Renewing Your Vows With Rugby League

WembleyBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league is beginning to engage in what high school economics taught us to call “vertical integration”.

We have bought out a participant sport that provides us with players and fans, and gives our own participants somewhere to go when the bones creak too much: touch football.

The NRL no longer just provides content for broadcasters, it has become one itself via its ipad app. The Rugby Football League in England effectively has its own television station on YouTube. The NRL plans to break stories itself on its own website when the new media unit gets up and running.

Vertical integrations is buying up the raw materials – the mines and farms – and also the points of sale – shops and markets.

But it’s also about buying the means of transport in between and this reporter’s annual trip to the Challenge Cup final at Wembley has convinced him that rugby league should get involved in the travel business.

Because when you’re renewing your vows, when you’re visiting Mecca, then the church should be in on the deal.

“It’s unbelievable.,” says Wigan’s former Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury halfback Blake Green, standing in the mixed zone media area at Wembley after his side’s 16-0 win over fumbling Hull.

“The crowds over here are so loud. There’s lots of singing, they’re very passionate. Obviously the national anthem is not my anthem but the crowd were right into it.

“It’s such a special trophy, this Challenge Cup. It’s well documented about the famous players who have played in the game and we were made aware of that by some of the old Wigan players during the week.”

But the real attraction of Wembley is not the game. The venue has something to do with it but is only part of the magic.

The real thing that should attract at least a small group of Australian fans each year is the part the Challenge Cup final plays in the identity of northern England, the culture that gave us rugby league and therefore defines what we are as a sport.

Imagine if Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra did not exist and Melbourne was the undisputed political and cultural capital of Australia. But rugby league was still enormously popular in NSW and Queensland.

In this parallel universe, when a major rugby league event was staged in Melbourne, we would behave differently. It would perhaps be the only time many of us went there each year.

As a group under-represented on the national stage, it would be more than a football game to us. It would be like a pride parade for the provincial hoards from north of the Murray, a show of strength and vitality. We would go even if our team was not playing, we would feel a camaraderie with the fans of rival clubs that we don’t currently experience in the NRL.

Once a year, we would celebrate our “otherness”, the way minorities across society do.

If you’re looking to sum up what Wembley is, it’s someone raised in Warrington, living in Boston Massachusetts and wearing a 1980s vintage Brisbane Norths jersey to the Challenge Cup final, where he sits in roughly the same seats every year with his uncle and Londoner mate.

That fellow happens to be my best friend.

You don’t get much more northern, Wigan and rugby league than the coach of the cherry and whites, Shaun Wane. He played prop in the 1987 World Club Challenge win over Manly and was the first British coach to win the Cup since 2005.

“I woke up this morning and thought ‘to win this would be an absolute dream’,” he said. “We won nothing last year – we won the League Leaders’ (minor premiership) – and got hammered for it.

“I was very keen that all the players knew we are the most famous club in the world and I wanted them to write their name into the history of the Wigan Warriors – and they’ve done that.”

For Wigan, climbing into the royal box to collect winners’ medals is almost an entitlement. They’ve now done it 19 times. But that doesn’t mean it happens by itself.

“(Sean O’Loughin), who’s not played for many, many weeks – his Achilles tendon was sore and for him to come out and play like that was outstanding,” said Wane.

“Sam Tomkins is another one. Ben Flower is another one who was all jabbed up to play.”

For Hull, the only saving grace was their defence. They kept pushing the ball to the edges in slippery conditions and paid the price – repeatedly.

Coach Peter Gentle, the former Wests Tigers assistant, has also had to contend with speculation over his future. He said the thrill of being at Wembley will be something he doesn’t appreciate for “years ahead.

“Look, it’s a great occasion,” said Gentle. “But we’re just extremely disappointed we didn’t give ourselves a chance with what we did with the ball.”

Down the track, even Peter will be grateful he was there. But don’t believe me – make the trip yourself next year.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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