The World Club Challenge might have taken centre stage, but there was plenty of other rugby league action in the old dart over the weekend.
Amongst all the noise in recent weeks about expansion versus relocation in the NRL, an epic announcement has been made on the other side of the world by a veteran club of the expansion game.
This week the Catalans Dragons unveiled the kit that they will be playing in when they take the pitch to play the Wigan Warriors at Camp Nou in Barcelona and it is in great homage to the stadiums famous tenants, Barcelona FC.
After the Dragons success at last year’s Challenge Cup Final, the Giants of European Football were said to have invited the team to play at Europe’s largest stadium with their President Josep Maria Bartomeu stating, “I encourage the Dragons supporters to treat our stadium like their home and for Wigan and Barca fans to also share the experience of seeing rugby league played at the Camp Nou.”
Whilst this was a great PR exercise, with the kit that the Dragons have chosen to wear in this fixture it also sends a clear message. By playing at this venue and wearing a similar kit, both clubs stand shoulder to shoulder as uniquely Catalonian.
Whether by design or coincidence Barcelona FC have become a symbol of the strength and unity of the Catalonian movement towards independence and while aligning sport with politics can be divisive and dangerous at times, it can also be very unifying and powerful when done right.
So while the Catalonian issues are broad and complicated, Barcelona and now Catalans are a symbol within it. For a team that usually plays in a country that constantly makes rugby league feel inferior to the other oval ball code, it can’t hurt to be seen to be showing some of that Catalonian unity and resolve.
Catalans are also a great example of how successful expansion can be and the doggedness and resolve that it takes to carve out that success.
Operating in a country that has historically outlawed rugby league and coming up against hostile English clubs who often believe they are an unnecessary addition to the competition and rob them of away-fan revenue, since their inception in 2000 they have done it tough.
Yet still they have been able to gather a passionate fan-base and last year were able to make history and become the first non-English team to win the Challenge Cup; the world’s longest running rugby league competition (it commenced in 1865).
The main thing that makes Catalans such a success is that their brand of rugby league is so thoroughly unique.
They almost always play in blazing sun which stands in glaring contrast to the rest of the Super League games played across the channel. Their stadium is emblazoned with French signage and even their video referee decisions read “essayer” rather than try.
It’s these distinctions that are good examples of Catalans (and other expansion clubs in places like Toronto, Suva and Belgrade) putting their own unique stamp on the game that make me excited to see expansion done well in more places.
I’ll never forget in early 2016 playing against the West Wales Warriors in a pre-season friendly, I stood in awe on a freezing Cheshire pitch (when I should have been aiming up in defence) as I heard the halfback stand at the back of the scrum and scream the plays in Welsh.
It blew my Australian mind.
By the end of that season, after running out of opposition to play, the West Wales Warriors passed around the hat and joined the semi-professional League One, I couldn’t imagine seeing that kind of brash resourcefulness in the Australian Leagues.
The conversation of expansion in Australia still has a long way to go and should be measured, costed and considered as we have all seen it go so very wrong before. But we could do worse than take a leaf out of some of these trailblazers in the northern hemisphere that let no obstacle stop them from making rugby league a game that is played in more places than a seaboard in Australia and a motorway in Northern England.
The culmination of this passion and hard word will be on display on 18 May 2019 when Catalans take on Wigan at one of the world’s truly famous stadiums and hopefully show the great game of rugby league to a whole new audience.