Presentation remains the missing link
Dave Hadfield, who watched four out of the six games in the opening round of Super League, assesses the impact of a whole new oval ball game
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Tuesday 02 April 1996
Whatever else they might achieve in this and subsequent summer seasons, they got the Stones Super League away to a start that ensured that the first weekend of the new competition would go down as a success.
The fact that both sides won - and that Paris did so before a crowd of nearly 18,000 - undermined some of the prevailing prejudices against the new shape of the sport. They showed that whatever might be wrong with Super League as a concept, it is not the inclusion of London and Paris.
The atmosphere at the Stade Charlety on Friday night was different from that at any game I have seen in France. The crowd was younger, more cosmopolitan, infinitely more sustained in its enthusiasm.
Agreed, more than half that crowd had got in by applying for, rather than paying for, tickets. But that is beside the point; the key was to get them there. The attendance at Halifax on the Saturday night was less encouraging, but London's victory was another unexpected bonus. Teams from the two capital cities which are capable of winning matches against opposition as competent as Sheffield Eagles and Halifax would be a genuinely new and exciting element in the game and many will be willing them to continue their good work.
Unfortunately, there was too much elsewhere that was all too familiar. There were two hopelessly uncompetitive sides - Oldham and Workington Town - incapable of making Wigan and St Helens raise a sweat. Those are the sort of non-contests that Super League is supposed to abolish. No sign of that on the first weekend.
There were mixed signals, as well, from the way in which clubs presented their games. Much emphasis has been put on the importance of pre-match entertainment, but the signs on a chilly March weekend were that nobody in the crowd cared very much about that aspect.
Even in Paris, the presence of "France's top rap band" attracted few into the stadium early. Many came in after the start of the main match, in fact.
Oldham had a Tina Turner lookalike - an admission of the derivative nature of much of the thinking, if ever there was one - Leeds and Halifax had sky-divers who failed to dive out of the sky. Where it was dark, there were fireworks; where it was light, there were balloons.
Leeds laid on the widest range of pre-match activities, but their build- up on the pitch was also the most embarrassing. The non-arrival of the parachutists, a depleted steel band and a compere whose sole function seemed to be to get up the collective nose made it a squirm-inducing launch.
Even the balloons were reluctant to leave the ground, and when the music and the pom-pom dancers burst into activity for a try that had already been disallowed the phrase "teething problems" no longer seemed adequate. The contrast with the spectacular way in which Auckland Warriors staged their first home match a year ago was total.
Leeds were also an example of how the mood of the first weekend often depended on factors that had nothing to do with Super League or summer rugby. Their spectators are on a downer at the moment, with a dismal Challenge Cup semi-final defeat still fresh in their minds, and they were not in the mood to be jollied along
At Odsal, on the other hand, a rare five-figure crowd was in the mood to be jollied along and a notoriously atmosphere-free ground had a different feel to it. But that was not because of the excellence or otherwise of the Muldoon Brothers' country and western. It was because Bradford are going to Wembley and suddenly seem a side worth watching. A wintry weekend was no test of the long-term viability of summer rugby. Perhaps the entertainment will stir the blood more when the weather is better.
For now, a weekend that may be remembered as the start of a bold, new future or the time when rugby league headed off down a cul-de-sac will be summed up for me by two contrasting images. At Headingley the pitch seemed to have responded to summer rugby by turning overnight into a desert. And at Odsal it snowed.
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