Cup final has finished level and gone to a replay since 1982, so maybe we are overdue one. And as Hull fans will no doubt point out, they won on that occasion as well…

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Thatto Heath women celebrate with their trophies (Picture: @TheRFL)

Amateur score of the week: Leigh Miners Rangers 6 Thatto Heath 62, Women’s Challenge Cup final. A day after the professionals had finished battling it out for a place in next month’s Wembley showpiece, the women’s competition took centre stage at Odsal.
Tara Stanley led the way for Thatto Heath with a hat-trick of tries, while Emily Rudge and Sammy Simpson added two apiece as well to help the St Helens-based side secure glory.
It proved a day of double success for the club, with the reserves beating Whitley Bay Barbarians 44-0 in the final of the Women’s Challenge Shield.

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