I’ve been to a healthy number of England international fixtures in the last two years. In 2010, I was at the autumn internationals and six nations tournament at Twickenham. Last year I went to New Zealand for the somewhat disappointing World Cup with England knocked out before I’d recovered from jetlag, followed by another six nations with some warm-up matches thrown in for good measure. In short, I’m a bit of a Twickenham botherer.
I've been able to draw a direct comparison between the rugby union and rugby league world stages and there is a stark contrast. I think I am stating the obvious when I say that the difference is astonishing.
Twickenham is a huge event for rugby union fans. There are no empty seats and the tickets resell on eBay for big money. It seems that England internationals are a rugby occasion. The England team is the England team and by that I mean that rugby union fans almost seem to detach international games from club games as though the two are unrelated.
England rugby league have an international fixture this weekend against the Exiles at St Helens’ home ground, Langtree Park, which holds just under a quarter of the capacity of Twickenham. The most expensive ticket is £29 and that gets you the best seats in the house and hosting it in St Helens means that England expect the same number of spectators as single league fixture.
Last year, the Four Nations returned to Wembley for the first time since 1997 for a double header. For the price of one ticket fans got to see Wales v New Zealand followed by England v Australia and the attendance was just half of Wembley’s capacity. That’s not bad considering the long journey from the north that fans had to make.
However, the fact that across 14 Super League clubs, twelve of them based in the North, the expectation of spectators is the same as could be pulled in for a Wigan v Saints derby is distressing.
England vs Exiles doesn’t actually count for anything in international terms but it is one of only a handful of outings the side will have before England hosts the 2013 World Cup. England will play in a tri-nations tournament at the end of this season against Wales and France instead of a Four Nations competition, but in terms of real practice, the absence of a competitive fixture against New Zealand and Australia is not ideal.
The Exiles is a fantastic concept. It was launched last year with the added spin that fans could pick their Exiles team which is made up of Super League players from other countries. That element has been scrapped this year, leaving coach Daniel Anderson to call the shots but it still creates a healthy fixture that really will stretch the England side.
The draw for rugby league fans then is threefold. Firstly, England won’t play at this level of competition until the World Cup and the last time the two sides met last year Exile edged it 16-12. It’s a real battle for England and far from the expected walkovers of the France and Wales tri-nations games.
Secondly, the fixture is in the north so it’s much easier to get to than the Four Nations game at Wembley. It’s pretty convenient for most fans and not a million miles away from the trip that travelling Yorkshire fans make regularly throughout the season. The clubs in the north west like Warrington, Wigan, Widnes and Salford won't have any other games this weekend so it makes sense in terms of getting a local rugby league fix.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both the England and Exiles squads are made up of players from Super League. Essentially, it’s an opportunity to watch two Super League dream teams take each other on. There’s no reason why Langtree Park shouldn’t be sold out on Saturday night and it will be a travesty if it isn’t.
The fact is though, the game is on Saturday and at this point even the cheapest seats haven’t sold out. Rugbyleaguetickets.co.uk are even offering a ‘Super Saver Passport’ which, for £44 for adults or £34 concessions, not only do you get a ticket to the game but also an England shirt and an Exiles shirt. That’s an absolute steal.
I know that I can’t compare the money and scale of rugby union with rugby league, but when world cup group games next year are being held at the 11,000 capacity Leigh Sports Village, it would unforgivable if that didn’t sell out. What I’m saying is not that we should aim for as many spectators as union and it’s common sense that the RFL consider how many people will realistically turn up but that the fans we do have must express loyalty to the sport on a bigger scale.
The club loyalty in rugby league just doesn’t seem to translate to the international stage. Big sides like Wigan and Leeds can produce the crowds every single match. Rugby league fans are loyal and I know that because I see it every week, even for matches that are going to be obvious walkovers from the start, so not getting the crowds for international games seems somewhat of an anomaly.
Langtree Park isn’t far to go, a ground that can reach capacity for a Wigan v Saints match must be able to reach capacity for an international. Rugby league organisers crave expansion, they want the game in the south and in Wales and they want to create actual competition. I say, we probably don’t need more fans. I’m content with having our northern sport contained within people whose families have followed for years. I think it's fine to be a minority sport but that minority must show solidarity at games like this.
I feel very strongly that those existing fans must make an effort when it comes to international games and it is beyond me as to why these fixtures could and have ever been attended on the same scale as club games.
You should go because it’s an opportunity to see the first sixteen men of Super League battle it out - it's an international between players we see in the competition week in and week out. It'll be like turning up at a wedding and instead of only knowing one party and it being a bit awkward, you'll know everyone - what's not to love about that? It’s the best in our country playing against the best in our country from other countries and if it doesn’t sell out it will be a crying shame.