Cold blow the winds of change

Greg Wood savours the passing of an age as rugby league sheds its winter skin for Sky's heady summer sheen
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The Independent Online
Supporters of Castleford RLFC have suffered many disappointments in recent months, but until last weekend these had generally been while their team was on the pitch. Now, though, even half-time can bring bad news. "Our match with Bradford," the announcer said, "scheduled for next Sunday, has been re-arranged for this Friday evening." A low groan emerged from the terraces. "Bloody telly," one woman muttered.

In truth, it was less a groan than a sigh, heavy with resignation. The telly has already made many changes in the land of league, but those are as nothing compared with what is to come. No longer content with moving a match by two days, the deal with Sky to create the new Super League has moved the whole sport through two entire phases of the year, from winter to summer. The new season begins in March, and over the weekend of 18 August, for heaven's sake, the visitors will be Paris. There will surely be tremors at kick-off time in the graveyard where Cas's founders were laid to rest.

Sunday's match against Halifax, then, was to be the last ever played on a winter's afternoon at Wheldon Road, just three miles from the M62, the route which picks its way from west to east through rugby league country like a main artery. Wheldon Road has been Castleford's home since they joined up in 1926, and until recently it has been the sort of small, unassuming stadium where the fans knew where they stood - in many cases, behind the line which the Tigers were attacking in the first half, and then down at the other end in the second. Now, though, the half-time tramp down the touchline may be one of the few traditions to survive the switch to summer.

Many fans, it is true, welcome the change. "I'm all for sitting in the nice sunshine in my shorts and T-shirt," one Fax follower of 20 years' standing said. "You'll get better crowds, the game will be faster and it will flow better. Who wants to sit here and freeze?"As he spoke, an eye-watering Arctic wind continued its full-frontal assault on the grandstand and all but made his point for him.

Yet others regret the transformation of their game, and in particular its imposition from above. "They say this will speed the game up," Paul Morton, another travelling supporter, said, "but they've already speeded it up too much. You don't need a pack any more, 13 wingers will do the job. We were quite happy going up and down the M62; we don't want to go to France to watch a game.

"But then they never asked us, they never asked the people who pay their money every week. They just announced it and then told the clubs who was going to merge and who would play where."

The new money raises many concerns. "It'll be a Super League with one super club, Wigan, and there'll be nothing for the rest, and clubs like these will go out of business if they try to compete. Already some players are worth double what they used to be. And now that they're running everything to suit the television, what happens if Murdoch pulls out in five years' time? There might not be anything left." Most fans also expect admission prices to rise sharply. If so, many say they will start to pick and choose their games.

And when the serious cash means that winning is suddenly all that matters, what price, then, the famous sporting atmosphere of the league audience? The equal mix of commitment and good humour - "FORWARD PASS!" one Fax fan kept screaming from a less than perfect vantage point behind the posts - might swiftly be honed to a less appealing edge.

One thing, though, is certain: as Sky's own slogan puts it, there's no turning back. For club owners and the game's administrators, Rupert Murdoch's offer was simply too good to refuse. Faced with the alternative of watching their team on a warm summer evening, many of the fans exposed to the bitter gusts at Wheldon Road last Sunday would agree.

Yet disaffection, a sense of betrayal even, was seldom far away. When the Rugby League signed up with Sky in its centenary season, it gained much in terms of finance and exposure. Only time will tell, however, whether this was also the moment when the sport started to lose its soul.