It became so synonymous with the game that they named a
documentary after it, but Sunday Rugby League, at least at Super League level, could soon become a thing of the past — or could it?
WARRINGTON, one of the bastions of Sunday rugby, have begun to lobby their fans for a switch to Friday night, arguing that it creates a better atmosphere and reduces the inconvenience caused by switching matches for television purposes.
Betts wanted to prompt a game-wide discussion on the subject and, while for the traditionalists it was like tossing a hand grenade and waiting for the explosion, there is plenty of logic behind the suggestion.
Exasperated by short turn-arounds from Sunday to Thursday or simply frustrated by the continual shifting of matches to avoid them, coaches like Betts have come to the conclusion that it would be best to avoid Sunday fixtures altogether. Super League general manager Blake Solly insists Sky TV’s Thursday night slot is here to stay — and they now come around with more regularity for clubs with the reduction from 14 to 12 — so the question is how best to accommodate them.
“I think Saturdays have worked for a few teams so why not look at Thursday, Friday and Saturday as being Rugby League days?”
Yorkshire Television’s brilliant documentary “Another Bloody Sunday”, a warts-and-all portrayal of Doncaster’s perennial battle for survival, was firm evidence that, by 1980, the Sabbath had become the regular game day for the majority of clubs.
But it was not always so.
“Games used to be played on Saturdays for a long number of years and then they moved to Sundays,” Betts says.
“So it’s not as if it’s always been Sundays.”
Sky flirted with Saturday evening and Monday night for their second televised match before plumping for Thursday and Solly is confident they can become not only acceptable but enjoyable.
“Thursdays are part of the new Sky broadcast contract,” Solly says.
“They are a bit of a challenge but the viewing audiences for Thursday nights over the last two years have been extremely strong and it offers us an opportunity to attract a new audience.
“Widnes got their big crowd at the start of the season on a Thursday night when they tried a different tactic and got a lot of new fans to the game and likewise, Hull FC on Easter Thursday did really well and I think attracted their biggest derby crowd since 2009.”
Solly makes the point that clubs are well compensated for any inconvenience caused by Thursday night rugby and says Super League has sought to reduce the impact.
“What we are trying to do increasingly is give clubs their fixture lists for the following year earlier than they’ve had before,” Solly says.
“So last year the clubs got their fixture lists, with all the Thursday night selections, the week after the Grand Final which was a month earlier than previously. Friday nights are a little bit different. Sky choose the first 12 weeks, I think, in advance and that reduces as the season goes on.
“The reason for that is that we want the best games on TV towards the business end of the season and the clubs agree.”
Widnes are currently one of six Super League clubs who, free from other restrictions, prefer to play their home games on a Sunday yet there have been occasions this year when there has been just one or even no fixtures that day.
Not if Castleford chief executive Steve Gill has anything to do with it.
“We prefer Sundays, we engage in that family feel and family atmosphere and everything we do really is based around families,” he said.
“We find Fridays difficult to do.
“It’s a funny one. We took the Sky money and that’s helped us a lot. So we have to bite it and see but it doesn’t help the players in preparation, I must admit that it really hinders the players going forward if they are playing Sunday and they are on TV on Thursday evening.
“The coaches want to train the players and get them into a pattern so we want to change as little as possible.”
Gill, as well as your correspondent, is old enough to remember — with fondness — the trips to Wheldon Road on a Friday night in the late 70s and early 80s when there was a rare opportunity to get a Rugby League “fix” before the weekend proper, but the Tigers will not be turning the clock back.
“We have thought about Friday night games but we are conscious, as a family-orientated club, that we have a lot of young kids coming to our games and it’s a bit late for them and then you’ve got to look at the away fans getting over the M62,” Gill says.
“Ultimately, as well, when people buy season tickets, they usually look at their work pattern to see if they can get to all the games when the fixtures are announced and then when they’re changing it and say they work Friday nights and they can’t get there, they do contemplate whether to buy a season ticket. We do understand where Denis is coming from. It would be a lot easier for us logistically to play Friday nights and there is no change in the fixtures. I think it’s something that we have to sit down with the RFL and discuss a way forward.
“There are a lot of negatives but the positives are that we are a family club and we provide family values, we get a lot of young kids coming because of what we do on match days and we’d hate to lose that. We still prefer Sundays and we will maintain Sundays throughout 2016 as well.”
ASK THE FANS
Wakefield, Hull KR and Huddersfield also look set to stick with Sundays and that is music to the ears of Chris Irvine, the long-standing Rugby League correspondent for The Times and Sunday Times and a journalism lecturer who remains firmly in the traditionalist camp.
“No late nights, no M62 hold-ups (most of the time), no mad dash for we newspaper journalists knowing that if the game slips past 10pm, it won’t make the edition.
“There’s time to actually watch the game.
“In the rush to play Thursday and Friday nights, the people who turn up at the likes of Castleford, Hull KR and Widnes, simply because it is a Sunday and it fits with their weekend pattern, get forgotten.
“There are many families — and we’re supposed to be a family sport, aren’t we? — who are turned off by late nights.
“We get rid of Sunday afternoon at our peril.
“If most games are played on Friday night, who’s left watching on Sky, for instance?
“For some clubs, like Leeds for example, Friday’s work well.
“The Leeds business community have bought into Friday rugby. That’s not the case for all clubs. Those thinking of shifting to a Friday should ask their supporters first.
“They may well find their fans prefer Sunday matches. If so, it’d be financial madness in already difficult times to abandon Sunday game days.”
Huddersfield did ask their fans, just as Warrington plan to do, and opted to stick with Sundays after canvassing their views, although Rod Wright, a Fartown follower since the 1950s who is now secretary of the Huddersfield Players Association, believes most would not be against a move to Fridays.
“A poll on the fans forum showed that a lot of fans wouldn’t mind Friday nights,”he said.
“I know you only get the reactive fans who take part but the consensus was that Friday nights would free up the rest of the weekend for leisure or other sports like cricket and golf.
“It’s not like the old days when you used to watch Fartown at three o’clock on one Saturday and then Huddersfield Town at three o’clock the following Saturday. You were in a real quandary if the fixtures clashed.
“There is a need to stick with the same day of the week and our fans were leaning towards Friday night, although the club’s poll went for Sunday.
“Fans certainly don’t like Thursday night.
“It’s no good for encouraging kids to come to games and when there’s a short turn-around it gives some teams two more days to recover.
“It is certainly not a level playing field anymore.”
The last word goes to Solly, who remains convinced Sunday Rugby League has a future.
“I think it will stay,” Solly adds. “There are definitely some clubs who have more success with Friday night crowd — you think of Leeds in the way they’ve built a Friday night audience — but there will always be other clubs who choose to play on Sunday where they can.
“I think the other thing that’s been really noticeable is that, having Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday games over the course of a weekend has given us more of a profile than we would otherwise have had. We’re in the papers Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.”