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From the M62, through Europe, to Toronto: David Lawrenson on the globalisation of rugby league

While the champagne was being uncorked in the visitors’ dressing room after a 4-2 defeat in the Million Pound Game against the London Broncos, Toronto Wolfpack had to reconcile the fact that they would not be taking part in next season’s Super League. However, for a team thousands of miles away from most of their competitors, even getting this close is a victory.  Not just for themselves, but for the entire sport of rugby league.

Despite the defeat, they accumulated the most points in the Championship this season and coasted their way through League 1 in 2017. This indicates that the future of the first transatlantic professional sports team in England looks bright.

This year was significant for the growth of rugby league in the Northern Hemisphere. French side Catalan Dragons became the first non-British team to win the trophy since its inception in 1901, when they defeated Warrington Wolves 20-14 at Wembley Stadium in August.

David Lawrenson — who previously worked for the RFL and London Broncos — believes the attitude towards the French side has changed dramatically over the years.

“There was a lot of negative attitude towards them at first, and it’s simply because of a lot of parochial views from Rugby League,” Lawrenson told the Sports Gazette. “You’ve got this sport that has grown up around the M62, its part of the fabric in places like Batley, Oldham and Rochdale and places like that, but time marches on.”

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The success of clubs outside of the UK in the European Super League hasn’t always been straightforward. The league was initially formed in 1996 when media mogul Rupert Murdoch believed the sport’s popularity would grow if games were played in the summer instead.

From the outset Murdoch’s Sky pushed for a team outside of the UK to take part in the league. Paris Saint-Germain joined and regularly fielded teams dominated by Australians and New Zealanders. They only managed nine wins in their two seasons in the league, eventually leading to a contract scandal and subsequent dissolution in 1997.

Lawrenson added: “It was hastily put together. Soon after they went out of it, it was the European Super League without any continental stuff at all.”

The interest in rugby league in France has predominately stemmed from the South of the country, which has helped shape the success of Catalan and Toulouse Olympique.

Toulouse re-joined the league in 2016, finishing the season unbeaten in League 1, before beating Barrow Rovers to seal promotion to the Championship, whereas this year they won the Championship Shield.

Lawrenson admits the European newcomers had the right approach to the league: “Toulouse and Toronto started at the bottom, they didn’t want any special favours and paid for all the flights over there.

“It adds another dimension to the sport, it brings over Australian players who might not necessarily might want to come to the North of England but suddenly they want to come to the South of France.”

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A fair criticism of the globalisation of the league as it continues to expand is that it will become more difficult for players to afford time off work to compete as part-timers. Hopefully international franchises can continue bringing money to the game and grow its popularity, therefore making it easier for players to sustain a living.

Alternatively, the opportunity to play in a North American city with decent crowds will be some of the career highlights for players who are used to travelling to Barrow and Worthington.

The concept of having a side compete in a global league is becoming very fashionable in contemporary sport. Owner of NFL franchise the Jacksonville Jaguars and Premier League club Fulham, Shahid Khan has spoken frequently about his ambition for an NFL team based in the UK. In football, La Liga signed a deal worth $200 million with US entertainment company Relevant Sports to host Spanish league fixtures for the next 15 years.

Rugby league certainly can’t compete with the financial superpowers that operate in these sports, but they can take the right steps to increase interest worldwide and bring more money to the game.

Lawrenson commented: “It’s not about basketball, it’s about when the NBA comes to town. Or when the NFL comes to town, it’s not about American Football. That’s the way they look at it and that’s the way we should look at it.”

The interest in the sport will be aided by the London Broncos’ victory on Sunday, as rugby league has frequently been considered a sport exclusively for the North of England. Undoubtedly, the geographical perceptions of the sport combined with the consistent comparisons with rugby union has halted its progress over the years.

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Lawrenson argues: “‘Clubs look at union and say why can’t we get crowds like that? Why can’t we get sponsors like that? Jaguar, Land Rover, Investec, Aviva. Because if you’re an international company why would you sponsor a sport that’s basically on the M62?’”

An insular mentality is detrimental to the growth of the sport. Lawrenson highlighted how clubs such as Wakefield, Castleford and Featherstone are all within close distance of one another, but are reluctant to merge as a franchise. Although appreciating the argument from the clubs and fans, it seems there is a debate between clubs and the organising bodies where both sides currently want to point the finger at one another.

When asked about merging clubs around the M62, Lawrenson said: “Castleford and Wakefield have very old grounds, they need new ones and you’d think the same council would say ‘let’s build a stadium for both’. The only thing they do is play a game there over the weekend, they train elsewhere, gym elsewhere, but will they do it? No.”

This mentality isn’t restricted to England. Australia have only played England in the UK twice in the last seven years. Considering they are the flag-bearers for rugby league and have a national pool comparable to England’s union pool, they could be doing more for the sport.

Lawrenson ponders Australia’s contribution to the global brand: “They’re so wrapped in the own little world, what they don’t realise is that by spreading their wings a bit, coming over here for a tour or allowing a Great Britain tour down there, they’ll heighten the sport’s profile.”

This attitude from Australian clubs has also been evident with the World Club Challenge in their reluctance to travel to the UK for games. A novice would expect this trophy to be the pinnacle for clubs across the world but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the Southern Hemisphere.

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England’s summer tests against New Zealand in Denver, Colorado presented rugby league a vital opportunity to establish a wider audience in America.

However, Lawrenson feels they missed a trick: “Once again it was New Zealand, why wasn’t it Australia? If it was Australia, it probably would have got more attention.”

In 1987, a State of Origin game between New South Wales and Queensland took place in Long Beach, Florida. Sadly the event was not taken seriously and lacked a competitive edge, with a debate following over whether the game should contribute to overall statistics.

There have been positives to cling to, though. In 2008, Leeds Rhinos and Warrington Wolves staged a match in Jacksonville, Florida while Toronto continue to carry the torch for rugby league across the Atlantic.

The game is growing around the world, of that there is no doubt. What is concerning, however, is the pace of development. With the World Cup returning to England in 2021, there are real concerns that it may hardly register beyond the M62.

Featured photograph/David Lawrenson

Darren Barnard
Darren, 24, is a graduate of the University of Exeter, where he attained a degree in Drama. Following that, he travelled through Asia and Australia for two years encountering entirely different sporting cultures. Unable to his watch his beloved Spurs and Chicago Bears as regularly as he had accustomed to, he was encouraged to pursue other countries sporting passions. An interest in AFL and NRL was unavoidable as he became infatuated with Australia's similar passion for sport. However it was amongst the corruption and chaos Asian football, where he formed a lifelong friendship with the players and supporters of Than Quảng Ninh F.C.
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