Rugby Union : League ahead of union in most departments

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The Independent Online
IT DOESN'T take customary attention to this week's renewal of activity in the Five Nations' Championship to remind us that a wider interest in rugby union is provided only by international fixtures.

Attendance at club matches since the game's blind leap into professionalism makes a nonsense of the belief that there was a bigger audience out there. "Never was, never will be," Cliff Morgan said recently.

Bearing this in mind, some questions could be put the other night to Maurice Lindsay, the managing director of Super League (Europe), who is convinced that the 13-aside code in this country will be taking a big step forward when a new season gets under way with tomorrow's televised match between Wigan and Leeds.

If Lindsay's optimism is not shared by everyone in rugby league it bubbles merrily along. "This season is set to be the best ever," he said at a gathering of scribes, coaches and players in Cheshire. "We're looking at record season ticket sales and we expect to break the one million attendance barrier."

I have deliberately refrained from specifically setting out the future Lindsay imagines for Super League but rather let off a volley of his gunfire in the hope that through the clearing smoke you could picture it for yourselves: a thriving game expanded beyond its heartland and gaining more national recognition.

Of course, nobody in their right mind supposes that even a booming Super League could think about going up against football. "It would be daft to even think about it," the Salford coach and former Wigan hero said. "At Salford we live in the shadow of Manchester United and Manchester City. Old Trafford is sold out for every home match and even now City are in the Second Division they get crowds upwards of 25,000."

With nothing to fear in the north from rugby union ("In any case, almost everywhere you look they appear to be making a mess of things," somebody said in the early hours of yesterday), Super League must be wary of the challenge for an audience coming from basketball and ice hockey.

From a number of conversations you could sense that not everyone connected with Super League is convinced that they are being led down the right road. "It's always been the dream of rugby league to be recognised nationally for more than just the Challenge Cup final at Wembley but I'm not sure that we shouldn't be concentrating more on our traditional support," I was told.

A clever man, Lindsay did not dismiss the thought lightly. "I see it as a sound enough argument," he said, "but I'm convinced that Super League can grow. Time will tell but the signs are more than just encouraging."

With the sponsorship of JJB, and Sky as its broadcasting partner, Super League has been able to provide the 14 clubs, including the newly launched Gateshead Thunder, with about pounds 900,000 for development. Hardly Premier League financing but enough, many think, to ensure a more evenly balanced competition.

Nowhere is regional pride so jealously upheld as around the M62 corridor, so objections to the changes brought by Super League, including the wholesale adoption of absurd team titles, were inevitable. Some self-appointed defenders of the faith were so appalled by the marketing emphasis that anyone who held positive thoughts about Super League was branded a traitor to tradition. One thing for sure, however, is that rugby league, with its long history of professionalism, can teach rugby union clubs plenty about budgeting.

By remarking on things in the company of people who know what they are talking about you can often get close to the truth and a good idea of the lines on which they are thinking.

This quite tricky manoeuvre paid off again on Tuesday, bringing the impression that a number in rugby league are far from sure that the future will shape up to everyone's satisfaction.

However, the ongoing development of Super League should make a fundamental difference between union and league fairly obvious. Super League is about clubs. International matches apart, what is union left with? By the sound of things, trouble.

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