(Rugby League – yes it is possible to be passionate about both codes!)
As a fan of both codes, probably an unusual thing for an Essex girl, I’ve done a bit of research into how rugby finds itself with two basically different games. The Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 after English clubs picked the ball up in line with the game being played at Rugby School. There was a clear north/south divide at that time between the class of the men playing rugby; with the working men of the north playing and the middle class men of the south. A passion for watching the game grew and money was being made; the players in the north found it difficult to excel as they had to earn a wage to live. In 1892 clubs in Bradford and Leeds were charged with introducing professionalism into the amateur game as they compensated players for missing work. The RFU committee at that time had a high representation from clubs in the south and held their meetings in London; they voted against the suggested ‘broken time’ payments and so began suspensions of both players and clubs in the north. By 1895 the northern clubs had grown tired of the situation and held the famous meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield; that meeting saw 22 clubs voting to break away from the RFU. Many of the clubs involved in that move are still playing rugby at a high level including one of the teams involved in the game in London on Friday 24th January. Wigan Warriors are a powerhouse of modern rugby league; they finished the 2013 season as winners of both the Challenge Cup Final and the Super League Grand Final.
The pedigree of the northern team is well known and the brand that is Wigan is one that is known world-wide; their competitors, London Skolars may need more of an introduction. The club started life 100 years after that Huddersfield break away as Student Rugby League Old Boys. Ian ‘Hector’ McNeil set the club up to cater for post university graduates who found themselves away from the heartlands of their chosen game of rugby league. A name change came in 1995 and the London Skolars were born. In 1997 the club became one of the founders of the Southern Conference League and won the inaugural competition. Later that year they entered the National Conference League and for 4 years were the only club south of Sheffield in the competition; that must have involved some crazy travelling! That travelling hit some amazing heights in 1998 as they hosted Strella XIII a Russian team; making the journey to Russia to return the favour.
Things moved on in 2002 when the amateur club was accepted into the National Leagues making them the first club in 80 years to make the leap to the professional game. The build up to the game against Wigan; the 2013 season, was a successful one for the club as they reached the Northern Rail Bowl Final in Halifax losing to North Wales Crusaders. Crusaders in common with Wigan were crowned Championship One winners as well as Bowl winners; so no disgrace for the team from London. Skolars also reached the Final Eliminator play off losing to Oldham, having finished 4th in the league. None too shoddy a season for a team so far away from the traditional heartlands of rugby league.
London Skolars are coached by Joe Mbu; a product of the London Broncos academy set up, he played some rugby league in the north having been loaned to both Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos. He played for Broncos/Harlequins RL from 2003 to 2006 and as a Broncos season ticket holder I can confirm he was a popular player who always gave his all. A short foray to Doncaster where he was appointed as captain in 2007 was cut short by their financial difficulties and Joe returned to London for a further 2 seasons. Joe joined Skolars as their Under 16’s coach in 2010 and moved to the senior team in October 2010. Skolars have a good relationship with London Broncos having had several players on dual contracts in recent years.
The Capital Challenge game has become something of a tradition with London Skolars hosting London Broncos. With the Broncos unable to commit to the 2014 game due to internal difficulties Skolars were keen to ‘bag’ another Super League foe. How they managed to capture Wigan Warriors was explained to me by Howard Kramer the General Manager for London Skolars.
‘About 18 months ago I was made aware that both Wigan and Leeds were keen to extend the exposure of their brands and they saw London as a natural place to do this, with both clubs having a good fan base in the capital’. I spoke with both clubs but, due to the pre-season training and friendly commitments they both had it wasn’t possible to do anything in 2013. A dialogue remained open with both clubs and the thought was always that any match arranged would be in addition to our annual match with Broncos. As it became increasingly clear that Broncos would not be able to commit to our fixture more detailed discussions took place, particularly with Kris Radlinski at Wigan. With Wigan having to arrange a date for the World Club Challenge match it was very difficult to nail a date but eventually the 24th January was agreed.
Wigan have put their support behind the event and don’t want it to be a one-off. Having said that it is hoped that we can resurrect our fixture with Broncos. We have no reason or desire to abandon this fixture, which is for the benefit of the sport in London.’
I find that I’m unable to attend that game as it takes place on a ‘school’ day; but this is a hugely exciting fixture for the game of rugby league in the south. The heartlands of the game are still north of the Watford Gap but it is growing as a sport in the south; as clubs spring up in areas that are traditionally Rugby Union biased. Hemel Stags, Gloucestershire All Golds, Oxford and South Wales Scorpions play in Championship 1 with London Skolars and there are many local rugby league clubs dotted around the south. Players are recognising that this ‘different’ code is well worth taking part in; the next job of rugby league in the south is to persuade fans to come out in numbers to watch the game. The semi-final of the rugby league World Cup between England and New Zealand was one of the most enthralling games of rugby I’ve been lucky enough to see. Hopefully that showcase game at Wembley, as well as an exciting fixture such as the Capital Challenge will help to grow the game I love further.