Rugby League is 123 years young and is potentially on the verge of a new age. League is commonly thought of as the poor relation to the more internationally recognisable, marketable and media savvy product Rugby Union.
Born from the sport fracturing in the years after William Webb Ellis first ‘picked up the ball’ and ran with it, League developed out of a working class revolt in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. With only 13 men on the field, this variation of the traditional game has become a popular alternative in Australia, New Zealand and in the United Kingdom and France [primarily].
Now in 2018, the game is courting interests from the largely untapped but rugby-aware sports public, of the United States and Canada. Both codes of rugby have been trying to coax American sports fans to adopt their code, and to crack the emerging market. To interest fans, League and Union have held club and International pre-season friendly matches since the 1980’s – mostly on the Americas east coast.
Union winning popularity battle (for Now)
Union with a more established calendar of internationals and the fast, seven-a-side competition, has made the most headway in the U.S. With that footprint, USA and Canada are regular participants in the four yearly Rugby World Cup.
In 2018, professional rugby makes a significant step towards credibility, when the Major League Rugby competition begins. A competition with seven franchise teams, it will schedule matches on both seaboards. From Utah to Seattle, Texas to San Diego, this will reinforce the national sport, with US Eagles players throughout the rosters.
In terms of World Cups, this is where Rugby League is breaking new ground, and will be the first of either code to have a World Cup hosted there. Recently announced, the RLWC will be hosted in the USA and select Canadian fixtures in 2025.
That is where the 13 man game is going to need to build-up its profile. Small steps are being made, with the real focus being 2025 – but the goal recently is on one professional North American league team which is making real headway on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.
Rugby League making an Impact in US/Canada Sports Market
The Toronto Wolfpack are the first professional trans-Atlantic sports team, and will play in English Rugby League’s second tier competition Championship this year. It will be the second year of the franchises existence, and they have reinforced the aims of league to make an impact on the north American scene.
There is also serious talk of American teams entering the competition; interest from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, with an extra Canadian team based out of Hamilton, Ontario.
In the Northern hemisphere, the ‘Super League’ is the premier Rugby League competition. A place in the league is very much coveted. 12 franchises currently make up the Betfred Super League; 11 English teams. Plus one French team.
Understanding the UK Rugby League System
Super League (SL) teams play each other home and away including an additional game at an event called ‘The Magic Weekend’. This is where every team plays at a fixture in one stadium, over one huge weekend in a selected host city.
The Betfred Championship is the division directly below SL. 12 teams play in the Championship, which is made up of 10 English teams, one French team and one Canadian team [Toronto Wolfpack]. They play an identical number of fixtures as the SL sides do (23).
At the end of the SL regular season, the top eight ranked sides qualify for the ‘Super 8’ series. They play each other one more time [seven matches] where after which, the Top Four teams play in a semifinals knockout match. The winners of that game, compete in the Grand Final to be crowned as Betfred Super League Champions.
— Super League Show (@SuperLeagueShow) January 27, 2018
The bottom four teams in SL then join the top four teams from the Championship. This is called the Qualifying 8’s. Each team in the Qualifying 8’s plays each other once, after which the teams finishing first, second and third in the QF8s are guaranteed a place in next season’s Super League.
Teams finishing sixth, seventh and eighth respectively, will revert to play in next seasons Championship. The teams finishing fourth and fifth however, play a knockout game to decide who takes the last remaining place in next season’s Super League. This is known as the ‘Million Pound Game’.
2019 Super League Expansion will develop US/Canada League
The significance of this season, is a re-structure of the Leagues, which will see two more teams enter into the Super League (for the 2019 season). These two teams will come from the second tier Championship, with the Canadian-based Toronto Wolfpack one of the favourites to secure expansion within Super League.
In their debut season, the Wolfpack had a sensational season. Making it to the grand final, and then going one step further, and claiming the Kingstone Press League One championship. Toronto’s progress is being closely watched by prospective investors in the US and Canada, and the potential windfall from them reaching this pinnacle of league in the Northern hemisphere, might well benefit all North American fans. A successful Toronto franchise could bring more American and Canadian teams into the English Rugby League, and thus more sponsorship and exposure.
Next season the Super League fixture list should span across three countries and two continents. Within three years, and possibly with the introduction of a US-based team, that could make it four countries that host SL matches. Meaning a small town team; like Castleford Tigers, could be playing in front of combined TV audiences in the millions.
Rugby League after all its shortcomings and failings in the past, could be on the verge of the big time. Whatever the sport may or may not achieve off of the field, talked about Super League expansion promises much. But gladly for league fans, the game never fails on the field.
2018 Super League begins on Thursday, February 1. See the full schedule here.
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