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The real rugby league magic weekend

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Expert
27th August, 2019
6

Instead of shoving an opinion down your throat this week, I’m going to tell you about the first ever London League Weekend.

The Roar is an Australian site so in the interests of context and relevance, perhaps we can discuss how this might be adopted south of the equator – not just in the NRL because that’s the whole point, see?

How can the NRL embrace other levels of rugby league and encourage cross-pollination instead of just sweeping up everything in its path?

First, let me explain what the London League Weekend is.

For years either London Broncos or London Skolars have tried to play a home game the night before the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

Skolars have now locked this in for the best part of a decade, putting on a beer festival at their North London base. Last Friday, they played Hunslet in League 1 – the British third division.

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Saturday is the Challenge Cup final. Most readers would know what that is. The game’s most famous knockout competition, first contested in 1896, which concludes with a decider at perhaps the world’s most famous stadium.

Wembley football stadium

Wembley football stadium

These days, the final always involves Super League teams – a championship side made it to the semis in 2019, mind you – but it’s not Super League. It’s a separate comp run by the Rugby Football League. Super League is now a semi-qutonomous body that nonetheless relies on the RFL for just about everything logistical.

This year the RFL, rattled by falling attendances at the final, introduced a new competition called the 1895 Cup for teams outside Super League, with a final on the same day and same venue. Weirdly, it was on afterwards – a curtain closer.

This all became the London League Weekend with the addition this year of the London Nines at West Ham.

These were organised for the first time last year by a fellow called Graham Oliphant, who has been in and around the sport for most his life. By moving his event to the same weekend and venue, the RFL was able to charge a cover-all price of just £39 for all three events.

That’s right: about AU$70 for a party and a match on Friday, two matches and a seat at Wembley on Saturday, and then up to 100 games with a DJ and food and real party atmosphere on Sunday!

That’s pretty stunning when you consider that if you front up at a Super League game on spec, you’ll be up for about £25 for the honour of seeing Huddersfield play Wakefield.

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Yet, despite all this, the take up of the £39 weekend ticket was negligible.

The first thing to report is that is was bloody hot. Monday, a bank holiday, was the hottest of such in recorded history, with temptations in the mid-30s.

Participants in the famous Notting Hill Carnival could have easily convinced themselves after a couple of Red Stripes that they were back home in the Caribbean.

Friday Night Lights is always fun but the big problem it has is the issue for the Cup final the following day – coming to London just isn’t that special anymore for northerners. The Challenge Cup final used to be like a Northern Pride Day but now many fans come down and back in a day on the train (even though Kings Cross Station was closed all day).

And if you’re on the road ahead of a long weekend, kick-off on Friday was delayed because the Hunslet bus didn’t arrive until five minutes before things were supposed to start.

“Where you been, where you been, where you been?” the pissed-up revelers sung as they made their way through the beer garden to the sheds.

Special guests were the boys and girls from Roots Rugby. These talented athletes are part of a collective which would be competing in the London Nines – the organisation was formed to give African Americans from some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods a chance in rugby.

Many have already got college scholarships from the scheme.

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OK, next day. It may not quite have the cultural significance and national profile it once did, but the Challenge Cup final is still a big party.

I had my first beer at the Moon On The Hill at Harrow around 11am. In my group was an Aussie off Twitter I’d never met before and who had flown in that morning – and my best friend who lives in Boston (the American one) with whom I was a penpal out of Open Rugby magazine in 1983!

There was also the fellow who introduced me to my wife, and whom I introduced to his, my wife, and people I’d known for decades.

Outside the pub, some Warringtonians had decided it would be fun to glue a pound coin to the footpath and laugh as passersby tried to pick it up. “Last year someone came along with a hammer an chisel and got it – that shut ‘em up,” my erstwhile pen pal recalled.

Entering Wembley is still impressive, even for a bitter old sportswriter like me. At times during the game I just found myself staring blankly at the arches – perhaps that was the lager, though.

Prince Harry apparently has a great relationship with RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer and it’s down to the affable giant that the game’s patron agreed to attend and meet the teams before kickoff, the highest ranking royal in some time to come along.

Warrington’s win was pretty staggering; I thought they were no hope, although former Cronulla chairman Damien Irvine had insisted back in the Moon On The Hill that they were morals.

Afterwards it was back to Box Park Wembley, a modern structure that tries to imitate a ramshackle shipping container establishment, where the party was in full swing. Castleford coach Daryl Powell was part of the shoulder-to-shoulder bustle with loud singalongs and mass pogoing the order of the evening, with the air conditioning on full blast.

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My evening finished at a Soho pub. No it didn’t. It finished a Balham McDonalds.

Next day I procrastinated like a champ before hitting the Northern and Jubilee Lines once again and heading out to the Nines.

There were simply too many good yarns during the day for me to list them all here.

Lithuania were to make their competitive debut in the first match of the day, against the team who use East London Rugby Club as their home, Newham Dockers.

But Newham could only manage three players at kick-off. Imagine that – teams have travelled from Serbia, Lithuania, Australia and America but the home club can’t get a full complement to arrive on time.

Forfeit.

Newham played one game and then withdrew from the rest of the tournament.

There was a combined West Africa side with a prop who seemed ten foot tall. The Root Rugby girls scored the most exhilarating tries – often straight from kick-offs. Lithuania made the final of the ill-named men’s social division, which seemed to have the most ill-tempered games.

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Roots ran away with the women’s final; like the men they had qualified by taking out the Carolina Nines in May. There is the beginning of a circuit for Nines already, since Africa United regularly enter the Cabramatta tournament too.

London Skolars scored a blistering try in the final seconds deny Lithuania a fairytale introduction to our game. Roots – featuring one player who had chosen the trip ahead of playing in the USARL grand final – only qualified for the open men’s decider by the skin of their teeth.

They battled well but were edged out by the Aussie-trained Africa United.

Coach Steve Warwick has dedicated his life to proving that Africans can and should play rugby league. Now there is a Middle East Africa championship in Nigeria at the end of the year and players in NRL squads.

They called in some reinforcements after only having nine players travel; their hotel was cancelled before they left Sydney and one of the fellows refused to train without his beloved compression tights “so they whole session was called off,” recalls the fatherly Warwick.

But his belief in athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds and marginalised communities was vindicated not just by the victors, but by their opponents.

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I heard Lithuanian and Serbian and Bronx accents. Even the ‘local’ teams were from North Wales and Edinburgh! This was about as different from the rugby league I grew up with as I could have ever envisaged.

It’s a shame more people didn’t shell out for the full weekend. Sure it was hot and there’s the price of London accommodation to consider.

But perhaps as people get a bit bored with the rugby league they think they know, it’s more important than ever to expose them to the rugby league they never knew existed.