The decision not to stage a Northern Rail Cup next season was never likely to be a popular one.
Within minutes of me revealing that there will be no Northern Rail Cup in 2014 on Twitter, dozens of responses in general disbelief appeared on my account.
By the end of the day there was over 100, and not a single one in support of the RFL’s move.
Players, supporters and club officials all criticised the decision to varying extents, and the general feeling is the same among the coaches I’ve spoken to since.
So how have we come to this, just a few years since bumper crowds flocked to Blackpool every summer for what was certainly one of this writer’s favourite days of the Rugby League calendar?
The RFL email to clubs cited concerns over the fixture overload in 2013, and the “transitional nature” of the forthcoming campaign.
But since then it has become apparent that the crucial factor was the lack of a title sponsor after Northern Rail’s deal expired.
Perhaps any other potential investors should have read RFL chief executive Nigel Wood’s assessment of this year’s Northern Rail finals day in July.
It read: “My congratulations go out to everyone involved with North Wales Crusaders and Leigh Centurions on their terrific victories on what was a memorable day for the whole sport.
“The Crusaders’ success in their first final was fully deserved and it was good to see – and hear – their supporters turn out in such numbers to cheer them on.
“The atmosphere created by the Leigh fans was a credit to their club and I’m sure made a difference for a team that started out as underdogs against the 2012 champions.
“London Skolars and Sheffield Eagles can take some consolation from their involvement in a day which captured the vibrancy and exciting drama of Championships Rugby League.”
Unfortunately, in 2014 there will be no such “memorable day for the sport”, or a mid-summer event that will capture “the vibrancy and exciting drama” of Rugby League at this level.
The Northern Rail Bowl, which was such a terrific idea and one that worked well, could now be condemned to the rubbish bin labelled “one-season Rugby League innovations”.
And what a huge shame all of this is.
Since the competition started as the Buddies Cup in 2002, it had grown in stature and prestige, and from the feedback from fans on Twitter, had provided some people’s most treasured memories from following Rugby League.
The decision to leave Blackpool and play the game at a Championship venue (Halifax this year) was a mistake for me and detracted from the event, but there was still much to admire at the Shay in July.
But yet again we seem to be thinking one season at a time, and are plagued by uncertainty and unnecessary change.
I can certainly see the need for fewer Championship fixtures – Sheffield playing 38 games this year is unfair on part-time players.
But the sport needs big events and days out for supporters – not more and more league matches.
Ask Batley Bulldogs what winning the Northern Rail Cup did for their supporters. Or what it meant to Doncaster fans to reach a final for the first time in the club’s history.
Taking it a step further, Widnes Vikings’ current place in Super League is down to their 2009 NRC triumph, when 8,720 watched them beat Barrow Raiders at Bloomfield Road.
Next year – nothing!
It’s a familiar theme at present that the sport doesn’t listen to its players, so here are a few tweets from within the Championship on the day the decision was revealed.
Steve Tyrer (Halifax): “all that’s left to play for now is 5th round c cup place at best and the playoffs that get you nowhere.”
Ryan Brierley (Leigh): “best thing about our comp the northern rail cup. What a joke.”
Gregg McNally (Leigh): “absolutely joke, so all we play for now is the league with no promotion and a decent challenge cup run?”
There were a fair few more from others, with stronger language than is suitable for publication here.
Hopefully this won’t be the end of the competition, and the RFL’s much scrutinised “policy review” will see the considerable benefits of having a Cup competition for non-Super League clubs.
But by scrapping it in 2014 – even if it’s only for one season – they have left a lot of people within the sport disillusioned yet again.
First published in League Express, Monday 21st October 2013
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