Earlier this week, Hull FC and Wigan Warriors took the bold decision to stage a Super League game, for the first time outside of Europe, in Australia next year. The precise date for this ground-breaking tie will be Saturday 10 February 2018 at the WIN Stadium, Wollongong.
A week later, Wigan will face South Sydney Rabbitohs and Hull will do battle with St George Illawarra Dragons, in a double-header at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney. Both teams will then return to Britain to participate in the World Club Challenge Series, starting on 24 February, if either side qualifies.
But why have both sides decided to do this and what potential gains and exposure can they make from a trip to a country where Rugby League is the national sport?
This move by the Black-and-Whites and the Cherry-and-Whites has been put under severe scrutiny by the whole of the rugby league fraternity. There is a strong polarisation between those who support the move and those who have ridiculed it.
Raising their profile
Both are keen to raise the profile of their historically-rich clubs. What better way to do this than in Australia: a nation that lives and breathes rugby league. Wigan and Hull are also two of the most well-supported teams in the league, consistently hitting over 10,000 fans per game.
And, with 5,000 supporters expected to make the exciting journey, it could well raise the profile of the British game within the rugby league heartlands of New South Wales and Wollongong. From this, Super League could potentially be promoted on an unprecedented global scale.
“There will be a great deal of excitement from fans of both clubs and we’re sure many will want to travel to New South Wales for such an historic occasion, support their team and help showcase all that is good about rugby league in the UK.” Adam Pearson, Hull FC Chairman.
Yet, why take it to Australia? A country that is already far ahead of Britain in terms of its rugby league quality – just look at the gulf between the national sides – as well as its participation at the grassroots level. Why not take a game to Canada where the Toronto Wolfpack are making huge strides in developing Canadian rugby league? With roughly 7000 spectators every game, an almost-carnival atmosphere, and a team that seems to demolish everyone in their wake, the Wolfpack are genuinely becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Expanding the game elsewhere
Surely the chance to expand the game in North America would receive no greater impetus than a high-profile event showcasing two Super League heavyweights battling it out. It could well draw in interested crowds in a country where ice hockey and lacrosse are deemed to be the national sports, possibly being a catalyst for the nurturing of another rugby league heartland.
By taking Super League to Australia, the Rugby Football League (RFL – Britain’s governing body) and both Hull and Wigan have ‘played safe’, knowing the crowds will come. But, by doing so, both teams and the RFL have missed an opportunity to expand beyond the confined borders it currently possesses.
This ‘playing safe’ can also work positively; the array of networking and sponsorship deals that could come to fruition with the match could blow any current commercial contracts out of the water. This would then, in turn, forge bonds between the Australian and British game that can only benefit the sport in general.
Working together to improve rugby league is what the sport needs; if Wigan and Hull can manufacture strong partnerships with the lucrative Australian game, it could potentially facilitate more cross-country connections and, thus, greater prosperity in the British game as a whole.
“There will be a great deal of excitement from fans of both clubs and we’re sure many will want to travel to New South Wales for such an historic occasion, support their team and help showcase all that is good about rugby league in the UK.” Ian Lenagan, Wigan Warriors Chairman.
Not only can it impact the British game, but the effects in Australia will be felt also.
“Australia is mad for rugby league and I am thrilled the NSW Government has secured these exclusive matches for Sydney and Wollongong which will drive visitors to both areas.
The two Super League sides will spend two weeks in the State with the three-match tour expected to attract close to 5,000 interstate and overseas visitors to NSW, injecting more than $7m into the local visitor economy.” New South Wales Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Adam Marshall.
Inevitably, the local economy in New South Wales will experience a sharp increase in profitability. Likewise, although the ticket sales will be less than what Wigan get for a home game (for they forfeit a home match for this enterprise), they will more than likely make up for this in mammoth merchandise sales as well as possibly encouraging interested spectators in Australia to purchase souvenirs and mementos of this historic occasion.
Rugby league fans are always moaning about teams and the RFL doing little to improve the exposure and quality of the British game. A lot of work and planning must go into this project before the two teams even think about going ‘Down Under’, but if it succeeds, Super League will be put on a pedestal for the whole world to see. How can this not be a positive for the sport as a whole?