It didn’t really get the fanfare that with hindsight it probably deserved, but the BBC’s decision to live stream games from the early rounds of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup this year is proving to be one of the most innovative and potentially important breakthroughs to hit Rugby League in a long time.
Like many people, I suspect, I was only drawn to it by the novelty factor of seeing Toronto Wolfpack make their competitive debut in a Challenge Cup tie against Halifax-based Siddal ARLFC, and I expected the Wolfpack professionals to easily account for the enthusiastic but no doubt outgunned amateurs.
However, what transpired that Saturday afternoon as I sat watching comfortably on my sofa at home via BBC iPlayer, while the players of both sides toiled manfully in the mud and driving rain to gain the advantage that would see them progress into the next round of the cup, really opened my eyes.
Not just to the tenacity and skill of the Siddal players who gave the Wolfpack an almighty test and came close to lowering their colours (not that you could see any colours amidst all the mud), but to the potential presented to our game by the continuing emergence of live streaming technology plus the BBC’s new found willingness to be experimental in the way they cover Rugby League.
The last time I watched a game on BBC iPlayer that was not a regular broadcast, but a ‘red button’ extra, was England’s outing against France in Avignon ahead of last season’s Four Nations. It had a strange, disembodied feel about it, where the commentary just stopped dead at half time, with only pictures to watch until the action restarted in the second half, and no post-match interviews. But it was still a treat to be able to see the game at all, without having to book a flight to Avignon to be there in person.
In contrast, the Siddal-Toronto game had a much more authentic feel to it. The single camera, the lens having to be regularly wiped by the camera operator as it pointed into the rain, commentator Dave Woods at his engaging best making light of the low-fi nature of it all and clearly loving the experience; as a viewer you couldn’t help but be drawn in by it. The drama of Challenge Cup Rugby League, live and in the raw; it may have been a million miles from Wembley Stadium on a sunny August Bank Holiday, but yet it was still essential viewing.
Only those who have regular involvement with the amateur game would probably have been unsurprised by the gritty determination and talent on show from Siddal: to the rest of us, it came as something of a revelation. And here it was, not just being enjoyed by the healthy crowd of a thousand or so there at the ground, but being broadcast live to an audience since measured in the region of 90,000, not just in the UK but as the social media interaction during the game demonstrated, in Canada too.
The game was a top trend on Twitter throughout its duration. That’s not unusual for Super League games these days, but for a game featuring an amateur club, it must surely be unheard of and can only be attributed to the boost the streaming TV broadcast gave to the game itself and by association, the Challenge Cup competition too.
We hear a lot of nostalgic talk about the indefinable magic of the Challenge Cup, but what could be more magical and also more modern than a competition that gives lads in Siddal playing the game for fun, the opportunity to play a team from Toronto making its professional debut and be seen on television by more people in one afternoon than will ever see them play in their entire careers. Then, to see those viewers enthusiastically tweeting and posting all over the internet about what they’ve just watched.
If anything can breathe new life into an old competition, it is more days like this.
Rugby League fans have got used to bagging the Beeb over the years for many things, from its alleged bias in favour of t’other code to the old fashioned manner in which it sometimes chooses to present the sport in comparison to the shiny modernity of Sky, but they are on to a winner with the live streaming of the Challenge Cup and we should do all we can to support the initiative and encourage them to continue with it.